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.

Update (1017): BummerDietz chides Summers for the tardy release of the transcript but thinks Summers “sandbagged” his critics:

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

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Isn’t it Larry?

  2. Kevin Drum says:

    I think you’re being unfair to reporters. Since Summers refused to release a transcript, all they had to go on was the recollections of attendees. What’s more, Summers got a chance to respond and pretty much acknowledged that he had said what his critics said he said. What more could reporters do?

    The transcript actually has ammunition for both sides. But if Summers really thought it backed him up, why did he refuse to release it for so long?

  3. Cassandra says:

    I’m sorry Kevin. I poured over the transcript all weekend.

    The man is being unfairly persecuted. What the hell happened to this country when you can’t even throw questions out there for debate in an academic setting?

    I’m a woman and I have NO PROBLEM with anything Summers said. None whatever.

    This is nothing more than payback for Summers being the only one with the guts to stand up to Cornell West and it sickens me. And to have this all happen in the name of “women’s rights” is just plain obscene.

  4. Cassandra says:

    The reason he didn’t want to release the transcipt should be obvious:

    1. The conference was supposed to be OFF THE RECORD. If you release the transcript, that violates the whole spirit of academic inquiry – something his faculty (on any OTHER occasion) would be up in arms about.

    2. Now people will cherry-pick isolated quotes and use them out of context to crucify him.

  5. Meezer says:

    I am a woman AND a math major. At my college more than 50% of the instructors are women. Most of the full professors are women. From my small sample it does seem as though the ones most likely to do really high-falutin research stuff are men. I have no problem with what Summers said. I’ve been married for 25 years. News flash: men and women are different. My own opinion is that the brain circuitry required for the highest levels of math and science are parallel to the ones that won’t let men ask for directions.