Ad Feminam

Only just recently George Will argued that Michael Crichton’s appendixed and footnoted science-fiction thriller about global warming–sorry, climate change–merited unironic juxtaposition with the body of unthrilling and nonfictional scientific research from the majority of the world’s qualified scientists. Now this past week in The Washington Post
he argues that Larry Summers’ off the cuff and argumentless remarks about the genetic basis of gender differences in cognitive ability warrant the same kind of careful attention and consideration. The failure of academia to take them seriously, and its quick, negative reaction to them constitutes to Will’s mind evidence of academia’s not so latent hypocrisy:

>Forgive Larry Summers. He did not know where he was.

>Addressing a conference on the supposedly insufficient numbers of women in tenured positions in university science departments, he suggested that perhaps part of the explanation might be innate — genetically based — gender differences in cognition. He thought he was speaking in a place that encourages uncircumscribed intellectual explorations. He was not. He was on a university campus.

What follows this opener is the well known but threadbare tapestry of conservative complaints about the closemindedness of the American university. As was the case with his earlier piece on Michael Crichton, Will chooses his authorities rather selectively. Crichton wrote a fictional novel (and was treated as if he had published a serious work of scientific research); Larry Summers made some remarks about genetics (and, despite failing to cite any evidence to support his claims, and despite not being a geneticist himself) is a treated like a serious partner to the debate on gender differences and cognition. For his lack of argument, and furthermore for his lack of scientific credentials, Summers insults those who have actually done the kind of work necessary to establish their own authority (the reading, the research, the experiments, the conference attendance, the long hours alone in the lab away from their husbands, wives, or partners, the willingness to consider and evaluate critically the products of one’s own research and the basis of one’s tacit presuppositions, the advanced degrees, the professorships, the tenure, and so forth).

And having insulted real scientists everywhere (including those who might even have research that tends to support Summers’ claims), Will turns his attention to the broader class of academics and claims that rather than having evidence or justification for their beliefs, they are victims of progressive groupthink:

>He was at Harvard, where he is president. Since then he has become a serial apologizer and accomplished groveler. Soon he may be in a Khmer Rouge-style reeducation camp somewhere in New England, relearning this: In today’s academy, no social solecism is as unforgivable as the expression of a hypothesis that offends someone’s “progressive” sensibilities.

And so Will compounds his shallow appeal to the authority of an unqualified loudmouth with *ad hominem* assault on anyone who dare claim that he’s an unqualified loudmouth. And he makes his case even more fallacious by hastily generalizing from an uncharitable portrayal of an M.I.T scientist who was sickened by Summers’ claims:

>Someone like MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins, the hysteric (see above [reference to the *Oxford English Dictionary*]) who, hearing Summers, “felt I was going to be sick. My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow.” And, “I just couldn’t breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill.” She said that if she had not bolted from the room, “I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.”

>Is this the fruit of feminism? A woman at the peak of the academic pyramid becomes theatrically flurried by an unwelcome idea and, like a Victorian maiden exposed to male coarseness, suffers the vapors and collapses on the drawing room carpet in a heap of crinolines until revived by smelling salts and the offending brute’s contrition?

One professor’s reaction to Summers’ irresponsible (to be absolutely clear: because not justified or supported by research, recognized authority, or argument) remarks hardly constitutes logical basis for a reexamination of the success of feminism, and the wholly laughable highschool reference to the *Oxford English Dictionary* underscores the extent to which Will will go to undermine the credibility of those whose honest-to-goodness scientific credentials are not in doubt. But it gets even worse. For Will does a little armchair scientific analysis of his own to show the extent to which all of the Ph.D.’s in the Ivy League have shielded their eyes from the obvious. And before we close–with a promise to return tomorrow for an analysis of the second part of this piece–let’s examine it:

>Men and women have genetically based physical differences; the brain is a physical thing — part of the body. Is it unthinkable — is it even counterintuitive — that this might help explain, for example, the familiar fact that more men than women achieve the very highest scores in mathematics aptitude tests? There is a vast and growing scientific literature on possible gender differences in cognition. Only hysterics denounce interest in those possible differences — or, in Hopkins’s case, the mere mention of them — as “bias.”

First of all, the editors at the *Washington Post* ought to know that “counterintuitive” is weaker than “unthinkable” (and so doesn’t explain or clarify it). But that’s beside the point. The point is, scientific actuality isn’t determined (anymore) *a priori*. No one could seriously doubt the *possibility* that men and woman have different cognitive abilities. But that’s simply a trivial point about modal logic. The question for the scientist–the responsible one, not the *a priori* type–is whether such possibilities obtain in the actual real world. How one determines that involves the very research Will alludes to as showing “possibility.” Now the mere existence of that “growing body of literature” does not demonstrate its plausibility. But it’s a start.

One thought on “Ad Feminam”

  1. First of all, Will’s excessive use of the word “hysteric” is filled with allusions to his own personal gender bias, and is obviously meant to suppress any kind of strong emotional response one might have to witnessing an injustice. It is an attack against anyone who might raise an objection, much the same way “commie” may have been used in the ’50’s. And secondly, perhaps fewer women are in tenured positions in science departments because of men like Summers (and Will), who seem to want to believe that these differences are innate.

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