Human Nature

The Girls of Summers

What Harvard’s president and his critics got wrong.

Curb your venom

For another take on the Summers story, click here.

For more than a month, critics have accused Harvard President Larry Summers of using genetics to explain away sexism in society and academia. They’ve demanded that he release transcripts of the remarks in question, delivered at an academic conference on Jan. 14. On Thursday, facing calls for his resignation, Summers released the transcript. It shows his critics misconstrued or misrepresented him on numerous points. It also shows what he got wrong and why.

Let’s start with his caveats, which eyewitness accounts omitted.

1. He reaffirmed the need to address discrimination. The transcript shows him affirming Harvard’s commitment to “the crucial objective of diversity” and urging his audience to address factors that cause women to drop out of academic career paths. Women are among the groups “significantly underrepresented” in an advanced field, he said, and their absence “contributes to a shortage of role models for others.”

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.”

3. When he said discrimination was the least of three factors in women’s underrepresentation, he was talking about discrimination in academic hiring, not discrimination earlier in life. The transcript shows him describing the third factor as “different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search”—i.e., the search for a new faculty hire. Earlier accounts suggested he blew off discrimination as a factor on the grounds that there weren’t enough qualified women to hire in the first place. But the transcript shows him drawing a different conclusion from the inadequate pool of female candidates: He and his audience should be “thinking about this as a national problem rather than an individual institutional problem.”

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.

5. He rejected socialization as the sole factor—not as one factor—in test score differences. Summers said there was “reasonably strong evidence” of differences “that are not easy to attribute to socialization.” Afterward, when a critic suggested that the evidence supported an alternative explanation based on socialization, Summers replied, “I don’t presume to have proved any view that I expressed here. But if you think there is proof for an alternative theory, I’d want you to be hesitant about that.”

6. His story about his daughters was grossly misrepresented. Numerous reports of Summers’ remarks noted damningly that he had mentioned his daughters as evidence of innate gender differences. And indeed he did cite “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.’” But not one report mentioned that this was a minor anecdote appended to a more serious case study: the Israeli kibbutz movement, which, according to Summers, “started with an absolute commitment … that everybody was going to do the same jobs: Sometimes the women were going to fix the tractors, and the men were going to work in the nurseries.” Despite this sex-neutral commitment, he said, individual choices “in a hundred different kibbutzes … all moved in the same direction”—toward traditional gender roles. Summers’ point wasn’t that nature accounted for everything, but that attempts to erase it as a factor had failed. The kibbutzim were the evidence; his daughters were an afterthought.

In short, Summers got a bum rap. So, was his analysis of biological and cultural factors sound? The transcript answers that question, too. The answer is no. Summers grossly overreached the evidence, and he made a couple of glaring logical blunders.

Summers proposed “that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” In other words, biology outweighs environment. No evidence he presented justifies this hypothesis. So how did he reach it?

First, he rashly extrapolated from the limits of socialization in one area to the limits of socialization in another. “Most of what we’ve learned from empirical psychology in the last 15 years has been that people naturally attribute things to socialization that are in fact not attributable to socialization,” he said. “We’ve been astounded by the results of separated twins studies. The confident assertions that autism was a reflection of parental characteristics … have now been proven to be wrong.” For this reason, he was “hesitant about assigning too much weight” to the idea that girls and boys are socialized differently.

In the Q&A, a questioner pointed out that the environmental differences affecting identical twins (which are always of the same sex) are nothing like the environmental differences affecting boys and girls. Summers replied,

The field of behavioral genetics had a revolution in the last 15 years, and the principal thrust of that revolution was the discovery that a large number of things that people thought were due to socialization weren’t, and were in fact due to more intrinsic human nature. And that set of discoveries, it seemed to me, ought to influence the way one thought about other areas where there was a perception of the importance of socialization. I wasn’t at all trying to connect those studies to the particular experiences of women and minorities who were thinking about academic careers.

Any Harvard student who gave this answer on an exam would be flunked. If you aren’t claiming that a highly abstract resemblance to another subject has any bearing on this one—and you present no evidence to justify the cross-application—you have no business bringing it up.

Second, Summers confused two different causal conflicts. In the course of arguing that socialization was a less persuasive explanation for differential outcomes than biology was, he observed, “When there were no girls majoring in chemistry, when there were no girls majoring in biology, it was much easier to blame parental socialization. Then, as we are increasingly finding today, the problem is what’s happening when people are 20, or when people are 25, in terms of their patterns with which they drop out.” In other words, even after we’ve substantially canceled out differences in socialization by getting women to major successfully in sciences, they still drop out of the academic race. Well, yes. But that doesn’t show that the alternative factor is biology. It just shows that there’s an alternative factor—and Summers had already mentioned two other alternative factors that would more plausibly affect 25-year-old women: bias against women and bias against people who bear and raise children. The limits of egalitarian socialization in controlling a woman’s career prove nothing about the limits of sexist socialization in shaping a girl.

At one point, Summers acknowledged, “It’s pointed out by one of the papers at this conference that these tests are not a very good measure and are not highly predictive” of academic success. “And that’s absolutely right,” said Summers. “But I don’t think that resolves the issue at all. Because if … there are some systematic differences in variability in different populations, then whatever the set of attributes are that are precisely defined to correlate with being an aeronautical engineer at MIT or being a chemist at Berkeley, those are probably different in their standard deviations as well.”

What? This is pure abstract inference at an absurd level. It’s also incoherent. You can’t presume that men and women differ in the second respect while inferring this presumption from a likeness to their difference in the first. Either you presume similarities, or you presume differences.

Why did Summers make these mistakes? The transcript suggests two conflicting reasons. One is that he’s stubborn and argumentative. He repeatedly deflected cultural explanations by saying things like, “No doubt there is some truth in that,” “This kind of taste does go on,” and “Yeah, look, anything could be social”—and then minimizing these explanations. The consistent tone of his remarks was “Yeah, but …” There are two possible explanations for that tone in this context. One is that he’s a sexist. The other is that once he offers a hypothesis, he’d rather defend and extend it than listen objectively to the alternatives. He’s got an open mind but not an open heart.

I suspect this, rather than sexism, is the root of Summers’ errors, because a sexist wouldn’t have said what he said while displaying a second intellectual flaw evident in the transcript. Again and again, Summers warned his listeners to be skeptical of what they’d prefer to believe. We all want to believe socialization explains differences in male and female outcomes, he observed. Therefore, he reasoned, we should distrust that hypothesis and look for evidence to the contrary. He was so busy being skeptical of the popular explanation that he forgot to be skeptical of the unpopular one. He overstated the case for innate sex differences not because he wanted to believe it, but because he didn’t.

If you think this explanation is too kind to Summers, ask yourself why he told the story about his daughters. An old-fashioned sexist wouldn’t have told that story, because he wouldn’t have been surprised at his daughter’s maternal behavior—never mind that he wouldn’t have given her a truck in the first place. Summers brought up the incident not because it would rock the academic world—it didn’t—but because it rocked him. As he put it, the incident “tells me something.” He wasn’t speaking as the president of Harvard or even as a scholar. He was speaking as a modern dad who thought he could overcome nature and discovered he couldn’t.

When we talk about gender or any other controversial topic, we “have to be willing to ask the question in ways that could face any possible answer that came out,” Summers implored his audience. What brave and wise counsel. Now he just needs to follow it.