Lawrence Summers on the Problems of Academia

Question: What is wrong with academia?

Lawrence Summers: I think in some cases, it’s a comfortable world view if you lack the analytic techniques to deal with data and evidence, that it’s comfortable to develop theories that render them less relevant. And that, I think, is certainly a part of the story.

I think another part of the story is that people develop a conviction that you can’t know things and, in some ultimate, philosophical sense that may be true. But decisions have to be made and people do make decisions. And it seems to me that it’s better to think about more informed decisions than less informed decisions. But with the luxury of not needing to decide, it’s easier to take the relaxed view of what constitutes truth, and what need there is for evidence than when there are consequential choices that, if made more wisely, will either have enormous benefits for people or have enormous costs to people.

So I think the feeling of responsibility for action – which I’ve been fortunate to have in my time outside and inside the university – probably creates a greater sense of responsibility to debate.

Recorded On: June 13, 2007

Larry Summers on why academics rely more on theory than on data analysis.

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