Dowbrigade continues to be confused and disturbed by the controversy
surrounding the recent
remarks by Harvard President Lawrence Summers
concerning possible sources of the sexual disparity at the highest levels
of teaching and research positions at America’s leading universities.
We have read and reread the recently
released transcript of Summers
statement, and it seems clear that he was putting on the table a number
of possible theses which could shed light on the easily observable but
difficult to explain differences in representation and achievement between
men and women in the sciences. For example, he said:
my best guess, to provoke you, of what’s behind all of this is that
the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people’s
legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power
and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering,
there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability
of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are
in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination."
don’t know the answer, but I think if people want to move the world
on this question, they have to be willing to ask the question in ways
that could face any possible answer that came out."
Now, Lawrence Summers is not a geneticist, or a biologist, or a social
scientist of any stripe. But he is the President of Harvard University,
and as such his role is to ask provocative questions, to open lines of
to suggest areas worthy of investigation and research for others to follow
That’s what leaders do – they set agendas for others to follow. Summers
did not say that women are inferior to men in scientific aptitude or
ability. He merely suggested that genetic differences between men
and women are a POSSIBLE source of SOME of the disparity between the
sexes, and an area worthy of continued research.
It is up to those serving under the leader (in this case, research faculty)
to enact the agenda (in this case, design experiments to explore the
relative importance of sex differences in academic achievement and faculty
This specific question harks back to one of the central issues in
modern behavioral science – nature vs. nurture – i.e. how much of what we are depends on our genes,
and how much on our environment and experience. Almost all experts agree
that in the real world actual human lives are a result of a complex interaction
of these two areas of influence, and hold that experiments can
be designed to isolate and illuminate the relative importance of each
in any particular observed behavior.
Even more fundamental is our understanding of the scientific method,
the modus operandi of the entire rationalist worldview. We were taught
that it consists of observation of measurable phenomena, formulation
explain them, and design and execution of repeatable experiments to prove
or disprove these hypotheses. Formulation of a hypothesis does
cannot be interpreted
of a position or discrimination against alternate explanations. The
ability of scientists to freely formulate and attempt to verify or disprove
hypotheses is the core value that makes the scientific method work,
and the introduction of political, personal or profit-oriented pressures
on researchers not to ask certain questions or form certain hypotheses
brings the validity of the entire method and its results into serious
Questions of political correctness and off-limit topics may be appropriate
during the INTERPRETATION of experimental results, but NOT during the
of hypotheses. If the professional
or political climate are allowed to determine what questions can and
cannot be asked, the answers themselves lose their validity and significance.
This is not a recent conundrum. The history of science is studded
with trail-blazing thinkers and experimenters who were pressured, persecuted
or prosecuted by the political powers-that-be of their times. Italian
Galilel was hounded, arrested, tried, imprisoned and basically terminated
by the Catholic
Church (at that time more a political than a religious
organization), for claiming the earth revolved around the sun. Leonardo
da Vinci was forced to great extremes to hide his research into human
anatomy, due to prohibitions against doing anything to dead bodies but
burying or burning them. Who can say that without the political pressure
of the papists the first volume off old Johann Gutenberg’s press
would have been a treatise on fly fishing or recipes for making beer?
Today we see political, social and economic pressure being placed on
scientists and researchers every day, in a thousand ways, overtly, covertly
We see it in earning potential and lifestyle carrots and sticks guiding
talented researchers into certain fields and lines of inquiry. We see
it in medical
research, and the controversy around stem cells. We see
it in medical care, where the power of the international pharmaceutical
industry imposes a treatment model heavy on the drugs at the expense
of therapy and lifestyle modification. We se it in the energy industry
where the assumption of the first wholly owned Petro-President has swept
the already anemic alternative energy research sector even further under
Is this modern dominance of political and economic powers in setting
the agenda for scientific research inevitable?
It seems to be deeply rooted in the lines of power in our culture. It
certainly dates back to the pre-history. Probably
the person who invented the lost wax method of casting statues was immediately
put to work casting likenesses of that culture’s fearless leader or god,
often one and the same.
Dusting off our hat of Cultural Anthropologist, it often seems that
the individuals who stand out and above the masses of humanity, who make
a lasting impact on what we know as history, are motivated by one of
two things: a thirst for power, or a thirst for knowledge. This
is a gross over-simplification, but sometimes painting with a broad brush
can put details into context. Politicians, business magnates, tribal
chiefs, populists, proselytizers and generals are driven by the lust
for power. Scientists, philosophers, shamen, artists and mystics are
driven by a lust for knowledge.
In most cases, members of each group lack both
the time and the inclination to become expert in the skills necessary
to succeed in the other arena. And in almost every case, in every part
of the world and throughout recorded history, it is the power gang that
gives the orders to, and sets the agenda for, the knowledge guys.
However, with the advent of the scientific revolution and the development
of modern scientific accumulation of knowledge based on repeatable experimentation,
the value of free formulation of hypotheses seemed to be firmly established,
at least as an attainable ideal. The attacks on Summers for suggesting
we look closely at inherent differences between the sexes makes us wonder
if this is still the case.
In a final ironic twist, and our last feeble attempt to bring this posting
back to the vicinity of its origin, Summers can place some of the blame
for his hens coming home to roost on the fact that he is operating in
a long-running patriarchy. With a precious few exceptions, patriarchies
have held sway around the planet for, oh, three or four thousand years,
at least. It is in patriarchies that the dichotomy between power
seekers and knowledge seekers is most pronounced. In primal patriarchies,
with the Alpha Males firmly in charge, the ultimate political power
almost always lay with the military – the fiercest warrior was king.
The Chief Knowledge Officer, the Shaman, usually took orders from the
Conan the Warrior King.
In matriarchies it is different. In most of the few existing indigenous
matriarchies the woman in charge IS a shaman. Her healing and spiritual
knowledge are what empower and enable her to rule. In matriarchies
the knowledge seekers set the agenda and order the priorities. Another
gross over-simplification, but who’s counting?
Universities are supposed to be ivory towers rising above the jungle
of politics and business. The public trial of Lawrence Summers
for suggesting a possible line of investigation is evidence the jungle
is creeping into the tower.
latest on Summers problems from the Harvard Crimson