Disinviting Larry

By Sean Carroll | September 20, 2007 4:07 pm

Larry Summers is an extremely smart guy who said some extremely stupid things about women and science at a conference. For this and many other reasons (mostly “other,” but it’s a messy story), he lost the confidence of Harvard’s faculty and eventually resigned. And good riddance; for all of his talents and all the good he did for Harvard, he caused more harm by antagonizing people and generally playing the autocrat when the office of university president calls for something more subtle.

Which doesn’t mean that he should be banned in perpetuity from giving talks to university audiences. A recent invitation from the University of California Regents has been rescinded after a group of UC faculty circulated a petition demanding that Summers be disinvited. Whether or not you had any sympathy for what Summers said at the NBER conference (I certainly don’t), he is a serious academic, and should be accorded the usual protections for saying what he thinks. Bitch PhD is wondering about the situation, and here’s the comment I left at her blog:

I think the disinvitation was a bad idea, on substantive grounds as well as for the bad image it projects.

For one thing, the proposition that innate differences play a large role in determining the distribution of genders (and races) throughout academia is certainly controversial — it’s not just a matter of scholarly vs. otherwise. There are smart and well-informed people who believe that innate differences are the most important thing suppressing the number of women in science; Stephen Pinker is an obvious example. I personally think those people are crazy and wrong, but won’t deny that they are smart and well-informed.

Second and more importantly, it’s just wrong to think of Summers as symbolizing prejudice. Although there are smart and well-informed prejudiced people per above, Summers was certainly not well-informed when he made his comments at the NBER conference. He has since apologized profusely and allocated millions of dollars toward making things better. It all may be perfectly insincere, but when there are plenty of actual sexists out there who are willing to defend such positions even when they are well-informed, it seems like a mistake to hold that the only possible role Larry Summers can play is buffoonish sexist. He does have other things on his CV.

Finally, I haven’t seen any evidence that Summers was actually invited to talk about gender or science or anything like that. If he were, that would be evidence of rank stupidity (of which the Regents are of course well-known masters).

Among the “image” problems alluded to above, stuff likes this makes it possible for conservatives to beat the drum of leftist intolerance of other people’s views. Ironically, the incident comes on the same week of a much more serious violation of academic freedom: UC Irvine’s withdrawal of a the offer of the job of Dean at its brand new law school, to Duke constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky. That act, which has apparently been reversed so that Chemerinsky can in fact be the Dean, resulted from right-wing pressure against a professor who they thought was too liberal. Becoming the Dean is a noticeably bigger deal than giving a dinner-time talk to the UC Regents. Nevertheless, the Summers flap has given conservatives the chance to argue that “the primary challenge facing academic freedom in American universities” is “the rise of an academic far-left establishment that seeks to use universities as a base for political activism, and is perfectly willing to violate accepted standards of academic freedom to achieve that goal.” And they’ve taken it!

Well, if we go around disinviting speakers because we disagree with their views, we deserve what we get. In the wake of Summers’s original speech, there was much heat, but also a good deal of light — data and arguments were produced that showed to any reasonable person that women interested in science face extraordinary amounts of discrimination at all steps of the process. Let’s stick with the “data and arguments” approach.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Women in Science
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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