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NY Times attacks Harvard University

The New York Times have published a painfully totalitarian-style propagandistic article that tries to attack our university - mainly its president - as well as the basic principles of science and free inquiry.

Already in the first sentence, the author describes our president with the adjective "tactless" in order to simplify the life of his readers: they don't need to think for themselves (many of them are not doing it anyway).

In 2001, Prof. Summers has pointed out that several anti-Israeli movements attempting to gain influence at that time were anti-Semitic in effect if not their intent; Noam Chomsky was one of the figures that supported these anti-Semitic movements. Although I would say that Summers was obviously right, Traub disagrees. It's not a disaster if he disagrees; what's worrisome is the way how he disagrees. Traub writes that Summers had "grossly offended one of his institution's core constituencies, and the academic world generally."

Is this formulation serious? By his statement, Summers may have offended the far & anti-Semitic corner of the political left wing - not the whole left wing: Summers himself is a liberal - but he certainly did not offend "academic world generally". The attitude towards Israel is a completely political question and the scholars in academia have different political opinions. The movement was also political, despite the contributions of well-known scholars. The people are offended or not-offended depending on their political orientation, not according to their membership in the academic world!

Three years ago, Summers certainly did not offend me. He certainly did not offend hundreds of others. Is Traub's description some new kind of "academic consensus" that all of us should sabotage Israel, an island of democracy in the Middle East? I hope that we're not back in the "consensus" of Germany in the 1930s.

Traub then emphasizes that Nancy Hopkins was offended by Summers' remarks about the biological differences between the thinking of both genders. I think that Nancy Hopkins should, first of all, be ashamed for her un-scientific reaction. It does not seem as a professional approach to escape from the room where a speaker proposes hypotheses about an issue that this whole conference was supposed to discuss in the first place - only because the hypotheses are inconvenient for Hopkins' political beliefs. Moreover, I believe that as a biologist she should know much more about the brains, for example. If she knew these things, she would definitely know what insights of other scientists Summers was referring to.

Traub then outlines his idea that the university leaders should be the "most timorous and emollient of public speakers". Traub believes that it's just fine if their behavior is hypocritical, but it's important that in the public they behave as puppets who only present meaningless babble that does not offend anyone (and who collect high salary for this vacuous theater). This is how Traub imagines the ideal university boss. Well, I certainly don't share Traub's visions.

He enumerates a couple of previous Harvard's presidents. Traub's following paragraph is full of statements that are not true. He states that "Summers has not achieved, and perhaps has not sought, this leadership role." I am sure that Traub must know that this is a lie. He must know that Summers will be written in the history of Harvard as one of the most important presidents - even in the unlikely hypothetical case that the feminists (both female as well as male ones) would try to make a big 1917-like coup next week. More likely, Summers will be leading Harvard for many years to come. Traub has no problems to humiliate the conservatives at our university by describing them as "a very poor source of street cred, by the way, in the Ivy League."

Imagine how it would sound if someone wrote the same sentence about the African Americans, for example. But it's fine to attack the conservative scholars, is not it? They're the minority that does not deserve any protection.

Traub then says that he believes it is wrong to challenge orthodoxies. In this final part, which shows that he has really no idea what academia and science means, he criticizes not only Prof. Lawrence Summers, but also Prof. Steven Pinker, a world's leading psychologist and one of the 100 most influential people in 2004 according to the Time magazine. Their scientific approach is described as "anatomizing the pieties of academic culture" which Traub finds unacceptable.

I wonder whether he has heard of the Catholic Church that had the very same approach to science when the modern scientific age was getting started and science's first task was to "anatomize the pieties of people's religious beliefs about astronomy."

Let's get it straight. Academic culture has nothing to do with some fashionable beliefs about the role of races and genders. Academia and science have existed a long time before the slavery was abolished. They were here long before the women were admitted to the universities as men's peers. They were here long before the Nazis coined their theories about the "superior race". And science kind of worked. And they're still here long after the beliefs about creationism, Nazism, and so on were mostly abandoned. The word "university" is related to the Latin word "universum" which means the "whole" - a university includes all teachers and scholars. The main goal of the scholars is to search for the truth, not to protect the fashionable dogmas or fulfil the popular political quotas.

Science was here long before Christian geocentrism, communism, modern creationism, Nazism, feminism, and other -isms, and it will be here long after these -isms are gone. Let me now emphasize that I am not comparing these ideologies in detail - so please calm down and don't speculate which ideology should be offended more by this non-existing comparison. The only sense in which they're analogous is that they are political movements that try to influence academia.

The core of academic culture has nothing to do with either of these political and religious fads - and it is vitally important for science and the academia that they're not controlled by these temporary political influences - or, to say the least, that this control never becomes absolute. All of these fads always try to prevent the scientists from finding (or even looking for) some insights that may be inconvenient for someone's beliefs; all of these fads have tried to "absorb" academia under its political or religious umbrella. But it is an important task for the scientists and for science to resist the pressure.

Science has an eternal value. Imagine the important achievements of science in the last 200 years: the theory of evolution, relativity, quantum mechanics, genetics, and so forth. Compare this idealized world of ideas and the search for the truth with the world of politics.

In the early 20th century, the communist workers (and other communists) claimed that they were oppressed by the "capitalists" and they established one of two major totalitarian systems of that century. Some Germans then claimed that they were oppressed by the "global Jewish conspiracy" and they founded the second major totalitarian system. The pattern is quite general: a group that claims to be oppressed - although these claims are not really justified - becomes radical and eventually creates a system in which the natural equilibrium in the society is damaged and the freedom of thinking is suppressed - which is necessary to protect some dogmas that are not really true. Do we really need to repeat the same errors in the 21st century?

This difference between the clean world of science and the messy world of politics is a reason why the former must be protected against the influence of the latter.

Traub's punch line is that "it may be better for Harvard if [Prof. Summers] doesn't spend too much time in his padded woodshed." This turned out to be a tremendously ambiguous sentence. A reader of mine thinks that Traub means that Harvard will be better off if Traub will be speaking in public and provoking more often - the woodshed is where Summers hides when he does not provoke. My feeling was that Traub was trying to suggest resignation. In the latter case, I hope that the situation is not that bad that a leading university could be influenced by this kind of journalistic trash.

Two more NYT articles about the topic

The New York Times have fortunately published a complementary op-ed by Charles Murray that analyzes the gap between hard sciences and humanities. He mentions hundreds or thousands of scientific articles about the biological aspects of social differences between men and women that have been published since David Geary's book about the topic from 1998 - that itself contains 52 pages of references. This whole vibrant field of science is something whose existence our friends in humanities would like to deny. Murray's recent recommended literature is by Simon Baron-Cohen written in 2003 - a book explaining that female brains are predominantly optimized for empathy, male brains are primarily hard-wired for building systems, and autism is the case of an "extremely male brain". Of course, Murray also explains that detailed knowledge about the differences is exciting, not threatening, and it won't have adverse effects as long as people are careful and rational enough and the individuals are judged as individuals who enjoy the same rights.

Olivia Judson has another op-ed in which she tries to be mild - by talking about "someone else" - and she explains that the basic dogmas of feminism are not true for the elephants and other species. Her description is pretty offending against the male elephants, but I guess no one will bother to criticize her. ;-)

I think it's not right if The New York Times, a leading U.S. newspapers, includes Traub's political rant as a main article while the informative articles by David Geary and Olivia Judson are just op-eds - but thanks God at least for these op-eds. James Traub does not have sufficient credentials to question the research by Prof. Summers and Prof. Pinker.

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reader Anonymous said...

Hi Lubos,
I had just a couple of quick comments to make about just a few points you made in your latest entry.

1.) It seems naive to think that you can cleanly separate academia and politics with a knife. Politics affect everything in our daily interactions - they are a part of each individual's core belief system, and as such, they affect how that person reacts in different situations and deals with different scenarios. Grand-Scale Politics of the kind present in Washington, sure, might be able to be a little more cleanly delineated from academica. The hierarchies that naturally exist in our work environments create politics whether we like it or not. It could be said that your support of Harvard's President is a political choice. So I find it confusing that you think that you can separate politics from Everything Else so easily.

2.) Are you comparing Feminism to Nazism and Communism? Because that seems not only ill-advised and disrespectful, but completely out of line. I think it's important to note here disrespectful: the way to understand an opposing person's argument best is to afford them the utmost respect. It's not about how harshly I can demonize your words, it's about explaining calmly my point of view. Well, that's what I think a discussion should be like, at least. Are you saying that when supporters of the abolition of slavery were lobbying for the "suppressed" blacks, they were also dangerous and could have potentially caused a Hitler situation before the 20th century? Does your claim extend to the gay rights movement as well? How do you propose you determine which groups are "truly" oppressed (if your argument, instead, is that women aren't oppressed at all)? Do you think we should just say that everything is fine now and tell all groups claiming to be oppressed that they've got to deal with it or that they're lying? Who gets to be the arbiter?

3.) I'm curious as to why you're relying on Pinker so much. I'm under the impression he didn't carry out many strictly scientific experiments on brain chemistry and biology (and that he was, mostly, a linguist). I could be wrong though - if you could point me to some articles of his that'd be greatly appreciated.

-The Curious Reader (from before)

reader Anonymous said...

Any sane person would be both anti-Palestinian and anti-Israeli.

reader Anonymous said...

Lubos--Be sure to check out the two contributors to the op-ed page for the Times today as well! The Times has published two articles that run quite contrary to Traub's piece. Maybe the Times is indeed (a little bit) balanced after all?

By the way, Summers' statements that anti-Israel attitudes are actually anti-Semitism specifically refer not to mere criticism of Israel's policies--many pro-Israeli individuals are critical of Israel as well. What he was referring to was a gross distortion--the obsessive hyper-focus--of the significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict far beyond that of the many far greater, far more horrifying conflicts throughout the world. He simply meant that Israel, which has more UN resolutions against it than all other nations in the world combined and was recently voted in Europe as the greatest threat to world peace of any country in the world (before the Iraqi war, that is), is being treated like the "Jew" among the nations. It does good stuff and it does bad stuff, but not nearly as bad or important stuff as many other countries in the world (Sudan, Libya, China, Russia, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, etc.), and yet it is singled out as the scapegoat for the world's problems. It is a tiny nation (roughly the size of New Jersey), and the number of deaths over the course of its history is dwarfed by the genocides in Sudan, Rwanda, Cambodia, etc., some of which are still going on! If all the horrific conflicts in the world were ranked based on ANY quantitative measure, like number of deaths, asymmetry in deaths, etc., realistically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would not show up in the top fifty! (More people die in Sudan in a month than in the entire intifada in the last four years!)

Summers claimed, somewhat shrewdly, that university middle-eastern departments whose faculty devote fifty percent of their energy bashing Israel or the Palestinians are depriving the world of research on the REST of the middle-east, whose problems greatly dwarf those going on in Israel, and are hence stifling the freedom of information that should be their primary consideration. He also stated that SINGLING OUT (not merely criticizing in proportion to its atrocities) the Jewish state among all the horrible nations in the world smacked of anti-semitism, a fact difficult to dispute (please try!).

reader Anonymous said...

I think that you misunderstand several of Traub's statements. While I would say that his tone is more hostile to Summers than not, several things that he says along the way are actually in his favor.

Specifically, you take "University presidents are among the most timorous and emollient of public speakers," as a statement of Traub's ideal president. I would say that it is more a statement of current fact. University presidents today are trying their best not to offend anyone. Then his examples of previous presidents who were outspoken seems to be his way of showing that it was not always so. That is to say, I think he is actually building a case that it is alright for Larry Summers to take an outspoken role. The final sentence seems rather convincing of this idea:

"But it may be better for Harvard if he doesn't spend too much time in his padded woodshed."

In other words, it may be better for Harvard if Summers does speak out more often, if he does play the provocateur. (The padded room/woodshed was Traub's description of where Summers is sequestered away so that he doesn't make such statements.)

My read of this piece is more that Traub disagrees with what Summers said at the recent conference, and does take several opportunities to make snide comments, but on the whole he seems to agree with the notion of Summers being more outspoken and more of "a species of public intellectual." Perhaps you could try reading the article with that interpretation in mind and see if it resonates?


reader TripleIntegral said...


You see what I predicted is now happening?

The PC orthodoxy [of which James Traub is a leading type of exponent] do not care about "truth" as you are I might define it. What they do care about is crushing any dissent from the orthodoxy by making it socially unacceptable at a university to disagree with them.

So, scientific propositions, which if wrong should simply be refuted by evidence- are "grossly offensive" , "tactless", insane [see "padded woodshed"] - clearly "uncool" and unacceptable.

This makes for an insular community with little connection to actual reality, preferring instead a mandated reality dreamed up from the perspective of a publically funded cloister.

Those who have studied the history of the 20th century or lived in countries that have experineced fascism know why this type of inhibition on free thought and speech can be a precursor to something much worse.

reader Anonymous said...

Where Traub stands is very clear:

" Twenty years ago, A. Bartlett Giamatti, then the president of Yale, was much admired for taking on Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. But Mr. Falwell had few admirers at Yale; a truly courageous president would have defended him. "

He asks:

"That is, what are the obligations of the leaders of the great universities, if any, toward provoking debate? Are they a species of public intellectual, or a species of chief executive, responsive to only their internal constituencies - students, faculty, alumni donors?"

and answers that traditionally, the leaders of universities have been leaders in public debate.

After the contretemps in 2001, he writes, Summers locked himself "in whatever padded room universities presidents normally occupy." i.e., keeping an uncontroversial public profile. But, Traub concludes "But it may be better for Harvard if he doesn't spend too much time in his padded woodshed."

As to what the problem was with Summers' comments: "Harvard should be amending its admissions policy if it really believes that women suffer from an inherent cognitive deficit in the sciences." But Traub seems to endorse Pinker's "everything ..[is]... within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of academic rigor."


Please read what is written. The blog as posted shows the evidence of ideological blinders, which may be ok for a politician, but not for a scientist.


Traub believes that a good university president leads the public debate, and courageously takes the unpopular side; that anything, as long as presented with a degree of academic rigor, is legitimate academic discourse; that while Summers has no intention of being such a leader as those in the past, it would be better for Harvard if he did take on that role.

reader Quantoken said...

TripleIntegral said: "So, scientific propositions, which if wrong should simply be refuted by evidence- are "grossly offensive" , "tactless", insane [see "padded woodshed"] - clearly "uncool" and unacceptable."

Not all scientific propositions can be refuted by evidences. Actually most don't. You can not refute super string theory by any evidence at all, because so far neither experimental evidences for nor those against super string theory have been found yet. Another example, if some researcher jump into a conclusion with totally insufficient (not enough samples collected and unreliable (experimental error too big to be reliable) evidences, however his conclusion just happen to be correct. Such research is none-scientific, but you really can't refute it using experimental evidences because he happen to be on the side of right conclusion, by luck.

In Summer's case, having to collect evidences just to refute his proposition just seem to be naive. If some one accuse you of being a total idiot, having an IQ of zero, etc. Are you going to be so naive that you actually go to see a psychological doctor, get a diagnosis, get an IQ test. Then you come back with all your evidences to refute your accuser? Certainly not.

In my observation, Dr. Summers offended a group of people. Those people surely can walk out of his talk and writting articles to criticize Dr. Summers. New York Times certainly can report on the event. It's all politics and has nothing to do with science. Lubos can certainly have the right to write to New York Times as well if he wishes. This is a free country. But your freedom ends where it meets some one else's nose.

Offensive talks and behaviors by a university president is simply not acceptable, it is even more so when it is done in the name of "science". But I would have thought than an appology would be enough. But now it looks like Dr. Summers needs to do more to cover his ass.

I suggest Lubos writes to New York Times and see what happens when you get it published on New York Times.


reader TripleIntegral said...

I think the above are naive readings of the Traub article. It's more of a subtle taunt - "Hey! Come out and say what you think. See how long you'll last in the PC world of academia buddy!".

And it's true that University professors have taken on opinions that are unpopular *outside* the university [but popular within] and been successful with that posture. What doesn't happen is the converse.

reader torbjorn said...

"which has more UN resolutions against it than all other nations in the world combined"

1. UN resolutions are a democratic process - proposals started as anti-semitism are killed.

2. Number of resolutions reflect the economical interests in the area and behind the politics - third world countries are less interesting.

3. Naturally 'we' hold rich, capitalistic, democratic and well educated nations to higher standards. For example, if I expect such a country to rescind death penalty, I'm not anti-american, just pro-life.

So perhaps, from 2 and 3, the countries that anonymous cites as bad should ask for more sanctions. :-/

reader TripleIntegral said...

Summers should be thankful he's not President of Yale:

[a masterpiece of sloppy, confused and conflicted thinking]

reader Anonymous said...

Charles Murray is the one of `The Bell Curve' fame, right?