The president of Harvard University resigned yesterday. I think this entry is going to be about the freedom of science to attack dearly held beliefs, but first, an aside.
In the New York Times article, President of Harvard Resigns, Ending Stormy 5-Year Tenure the journalist writes:
About 50 students waving signs that said “Stay, Summers, Stay” and chanting “Larry, Larry” rallied in Harvard Yard yesterday after the news broke.
In the Boston Globe article on the same story, Summers to step down, ending tumult at Harvard:
He smiled as roughly 100 students greeted him with applause and shouts of ”five more years.”
Huh, the number of students doubled. Today, the front page of the Globe also features this story: Bold style brought firm Allston plans, larger public role. I’m not going to use this to launch into any kind of diatribe about media bias, just noting some odd factoids. Maybe some journalists can’t count very well.
So anyway, why should you care about this guy resigning? He’s the dude who caused a furor last year with his remarks about women in science, suggesting that women don’t have the mental capabilities to handle the upper eschelons of the industry (sort of, read on). The resulting uproar led to a vote of no confidence from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which led to yesterday’s resignation. Sure, he also had some bold plans for the future of the University, but his comments last year seem to be the kicking off point.
So what did he actually say, and why? You can read his speech here: Remarks at NBER Conference on Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce.
There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference’s papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I’ll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.
Essentially, he offered to present a few hypotheses as to why women are underrepresented. He took three guesses and offered his opinion on which was the most likely. What’s the problem there? The response from the audience should not be, “How dare you suggest that women’s brains function differently than men’s,” but maybe, “Okay, where’s the evidence?”
Defending himself, Summers wrote that he “was presenting provocative hypotheses based on the research of others, rather than offering his personal views,” according to this Globe article.
A Harvard women’s committee responded, “It is obvious that the president of a university never speaks entirely as an individual, especially when that institution is Harvard and when the issue on the table is so highly charged.” So the president of a university, when asked to speak at a conference about increasing the ranks of women in science, is not allowed to point to current hypotheses as to why they are currently underrepresented? How ridiculous. How are we ever going to get anywhere if we hold things too sacred for science to touch? It’s the political version of Kennewick Man (as another aside, Rodney Anonymous just wrote an interesting blog entry that relates: Screw you, M’butoo.) An overemphasis (is that a word? I think that’s a word) on sensitivity results in the opposite effect — instead of changing the world toward equality, sometimes it does nothing more than hold us back in the dark ages. Stupid.
So all the major hubbub happened last year, but I didn’t have a blog then so I’m talking about it now. Tomorrow: skanks and why we love to hate them.