Tuesday, March 01, 2005

It would seem the Summers controversy is finally something of a dead horse, at least in the press. And rightly so: had Summers been president of a university other than Harvard, the actual core of what he said would have provided a mere blip in a single day's news cycle, rather than becoming a major media event.

Yet so long as his remarks continue to generate debate within the university itself -- in which case what is at stake is the actual truth and value and merit of what he said, rather than one of the more marketable contextual angles to his comments -- that more focused debate is worth following.

In that vein, a little before I received yesterday's e-letter from Dean Kirby, I also received this email from a former (female) classmate who is now a researcher in psychology:

i just went to a meeting about larry summers's comments yesterday afternoon with lots of (male and female) psychiatrists, psychologists, and phd researchers from columbia, cornell, and ny hospital. these people study human development and how genes and environments interact. while some of them argued that summers's comments were beneficial in that they reopened a dormant, but still very relevant, issue for discussion, all agreed that it was not only inappropriate and offensive for summers to say these things, but it was reckless. just for starters (yes it's extreme), we now know that gender isn't even necessarily determined by genes! of course there are many differences, on average and with huge variability, between males and females. this isn't about "blind devotion to equal abilities", this is about relying on this variable to explain and excuse something affected by many, many more variables.

summers is an economist. he knows little of the literature and research looking into cognition, development, evolution, and sex differences. the sad truth is that many researchers try to avoid studying sex differences because of the fear that pop science and lay people like summers will twist any findings into rationalizations for inequalities.

What I find so interesting about that last comment is that it implicates Summers in a cultural trend which goes far beyond mere chauvinism. Outside of the inaccuracy and carelessness of his comments, the real sin he has committed is contributing to the popular ignorance which so often discourages researchers from seeking out the truth altogether. In this light, the effect of his comments is little different from the effect of the good Dr. Dobson's comments on homosexuality: the result of each is that talented people with the relevant expertise are now shying away from applying their skills to questions which are socially contentious but also potentially of greater social value and relevance.

Unfortunately, undoing this kind of damage is not as easy as offering a public retraction or apology. In fact, because the self-censorship it leads to is so often unconsciously performed, I'm not sure that that damage is reparable at all.

Yet Summers needs to at least begin looking into how he can ameliorate the problem, if only so that qualified people like my classmate won't hesitate quite so long before following their instinct, even when that instinct leads them into areas they know to be publicly complicated but scientifically straightforward.


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