Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Summers breezes at lunchtime talk 

Hugh Hewitt had a field day last night with the story of economist-turned-Harvard-President Larry Summers offending female scientists with his comments that there may be innate differences in the sexes that could cause different outcomes in, say, employment choices.

In the era of instant commentary via the blogs, you can't make such statements and then go to ground as Summers has. Too bad he doesn't have a blog, as I recommended in my book. He'd have the ability to "revise and extend his remarks" before the MSM gets them into circulation tomorrow.

If the president of a Christian university made the statement that Summers made, or a Bush Cabinet secretary, how long would they last in their job? How long will Summers last?

The second is a decent point, but it's worth noting a couple more things. As Hugh and Tom Bevans from Real Clear Politics noted, the leftists have been after Summers for some time after l'affaire Cornel and the serious attempt that Summers is making at reforming the curriculum. At a university that doesn't take knowledge seriously any more, why wouldn't we find scientists aghast at scientific evidence that women and men might be wired differently? He's been in this battle almost since he arrived on campus, so the thought that he might be getting a lesson now is missing the history of Summers and the Harvard presidency.

Another issue, though, is that Summers was speaking at an NBER meeting. The National Bureau of Economic Research has long funded a Science and Engineering Workforce Project that has included a component on getting more women into the area. Summers is invited to give a lunch talk. The talk is at a conference where people are supposed to think about this topic:

Women and underrepresented minorities have increased their share of S&E degrees in the past two decades. What forces have facilitated/impeded this process? How has the labor market adjusted? What challenges do women and underrepresented groups face in the S&E job market and how can these be alleviated? What programs and policies can further the process of diversifying the science workforce?
Is it at least possible for someone to suggest that, perhaps, the distribution of scientists by sex is at an optimal rate right now? It would be an economist's predisposition to look at any market outcome and presume it to be equilibrium and optimal unless one finds facts to the contrary. The problem is that that predisposition is anathema to the dominant paradigm at American liberal arts institutions today.

Will anything happen to Summers as a result of this? I think not. The Board of Trustees should have known that Summers is someone who speaks his mind and is less guarded than the usual risk-averse alumni schmoozer. If they haven't pulled in his reins on reforming general ed at Harvard, it's highly unlikely this will be more than a tempest in a teapot.

UPDATE: HedgeFundGuy also notes:

It's great to see someone standing up to the political nonsense at the front lines, even though

"he kept saying things we had refuted in the first half of the day," said Denton, the outgoing dean of the College of Engineering at the University of Washington

So they already proved that all gender disparities are due to societal biases? Perhaps they made a math error. Supposedly Summers made Becker's classic point about discrimination, that if women were solely being excluded by environment factors (an irrational prejudice), a university could excel by scooping up underappreciated women, as many universities did with Jews when they were discriminated against in the mid and early 20th century. That doesn't appear to be happening, in spite of many universities going out of their way to target and promote women.

If that's the story (also the story for why the Red Sox couldn't win in the 50s because they wouldn't integrate), it's further evidence that economists shouldn't be Harvard University presidents -- they are predisposed to tell the truth.