Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Harvard President Resigns

It seems that Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard has resigned partially if not wholly due to remarks he made back in January 2005. He was accused of making remarks that sounded like he believed that women had a lack of "intrinsic aptitude" for certain fields.

This reminds me of the time that Alan Greenspan made the statement that the markets had "irrational exuberance". In fact, he never said that about the markets but about asset values and it was a fairly lengthly speech:
Clearly, sustained low inflation implies less uncertainty about the future, and lower risk premiums imply higher prices of stocks and other earning assets. We can see that in the inverse relationship exhibited by price/earnings ratios and the rate of inflation in the past. But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values, which then become subject to unexpected and prolonged contractions as they have in Japan over the past decade? And how do we factor that assessment into monetary policy? We as central bankers need not be concerned if a collapsing financial asset bubble does not threaten to impair the real economy, its production, jobs, and price stability. Indeed, the sharp stock market break of 1987 had few negative consequences for the economy. But we should not underestimate or become complacent about the complexity of the interactions of asset markets and the economy. Thus, evaluating shifts in balance sheets generally, and in asset prices particularly, must be an integral part of the development of monetary policy.

Fairly dry reading but you get my point. Yet based on those two words, the media and the markets reacted like a snowball rolling downhill.

So, here's the extract of the lengthy full speech that Summers is still being castigated on:

So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.

Sure sounds like he would like us to consider the possibility of a possibly inherent situation and to prove it right or wrong and then use that knowledge to fix the social situation as a result.

One of Summer's defenders is Steven Pinker. Although I don't necessarily agree with all of his ideas, he has my respect. In an interview with the college newspaper Crimson was this exchange:

CRIMSON: Finally, did you personally find President Summers’ remarks (or what you’ve heard/read of them) to be offensive?

PINKER: Look, the truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is “offensive” even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don’t get the concept of a university or free inquiry.

So, the question Pinker is asking us is whether we are going to be intellectually honest enough in an academic environment and elsewhere, to consider the idea that something politically incorrect may be true for the alternative is to stick our heads in the sand and to deny it because we don't like the sound of it. Let's prove it wrong if we hate it. Let's acknowledge it if it is proven true.


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