Sunday, September 30, 2007

School's Out for Summers

The California Regents Board have now decided not to frighten the horses by having the dastardly Larry Summers address them. You might remember that Summers, the former president of Harvard, made this speech in 2005, which gave a number of his listeners the vapors. Many believe that Summers here advocated the idea that there are so few women in the sciences because nature wanted it that way. I'll let you read the speech and decide if that's what he was saying. I still don't read it that way. In fact, I got the feeling that he was pushing the listeners to confront the lack of women in the sciences in an open way in order to discredit that idea. The problem with not debating and discussing arguments in an open way is that you give people the idea that those arguments are somehow unimpeachable and terrfying to you. Which is pretty much what happened in 2005. Every idiot who thinks that ''wimmen just 'tain't that mathematical'' got to argue that Larry Summers was ''speaking truth to power'', while sheltered academics went on vacation to recover from the trauma of hearing him talk.

Admittedly, it's not a particularly well-written speech. But, the petition against the nefarious Summers claims that he has become a symbol of "gender and racial prejudice in academia." Please. Only dogmatics see other people as symbols of anything.

Anyway, the Regents Board shouldn't have been scared by the fraidy cats. It goes without saying that this too is an issue of academic freedom. Instead of debating Summers or discussing the issue openly, they've again given the idea that academics want a day in court for their own ideas, but not for ones that they disagree with. But, debating ideas in a public forum isn't the same as ''giving credit to'' those ideas, which incidentally is why I think Columbia University should be commended for the Ahmadinejad speech. What we need is more debate and discussion, not less. Margaret Soltan calls these UC people ''provincials'', which is about right; they're certainly not acting like intellectual cosmopolitans. The one silver lining is that people will now debate the issue of Larry Summers and women scientists in the blogosphere. But, alas, not in the physical world.

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