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Summers-Time and Speaking Freely Ain't Easy

By Joshua D. Gottlieb and Stephen Wertheim

Once Lawrence H. Summers was simply an economics professor. Like any other academic economist, he was trained to propose theories, examine the evidence and improve our understanding of human behavior.

Now, so he can govern as Harvard’s very public president, Summers has rightly broadened his interests while also trying to stay true to his academic roots. The two identities are, however, not without tension. Indeed, his latest attempt to spark discussion on the important topic of women’s under-representation in academia has run into a problem: instead of embarking on research to find out why women are under-represented in academia, too many people are instinctively interpreting Summers’ presentation of scientific hypotheses as an attack on women.

First Summers just stated a fact: that some researchers have hypothesized that “innate differences” between men and women affect their scientific abilities. These differences, if real, might explain part of the discrepancy in their representation on prestigious science faculties, he told a conference at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) last Friday. Nobody present at the conference has claimed that Summers said women cannot or should not be top-notch scientists. In fact, Summers is said to have explicitly hoped “to be proven wrong on this one.” But some think that acknowledgment of differences implies belief in inferiority and advocacy of prejudicial treatment.

Take the letter that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Standing Committee on Women sent to Summers on Tuesday. The 19-member group assumed the worst in Summers, writing that the comments “serve to reinforce an institutional culture at Harvard that erects numerous barriers to improving the representation of women on the faculty, and to impede our current efforts to recruit top women scholars.”

This, as with much of the criticism directed at Summers for his purely academic remarks, draws unfair implications from the speech. Far from implying that women should stop pursuing prestigious academic positions, the possibility that women are on average better than men at some disciplines and worse at others may help explain why Harvard needs to put forth extra effort to encourage women interested in science and to hire women as science professors. This is not an excuse for the low representation of women on the faculty. Quite the contrary. Furthermore, the possibility that the innate differences hypothesis is valid opens up more avenues for research into how to encourage women to pursue science and support those who choose to do so—exactly Summers’ stated goal in appearing at the conference and consistent with, if not essential to, his responsibilities as Harvard president.

But even more problematic than the viscerally anti-Summers speculation is the lack of understanding of the nature of the academic inquiry in which Summers engaged. Summers acknowledged the existence of the “innate differences” hypothesis at a conference at which scholars presented and heard research, not in a discussion of university or public policy. Society at large, and academics in particular, must respect the bounds of academic discourse—at least when the discourse is either grounded in fact to the extent possible or self-consciously speculative. When any scholar presents a legitimate academic theory, with the hope that evidence will eventually emerge to render a verdict on the theory’s validity, the theory must be debated on academic grounds.

Unfortunately, that has not happened in this case. Summers discussed multiple theories that might or might not explain female underrepresentation in academia. He has since been pilloried because one of the theories he mentioned offended people’s sense of political correctness. Though Summers appropriately faced some academic criticism on the merits of the innate differences theory he mentioned—one sociologist called the remarks “uninformed” and her co-author told The Crimson that the innate differences idea is “too simplistic”—many attacks have misinterpreted the remarks or suggested that the theory of biological differences is an invalid avenue for academic inquiry.

The theory of innate differences is part of modern psychological debates, both Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker and Professor of Psychology Elizabeth S. Spelke ’71 told The Crimson. Even the sociologist who called Summers’ remarks uninformed, Kimberlee A. Shauman, said, “What was disappointing about [Summers’] comments was the kind of privileging of biology over socialization.” Shauman’s is perfectly legitimate criticism, hardly rendering the question of innate differences invalid for discussion or further research. In fact, it is a good question to study precisely because different researchers view it differently. Opposition to inquiry into unanswered questions is anathema to the core principles of academia.

Talk radio hosts might be one thing. But it particularly disappointing to see Harvard professors, such as the 19 members of the FAS Standing Committee on Women, attacking Summers by politicizing his academic and speculative remarks and drawing potentially misleading implications from them. Surely they would not prefer to be treated likewise by Summers. Political correctness seems somehow to have slipped through our Ivy-covered gates and infiltrated even brilliant minds within the academy.

Joshua D. Gottlieb ’07 is an economics and mathematics concentrator inEliot House. He is also a Crimson editor. Stephen A. Wertheim ’07 is a history concentrator in Eliot House.

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