February 18, 2005

Summers releases the transcript.

Finally, we get to see the transcript of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers making his much-criticized remarks about women and science. I had an excerpt here, which I'd edited down, but on preview, it was still far too long. The speech is labyrinthine. Let me try again:
[T]here is reasonably strong evidence of taste differences between little girls and little boys that are not easy to attribute to socialization. ... I think, while I would prefer to believe otherwise, I guess 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, tells me something. And I think it's just something that you probably have to recognize. There are two other hypotheses that are all over. One is socialization. Somehow little girls are all socialized towards nursing and little boys are socialized towards building bridges. No doubt there is some truth in that. I would be hesitant about assigning too much weight to that hypothesis for two reasons. 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.
I think one reason this transcript wasn't released earlier is that it is so wordily inarticulate. There are some obvious garbles -- "The second empirical problem is that girls are persisting longer and longer" -- and that makes you wonder how much he was in control of what he was saying. I'm not surprised people came away from the session with a lot of different ideas about what he was saying, because he either unwilling or unable to speak clearly and directly.

When you speak on a sensitive topic, listeners are going to pick out certain phrases and then magnify and distort your meaning as they swirl the part they heard around in their heads with their own fears about what they think you might be saying.

I think if I had been there and heard the "daddy truck/baby truck" part, I would have missed the whole next section because I would have become wrapped up in my own thoughts. This is one reason why I'd prefer to read a speech than listen to one. Who can sit through a long, overcomplicated speech with a passive mind? Assuming you can resist thinking about something else altogether -- what's for dinner? -- you hear bits of the speech and think about it, criticize it, relate it to something in your own experience.

Whether the release of the transcript will help Summers now is a different matter. The NYT reports:
While Harvard professors plan to convene Tuesday to discuss the transcript and Dr. Summers's leadership, and some have spoken of a vote of no confidence, it is the Harvard Corporation that has decisive influence over Dr. Summers's fortunes. It stood behind him on Thursday.

Several female scientists who were at the National Bureau of Economic Research forum and who expressed outrage at Dr. Summers's remarks there said they felt vindicated. Critics had accused them of misinterpreting him and overreacting out of political correctness.

"I'm glad his words are finally out there," said Shirley Malcom, who grew up in segregated Alabama and is now the director of education for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. "Because so many of us have been accused of implying that he said things he did not, and now people can actually judge for themselves."

Good luck sifting through the verbiage.

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