Who Knew “Pull A Larry Summers” Was A Phrase?

Kashmir Hill at Above The Law:

Here is the full email from CRIMSON DNA:

… I just hate leaving things where I feel I misstated my position.

I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. I could also obviously be convinced that by controlling for the right variables, we would see that they are, in fact, as intelligent as white people under the same circumstances. The fact is, some things are genetic. African Americans tend to have darker skin. Irish people are more likely to have red hair. (Now on to the more controversial:) Women tend to perform less well in math due at least in part to prenatal levels of testosterone, which also account for variations in mathematics performance within genders. This suggests to me that some part of intelligence is genetic, just like identical twins raised apart tend to have very similar IQs and just like I think my babies will be geniuses and beautiful individuals whether I raise them or give them to an orphanage in Nigeria. I don’t think it is that controversial of an opinion to say I think it is at least possible that African Americans are less intelligent on a genetic level, and I didn’t mean to shy away from that opinion at dinner.

I also don’t think that there are no cultural differences or that cultural differences are not likely the most important sources of disparate test scores (statistically, the measurable ones like income do account for some raw differences). I would just like some scientific data to disprove the genetic position, and it is often hard given difficult to quantify cultural aspects. One example (courtesy of Randall Kennedy) is that some people, based on crime statistics, might think African Americans are genetically more likely to be violent, since income and other statistics cannot close the racial gap. In the slavery era, however, the stereotype was of a docile, childlike, African American, and they were, in fact, responsible for very little violence (which was why the handful of rebellions seriously shook white people up). Obviously group wide rates of violence could not fluctuate so dramatically in ten generations if the cause was genetic, and so although there are no quantifiable data currently available to “explain” away the racial discrepancy in violent crimes, it must be some nongenetic cultural shift. Of course, there are pro-genetic counterarguments, but if we assume we can control for all variables in the given time periods, the form of the argument is compelling.

In conclusion, I think it is bad science to disagree with a conclusion in your heart, and then try (unsuccessfully, so far at least) to find data that will confirm what you want to be true. Everyone wants someone to take 100 white infants and 100 African American ones and raise them in Disney utopia and prove once and for all that we are all equal on every dimension, or at least the really important ones like intelligence. I am merely not 100% convinced that this is the case.

Please don’t pull a Larry Summers on me,
CRIMSON DNA

We’re a legal blog, not a science blog. But personally, when it comes to intelligence, I’m in the nurture rather than nature camp.

One tipster who passed it along said, “It’s unfortunate that this person appears to be on paper a highly educated individual, yet her viewpoints prove otherwise, and is likely to be put in positions of influence.”

(Is it so surprising? As the Broadway musical Avenue Q hilariously noted, everyone’s a little bit racist.)

Another tipster said there would be repercussions:

The firestorm that has resulted has been EPIC. [A member or members of] Harvard’s BLSA sent the email, along with CRIMSON DNA’s name and information, to the BLSAs at other Top 14 schools. The BLSAs are meeting to discuss what should be done about this and judging from the craziness on the listservs and at meetings, this is going to get ugly. They want to go after her clerkship offer, so this one might make the news.

UPDATE: The leaders of Harvard BLSA deny that BLSA is trying to have DNA’s clerkship offer rescinded, and they also emphasize that the email did not go out over an “official” BLSA list-serv. See here.

Anna N. at Jezebel:

Above the Law wouldn’t reveal the name of the Harvard Law School student who made waves with her racist email. But people talk, and they name names. Turns out, Stephanie Grace has a history of interest in race.

The email in question contained such comments as “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent.” But when it went viral, Above the Law’s Kashmir Hill found the inclusion of the sender’s name “troubling.” Apparently not troubled was blogger Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, who posted the sender’s name: Stephanie Grace. Why he thinks she’s “kind of a hero” is a question only he can answer, but a number of Twitter users also name Grace as the sender. User berrygraham, who seems to be a law student in the DC area, writes:

Meet Harvard's Racist Email Antagonist, Stephanie Grace

Crzy_Sxy_Cool, who tweeted before the Above the Law or Pitts-Wiley posts went up, added a helpful hashtag:

Meet Harvard's Racist Email Antagonist, Stephanie Grace

Harvard sources we spoke to also identify Grace as the emailer. While her name was relatively easy to find, Grace’s online footprint is pretty small. She’s an editor at the Harvard Law Review, graduated from Princeton in 2007, but doesn’t appear to have any publications online (at least in obviously searchable form).

Eugene Volokh:

Here’s my thinking on the e-mail itself; I’ll have a few more posts shortly about some of the reaction to the e-mail.

1. Whether there are genetic differences among racial and ethnic groups in intelligence is a question of scientific fact. Either there are, or there aren’t (or, more precisely, either there are such differences under some plausible definitions of the relevant groups and of intelligence, or there aren’t). The question is not the moral question about what we should do about those differences, if they exist. It’s not a question about what we would like the facts to be. The facts are what they are, whether we like them or not.

Given this, it seems to me that the proper approach to this question is precisely the same as the proper approach to other questions of scientific fact. One absolutely should not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent. Likewise, to give examples involving three groups I myself belong to, one absolutely should not rule out the possibility that Jews are (say), on average, genetically predisposed to be more acquisitive, or more loyal to their narrow ethnic group than to broader groups, or that whites are genetically predisposed to be more hostile to other racial groups, or that being nonreligious is genetically linked, and that people who have those genes are genetically predisposed to be more likely to commit crime or cheat on their spouses or what have you. One should also obviously be willing to be convinced by evidence that shows that, by controlling for the right variables, we would see that those groups are, in fact, identical to other groups under the same circumstances.

One should not rule out possibilities in the absence of conclusive evidence, for the simple reason that one then has no factual basis to rule out those possibilities. And since on many things the evidence will rarely be conclusive, one shouldn’t rule out those possibilities categorically at all. And one should also be open to the evidence that exists, and to being convinced by it in one or the other direction (to the degree of conviction that is warranted by the evidence).

Now some claims may be so contrary to our current understanding of the world that we might say something like this: We shouldn’t rule out the possibility in principle, but in practice the probability is so vanishingly small that we should exclude it from our analysis. That, for instance, might be one’s view about claims that werewolves exist. First, it’s just hard to imagine, given current science, what possible mechanism there might be that would turn humans into wolves every full moon. Second, one would think that if werewolves existed, we’d have good evidence of them, since proving their existence would be pretty easy.

But we still know very little about which genes produce intelligence, how exactly those genes operate, and even how intelligence can be defined. We obviously have vastly more left to learn about this. And there is certainly reason to believe that intelligence is heritable in some measure among individuals (though there is hot debate about the degree to which this is so). Such heritability, coupled with the possibility of differing selection pressures in different environments, provides a potential mechanism through which there conceivably could be intelligence differences among racial or ethnic groups.

So at this point it seems to me that the only scientifically sensible conclusion about this question, which I stress again is a question of what the facts really are, is that we can’t be sure that there are no such differences: Again, we cannot rule out either the possibility that there are racial differences in intelligence, or that there aren’t.

Or at least we cannot rule them out as a scientific judgment. (Perhaps there’s some expert somewhere out there who is so knowledgeable and brilliant that he feels he can accurately predict all that we will ever know about this field, and therefore can rule out one or the other possibility; I doubt it, but in any case I’m pretty sure that no-one is this discussion is that expert.) Obviously, each of us has the perfect right to rule any factual possibility out as a matter of faith, moral, religious, or whatever else. We can say “I don’t care what the evidence might say, I rule out this possibility because of my moral beliefs.” Or we can say “My moral beliefs are actually capable of indicating to me not just what I should do, but what the scientific facts about the world actually are, and therefore I am completely confident about what those facts are, based on my confidently held moral beliefs.”

But surely there ought to be no obligation on other people to adopt this sort of faith-based view on scientific questions. That’s why it seems to me that the author’s statement that “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility that African Americans are, on average, genetically predisposed to be less intelligent” — or a similar statement, as I suggested, about Jews, or whites, or the irreligious — is perfectly proper, and in fact is the way that people should approach scientific questions of all sort.

2. Of course, I take it that some people were inferring from the e-mail that the author doesn’t actually mean just that she doesn’t rule out this possibility, but rather that she actually thinks the possibility is likely true. If so, then to critique the e-mail one would have to further discuss whether in fact the possibility is likely true under the current, highly limited state of scientific knowledge.

But there is no need to do that here. This e-mail was a follow-up to an earlier conversation, which apparently was not recorded. It was intended to be a private e-mail to other students who were parts of that conversation. One can’t tell whether the e-mail was (a) actually a means of implicitly asserting that there probably are intelligence differences, or (b) a rebuttal to an allegation that the author wasn’t scientifically minded enough in the discussion over dinner and was wrongly foreclosing scientific possibilities, or (c) part of a discussion about the nature of scientific evidence, or anything else. Sometimes, one might legitimately draw inferences about a person’s views based on a statement that was meant to be self-contained, to the point of justifying public criticism of the inferred views and not just the literally stated ones. But one can’t infer from this snippet of the broader conversation that the author means anything other than what she says: that she does not rule out a certain possibility, a possibility that I think cannot scientifically be ruled out.

I considered whether some of the language of the e-mail, such as (emphasis added) “In conclusion, I think it is bad science to disagree with a conclusion in your heart, and then try (unsuccessfully, so far at least) to find data that will confirm what you want to be true” suggests that the student believes that there is no existing data strongly suggesting the absence of genetic differences. If that were the right interpretation, then we’d have to discuss whether there is indeed such data.

But my reading of this, given both this sentence and the rest of the e-mail, is that the author is saying that there has been no success in (to go further down the paragraph) “prov[ing] once and for all that we are all equal” in intelligence, and in providing evidence that would make one “100% convinced that this is the case.” That’s a restatement of the first sentence in the e-mail, and again it strikes me as being quite scientifically accurate: There can’t be, at this stage of our knowledge (and possibly at any stage), proof “once and for all” that there are no such racial differences in intelligence.

3. On then to just a brief response to what I imagine would be some likely reactions.

a. Some might argue that belief in racial differences in intelligence could cause all sorts of immoral and harmful social and legal reactions. That might be so. But it’s different from the question that the student was writing about, which is what is actually true. Lots of other facts that are actually true can yield, and have yielded, harmful social and legal reactions. That doesn’t make those facts any less true — nor does it make it somehow improper for people to even be open to the possibility that certain facts might, in fact, be true.

b. Some might point to the history of unsound claims about racial differences in intelligence. And the history of errors in a field should indeed teach people to avoid those particular errors. But there’s no “three strikes and you’re out” for scientific theories: That some people in the past have posited various unsound theories with some general thesis doesn’t mean that all theories with a related thesis are guaranteed to be false. One still cannot rule out the possibility that some other theory in that genre will in fact be correct. Again, that’s just the way facts are: If something is true, people’s having thought a bunch of similar-sounding things that are nonetheless false doesn’t affect that truth.

c. Some might point out that intelligence and race are “socially constructed,” which is certainly true in the sense that different societies may draw racial lines in different places, and may define what constitutes intelligence — or how it should be tested — differently. But while we can’t just assume that there are some obviously correct definitions of either term, science often operates with terms that don’t have an inherently correct definition. What usually happens is that people come up with possible definitions, there’s debate about those definitions, there are studies done using different definitions, some results emerge that are common over a wide range of definitions and others that are highly sensitive to the definitions, and so on. Yet the right approach throughout this process is, again, precisely to “not rule out the possibility” that under some set of plausible definitions some result might be true, and to be willing to “be convinced” that under some set of plausible definitions some other result might be true.

It’s also possible that over time it will turn out that the definitional question is so difficult (or the required measurements are so difficult) that no real pattern emerges in the results. Say, for instance, that under some definitions of intelligence one sees one result and under others one sees the opposite result, and there seems to be no good basis to choose any particular definition over another. That might mean that we have to reformulate the question, and that the original question might be abandoned as not accurately answerable in its original form. We can’t rule out that possibility, either. But neither can we just assume that this is sure to happen.

d. Finally some might just argue that even the openness to the possibility that there may be racial differences in intelligence will offend people, and that the author should have recognized that the e-mail she sent to a couple of people might be forwarded to others who might be offended.

But this presupposes that it’s somehow wrong for people in a free country to discuss scientific questions because of the possibility that some people might learn about that and be offended. That can’t be right.

It especially can’t be right for students at a research university. But I think that it can’t be right for anyone anywhere. I realize that in the real world there might be bad consequences to speakers who offend others, however legitimate the speaker’s position — which, I stress again, is a position of openness to scientific evidence — might be. But we should work against that phenomenon, and its tendency to suppress honest discussion about scientific questions. We should not just give in to it as inevitable and, worse still, somehow right.

More Volokh, responding to his commenters

Ann Althouse:

Grace has apologized. Of course, she’s sorry now. “I am heartbroken and devastated by the harm that has ensued. I would give anything to take it back.” Note the passive voice: “the harm that ensued.” A  new way to say I’m sorry you were offended. She also says “I understand why my words expressing even a doubt [that African-Americans are genetically inferior] were and are offensive.” She’s learned something: This is a subject where you can’t play with ideas and speculate. People get very angry, and the speaker had better be ready to deal with it.

Did Dean Minow handle this the right way? One question is: Why does the dean even get involved with something one student said in private email? If the answer is because the Black Law Students Association came to her and demanded a response, then maybe the question should be why did the  Black Law Students Association go to the dean for help? Why didn’t the students all just argue and debate and express themselves to each other? These are Harvard students. Law students. Why not dig in and have it out and show your stuff? Why go to the nearest, biggest authority figure? Stephanie hurt me!

Here‘s the full text of Minow’s message. (By the way, Martha Minow’s father was FCC chairman Newton Minow, the man who called television “a vast wasteland.”)

This sad and unfortunate incident prompts both reflection and reassertion of important community principles and ideals. We seek to encourage freedom of expression, but freedom of speech should be accompanied by responsibility. This is a community dedicated to intellectual pursuit and social justice….Law school is a community with shared ideals. One of the ideals could be: When a student makes a point that contains what you think is an outrageous statement, unless she’s been actively insulting to you, you should engage her in debate and not not expose her to a public trashing. And don’t bring the dean into the fray as your champion. More from Minow:

As news of the email emerged yesterday, I met with leaders of our Black Law Students Association to discuss how to address the hurt that this has brought to this community. For BLSA, repercussions of the email have been compounded by false reports that BLSA made the email public and pressed the student’s future employer to rescind a job offer.I was going to say that “the hurt” to Grace and her reputation was much greater than the hurt to those students who only read the email. It’s not as if she shouted ugly words in their face. But now I see that the BLSA students had reason to worry that they were the ones who would look bad because they were believed to have overreacted and taken some nasty revenge. Minow may have been activated by the need to clear their reputation.

A troubling event and its reverberations can offer an opportunity to increase awareness, and to foster dialogue and understanding.Minow tries to be even-handed and control the fallout. She frames it as a teaching moment. But what has everyone learned?

Jill at Feministe:

Stephanie Grace sent out an email suggesting that black people are genetically intellectually inferior to white people. That is not a new point; it is not a point that should have to be rationally debated anymore, any more than we would rationally debate whether or not the Earth is flat. If a PhD candidate in a science program suggested that the sun revolved around the Earth, I can just about guarantee that there would be no calls for rational debate on the issue — whoever she said it to would roll their eyes and label her a complete jackass. If she sent out an email screed about it, it would probably be forwarded for laughs and for shared outrage at how a person this ridiculous could have gotten into this academic program and institution. It would not be defended under the pretense of free speech or academic freedom or “Isn’t this program all about rational scientific discourse, you guys?”

But I want to go back to this line: “Rational debate. Isn’t that what free speech and academic discourse — and, incidentally, the practice of law — are all about?” Well, yes and no — free speech is, unfortunately, not all about rational debate, not hardly. But that aside, free speech is not a shield from criticism and consequence. Yes, it is a shield against government persecution for your speech, but it does not mean that other people are not permitted to speak out against you; it doesn’t mean that other people should have to accept what you say without attaching words like “racist” or “sexist” or “bigoted” to what you say. The right to speak and to control how other people feel and respond to your speech is not a right that any of us hold. And it is not a sign of irrationality to point out that some arguments are, yes, racist, any more than it’s a sign of irrationality to point out that some arguments are ad hominem or illogical or red herrings or anecdotal.

I’m obviously troubled and disgusted by Stephanie Grace’s email and her arguments. But I’m even more disgusted by many of the responses — the ones that say the email wasn’t really racist, that it’s somehow irrational to use terms like “racist” or “sexist,” and that any idea, no matter how horrific, should not only be introduced but also should not be met with any level of offense. I wonder if the people making those arguments — and David Lat is only one of them — have for even a minute put themselves in the shoes of individuals whose family members were enslaved or gassed or rounded up for their perceived genetic inferiorities. I wonder if they’ve put themselves in the shoes of people who hear all the time that they don’t deserve to be where they are; that they’re lazier, stupider, just not as naturally intelligent or adept.

Some comments and beliefs do not merit a rational response. The fact that we are not only debating the merits of Stephanie Grace’s argument that black people may be genetically inferior, but also suggesting that the people who are offended are the ones with the problem, is more demonstrative of a profession-wide and society-wide race problem than any single email or racist tome.

Silvana Naguib at Tapped:

Young, privileged students interpret the principle of “academic freedom” to mean “I can say whatever I want and you can’t criticize me.” This atmosphere of polite disagreement, no matter how odious the position offered, was stifling to me as a law student. It was based on the notion that we law students were all in this together, and therefore should “play nice,” even when there were other students whose stated political aim was to deny rights to women and people of color, rights whose denial cut to the very core of my being. Meanwhile, no one seemed to consider the impact on academic freedom caused by allowing discourse that was overtly hostile to minority groups.

The hyper-intellectual, logic-focused law school environment denigrates feelings. Even when the issues were deeply personal, we were supposed to regard classroom and extracurricular discourse as purely academic. This mentality goes beyond the confines of the university. I am reminded of the ridicule heaped upon Obama when he suggested a Supreme Court justice should have empathy, rhetoric he’s backed away from the second time around.

But empathy has a place in the law, and it needs a more prominent home in law schools.The legal system is built to try to address unfairness and injustice, to make sure everyone gets their due process and fair share. If we didn’t care about the well-being of our fellow citizens, we wouldn’t need justice at all.

It matters how people feel. It matters whether racist arguments are tolerated, and whether other voices rise to their aid. When lawyers go on to serve as judges, senators, policy-makers, prosecutors, and presidents, an e-mail isn’t just an e-mail. The e-mail and the ambivalent response to the odious attitudes expressed in it exemplify the serious empathy deficit in our law schools.

When I look at the product of these law schools — a legal system where if you are poor, black, or both, you simply cannot get a fair shake — I think, is it any wonder? An academic structure that glorifies logic and consistency, and denigrates empathy, will never produce justice.

Thoreau:

I am not going to defend the content  in the Harvard law student’s email on race and intelligence.  I find the content quite disturbing.  I am, however, going to argue for a bit of benefit of the doubt on the person who sent the email, as opposed to the contents of the email.  The email starts off indicating that it is picking up where a longer conversation left off from earlier in the evening.  And while it starts off pretty bad, it contains statements like “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility…”  It’s not that long ago that I was a student who liked to argue and didn’t have much of a clue.  (As opposed to my current status:  Professor who likes to argue and doesn’t have much of a clue.)  When I see a statement like “I absolutely do not rule out the possibility…” from what is likely a smart, argumentative, but clueless student, I suspect that we’ve got some late night bull session philosophizing (of the non-philosophy major sort) going on.  Some pretty bad stuff gets said in those sessions, not because the people necessarily believe all of it, but because they’re too full of shit to realize that they should be more critical of their musings rather than throwing them out and arguing passionately while not getting why the argument is (rightly!) falling completely flat.

This hunch of mine, that we’re seeing late night bull session mode rather than statement of sincere conviction mode, is further strengthened by paragraph two, in which she actually makes a sort of decent case (by the standards of late night bull sessions) for the opposite of what she was musing on in the first paragraph.  And the third paragraph talks about a seriously hypothetical experiment.  More proof of late night bull session mode.

Now, “late night bull session” is not an excuse for spewing bullshit.  Although a lot actually gets  learned in those sessions, a lot also gets learned in the fallout.  Usually the fallout means that your roommate chews you out and his girlfriend won’t talk to you and an angry mob is waiting to confront you in the dorm lounge.  (Aka “spring of my sophomore  year.”  And no, my transgression had  nothing to do with race or gender.)  She deserves fallout, but it is unfortunate that the fallout happened in the national spotlight.  I guarantee you that all sorts of bull sessions, some with conversations even more repugnant than that email, are going on right now in Harvard dorms.  (Or the dorms at my school, for that matter.)  It was a dick move to forward the email, rather than confronting her in person and making the fallout more contained (but still intense).

So, what I’m trying to say is that the email doesn’t really reflect a sincere or strongly-held opinion on her part.  It reflects a lot of stupidity and some serious gaps in her understanding of the world (and I’m not just saying this because she got caught), and those things should not just be waved off as no big deal.  However, it is a mistake to take her email at face value.

Ann Althouse and Jim Pinkerton at Bloggingheads

UPDATE: Julian Sanchez and Conor Friedersdorf at Bloggingheads

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Education, Race

One response to “Who Knew “Pull A Larry Summers” Was A Phrase?

  1. Pingback: What We’ve Built Today « Around The Sphere

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s