Welcome to the thoughts, rants and passions of a young Muslim woman seeking soulful enlightenment in cyberspace.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Summers, Biological Differences, and Gender Imbalance

I’ve been asked what I think of Dr. Lawrence H. Summers, president of Harvard. At an academic conference in January, he made some controversial statements about women's representation in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions. He suggested biological differences – amongst other factors – might play a role in the gender imbalance, with men having a greater range of test scores in math and science than women do.

About 400 years ago, Galileo challenged the Catholic Church worldview and was convicted on charges of heresy. I’ve always believed ours is a society that denounces defining individuals as heretics, even in religious circles. So the furor surrounding Summers’ comments – and the demands for his resignation – surprises me.

Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves what liberal democratic societies do when an unorthodox idea is expressed. John Stuart Mill provides a useful framework. Let’s go through three scenarios:

Scenario 1: We know that Summers is correct.

In this case, most people would agree that his comments should be heard. But some would argue that because his ideas are repugnant to modern society, they cannot be tolerated. The commonly held belief on gender differentiation is that it arises primarily due to differences in socialization. Summers states that natural or biological causes are partly responsible. So what do we do if an idea is unpopular? If it’s the truth, there seems to be no good reason to keep it under wraps. Hiding the truth limits real progress.

But what if the idea amounts to hate propaganda? John Stuart Mill holds that speech can never be curtailed, but I disagree. Hate crime is one instance where speech can be justifiably limited. If Summers were inciting hatred towards women, his words would not be tolerated in a liberal democratic society. Freedom of expression is an important principle, but so too is individual safety. A society cannot thrive if individuals are harming each other or encouraging one another to do so, even if it were by words alone. Having said that, I do not think Summers’ comments amount to hate speech. Neither, for that matter, are his comments morally repugnant in any way.

Conclusion: Summers stays put in Scenario 1.

Scenario 2: We’re sure that Summers is incorrect.

If, as many academics at the conference have stated, Summers is terribly wrong, then what use are his comments? In principle, individuals must be able to express themselves in order to truly be free. Unless there is a significant reason for constraining that freedom, we must hold our noses and tolerate it, regardless of how wrong it is. In fact, Locke writes that refusing to hear an opinion because one is sure that the opinion is false is to assume infallibility. One can never be absolutely certain that he or she is right. There are many historical examples of individuals who thought themselves right and were subsequently proven wrong.

Moreover, tolerating what appears to be false may help us avoid intellectual sloth. Our understanding of gender today is limited. Although we believe it to be true, we need continuous and rigorous interaction between what we accept and what we disapprove of if we want to ensure that our “truth” does not become mere dogma. As Locke puts it, “both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post as soon as there is no enemy in the field.” Opposing ideas challenge individuals to question their conclusions and to revise and update their ideas. In fact, many of these opposing ideas and opinions, though appearing false, contain some element of truth. It is only through debating opposing ideas that the whole truth has the possibility of emerging. There is some societal benefit, then, to tolerating false opinions.

Conclusion: Summers stays put in Scenario 2.

Scenario 3: No one’s certain whether Summers is correct or incorrect.

I think anyone who believes they can prove with certainty whether Summers’ comments are correct or incorrect are fooling themselves. I suspect gender differentiation is an area that remains ripe for research. For this reason, it is important that we allow academics the freedom to express their ideas. Because it is unlikely we will ever be able to agree on what is truth and what is falsehood, limiting expression due to fears of challenging the status quo or introducing the unorthodox creates an intellectual atmosphere that stunts societal growth and development. Academia is about ruffling feathers. That does not mean we have to agree with Summers’ point of view. Rather, we need to ensure that individuals feel safe expressing themselves fully. We can criticize, sure. And individuals who are disturbed by Summers’ suggestions should take up the challenge and actively seek answers to the provoking questions Summers raises. But censuring words does not bode well for a field in which free thought is supposed to thrive.


  • At 2/22/2005 12:08:00 p.m., Blogger dawud al-gharib said…

    salaams safiyyah;

    a brilliant article from a scholar (Abdul-Hakim Murad) - he's from Cambridge U, which means his language is heavy (i had a student here present this as his own work once, and recognized it - and knew it definitely wasn't written by my student ;)

    'Boys will be Boys':

    it's quite hard slogging, but he makes some very interesting points (some in agreement, some critical - with both western feminism gender critique and Muslim takes on the same)

    come to think of it, have you heard from (or of) Nadia, our (Muslims of UofT) Oxford scholar?
    I heard from her several months ago...

  • At 2/23/2005 09:01:00 p.m., Blogger John said…

    Hi, I just speed-read your post and wanted to make a comment on science (my field of study).

    DNA structure (a double helix) was explained by two men named Watson and Crick. Someone named Rosalind Franklin had done the x-ray diffraction imaging that allowed the structure to be understood, but even though the Nobel prize can be given to three people, she was passed up.

    I learned that little anecdote in Genetics class last term. Cheers!


Post a Comment

<< Home