Summers’ candor was his downfall

Within institutions committed to the forward march of knowledge, one might imagine it more important to be right than popular. Alas, with Tuesday’s resignation of Harvard University president Lawrence Summers, we know this is a thing of the past. In an ironic turn, Harvard’s faculty has driven its leader into the wilderness for giving them too much of the school’s motto — veritas.

The bloodlust for quantitative analysis that Summers used to build a successful career as an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, the World Bank and the U.S. Treasury under Bill Clinton failed him as university president, where oiling special interest groups takes precedence over evidence-based leadership. It is well and good to apply the scientific method to financial markets, but not particularly sound to apply it to people. People are very special, and they may only be studied so long as the findings of one’s analysis are consistent with the liberal principles of the day. Summers’ disrespect for these orthodoxies when they are contradicted by data — which is pretty much all the time — doomed him with the humanities faculty at Harvard but make him an appealing presidential nominee from a party that has big problems with analyzing data and turns to Hillary Clinton for confident leadership.

The first sign that Summers was special came shortly after his inauguration in 2001. At that time, he privately suggested that African American studies diva Cornel West ought to be doing something more scholarly with his time than making hip-hop CDs and hanging around on the campaign trail with Bill Bradley. West, whose ego puts out candles, threw a very public hissy fit and decamped for Princeton, not before comparing Summers to Ariel Sharon. (West’s CD, “Sketches of My Culture” is best described in this Amazon review by Joshua Trevino: “Just awful. But awful in a way that keeps you coming back. It is not unlike a car wreck that is so terrible, so horrific, that one cannot look away. How can I resist the banal intonations of Dr. West’s affectatious enunciation? ‘Le-vels of un-pre-ce-dented vio-lence.’ How can I deny the sheer bludgeoning power of the turgid prose, of the self-important rhetoric, of the 1970s-era ideology?”) It’s Princeton’s loss. The incredible aspect of this story, though, is that most people wouldn’t dare tell West that his shoes are untied, much less take him to the woodshed. If you can face down Cornel West, you are uniquely equipped for politics.

But the defining moment of his tenure was during a conference on the gender imbalance in science last year. In a moment that would go down in infamy, he suggested that innate sex differences might partially explain the preponderance of men at the highest levels of math and science. His basic argument that the variance in mental ability among males is greater (that is, that males are more likely to be at the extremes of intelligence, both high and low) is well-established and particularly obvious on the low end — how many females get Darwin awards? But thanks to a complete lack of understanding of statistical distributions, otherwise intelligent people interpreted his comment as asserting that women are somehow innately inferior, which is nonsense. As psychologist Steven Pinker points out, this would be like concluding from the fact that women have a greater life expectancy that all women live longer than all men. The fact of the matter is that most people don’t have what it takes — which includes drive — to be a professor at Harvard, and those that do are drawn from the extreme hinterlands of the bell curve, where males tend to be more abundant. This is one possibility that deserves to be considered, and Summers displayed courage and remarkable leadership for highlighting it.

In an era of politics characterized all too often by decisions couched in shaky philosophy or palpably false religious doctrines, leaders who make their decisions on the basis of evidence regardless of whether it strokes our notions of how the world should be are very hard to come by. Had he been commander-in-chief of the U.S. and not Harvard, it is certain Summers would not have invaded Iraq or have ignored the growing scientific body of data on the problems of population growth and global warming. If we are to tame the hostile world in which we live, we must first understand it, from sex differences to group differences and so on. These are empirical questions, and progress is not accomplished by suppressing data that we find offensive. For his support of these principles, I sincerely hope Lawrence Summers has not yet met his last presidency.

Matthew Gillum is a first-year graduate student in molecular and cellular physiology. His column appears on alternate Fridays.