Summers' defenders stand up for stale stereotype

February 24, 2005|By Ellen Goodman

WASHINGTON - Is it possible that I'm beginning to feel sorry for Lawrence Summers? Do I need an intervention?

No, it isn't his opponents who have dredged up my soupcon of sympathy for the president of Harvard University. It's his defenders.

The Story That Will Not Die began when Mr. Summers offered his opinion on women and science. Deliberately provoking a conference audience, he suggested that part of the reason women hadn't achieved equality in academic science was "intrinsic aptitude." It was nature more than nurture, genes more than prejudice.

When MIT scientist Nancy Hopkins dropped the dime on Mr. Summers, there was a firestorm of criticism. But that was followed by a second round in which he was defended as a victim of political correctness, a poor defenseless seeker of wisdom in the Ivy League madrassas.

George Will tagged Ms. Hopkins as hysterical, a word which, he failed to note, comes from the Greek root for uterus, thus proving that only women can be hysterical. Other pundits either compared Mr. Summers' opponents to "religious fundamentalists," or accused Harvard of "neo-Stalinist intolerance," or praised poor Mr. Summers for facing down "the gods of political correctness."

Even The Washington Post editorial page said that if Mr. Summers was punished for the "crime of positing a politically incorrect hypothesis," the "chilling effect on free inquiry will harm everyone." After all, the editorial said, he was "provoking fresh thought on big issues."

Why didn't I think of that? The suggestion that women were innately less able to do math and science wasn't the same old tired stereotype with a sell-by date of 1636, when Harvard was established. It was a cutting-edge fresh thought!

In case you haven't noticed, the phrase "political correctness" is now only used sarcastically. These days, to be politically correct is to be a cowed conformist, too afraid to speak the truth, which - surprise! - invariably turns out to be an old conservative idea.

We have come full circle, so that uttering a stereotype is classified as daring. Soon, the brave new thing will be to call your 56-year-old secretary a "girl," and the forward thinkers will say that white men can't jump. Mr. Summers' own breath of fresh air was to challenge the notion that men and women can be equal at science - an idea so politically correct that not a single woman has held a math chair at Harvard in 370 years.

Barbara Grosz, chair of the Harvard task force on women in science and engineering, recaps the argument with some exasperation: "The criticism of Summer's talk was not that the ideas he expressed were politically incorrect, but that they were just plain incorrect." How come, she wonders, when Mr. Summers talks he's being open-minded and provocative, but when his challengers offer a spirited rebuttal they're accused of trampling on academic freedom?

Ms. Hopkins describes the weirdness of being attacked as anti-research or even anti-genetics. "I'm a geneticist," she says, "but the genetics of career choices is just lunacy. We are nowhere near the research on innate differences. But we do know the attitudes that hold people back. When you eliminate the discrimination that says only boys can do math, then we'll talk."

Meanwhile, she shares the deep frustration of female scientists who find themselves back to square one, having to prove that women can so do science. Let's see now, women had only 2.4 percent of the physics doctorates in 1970 but 18 percent in 2003. Is that evolution on steroids?

Ah, but this is about my sympathy for Mr. Summers. He needs to be defended from his defenders. The truth is that the Harvard president is on social probation. He's alienated so many people that one more false move and he'll end up at the World Bank, where he can insult whole countries.

But I think this is, as they say, a "teachable moment." Mr. Summers has expressed his regret at "sending a signal of discouragement." He's repented for remarks that didn't align with what the "research has established." He's regretted the "backlash" against those who disagreed with him.

His opponents are suspicious of this deathbed conversion, and his supporters are sure that he's bowing to the neo-Stalinists. But he has surrounded himself with the retaining walls of task forces and made promises to put the status of women high on his list.

The musical question in Harvard Square is whether he should still be president. Well, remember when women used to curse the inefficiency of feminism? You had to enlighten men one at a time. Do we really want to start all over again?

In the spirit of nurture over nature, I say Save Summers. But get him some new pals.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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