What Summers did wrong
Having written all that I did in defence of Summers' argument, I still don't have a great deal of sympathy for him. He did make several very important mistakes, which are things he should know better than to do, and go some way towards explaining the depth of hot water he's ended up in.
- Forgetting who he is
- Though he wasn't speaking 'in an official capacity', and he said so several times, he can't escape from his job. When one is the president of a University, it's impossible to completely divorce any public speech from that status, and naturally anything said in a public forum runs the risk of being taken as the view of the University. For this reason, I think the most justified of his critics are the Harvard faculty, who last week officially censured him. I think this was a reasonable thing to do, to make clear that the views expressed were not the views of the faculty at large, and I do wish his defenders wouldn't go calling these people things like academic Stalinists.
- Forgetting who he isn't
- He's an economist by training, not a psychologist. This doesn't mean he's not entitled to opinions about psychology, but when speaking to a conference, one should stick to one's expertise. Pinker, on the other hand, is a psychologist, and therefore much better placed to talk about such issues. I note that when Pinker presented essentially the same logical point to two audiences (a small group first and then a couple of thousand people in Severance Hall) last week he was able to explain it clearly and persuasively, no-one walked out on him, and the questions he faced were much less angry.
- Forgetting where he was
- I would have very much enjoyed spending an evening down the pub discussing what he had to say. The trouble is, he didn't present these ideas in a private, informal conversation. He got up in front of a conference and presented a lot of half-baked speculations on things outside his area of expertise. At best, this was pretty insulting to the audience, whose time he wasted. This was only made worse by the fact that he was taking on a controversial subject. I don't understand how he could not have expected this to end up in the papers, and upsetting people.
- Not giving enough time to the serious systemic reasons why more women don't want to go into academic science careers
- In Summers' defence, I imagine this had all been gone through by other speakers at the conference, but once again he must have realised that because of his status his remarks would end up being discussed in isolation. In that vein, and for the sake of giving his own staff confidence, he could have helped himself a great deal by devoting a few minutes to
lay out the many things we're doing at Harvard to promote the crucial objective of diversity, instead of just glossing over it. He could also have given a little space to discussion of some of the less controversial partial explanations of the gender disparity, particularly ones which are symptomatic of features of these workplaces which are actually bad for everyone. I won't go into this here, but just point to two pieces I've read on the subject recently: Meg Urry on the impact of subtle discrimination and too visibly being the only representative a particular group, and Brad DeLong on the insane level of job competition at the top of academia.
- Suppressing the transcript
- I think this was actually his biggest single error. Having argued that his actual words were less offensive than the secondhand account I first heard of his words, it's important to recognise one of the things that gave the secondhand accounts power. For over a month there was no transcript to refer to, because it took him that long to release it. Not only did that make it impossible for many people to see what had actually been said, but actions like these are generally consistent with someone who has something to hide, so it lent credence to those arguing that his words were disgustingly offensive.
- The use of stupid anecdotes
- I'll quote what I think was the single worst part of the whole speech:
...I guess my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells me something.Again this is a matter of context, because down the pub this would be a perfectly acceptable point to raise, and it would just have to be countered with an example of the opposite. On a podium in front of an academic audience, this comes across as, well, not worthy of even mentioning. The use of such an anecdote in that context immediately undermines what the speaker is saying, and I can certainly understand why it would have made plenty of the audience switch off and disregard the rest of his remarks. I think I might have done the same.
So in summary, while I think a lot of the outside reaction to Summers' remarks are completely out of proportion to the relative inoffensiveness of his overall message, I do think he got himself into this situation. I also have a great deal of sympathy for the faculty who have felt the need to distance themselves from their president, and I think outsiders chiming in to accuse them of censorship are missing the point. If 'some professor' had said these things I would have to ask why anyone felt the need to argue, but when it's the president of a University the context is immediately changed.
Update: I've just seen an editorial in the Monitor that takes pretty much this line. I think it's the first thing I've seen in the mainstream press that actually tries to paint it this way rather than being outraged by either the supposed censorship of Summers or the supposed disgustingness of his words, even if it does caricature his words a little.