January 22, 2005

The flap about Summers.

Here's a good opinion piece (by Ruth Marcus) in the Washington Post about Harvard President Larry Summers and his suggestion that a biological difference between men and women might contribute to the underrepresentation of women in the sciences.
[S]ome who weren't present took the reported remarks and inflated them, as if Summers had said biological differences were both irrefutably established and the sole cause of the shortfall. Summers has since issued three increasingly lengthy -- and increasingly groveling -- explanation-apologies....

[M]any who find Summers's remarks offensive seem perfectly happy to trumpet the supposed attributes that women bring to the workplace -- that they are more intuitive, or more empathetic or some such. If that is so -- and I've always rather cringed at such assertions -- why is it impermissible to suggest that there might be some downside differences as well?...

"Impermissible" is an extreme word. The question should be: why is it worrisome? And then the answer is obvious: it's worrisome because there has been and continues to be so much deeply entrenched unfair discrimination against women that we are afraid that any negative quality that science might establish will be used to mean more than it should. Like Marcus, I cringe at the blather about female intuition and empathy and agree that those who talk about that seem to invite the observation that there is a downside. People talk about the positive in the hope of overcoming all the negative assumptions that underlie the unfair discrimination that really has taken place historically. But I do think it would be better to cut out the patronizing flattery of women. And I don't oppose legitimate scientific research into biological differences or think people should be gasping with horror at offhand speculation about biological sex differences, but we can properly demand that presidents of universities do a first-rate job of speaking in public about such things.

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