Saturday, February 19, 2005

The Harvard President Larry Summers Brouhaha: A Guide For British Academics

The departmental coffee hour at London's Peace and War Studies Dept. has been dominated of late by a debate over the merits (or not) of Larry Summers' speech on the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering. As the resident Yank in the department, I've been on the spot to explain how American academia functions. There are, I think, three general background factors worth keeping in mind: (i) the sacred cows of the Ivy League academy; (ii) the status of Larry Summers as an intellectual provocateur; and (iii) the intellectual standards of economics.


Having been an Ivy League Professor for a few years, I've been socialized into a particular academic sub-culture--"a politically correct mainstream," if you prefer--that places certain ideas beyond the pale of rational debate. Raise these ideas only at the price of grave professional danger. Idea (i) work trumps pleasure. Idea (ii) intellectual ability does not track gender or race. Idea (iii) Israel is a worthy recipient of unqualified US support. (In my own case, for what it's worth, socialization has beeen quite effective. I endorse all three ideas, even if I have some misgivings about (i) and would prefer it if all three could be opened for debate without provoking a shitstorm.)

It's against the background of these sacred cows that Larry's remarks must be understood. Initially, the controversy centered on his attack on (ii). Clearly, Larry has been spending too much time in the company of Steve "Blank Slate" Pinker and now shares some very controversial "intuitions" about the "innate abilities" of men and women. If Larry were an ordinary academic--like Steve Pinker--these "intuitions" would be merely eccentric, but he's no ordinary academic. People are, I think, legitimately anxious about a University President with such "intuitions," especially since these "intuitions" are likely--or at least would have been likely, prior to this particular shitstorm-- to color his response to the under-representation of women in Harvard's science and engineering depts.

Now that we have the transcripts of the NBER talk, attention has shifted away from idea (ii) towards idea (i). Here I think Larry holds fairly conventional views. Everyone in an Ivy League institution is something of a workaholic. Hedonism is much the most unpopular and controversial "-ism" in such places. (Just try yelling down the departmental corridor, "LET'S ALL GO CLUBBING" and see what response you get.) The sole exception to the tyranny of work concerns, what Larry termed, "legitimate family desires." For some reason, Ivy League academies give "breeders" special treatment--extended tenure clocks for parents (male and female), hand-outs for tuition fees etc. In our dept., we have to have faculty meetings at "family-friendly" times--i.e. at ungodly hours of the morning. The family-oriented feminists who have attacked Larry have failed to notice that on this issue he's one of them. (I am yet to hear a good argument that justifies the privileging of "family desires" over other allegedly less important "hedonistic" desires. But that's a topic for another post.)


I'm all for intellectual provocation, but the idea--put forward by Larry's defenders--that he's some fearless intellectual iconoclast is quite laughable. As I've already noted, he endorses sacred cow (i) and he rejects sacred cow (ii). On sacred cow (iii), he's something of a zealot. Thus in Sept 2002, he said that he thought that critics of Israel were guilty of anti-semitism "in effect if not intent." This sacred-cow affirming comment led Theda Skocpol at the faculty meeting last Tuesday to accuse him--quite legitimately, I think--of making remarks in his NBER speech that were sexist "in effect if not intent." These modes of unpleasant ad hominem exchange are a direct consequence of "sacred cowdom." It would be better if universities had no such untouchable topics. Rational inquiry ought to roam freely--even so far as to cover the history of US support for Israel.


For any non-economist, the most striking feature of Larry's comments on the released transcript is their low intellectual calibre. Remember, he is speaking from notes on an issue he claims to have thought a lot about. I'm not surprised he didn't initially want the transcripts released. It'is thus quite puzzling to find many economists (Claudia Goldin, Larry Katz, Ed Glaeser etc.) pat Larry on the arse for his intellectual brilliance, courage, and candor. Goldin, for instance, claims that Larry's talk displayed "utter brilliance." In God's name, why? Reading over the remarks, nothing comes through more clearly than a sense that here is someone who knows little about the topic at hand and lacks the right sort of smarts either to pose the relevant questions or to distinguish valid from specious arguments. All academics have their own déformation professionnelle--we historians are terrible pedants--but none more so than economists. Many of Larry's faults are the characteristic faults of economists: overweening arrogance, a wholly misplaced sense of their own intelligence, and an unwarranted confidence in their own reductive models. An eminent physicist who knows Larry well, once told me that Larry's very good at weighing two measurable variables, but he cannot handle the complex systems that "real scientists" confront. In support of this point of view, it is revealing to take a look--as one of Brad DeLong's commentators suggested--at the writings of the Harvard Physicist Howard Georgi, who unlike Larry understands the issues and--on the evidence of these writings--possesses a finer more discriminating mind.

UPDATE: Among the most interesting blog discussions of this brouhaha, see Brad deLong's (cited above), Kieran Healey (Crooked Timber), and Mark Kleiman, and Bitch Ph.D.--and a couple more--Elizabeth Anderson and Matt Yglesias.

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