Friday, September 28, 2007

The Code of Silence

A while ago, Patrick Deneen had on his blog, What I saw in America, a post contrasting the upcoming appearance of Ahmadinejad at Columbia with the retracted invitation of former Harvard president Larry Summers to speak at the University of California, Davis. Deneen's post deserves to be read in full, but the crux of his point is made here: "It's pretty evident that Summers stated the one unspeakable thing; it's evidently more acceptable on today's campuses to raise questions about the Holocaust than over the equality of the genders."

While I'm not particularly animated about the Ahmadinejad issue (I'm not sure that it much matters), I've always got something to say about Larry Summers. And so I launched forth, into a lengthy comment, and then into an even longer response to sombody else's comment. Finally, I concluded that rather than take up more and more space on Patrick Deneen's blog, I should probably write about this topic on my own. And then of course, I got lazy or distracted, and wrote about something else, such as a swastika-shaped naval barracks. But now I'm back on track!

Rather than start over on this topic from scratch (the laziness factor again), I've copied my comments from What I Saw in America, and I'll probably clean them up a bit along the way.

My first comment to Deneen's post:

The speech which originally landed Summers in such trouble, and which is available in full on the internet, was in subsequent media coverage often sloppily summarized, probably through a combination of moral outrage, sheer laziness, and journalistic incompetence (i.e. difficulty in following Summers' argument) An example of such sloppiness may be found here, in which the article concludes, "Two years ago, Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, was forced to resign after suggesting that women were naturally bad at sciences."

In fact, Summers never claimed that women were "naturally bad at sciences." He cited research results which indicate that in tests of mathematical and scientific ability, men are disproportionately represented at both the high AND low extremes, whereas female test results cluster closer to the mean. The point he was trying to make is that, since math, science, and engineering professors at elite universities are drawn from a pool of individuals three or perhaps even four standard deviations above the mean, they are necessarily drawn from a very disproportionately male population.

If I may quote a crucial paragraph from Summers' speech:

"There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the . . . high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described."

The point which I wish to make here is that Summers' observations do in fact pose a greater threat to contemporary orthodoxies than do the opinions of Ahmadinejad.

Note that of the three factors which might explain the disparity between men and women in the sciences, Summers gave greatest weight to the obstacle of family obligations. And yet this was not the point which drew fire against him.

The greater female commitment to child-rearing might of course be explained by social conditioning, and even if this is biological, it in a sense speaks to greater communal responsibility on the part of women, in other words, it points to a virtue. Thus, this wasn't really the point of contention.

It was Summers' analyses of the second and third causes that led to his downfall. In effect, he was arguing that biological differences play a greater role than patterns of discrimination in explaining this disparity. A mighty dangerous thing to say.

The most disturbing aspect of this claim - from the orthodox point of view - is the growing body of scientific evidence which supports it.

Pope Urban VIII was not pleased to hear Galileo's arguments that the Earth was in orbit around the sun. The fact that there was rational evidence to support this claim made those arguments more, not less, problematic.

Ahmadinejad only poses a threat equivalent to that of Summers if he can bring to bear persuasive evidence that the Holocaust is a Jewish or a Western fraud, and very few academics believe that he can. Summers, on the other hand, had to be silenced because his opponents knew how dangerous it was to allow this line of inquiry to continue.

Investigation into the role of brain physiology and its effect on identity, behavior, and aptitude is going to do to the 21st century what the theory of evolution did to the 20th. The results will rock a great many boats, and not everyone will handle these results humanely, wisely, or well.

The Summers affair is, more or less, our era's Scopes Monkey Trial. Only in this case, the academics are defending the biblical version of creation.

September 22, 2007 8:13 AM

Anonymous said...

Summer's fall was only peripherally related to the speech. It provided ammunition for a long list of grievances. Always helpful to keep that in mind when speculating on the implications of his defeat at Harvard. Now, the UC Board of Regents seems to be another kettle of fish entirely.

September 22, 2007 9:15 PM

Black Sea said...

From what I've read, there were people at Harvard who didn't like Summers style and were looking for reasons to take him down.

A fair enough point, but this hardly explains the vitriolic attempt, national rather than local in scope, to discredit Summers as a public intellectual. Nor does it explain why Summers comments would so quickly be taken up by his intra-Harvard opponents as effective ammunition in their battle against him.

These people understood immediately that such comments were the weapon they had been waiting for, because they understood the broader intellectual and cultural climate. Not surprising, since they're the ones who help shape it.

That Summers' comments not only undid him at Harvard but triggered more widespread condemnation says something about contemporary culture that we should not lightly dismiss.

Furthermore, the recent events at UC Davis only confirm that it is his comments, rather than his allegedly abrasive personal style, that continue to cause Summers trouble. People want to censure the guy because they are deeply disturbed by what he said. He said something that educated, right-thinking people are taught from childhood neither to think nor to say. That empirical evidence may confirm his comments only makes them that much more more disturbing.

Summers may have lacked the necessary political instincts and social graces to be a well-liked, or even an effective, university president. Maybe he's all the obnoxious things that his critics claim. But in an atmosphere of timid conformity to the intellectual pieties or our time, he presented a well-considered analysis of the disparate numbers of men and women at the highest levels of science and engineering, all the while making clear that the questions he had raised merited further research:

"Let me just conclude by saying that I've given you my best guesses after a fair amount of reading the literature and a lot of talking to people. They may be all wrong. I will have served my purpose if I have provoked thought on this question and provoked the marshalling of evidence to contradict what I have said."

Evidently, "thought on this question" was not what the attendees at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce were keen on pursuing. Rather than the marshalling of evidence to contradict Summers' admittedly provisional claims, it proved more efficacious to simply force his resignation as president of Harvard.

Finally, lest readers come away from this exchange with the idea that these issues constitute yet one more inconsequential academic dispute, I will link to an article that I first discovered on Unqualified Reservations.

For anyone concerned about the fate of open inquiry, or indeed, of any inquiry, on university campuses, it will prove chilling, though instructive, reading.


Anonymous said...

we have discussed this issue at length and in person on many occassions. I'm sure that you are well aware that I will not be able to contain myself on this issue for long and will - obviously - have something scathing, cynical and (I hope) controversial to say.

Rather than distorting the likely discussion it would seem better if I were to stand back initially and let others comment first. But I promise (threaten?) you, I shall contribute to the debate.

Black Sea said...


No need to wait for others to comment. As things stand, yours may be the first, last, and only comments submitted. Feel free to vent at will. But do make a point of reading the article I linked to at the end of my post.

Thursday said...

What's also disturbing about the Larry Summers thing is that the guy has actually done some pretty nasty stuff, like helping certain business men pillage Russia after the fall of communism. Yet, his opponents here are so insular and out of touch that they don't even bring this up. They just don't care about reality.

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