What Larry Summers Really Said
William Saletan has a very interesting piece in Slate entitled, “The Girls of Summers – What Harvard’s president and his critics got wrong.” It seems–shockingly–that the press accounts of Summers’ remarks on women in the sciences are at wide variance with what the transcript shows he actually said. The piece defies excerpting (it’s a laundry list rather than an essay) but a couple examples will give you the general idea:
2. He questioned the rationality of work expectations that discriminate against women. Earlier accounts suggested that when Summers cited very long work hours as a standard women were less likely to accept, he was justifying that standard and its discriminatory result. The transcript shows him making the opposite point: “Is our society right to expect that level of effort from people who hold the most prominent jobs? Is our society right to have familial arrangements in which women are asked to make that choice and asked more to make that choice than men?” He worried about employers’ defiance of “legitimate family desires” and suggested that they offer “different compensation packages that will attract the people who would otherwise have enormous difficulty with child care,” as well as “extending tenure clocks” and considering other “family benefits.”
4. When he spoke of differences between male and female test scores, he was confining his analysis to a tiny subset. “If one is talking about physicists at a top 25 research university,” he argued, the population in question was “in the one-in-5,000, one-in-10,000 class. Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool.” Summers explicitly said he wasn’t talking about a difference in average scores.
After reading the entire article, it’s clear that the reporters who covered the scandal 1) are insufficiently trained in basic statistics to understand an even slightly nuanced debate, 2) heard what they wanted to hear–a controversy that would sell papers, or 3) both.
I would note that much of this was true, for example, of the hubbub over Murray and Hernstein’s The Bell Curve. Both Summers’ arguments and those in that book had genuine flaws that were exposed once experts weighed in. But neither were the off-the-cuff nonsense that they were portaryed as being in the mainstream press.
First, the transcript shows that Summers did not say what his harshest critics claim he said. Second, Summers appears to be correct, as far as current research goes in a murky area. Third, the harshest critics of Summers are now digging in (and now must argue against a hypothetical fact that never happened).
via Bill at INDC