As President Obama chooses those with whom he will surround himself in the executive branch, one choice jumped out at me these past few weeks. That person is Larry Summers, who is famous for two reasons: his service to the Clinton administration as a high-ranking official, and his moment of intellectualism that got him forced out of the Presidency of Harvard University . This one instance from his long career, which cost him publicly, is one of those moments that I worry about in academia: liberty without responsibility.
A President of a major research university, the head of a national lab, a member of the government, all have a bully pulpit. They have the ability to stand in front of a great number of people at once, own the spotlight, and air their opinions. They are one, seen to be speaking for many. Many people consider it a core principal of “academic freedom” that an academic can say what they want, when they want, whether the purpose is to inspire or to shake the establishment. Some people hide behind this liberty, saying controversial things not because they necessarily believe they are correct, but because they have casually read the evidence and want to play devil’s advocate, or force people to rethink their view of the world.
At a time like that, I always look back to Darwin for inspiration. Here was a researcher, possessed of a scattered set of observations that suggested that living things evolve. However, he recognized that if he didn’t establish himself first as a biologist (he originally was more an established geologist), nobody would take his work seriously. He spent the better part of decade studying barnacles – yes, barnacles – published a work of discovery on them, and established himself as a serious biologist. Then he spent another better part of a decade studying breeding of pigeons, studying observations of human population and growth, studying his specimens from the Galapagos, and undertaking many other activities, all to establish a clear line of evidence and argument to find the mechanism of evolution which could explain his observations of evolutionary behavior in nature.
Darwin didn’t use his bully pulpit as a scientists to publish an ill-conceived book and state that evolution must be right because of a few pieces of evidence. Instead, he worked tirelessly in the field to pull together disparate observations, to understand breeding, and in the end constructed a work that to this day stands as a testament to the scientific method. Did Darwin understand everything? No. He didn’t understand genetics, he didn’t know the age of the earth. There was much that evolution relied upon to which Darwin had no access, and it wouldn’t be until after his death that the missing pieces would be established.
Getting back to Mr. Summers, in 2005 he gave a speech at a conference  on diversifying the science and engineering workforce and made a series of public speculations on why women are not as well represented in science as men. He complained afterward that his remarks were taken out of context. Let’s look at the context, and then some of the remarks.
He clearly states at the outset of the speech that his purpose is not to lay out policies, but to be provocative (at the encouragement of his host). ” . . . I was willing to [attempt to be provocative] and didn’t feel like [talking about Harvard’s policies]. And so we have agreed that I am speaking unofficially and not using this as an occasion to lay out the many things we’re doing at Harvard to promote the crucial objective of diversity.”
He established right away that he was speaking unofficially, which is a standard way of going off the record as an official and on the record as an academic executing free thought. He shortly thereafter lays out his programme, saying, “There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference’s papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the . . . high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.”
The one that, I think, really caught the public attention and got him in a different spotlight, are the first two. They’re also the ones he claims are most important. He laid out two questions about this issue. The first was ” . . . who wants to do high-powered intense work?” This he defined as a job which demanded an 80 hour work-week, or for the mind to continue to work on problems outside the office. He states that, ” . . . it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment that a much higher fraction of married men have been historically prepared to make than of married women.” He raises what seem, for a moment, like larger questions about society than about the individual, suggesting he’s going to make an argument that nurture, not nature, is the problem. He asks, ” . . . 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? Is our society right to ask of anybody to have a prominent job at this level of intensity, and I think those are all questions that I want to come back to.”
Then he goes on to the second question, which is why the gap in representation is bigger in science and engineering than in other professions. He says of this question, ” . . . here, you can get a fair distance, it seems to me, looking at a relatively simple hypothesis.” What is his simple hypothesis? “It does appear that on many, many different human attributes-height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability . . . there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined . . . Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out.” He then relates a bunch of evidence which he himself notes is sketchy, or possibly limited by systematics, but then concludes (albeit with strange reluctance to be so firm), “So my sense is that the unfortunate truth . . . is that the combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably explains a fair amount of this problem.”
To translate all of this, Summers reads sketchy data about small differences in men and women and their ability to do math and science in top students in 12th grade and concludes that these differences translate into large variations in men and women in science and engineering at the “high-power” level of these jobs – faculty, for instance.
He goes on to cite anecdotes about his own daughters, or schoolchildren in Israel, and then after a long line of speculation he says, “I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.”
What I find odd about this speech is that Summers takes a position based on what even he thinks is either scientifically shakey, or anecdotal, evidence. He then asks to be proved wrong about 2/3 of the way through the speech. He concludes the speech with something similar, “Let me just conclude by saying that I’ve given you my best guesses after a fair amount of reading the literature and a lot of talking to people. They may be all wrong. I will have served my purpose if I have provoked thought on this question and provoked the marshalling of evidence to contradict what I have said. But I think we all need to be thinking very hard about how to do better on these issues and that they are too important to sentimentalize rather than to think about in as rigorous and careful ways as we can. That’s why I think conferences like this are very, very valuable. Thank you.”
Is this academic liberty without responsibility? Largely, I believe this to be the case. Liberty and responsibility together define freedom. Summers, an academic, seemed to take his role as provocateur far more seriously than his role as a free academic. He cited some papers, qualified the results, drew strange conclusions, and then asked to be proved wrong. This seems to me to be a good example of bad academics.
A provocateur with dicey facts to back them is dangerous at worst, useless at best. What got me thinking about all of this again was a short report in my latest issue of “On Wisconsin”, the UW alum magazine. “It Doesn’t Add Up” takes data collected under the “No Child Left Behind” Act and finds that there is no statistical difference between girls and boys in mathematics . Seeing this article, and the level of scrutiny that it reports was put into the study (different ways of looking at the data to tease out differences). Data from 7 million – YES, 7 million – students formed the basis of the study. In all cases, men and women both performed the same at complex problem solving.
The study’s leader, a UW psychology professor, put it best. “‘Stereotypes are very, very resistant to change,’ she says, ‘but as a scientist, I have to challenge them with data.'” She really sums up my feelings on this – put your data where your mouth is. Summers got himself dismissed as Harvard’s president, not because he acted with true academic freedom but because he exercised academic liberty without responsibility and stuck to his story throughout the firestorm after the speech.
Where is Summers now? He’s serving as the head of President-Elect Obama’s team of economic advisors. As a scientist, this worries me. We need more Darwins, and fewer Summers. He’s demonstrated a capacity to form opinions on shakey data. He may have been a respected economist in the Clinton administration, and certainly he brings experience to the job, but experience and bad judgement don’t add up to a reliable advisor.
The economic crisis is an important short-term issue (<10 years) Obama will have to confront. Who will he choose as his science advisor, somebody who needs to look far forward and advocate for a vision for this country in science? Summers, in my opinion, was a bad pick for economics. Perhaps he will exercise good judgment, perhaps not. I just hope he doesn’t apply the same judgement to economic policy that he applied to 50% of our nation’s future investiment in science, engineering, and economics.