Mmm, sacred cow

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.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. A real shame all around. Since elite NE universities gave birth to modern political correctness, it's hardly surprising that PC should claim as yet another of its many victims a white male president of the pre-eminent elite NE university. Larry had balls and leadership, but he underestimated the stranglehold grip PC still has on dissent from PC orthodoxy at universities. Too bad; he's a good guy.

    Sensitivity, diversity, multi-culturalism — they're all the same. They are PC buzzwords which exemplify the PC agenda — to supplant the white male's perceived dominance in Western culture and in certain positions of authority with the dominance of members of other easily identifiable demographic groups, ones which the PC movement views as traditionally oppressed by the white male.

    In short, it's Orwellian bullshit a la Animal Farm. PC is not about equality. It's a struggle for power. As such, honesty and truth are completely irrelevant. Larry is simply the latest in a long list of victims of this dishonest and intellectually bankrupt idiocy.

  2. I dunno…he went on in his speech to talk a lot about behavioral genetics, which always makes me think of sociobiology–tends to make me itchy.

    I thought that part of what finally put him out was the ousting of a well-liked dean, as well as the whole thing with driving away a prominent african american faculty member. Cutting budgets didn’t help.

    The fact that the faculty actually:
    1. had a meeting (we haven’t had one in 10 years at my uni)
    2. voted
    3. reached a consensus
    is pretty shocking in the academic world. He did a lot more to piss people off than just his speech. (although that didn’t help.)
    I wanted to link to the Chronicle of Higher Education ( story, but it’s still subscription content >:(

  3. Heritable behavioral tendencies make you itchy? Studying heritable traits is hardly synonymous with eugenics, but unfortunately the PC crowd rushes to link the two and conjure up images of Nazis and Nietzche supermen. It’s a shame, because heritability and behavioral tendencies (what one might call “innate personality traits”) are abundantly evident in common dog and cat breeds. Why the discomfort with considering that human parents also likely pass on heritable behavioral traits?

    When we consider humans in general, if external physical characteristics which distinquish average women in the aggregate from average men in the aggregate are so obvious, then why is it so difficult to contemplate that the same hormones and chromosomes which lead to those external body morphic differences might also contribute to some vital differences in another physical organ present in humans — the brain? (Summers merely referenced a sound study which indicates that males appear in greater numbers on both extremes of the normal distribution “bell” curve with respect to certain analytical skills which lend themselves to mathematics, engineering, and the hard sciences. Females, on the other hand, tend to stay closer to the mean, on the whole, with far fewer females than males appearing 3 or 4 standard deviations from the mean on either side).

    The simple answer is that such a notion is unthinkable, much less unspeakable, in academia, which continues to follow the totalitarian regime of PC and its holy grail, a sort of Marxist “equality” which demonizes white maleness (the bourgeois and aristocracy of pre-revolutionary Russia) and glorifies ostensibly oppressed groups ( the worker peasants). In many other circles, it is taboo as well. Too bad. Science and nature and truth don’t care one whit about political correctness or personal discomfort with a subject matter for study. Heritable behavioral traits are a legitimate field of scientific study, your own discomfort with it notwithstanding.

  4. bubba dear, it’s clear that it isn’t worth discussing this with you. I’m not going to turn the skepchick blog into a battleground, and we clearly have very different views.

    I will say that as an evolutionary biologist specializing in animal behavior, I am extremely hesitant to apply broad genetic rules to behavior. Especially to one with as complex a variety of behaviors as humans, and on a topic in which experimenter bias has a long history.

  5. Certainly Eugenics isn’t a good thing. I haven’t seen one positive outcome of it. (the list is long and infamous) That said, from what I have read your biological make up has an effect. No, not to the degree where you should not be held responsible for your actions. (you should) I have read some fasinating literature by Steven Pinker. (I know that is going to elicit some blow back from some groups.) It certainly seems very well researched and thought out. I am surprised at how SOME acedemics have such stong political agendas that they will falsify facts and distort reality. I guess it comes from the human condition. It is something we should all fight in ourselves.(we all do it to greater or lesser degrees.)

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