Wednesday, March 09, 2005

It would seem the Summers’ controversy is something of a dead horse, at least in the press. And rightly so: if Summers had been president of a university other than Harvard, his comments would have prompted a mere blip in a single day’s news cycle, rather than a major media event.

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

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

i just went to a meeting about larry summers's commentsyesterday 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 remark 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 Summers committed was in contributing to the popular ignorance which leads researchers to shy away from the truth altogether. In this light, the effect of Summers’ remarks is little different from the effect of the good Dr. Dobson’s comments on homosexuality: the result of each is that it discourages talented people with the relevant expertise from examining questions which are no doubt socially contentious but are also of potentially greater social value and relevance.

Unfortunately, unlike the harm his comments caused himself and the university, this damage cannot be undone by a public retraction or apology. In fact, because the self-censorship it leads to is so often unconsciously performed, I’m not sure it’s reparable at all.

Nonetheless, Summers needs to at least contemplate how to ameliorate this damage, if only so that qualified people like my classmate will not hesitate next time before following their instinct, especially when it leads them into areas they know to be publicly complicated but scientifically straightforward.


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