Summers in Context

SUMMERS IN CONTEXT….Harvard president Larry Summers, who has spent the past week being cuffed around for suggesting that biological differences might explain the scarcity of women in the sciences, apologized for the third time on Thursday and may have raised the number to four or five by now (I’ve lost track of the precise count). And so it’s worth noting that the backlash to the backlash has now begun.

Today in the Washington Post, for example, Ruth Marcus winces at MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins’s “bring-out-the-smelling-salts” reaction to Summers’s speech and suggests that maybe Summers was on to something after all. Perhaps there really are innate differences between men and women that help account for the low number of women in the sciences. Over at Slate William Saletan bemoans the “pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers.”

Now, I happen to agree that Hopkins’s Victorian reaction was absurdly melodramatic. What’s more, as empirical questions, Summers’s propositions are perfectly legitimate. Social scientists should study this stuff and let their results lead them where they may.

But context is everything. Consider the following hypothetical:

Let’s say that you are the mayor of Los Angeles. A couple of years ago there was a huge scandal in which the LAPD was accused of beating up prisoners who were already in custody and of generally using excessive force on a routine basis. Local communities were outraged. Commissions were formed. Recommendations were made. And yet reports of police brutality continue to pour in and the city is now under a federal consent decree.

So UCLA decides to hold a conference on the subject of police-community relations. And they invite his honor to speak at lunch. “Be provocative,” they say.

Der Tag arrives, and the mayor speaks. He agrees that police brutality is a problem and offers the pro forma observation that there are surely institutional causes that we ought to investigate and reform. And yet, he continues, isn’t it also worth noting that it’s awfully hard to attract levelheaded young recruits to careers as police officers? After all, people who aren’t already slightly unhinged in their hatred of criminals aren’t likely to go through the grueling training necessary to become a cop. And another thing: studies have shown that police officers tend to have high testosterone levels, and this causes them to overreact to stressful situations. His own father was a cop, he says, and he slapped us kids around a fair amount, so he’s got some personal experience with this.

Question: would you accept the mayor’s protests that he was just speaking as an interested citizen, not the mayor of a city currently under a federal consent decree for excessive police brutality? Would you accept the idea that he was merely raising provocative questions, not offering excuses for the city’s lack of progress during his tenure?

Nah, probably not. Even if he’s right, it sure sounds like he’s offering excuses, doesn’t it?

And in the end, that was the problem with Summers’s remarks. It’s not that he raised illegitimate questions. He may even be right. But as the president of an institution that’s had a sharply declining track record of hiring women in the sciences during his tenure, it sure sounds an awful lot like he’s trying to say that there’s not really much he can do about it.

Thus the outrage. Context is everything.