News Analysis: Some Say Digressive Remarks from January Conference ‘Taken Out of Context’
Summers digressive Jan. 14 remarks at a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) conference sparked speculation that he touched on biological predispositions of blacks and Jews as well as women.
At Tuesday’s Faculty meeting, Arthur Kleinman, chair of the anthropology department, asked Summers if he had suggested in his Jan. 14 speech that “Jews are biologically predisposed not to be farmers.”
“I said nothing of the kind you suggest,” Summers responded.
In his January remarks, he did mention the underrepresentation of Jews in agriculture, whites in professional basketball, and Catholics in investment banking.
“[T]he data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association, and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture,” Summers told scholars at the conference.
Just hours after the release of the transcript yesterday, Kleinman remarked to the London-based Financial Times: “does this mean that Jews are too smart to be farmers?”
Lee Professor of Economics Claudia Goldin, who attended Summers’ NBER speech and has emerged as one of the president’s strongest defenders, concedes that the talk may have lent itself to being misinterpreted.
“There’s a lot in [the transcript] that can be taken out of context,” she said.
THESIS OR HYPOTHESIS?
The mini-flap over Summers’ remarks on Jews and Catholics is almost sure to blow over. But the transcript released yesterday may undermine Summers’ assertion that his speech was a “purely academic exploration of hypotheses.”
Summers explicitly said in his speech that “in my own view,” the underrepresentation of women in the sciences stems principally from their disinclination to work 80-hour work weeks.
And he ranked “socialization” and “discrimination” a distant third in the list of causes for the lack of females in the sciences—after the much-maligned “natural abilities” hypothesis.
“It seemed that he was more asserting a particular point of view than presenting it for discussion,” Professor of Physics Lisa Randall ’83 said after reading the transcript.
Randall’s remark reflects the observations of scholars who heard Summers’ speech live.
“Many people felt that he was saying this with a fair amount of conviction,” said Catherine J. Didion, director of the International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists, who took detailed notes at Summers’ speech.
Summers went to great lengths in his Jan. 14 remarks to assure listeners that he is willing to consider opposing viewpoints.
And in the 20-minute question-and-answer session after his speech, Summers defused several challenges to his thesis.
But when he faces the Faculty once more on Tuesday, he will have to defuse a far more trenchant challenge—to his leadership.
—Staff writer Daniel J. Hemel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.