Saturday, January 22, 2005

A daring question from Lawrence Summers

Andrew Sullivan puts into the context the flap over Harvard President Larry Summers' improvident remarks about the differences between men and women.

Summers had the temerity to ask whether proclivities to subject matter might be genetic.
Then he made the mistake of pointing to some interesting research by the University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie and his University of California-Davis colleague Kimberlee A Shauman. Their hypothesis was that in science tests the median score for men and women was roughly the same. But for some reason men were disproportionately represented at the very bottom and the very top of the table.

Or, as the Harvard Crimson reported: “There are more men who are at the top and more men who are utter failures.”

One possible explanation for this is genetics. Summers raised the possibility that this might have something to do with male preponderance at the very top of research science. And he immediately added: “I’d like to be proven wrong on this one.”

Proving that women academics are always rational and professional in their bearing and demeanor, Prof. Nancy Hopkins had to leave the meeting. “When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn’t breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill.” Get the woman some smelling salts. I think she has the vapors.

Even Christian bloggers, though, such as John Mark Reynolds have piled on, as if Summers had used the "N" word or something. Reynolds is right that there's a double standard; Summers may escape the lynching because he is not a conservative or traditionalist Christian, but that doesn't mean he deserves to be lynched any more than the next person who has a thought that gives the world's Prof. Hopkinses the vapors.

Sullivan's conclusion is that in an academic or scientific setting, it ought to be possible to float and test a hypothesis without being slapped with a fish. And so it should. Many in academia have become afraid of questions, and the world of scholarship is the poorer for it.

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