Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Lawrence Summers: Politically Incorrect...and Unemployed

Well, that's it for Lawrence Summers. I'm actually rather surprised he lasted this long. That'll teach him to float a perfectly reasonable hypothesis in academia. Especially at Harvard, from what I hear...

I was actually thinking about this again recently when all the stories recently started appearing about why girls are doing so much better than boys in school. There's apparently now some reason to believe that it's because girls are innately better readers than boys. (Note: check this out to make sure there aren't some relevant details I've missed). I didn't run across any complaints about that hypothesis on t.v., in the newspaper, or on the web. On the other hand, you couldn't swing a cat without hitting a criticism of Summers way back when. Odd, given that the two hypotheses are perfectly analogous. In fact, Summers's hypothesis was less insulting to women than the other hypothesis is to boys, since Summers's hypothesis, if true, would have implications for only a tiny percentage of females. But once we're evaluating hypotheses on the basis of whether or not they're insulting we've already started down the road to perdition.

One problem here has to do with people getting insulted about comparative averages. I'm not sure how it is that the fact that the average Asian may be smarter than the average whiteboy is supposed to affect me at all. No matter how that dispute shakes out it won't raise or lower my IQ. So exactly what am I supposed to be mad about?

Another problem is that people seem to have a hard time telling the difference between:

(i) People have the same abilities

and

(ii) People have the same rights

But equality before the law does not require equality of ability. There are only about a bazillion people smarter and otherwise more talented than I am, but that does not entail that they should have more rights than I have. The highs and the lows--the Albert Einsteins and the Rush Limbaughs--are equal in the eyes of the law.

Perhaps it's because racists and sexists are so fond of talking about differences between the races and sexes that people come to believe that anyone who admits such differences must be a racist or a sexist. But that's absurd. Sexists (right and left, anti-female and anti-male) are bad not because they think there are differences in abilities between the sexes. Rather, they're bad because (a) they begin with the prejudice that there are such differences and exaggerate the evidence for that claim, and (b) they do usually believe that differences in abilities entail differences in rights.

None of this is especially complicated, and you'd think that folks teaching at Harvard would be able to figure it out.

But, as they used to say back home, that's what you get for thinkin'.

4 Comments:

Blogger rilkefan said...

I defended Summers on the high-elite-science-talent-distribution issue, but I don't think that's the prime cause here, just a symptom. He has clashed with the faculty over any number of issues, and even his friends say he's not in the least diplomatic when he needs to be. There was also a flap about some scholars and Russia and ethics standards that was handled badly.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, I've also heard that stuff about him being undiplomatic. Don't remember hearing about the other stuff.

Even if the Harvard faculty were mad about other things, though, many of them were infuriatingly unreasonable about the math ability issue.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Tony D said...

Actually, in today’s climate, if Albert Einstein was caught using illicit drugs he’d have probably done time being a lousy academic liberal and all.

2:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seems to me that comparative hypotheses are treated more suspiciously when they appear to reflect poorly on a class of people who have been traditionally under-privileged. For example, Summers said 'Maybe boys are better than girls in this area', but if he had said 'Maybe girls are better then boys in this area' I doubt he would have received many complaints. But, as Mr. Smith points out, these are analgous, and totally irrelevant as points of law.

6:15 PM  

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