We enjoyed Larry Summers’ performance at the IMF economic forum and we were dismayed to hear he’s a sexist pig. Poetic justice, they say, that Summers was beat out for Fed Chair by Janet Yellen. If you read the transcript, though, the sexism charge is a wee bit exaggerated.
Summers begins by acknowledging that women are underrepresented in science and engineering, and that Harvard already has diversity measures in place. He will speak, instead, on alternative theories of the problem. This is just like his other speech, where he questions economic dogma.
Catholics are underrepresented in investment banking … white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association, and Jews are underrepresented in farming
His favored theory is that American society forces women to choose between family and career. This common sense idea was (and is) supported by survey data. He also proposed that since variability – not the mean – is greater for men’s performance in math, then there will be more men at the very top.
This is a subtle point of statistics, and we needed Nassim Taleb to explain it. If you don’t get it, it just sounds like “women score lower on tests.”
Summers’ heresy was to challenge the two leading theories – discrimination and socialization. He dares to suggest that boys and girls might be born with different predispositions. Of current research he says,
What we’ve learned from empirical psychology in the last fifteen years has been that people naturally attribute things to socialization that are in fact not attributable to socialization.
He is referring to psychology popularized by writers like Steven Pinker. Pinker’s book had just come out, and his chapter on gender informs much of the speech. Ironically, it includes a remark about university presidents and censorship. Pinker, apparently another sexist pig, has this to say:
Girls play more at parenting and trying on social roles, boys more at fighting, chasing, and manipulating objects.
It’s worth noting that Pinker is a liberal, and Summers is a career Democrat. They are free thinkers, though, who believe that liberal values can prevail without resorting to flat-earth denials of science.
Having stated his intention to provoke fresh debate, Summers concludes with several questions for further research. That didn’t happen. Instead, they fired him. Here’s what Alan Dershowitz, also at Harvard, wrote in the Times:
This issue is bigger than Summers or even Harvard University. It is really about a long-term, systematic effort to impose a political-correctness straitjacket on certain views, especially at universities.
What impressed Jeremiah about the speech was that Summers had read all of the conference papers, added new ideas from outside, and then brought it all back to the core problem of recruiting female professors at Harvard – plus, he makes an esoteric point about statistics. This is exactly the kind of broad spectrum intellectual you want for a university president – or a Fed Chairman.
See also: What Larry Summers Said