Saturday, February 26, 2005

Reinventing Lawrence Summers in this morning's Times

Tears on the sleeve of a boy
Don't want to be a man today
-- Tori Amos, "Pretty Good Year" (Under the Pink)

On the front page of this morning's paper, Patrick D. Healy and Sara Rimer offer up " Amid Uproar, Harvard Head Ponders Style." In print, it's entitled "Amid Uproar, Harvard Head Lists His Goals." There's a lot to be said for the content of this article but we can start by noting that Lawrence Summers' goals never get around to addressing the apparently trivial issues like, gee, detailing a plan for improving the hiring practices -- so the internet headline is probably more appropriate. This is more a study of "style" than an article on "goals."

Summers is on a personal journey of sorts. Having seen Hitch with his children, the reporters use this as a framing device for much of the article with Summers in the Kevin James role seeking numerous guides (just Will Smith in the film) to teach him social graces.

Well they must have stripped off the back hair, but Summers is still "the man with the golden gun, thinks he knows so much, thinks he knows so much" (Amos again, "Cornflake Girl," Under the Pink).

Summers still doesn't get it, even with his couture consultants. From the article, "I think I do have a tendency to challenge dialogue in the way of a graduate seminar." Uh, what graduate seminar would that be? The one where students demand you back up your half-baked theories with academic citations? Having failed at defending his statements with earlier excuses, Summers now wants to try to move it over to grad student area and maybe people are either uninformed or foolish enough to belive him. Granted, not everyone went to grad school.

I remember a seminar that was supposed to be on Plato's ladder of love and how an annoying twerp tried to hijack by turning it into a hagiographic session on the "works and talents" of Ayn Rand. We suffered through about three minutes of that nonsense politely before we started demanding that the statements be backed up.

And that's what would have happened in a graduate seminar. Summers' 'challenging dialogue' would have been met with a real challenge that he back up his statements with sources.

Note, that's something Summers still refuses to do. He didn't do so following his speech and he still hasn't.

Look at the transcript for the Q&A.

Divorced from reality and academia, some responses of note:

I don't think that. I don't actually think that's the point at all. My point was a very different one. My point was simply that the field of behavioral genetics had a revolution in the last fifteen 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.

I don't think that's the point? I can't answer your question because it's specific and takes into account a number of variables and since I'm offering a sweeping summary I can't address the academic studies that you're aware of because I haven't taken the time to explore those studies let alone contemplate them. I wasn't at all trying to connect those studies to the particular experiences of women and minorities who were thinking about acadmeic careers.

As for not "at all trying to connect those studies to the particular experiences of women and minorities who were thinking about academic careers," oh, wasn't he?

From the speech:

First, most of 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. We've been astounded by the results of separated twins studies. The confident assertions that autism was a reflection of parental characteristics that were absolutely supported and that people knew from years of observational evidence have now been proven to be wrong. And so, the human mind has a tendency to grab to the socialization hypothesis when you can see it, and it often turns out not to be true. The second empirical problem is that girls are persisting longer and longer. 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 twenty, or when people are twenty-five, in terms of their patterns, with which they drop out. Again, to the extent it can be addressed, it's a terrific thing to address.

"First" and "Second"? But he's not suggesting a correlation?

He's relied on 'personal talks' with 'prominent people' (in industries such as banking where apparently he and 'prominent people' bemoan the lack of diversity but rush to reassure one another that no one's at fault except for those people who choose 'free time') and a recent trip to a kibbutz. He bases his remarks on 'conventional wisdom' that he mistakes for research. He cites, by name, one author whom he finds flawed. (But apparently, that's the only author he's aware of. I can't say he's read the work because his statements are so couched and nonspecific that it appears he hasn't read the work.)

As we'll see in the quote below, Summers gets all jazzed when he can discuss baseball but even there he can't cite an author, the study or, for that matter, when it appeared (he guesses it was sometime in the seventies).

I understand. I think you're obviously right that there's no absolute objectivity, and you're-there's no question about that. My own instincts actually are that you could go wrong in a number of respects fetishizing objectivity for exactly the reasons that you suggest. There is a very simple and straightforward methodology that was used many years ago in the case of baseball. Somebody wrote a very powerful article about baseball, probably in the seventies, in which they basically said, "Look, it is true that if you look at people's salaries, and you control for their batting averages and their fielding averages and whatnot, whites and blacks are in the same salary once you control. It is also true that there are no black .240 hitters in the major leagues, that the only blacks who are in the major leagues are people who bat over .300-I'm exaggerating-and that is exactly what you'd predict on a model of discrimination, that because there's a natural bias against. And there's an absolute and clear prediction. The prediction is that if there's a discriminated-against group, that if you measure subsequent performance, their subsequent performance will be stronger than that of the non-discriminated-against group. And that's a simple prediction of a theory of discrimination. And it's a testable prediction of a theory of discrimination, and it would be a revolution, and it would be an enormously powerful finding in this field, to demonstrate, and I suspect there are contexts in which that can be demonstrated, but there's a straightforward methodology, it seems to me, for testing exactly that idea. I'm going to run out of time. But, let me take-if people ask very short questions, I will give very short answers.

Standard grad school bullsh*t response (that most grad students and profs would have called Summers on): "I'm not prepared to address the issue because I'm uninformed, so let me carry it over to an issue I do know something about and that's baseball. And maybe no one will notice that I have nothing to say about the actual issue being addressed."

The lack of respect for research and the lack of candor in the above response do not belong at an academic conference (which Summers is attempting to downgrade to a grad school seminar -- and that still won't wash). "I'm going to run out of time" he notes and asks that "people ask very short questions" so he can "give very short answers." The fast-food approach takes over academia?

"My own instincts" suggests that, not unlike Vivian in Pretty Woman, Summers is a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants kind of gal.

If time is short, here's a suggestion drop the sports talk that has no bearing on the topic but does prove you can play beat the clock better than Condi Rice sitting before the 9-11 Commission.

Good question. Good question. I don't know much about it. My guess is that you'll find that in most of those places, the pressure to be high powered, to work eighty hours a week, is not the same as it is in the United States. And therefore it is easier to balance on both sides. But I thought about that, and I think that you'll find that's probably at least part of the explanation.

"I don't know much about it. My guess is . . ." This wasn't an Amway convention. Summers wasn't appearing as a motivational speaker. For those who just don't get it, this isn't an appropriate level of "engagement" for an academic conference.

Yeah, look anything could be social, ultimately in all of that. I think that if you look at the literature on behavioral genetics and you look at the impact, the changed view as to what difference parenting makes, the evidence is really quite striking and amazing. I mean, just read Judith Rich Harris's book. It is just very striking that people's-and her book is probably wrong and its probably more than she says it is, and I know there are thirteen critiques and you can argue about it and I am not certainly a leading expert on that-but there is a lot there. And I think what it surely establishes is that human intuition tends to substantially overestimate the role-just like teachers overestimate their impact on their students relative to fellow students on other students-I think we all have a tendency with our intuitions to do it. So, you may be right, but my guess is that there are some very deep forces here that are going to be with us for a long time.

I'm getting the idea that some of his defenders may have never been in an academic challenging environment, so read the above quote again but take it to a simpler form, a high school debate.
Summers weak, rambling, psuedo citing then back pedaling would have clearly given that point to his opponent.

He appears to be referring to Rich's book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. If so, he apparently failed to grasp Rich's repeatedly underscored point about social context which is at the heart of the problems Harvard was having prior to his speech and continues to have now.

It's not clear at all. I think I said it wasn't clear. I was giving you my best guess but I hope we could argue on the basis of as much evidence as we can marshal.

How will that be done? With short questions and answers that don't address the studies done or the work in the field? With your best guess based on your ill informed view?

No, no, no. Let me say. I have actually read that and I'm not saying there aren't rooms to debate this in, but if somebody, but with the greatest respect-I think there's an enormous amount one can learn from the papers in this conference and from those two books-but if somebody thinks that there is proof in these two books, that these phenomenon are caused by something else, I guess I would very respectfully have to disagree very very strongly with that. 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.

That's a standard non-answer from a grad student (soon to be dumped from the program) who hasn't done the reading.

I think there are two different things, frankly, actually, is my guess-I'm not an expert. Somebody reported to me that-someone who is knowledgeable-said that it is surprisingly hard to get Americans rather than immigrants or the children of immigrants to be cardiac surgeons. Cardiac surgeon is about prestigious, certain kind of prestige as you can be, fact is that people want control of their lifestyles, people want flexibility, they don't want to do it, and it's disproportionately immigrants that want to do some of the careers that are most demanding in terms of time and most interfering with your lifestyle. So I think that's exactly right and I think it's precisely the package of number of hours' work what it is, that's leading more Americans to choose to have careers of one kind or another in business that are less demanding of passionate thought all the time and that includes white males as well.

No, he's not an expert. And "somebody reported to me" ("someone who is knowledgeable") is an indication of the sloppiness in his "research."

He gave an insulting presentation that's insulting for a number of reasons but chief among them is the fact that his shoot-from-the-hip, 'conventional wisdom' wasn't up to the standards of an academic conference (nor of a grad student seminar, don't kid yourself). In the Q&A, facing questioning, he immediately fall back on "time constraints" and ask for short questions so you can give short replies. Sadly this is after he delivers a hundred or so words on the apparently very pressing topic of major league baseball, on a study he doesn't don't know the author of or the date of publication. That's not meeting the criteria for an academic engagement.

Summers want to couch this on the grounds of some sort of academic pursuit of intellectual truth but he's yet to engage in any academic, informed dialogue or to cite academic studies.

His defenders would be well advised to consider the academic process and not reduce it to some understanding of undergraduate freshman note-takers attending lectures. And, for the record, it wasn't a grad school seminar, it was an academic conference.

Tidbits gleamed from this morning's calls (I spent four hours on the phone):
Popular theory among people who interacted with Summers in the Clinton administration: he always wanted to be the Big Dog and now that he is, he's finding it's not as much fun as it appeared from the outside.
David Gergen's nickname behind his back is "Davey Gurgles."
Most amusing evaluation of the photo of Summers accompanying the article: "Check out the Mildred Pierce pose! From Clintonista to [Joan] Crawford addict! Oh what a strange trip it's been!"
One person who's known Summers for many years noted that, from the picture, he appears very lonely if the pose wasn't staged: "Only lonely people touch themselves that much." That's not a sexual jab. The person was honestly concerned about Summers and feels that he failed to grasp that his remarks would be studied to such degree. "They were off the cuff remarks that he hoped would shake things up and lead to a free wheeling discussion. He failed to grasp that this wasn't a closed door adminstration meeting but a public forum and that devil's advocate isn't a role he can play currently even when he begins by noting he's speaking as himself and not [as] the president of Harvard."