The Summers Controversy--Posner's Response to Comments
As always, there were many illuminating comments. I shall try to respond to a few, but I want first to direct readers to the article in this morning's New York Times about the controversy. In it we learn that Summers has apologized not once, but "repeatedly," for having raised questions about women's innate scientific abilities, and that he has now appointed two task forces (comprising a total of 22 women and 5 men) to present proposals for increasing the number of women on the Harvard faculty. He has, in short, capitulated (and rather abjectly, it seems to me--why two task forces?). The response by his critics has been ungracious. They remain guarded and suspicious--he is on probation--and they will no doubt press him for further measures. He is now effectively committed to affirmative action for women scientists. Yet of all the nation's problems, and all the claims for affirmative action, the underrepresentation of women on the science faculties at Harvard must be among the least important.
Some of the comments suggest that the real significance of Summers's January 14 remarks was to demonstrate that universities are no longer citadels of free speech, though that cannot have been his intention. One comment compares his apology to the confessions of Stalin's purge victims: "Everyone should oppose a 'signal of discouragement to talented girls and women.' [That is a quotation from Summers's first apology.] But the truth is that such a signal, to the extent it occurred, resulted from deliberate, intense, and misleading responses to his remarks. That's classic totalitarian suppression of an unpopular view, with forced public acknowledgment of guilt and forced repudiation of the 'wrong.'" Another comment quoted: George Wills: "Forgive Larry Summers. He did not know where he was...He thought he was speaking in a place that encourages uncircumscribed intellectual explorations. He was not. He was on a university campus."
But no one who has spent much time around universities thinks they've ever "encourage[d] uncircumscribed intellectual explorations." The degree of self-censorship in universities, as in all institutions, is considerable. Today in the United States, most of the leading research universities are dominated by persons well to the left of Larry Summers, and they don't take kindly to having their ideology challenged, as Summers has now learned to his grief. There is nothing to be done about this, and thoughtful conservatives should actually be pleased. As John Stuart Mill pointed out in On Liberty, when one's ideas are not challenged, one's ability to defend them weakens. Not being pressed to come up with arguments or evidence to support them, one forgets the arguments and fails to obtain the evidence. One's position becomes increasingly flaccid, producing the paradox of thought that is at once rigid and flabby. And thus the academic left today.
One comment makes the interesting point that Summers's post-apology position implies indefinitely deferring any inquiry into possible innate differences in science abilities. The reason is the insistence that before those differences should be studied, every other possible cause--social, economic, psychological, political--for the differences in male and female career choices be studied and eliminated. But many will not be eliminated, not soon, at any rate; some, indeed, may be secondary to innate differences. A serious scholar does not order his or her research priorities by their political inoffensiveness.
Such an ordering reflects a methodological fallacy as well as an ideological commitment. It is the fallacy of mechanical extrapolation. In the past, differences between races, the sexes, groups defined by ethnicity, nationality, or even sexual orientation, were exaggerated, and as the exaggerations are identified and unmasked, discrimination declines; it has declined greatly. And now we have an animal rights movement that claims (with some justice, I might add) that differences in cognitive capacity between human beings and other animals have been exaggerated; and there are even proposals afoot to give some of our fellow primates human rights. So it is natural, but it is also fallacious, to assume that eventually all differences (well, almost all), certainly including different career patterns, that are correlated with immutable (or near-immutable) characteristics, such as sex, will disappear; and so let us jump on the bandwagon of history and speed the process. But not only are the costs of trying to speed up history ignored; there is no reason to expect the trend toward less and less differentiation of careers by race, sex, etc. to continue. It could stop at any time. In 1950, looking back at the enormous strides made by labor unions to organize the American workforce, one might have expected that by now 100 percent of the workforce would be unionized. In fact the percentage of unionized workers has fallen precipitately and is now about where it was in 1900.
One further note: several comments point out that genetic factors can influence preferences as well as capabilities. Even if women are just as capable of doing science at the Harvard faculty level as men, it is possible that fewer women than men find a career in science congenial. This might or might not reflect innate differences. One notes the enormously greater percentage of men than of women who are in prison. Could not this "discrimination" reflect innate differences in attitudes toward violence, risk, and transgression?
And a final, slightly technical note: yes, another way to express increased variance and therefore longer tails in one distribution than in another is to say that the standard deviation is greater.