Larry Summers, Free-Speech Victim?

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Professor Jonathan Haidt, cited by John Tierney in The New York Times, has invoked an alleged free-speech violation:

. . . Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, was ostracized in 2005 for wondering publicly whether the preponderance of male professors in some top math and science departments might be due partly to the larger variance in I.Q. scores among men (meaning there are more men at the very high and very low ends). "This was not a permissible hypothesis," Dr. Haidt said. "It blamed the victims rather than the powerful. The outrage ultimately led to his resignation. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely."

But who has challenged Larry Summers' freedom of thought?  The idea that there are fewer women than men capable of high-level mathematical and scientific work was so explosive because of the context in which Summers raised it. On his watch, Harvard had promoted fewer women to tenure than other leading private research universities, as this 2004 Crimson article suggests. A Crimson editorial in December 2004, while defending Summers' abolition of an assistant dean position for affirmative action, declared that:

. . . in the crucial and delicate arena of tenure, Harvard is lagging behind--and the extent of the problem is embarrassing. Last year, a pitiful 12.5 percent of new tenured Faculty were women, a number which has fallen steadily every year since University President Lawrence H. Summers took office in 2001.

What was an inconvenient truth to President Summers was a tactically disastrous provocation to his critics, to whom it seemed the implicit theory behind Harvard's practice. Of course emotional intelligence -- another favorite social psych topic -- works both ways. Haidt is right in the sense that the target should have been the idea, and Harvard's performance, not the president personally. Summers' ouster ironically has helped spread the very ideas on gender and intelligence that were so objectionable to his Arts and Sciences faculty opponents. Taboos don't challenge ideas. For the alternative, from a political scientist rather than a psychologist, see Malcolm Gladwell's review of James Flynn's What Is Intelligence?   

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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