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Larry Summers for Treasury Secretary—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on November 18, 2008.

Larry Summers for Treasury Secretary
By Ian Ayres ’86

There is a lot of speculation about whether President-elect Barack Obama will choose Larry Summers to be his Treasury Secretary. But some people are openly opposing Summers’s appointment, in part because of controversial comments he made about women in science.

It’s a close question, but I’m hoping that Obama appoints Summers. I have three reasons:

First, Summers is really a cut above the next-best appointment. Larry Summers is incredibly smart. It’s not just that he is a wickedly insightful academic (who may still win a Nobel Prize); he is also a very quick study.

I trust his economic judgment and ability to make good decisions under pressure. He has an ability in these difficult times to do the right thing. This is especially true if the alternative is Jon Corzine, and even true in the case of Timothy Geithner (who are both rumored to be on Obama’s shortlist). This is no knock on Corzine or Geithner. Summers, to my mind, is just that much better.

Second, if Obama appoints a person like Summers, I still will have faith that, overall, his administration is likely to be very good on issues of gender equality. One of the wonderful things about the Obama victory is that the new administration has a bit more flexibility on questions of civil rights. Indeed, we might even defend Summers’s appointment as a form of what Heather Gerken calls “second-order diversity.”

Third and finally, I find that his comments about women in science are less objectionable than the way they have been characterized by many others. Stanley Fish has argued: “It is not the content of the remarks that is at issue; what matters is that if, in making them, the administrator generates a form of publicity that detracts from the university’s public image.”

I agree with Fish that Summers’s remarks (even if couched as informal and off-the-record) were ill-considered coming as they were from Harvard’s head. But I do think the substance of the remarks is important — in part because not all negative publicity is equally justified. In chapter seven of my book Super Crunchers, I had the following take on the controversy:

On January 14, 2005, the president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, touched off a firestorm of criticism when he spoke at a conference on the scarcity of women professors in science and math. A slew of newspaper articles characterized his remarks as suggesting that women are “somehow innately deficient in mathematics.” The New York Times in 2007 characterized Summers’s remarks as claiming that “a lack of intrinsic aptitude could help explain why fewer women than men reach the top ranks of science and math in universities.” The article (like many others) suggested that the subsequent furor over Summers’s speech contributed to his resignation in 2006 (and the decision to replace him with the first female president in the university’s 371 year history).

Summers’s speech did in fact suggest that there might be innate differences in the intelligence of men and women. But he didn’t argue that the average intelligence of women was any less than that of men. He focused instead on the possibility that the intelligence of men is more variable than that of women. He explicitly worked backwards from observed proportions to implicit standard deviations. Here’s what Summers said:

“I did a very crude calculation, which I’m sure was wrong and certainly was unsubtle, 20 different ways. I looked … at the evidence on the sex ratios in the top 5 percent of 12th graders [in science and math]. If you look at those, they’re all over the map … but 50 percent women, one woman for every two men, would be a high-end estimate [for the relative prevalence of women]. From that, you can back out a difference in the implied standard deviations that works out to be about 20 percent.”

Summers doesn’t say it, but there is no pronounced difference in the average math or science scores for male and female 12th graders. But in a variety of different studies, there is a difference in the tails of the distribution. In particular, Summers focused in on the tendency for there to be two men for every one woman when you look at the top 5 percent of math and science achievement among 12th graders. Summers worked backwards to figure out what kind of a difference in standard deviations would give rise to this sex difference in the tails. His core claim, indeed his only claim, of innate difference was that the standard deviation of men’s intelligence might be 20 percent greater than that of women.

Summers, in the speech, was careful to point out that his calculation was “crude” and “unsubtle.” … Summers’s back-of-the-envelope empiricism doesn’t definitively resolve the question of whether women have less variable intelligence. For example, lots of other factors could have influenced the math and science scores of 12th graders besides innate ability. …

Summers, in suggesting a gendered difference in standard deviations, is suggesting that men are more likely to be really smart, but he’s also implying that men are innately more likely to be really dumb. It’s a tricky question to know whether it is desirable to be associated with a group that has a higher IQ standard deviation. Imagine that you are expecting your first child. You are told that you can choose the range of possible IQs that your child will have, but this range must be centered on an IQ of 100. Any IQ within the range that you choose is equally likely to occur. What range would you choose — 95 to 105, or would you roll the dice on a wider range of, say, 60 to 140? When I asked this question of a group of fourth and sixth graders, they invariably chose ranges that were incredibly small (nothing wider than 95 to 105). None of them wanted to roll the dice on the chance that their kid would be a genius if it meant that their kid might alternatively end up as developmentally disabled. So from the kids’ perspective, Summers was suggesting that men have a less desirable IQ distribution.

What really got Summers in trouble was taking his estimated 20 percent difference and using it to figure out other probabilities. Instead of looking at the ratio of males to females in the top 5 percent of the most intelligent people, he wanted to speculate about the ratio of men to women in the top one-hundredth of 1 percent of the most scientifically intelligent people. Summers claimed that research scientists at top universities come from this more rarefied strata:

“If … one is talking about physicists at a top-25 research university, one is not talking about people who are two standard deviations above the mean. And perhaps it’s not even talking about somebody who is three standard deviations above the mean. But it’s talking about people who are three-and-a-half, [or] four standard deviations above the mean in the 1 in 5,000, [or] 1 in 10,000 class.”

To infer what he called the “available pool” of women and men this far out in the distribution, Summers took his estimates of the implicit standard deviations and worked forward:

“Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out [in the tail of the distribution] … [Y]ou can work out the difference out several standard deviations. If you do that calculation — and I have no reason to think that it couldn’t be refined in 100 ways — you get five to one, at the high end.”

Summers was claiming that women may be underrepresented in science because for the kinds of smarts you need at a top research department, there might be five men for every one woman.

Now you can start to understand why he got into so much trouble. I’ve recalculated Summers’s estimates using his same methodology, and his bottom-line characterization of the results, if anything, was understated. At 3.5 or 4 standard deviations above the mean, a 20 percent difference in standard deviations can easily translate into there being 10 or 20 times as many men as women. However these results are far from definitive. I agree with him that his method might be flawed in “20 different ways.”

Along the way to making his standard deviation argument, Summers also inappropriately analogized the shortfall of women in science to a rather bizarre set of comparisons:

It is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity and whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group. To take a set of diverse examples, the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture.

So in the end, there are truly troubling aspects about his speech. But its core claim is more nuanced than often reported.

The larger question for Obama to consider is whether Summers has the political skills to succeed as Treasury Secretary. His failure in this regard as Harvard president — where he was the top muckety-muck — is not necessarily indicative of how he will behave as cabinet head.

Summers knows that the Treasury Secretary is answerable to the president and he knows that the Treasury Secretary needs Congressional cooperation to help the economy recover. Summers also knows that returning to the Treasury is in no small part a way to redeem is legacy. A Summers appointment is not without real risks of an embarrassing gaffe, but the risks of not appointing him are even larger.