Sunday, February 20, 2005

Harvard in peril

Larry Summers is under fire for daring to suggest that research be done into whether there are biological differences that account, at least in part, for the paucity of women at the pinnacle of science. Summers seems to have been persona non grata for a long time to a lot of people at Harvard and in academia, and now they're really sinking their teeth into him with relish.

Now, I'm a feminist myself, although I part company with many of the more doctrinaire ones. But I'm also a person interested in rationality and the pursuit of truth. And, once again, this is a case where feelings seem to have triumphed over reason. That academics--and scientists, at that--would allow this to happen is not a good sign. Whatever happend to the Enlightment? If Galileo were to return at this point, he might be in grave danger again--at least, if he were to suggest that the earth didn't revolve around women.

In my own experience in an academic environment during the '90s, after decades of being away, I was shocked at how far the PC police had come in stifling academic freedom. It seemed the new criterion for censure was whether a remark had offended someone. However careful the professor might be to couch the remark with qualifications, however delicately it was stated, if it offended the tender sensibilities of anyone in the audience, the professor was in trouble.

My guess is that therapists bear part of the responsibility for this. The popularization of therapy and its portrayal in legions of self-help books and talk shows has helped foster an idea that, since all feelings are in some way valid (if only in the intrapersonal sense), therefore people have a right to demand that their feelings never be hurt. This is a distortion of what true therapy is all about, but it's a popular one--even among some therapists, unfortunately.

So, Larry Summers seems to have stepped into this particular pile of steaming do-do. The first reports of the reaction to his remarks contain the following gem from MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins, "I felt I was going to be sick...My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow. I was extremely upset."

I assume that, as a scientist, Ms. Hopkins had other, more rationally-based objections to Summer's remarks. But I have yet to read any that make sense. How could anyone have a rational objection to Summer's call for research into this question? Unless that person were afraid of the truth.

Now, I can certainly understand a concern that, if it were to be discovered that there are innate differences between men and women in that respect, the results could be used to harm women or discriminate against them in the sciences. But all scientists--even female ones--should know that that's no reason to stop the research. All scientific research is a double-edged sword that can be used for good or ill, and we never can know the ultimate results of any research before it is done--or even afterwards, for that matter. At no point did Summers suggest that the results of any research should be used to hold women back in the sciences--au contraire.

So, I'm with Andrew Sullivan on this one. As Sullivan writes, "[I]f Summers goes down, the chilling effect on intellectual freedom in this country will be intense." Preach it, brother Sullivan, preach it.


At 5:03 PM, February 21, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

1. I think the logical argument against Dr. Summers' statement is not that it might "offend the tender sensibilities" of someone but that comments which suggest women are biologically inferior are easy to make. In the history of bioanthropological study these types of statements have increasingly proved to be unfounded.
It is certainly possible that women are biologically inferior to men in the fields of science and engineering. It would be wrong to dissuade someone from pursuing a scientific theory based on this premise. It is also wrong for the President of a prestigious university to suggest that biology, as opposed to society, is the reason there are so few women in these fields. The jury is still out, and he should reserve such conjecture for private conversation.


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