Blogs > Liberty and Power > Summers and Hopkins

Jan 26, 2005 1:10 am


Summers and Hopkins



There have been two recent postings on Liberty and Power, both with considerable discussion, concerning the topic of Laurence Summers remarks about the lack of women in the higher echelons of science and M.I.T. biology Professor Nancy Hopkins’ reaction to them . The question seems to be, were Summers’ comments offensive or plausible? In yesterday’s Washington Times Jacob Sullum made to my mind a convincing argument for plausible.

One person commenting extensively on one of the earlier posts, Jeanine Ring, disagrees clearly believing the remarks to be beyond the pale. She wrote, “I don't blame Hopkins for feeling the same way. Sexism may be 'plausible' to most people, but it's also a slap in the face to her entire life, one ultimately rooted not in her choices but that she made her choices as the being as which she exists.” She later goes on to say, “Hopkins was being told..."oh, sure, you may be intelligent, but you aren't typical for a woman... as a woman you're just an emotional baby-machine.” Ring also asserted that “Hopkins to my estimate did the only and proper thing you can do (except coercion) in opposition to ideas that deny her an authentic voice. If I had been in that auditorium, I would likely have left too. And I applaud Hopkins for refusing to let such bigotry be regarded as normal or plausible.”

The first notion that bothered me when reading Ring’s comments had to do with the idea that Nancy Hopkins is somehow typical. When I was an undergrad I had a roommate for a short time (he flunked out) majoring in biology and his textbook was perhaps the most complicated material I have ever looked at. Anyone, man or woman, who masters the field of scientific biology well enough to teach at M.I.T. can hardly be considered typical.

As to whether the remarks deny Hopkins an “authentic voice” I will let Mr. Sullum answer that. He argues that, “average group differences in ability do not imply a judgment about any particular individual, since there is still much overlap between the sexes. Although men predominate in the upper echelons of math and science, that doesn't mean the women who make it are any less qualified. The situation could change, of course, if the demand for balance leads universities to select faculty members based on sex.” It seems to me that the Hopkins herself, Ring and those who are also offended are denying the professor the right to an authentic individual voice. To them she can not be a scientist she must be a woman scientist. Why?

Lastly, if the evidence cited by Sullum is true then how can Summers’ remarks be considered bigotry. Is it bigoted and racist to say that generally Black people have darker skin coloring than White people? Is it bigoted and sexist to say that women have vaginas and men do not? Bigotry is not about truth it is about falsehood, all Mexicans are lazy, all Blacks steal, all women are emotional. In order to legitimately assert that Summers comments were bigoted and offensive Hopkins, Ring and their allies must first prove them to be false. Maybe I have missed it but I have yet to read anything concerning this controversy that even attempts to do so.


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David Lion Salmanson - 1/31/2005

No, that would be somewhat accurate. But just as a thought experiment, try evaluating this statement: The NBA is dominated by the Irish and that dominance is costing it fans. Now there is some evidence that suggests that many (possibly even most) NBA players have some Irish ancestors in their background. Yet we tend to think of basketball as a "black" sport and that this is the cause of its decline in popularity. You hear a lot of people say "the sport needs another Larry Bird" to bring back white fans. Genetically, most NBA players have ancestors that came from both slave ships and Northern Europe. Those players are just as much "white" as "black." Hence the problem with "race."


M.D. Fulwiler - 1/26/2005

Is it bigotry to say that people whose ancestors came from African slave ships generally have darker skin tones than those whose ancestors came from Northern Europe?


David Lion Salmanson - 1/26/2005

Well, yes, it is bigotry to say that black people generally have darker skin than white people because you are continuing to use categories of "black" and "white" that are historical fictions created solely to support the spurious biological notion of "race." And the give away was the use of "generally" which indicates that you know that race is a social construction not a biological reality. Race and gender are not interchangeable categories, although both are social constructions, race is only presumably based on skin color while genders (before the advent of modern surgical procedures which changes the equation somewhat) were more firmly connected to biological sex. Which does not help enlighten us on Summers' missteps at all. The Times had a very good article today that pointed out how this incident is standing in for all of Summers' social miscues since he came to Harvard.

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