An Inkwell reader has asked me to cut some slack for Larry Summers, the Harvard president being attacked by angry feminists in much the same way Tippi Hedren was attacked by birds in “The Birds.”
As you know, Summers’ remark that men and women may–may–have innate differences when it comes to math and science set off hissy fits in the sacred groves of academe. The embattled Summers issued an I-Was-Misunderstood letter of semi-apology. I was disappointed that he did not stand up for free inquiry.
“It’s not too late, Larry: Be a man,” I urged.
Reader Laterx emailed:
“I chuckled over this hilariously un-PC view of the weak male. But I have a slightly different take. I think that it’s probably a good move on Summers part to apologize for any infractions that women might have felt from his speech. I don’t want to come off as ’you ladies don’t understand us guys,’ but being called sexist can be damaging to your character and job….
“So, cut the Summers of this world a little slack. He probably doesn’t believe what he’s saying [the apology], but he’s attempting to save his reputation in what is a very liberal academia.’
All I can say to Laterx is this: It’s not too late, Laterx: Be a man.
Yes, Laterex, the enraged feminist is scary–or hilarious, depending on your point of view–but we can’t allow free inquiry to be shut down by female problems.
One guy who’s not being a wuss is blogger Andrew Sullivan, who defended Summers Sunday in the Times of London. Sullivan notes that in his offending remarks Summers referred to interesting research by the University of Michigan sociologist Yu Xie and his University of California-Davis colleague Kimberlee A Shauman:
“Their hypothesis,” writes Sullivan, “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.’
“This was too much for one of the attendees, Professor Nancy Hopkins. ’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,’ Hopkins told a sympathetic New York Times. ’Let’s not forget that people used to say that women couldn’t drive an automobile.’”
I saw a funny item somewhere on the ‘net suggesting that Nancy Hopkins not be allowed behind the wheel of a car. Sounds like a good idea. But back to Andrew “The Man” Sullivan:
“Okay, let’s not forget that. But, honestly, what does it say that a leading academic finds the mere positing of an empirical theory of a complex problem something that makes her ’physically ill’? And to leap immediately from Summers’s subtle question to the crudest accusations of sexism is a form of emotional blackmail. It’s a sublime example of the left-liberal academy’s preference for feeling over argument.
“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s brilliant scientist Steven Pinker put it better than I can: ’Look, the truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is ’offensive’ even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don’t get the concept of a university or free inquiry.’”
Sullivan cites some evidence that the hypothesis could be true. We just don’t know at this point (though This Charlotte is inclined to buy it). But can’t we talk about this? Shouldn’t we talk about this?
Admitting natural differences doesn’t change the basic rules of a civil society. As Sullivan notes in a very important point:
“[T]here is a distinction between moral and political equality for all — the bedrock of a liberal society — and unavoidable natural inequalities between human beings and, in a few narrow areas, between social groups. This cannot and should not mean that any individual should be prejudged or denied opportunity. But it does mean that some imbalances in certain professions may not be entirely a function of prejudice or bigotry.”