Putnam v. the Thernstroms

by George Leef

I copy below a letter from Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom to The Chronicle, apropos of a complaint by Harvard’s Robert Putnam that they twisted his research when they referred to it in their brief against continuation of racial preferences in Fisher.

Your August 15 issue reported that Robert Putnam has claimed that we “twisted” the findings of his research in a Supreme Court brief that we helped to prepare in Fisher v. University of Texas. This is nonsense. Our brief does indeed make use, among other sources, of the empirical findings of Putnam’s 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Study. The chief conclusion of Putnam’s analysis of this massive data set was that “[t]he more ethnically diverse the people we live around, the less we trust them.” This, of course, directly contradicts liberal conventional wisdom about the glorious benefits of racial and ethnic diversity in communities. Putnam cannot deny that this is what his data revealed. So exactly what is it that we have “twisted”? What Putnam has in mind is that we did not mention that his long paper reporting on the study went on to opine that the future may be quite different, and that in the long run the benefits of race-conscious public policies may outweigh the manifest costs. We did not address this claim because it is nothing more than an expression of Robert Putnam’s personal convictions. His inquiry revealed some important things about the lives of the roughly 30,000 members of his sample in the year 2000. That is evidence that federal judges may find relevant to their tasks. Putnam fervently believes that the future will be different, and that using racial double standards in admitting students to higher education will help to bring about an America with higher levels of social trust. He is entitled to his opinion. But it is foolish to assert that it has evidentiary value. 

Stephan Thernstrom

Harvard University

Abigail Thernstrom

American Enterprise Institute