Saturday, January 14, 2006

One year later

Exactly one year ago, on January 14th, 2005, President Lawrence Summers spoke to a conference whose goal was to study questions related to the underrepresentation of women among the scientists and engineers.

He said - very carefully and with disclaimers that he was going to be provocative - something that 99% of Europeans and most of the U.S. neurobiologists, among many other groups, find obvious: the differences probably have something to do with biology. There is absolutely no doubt that the president has had not only all the rights to say what he had said, but in fact, it is exactly this kind of questions, hypotheses, and arguments that the conference should have studied in the first place. If the conference about "Women in Science and Engineering" were designed to do anything else, one should describe such a conference as an exercise in hypocricy and as a waste of taxpayers' money.

As you may expect, no one cared whether someone throws away millions of dollars for bogus conferences that don't even touch the very basic questions that define their purpose. Instead, what many people did care about was Summers' "heresy". A very difficult year for all of those who prefer a rational approach to all questions - including the questions that some people may find sensitive - was just getting started. Our faith in humanity has been hit hard, using the words of the president.

After some time, the president started to apologize. At some moment his apologies seemed to be so authentic that I started to contemplate the hypothetical possibility that the president had changed his mind, indeed. He could have been given some special drugs by the secret PC policewomen and policemen or something along these lines. ;-)

It was not a terribly convenient class of ideas to consider. If not even the distinguished president has the right to mention a trivial point that different outcomes could be a consequence of different initial conditions (and it really started to seem that he does not have this right), what do you think about the academic freedoms of more junior scholars? And the freedoms of those who may even choose, unlike the president, the "wrong" political party?

The apologies that I was forced to make myself as well as those by the president were extremely demoralizing. The situation was completely analogous to stories in many different totalitarian regimes. After the Soviet Union occupied Czechoslovakia back in 1968, terminating the Prague Spring, various people "had to go" and some bosses stayed, trying to do their best in the context of neostalinism, as many of them argued after 1989. What is the degree of collaboration that you allow your favorite person to accept before you start to lose the faith in himself or herself?

It turns out that the weird theory about the drugs was not that weird after all. Zachary Seward describes the huge amount of pressure that various people, including the advisers, exerted on the president. I wonder whether Mikhail Gorbachev had ever experienced a comparable amount of pressure from Brezhnev's soulmates when he planned to end the cold war and reintroduce some glimpses of democracy, human rights, and market economy into the Soviet Union.

Seward's article explains the "consensus" that all the advisers believed: Summers had to apologize and such apologies would stop the conflict at the beginning. I think that the actual history shows that the advisers were being incompetent. Almost every surrender to aggressive forces whose goals are revolutionary - and include a drastic reduction of the academic freedoms in order to establish a new "official opinion" - is a mistake that inevitably leads to escalation of their plans. This case was no exception.

What should have happened instead is that well-known people from various fields, especially those who are convinced that Summers' "hypothesis" was probably correct, should have been invited to speak about this issue at Harvard, in order to dilute Summers' personal responsibility for these statements. The very basic rules of the scientific method - and the academic approach to questions in general - were at stake. That is not the best opportunity for cheap decisions and fabricated apologies. What did the apologies lead to? They acted as threats for all those who shared Summers' viewpoint. Consequently, most of them were forced to be largely silent, which intensified the apparent and largely fictitious isolation of the president.

Living with the laws of Nature

Finally, I want to address the assertions that the politically correct people are somewhat "nicer" than other people who were doing the very same evil things in the past. In my opinion, it is mostly bullshit. Every organized group of people who believe a certain ideology is convinced that their beliefs are essential for the existence of life - or at least for a decent life of the humans - and this is why it is legitimate to suppress people's freedoms and occassionally replace the truth by lies in the name of their "great" vision.

The decrease of the influence of Christianity may have brought various negative by-products with it, but we have certainly ruled out the conjecture that geocentrism or creationism was necessary for the survival of the society and its moral values. Whenever we learn something about Nature or the society - such as the ideas about heliocentrism, evolution, or cognitive differences between the sexes - it can never destroy our life by itself. We are living in a world that follows certain laws and we know that these actual laws are compatible with the existence of life. (Our anthropic friends even argue that this tautology should be used as a starting point to do physics.) But at any rate, this implies that it can't ever permanently hurt to learn the truth.

Is the natural percentage of women in computer science twice as small than what we actually have today? Maybe - is it a disaster when we learn such a thing? Do you want to nuke the whole civilization whenever you learn that Nature does not follow some of your preconceptions? Will you start to hate women as soon as you learn that they're less prepared for computer science in average, after all? Do you hate dogs because of the same, but much more pronounced reason? When we learned that CSL-1 is not a double image created by a cosmic string, should we have tried to hide the answer because the "Yes" answer is nicer? I hope not! ;-)

Nevertheless, this honest mode of reasoning is plain impossible for many people. Just like William Dembski believes that by learning evolutionary biology, our world becomes a bad place to live, which is why he finds it so important to promote his creationism in the cheap tuxedo, the politically "correct" people believe that by learning that there are genetic differences between various groups of people, we are destroying our civilization, too. Of course that it's bullshit. If we want to make the civilization as good as possible - and to help all of those whom we like as efficiently as we can - we must know the truth. How do we learn the truth? We consider possibilities, state the conjectures, falsify the wrong ones by actual experimental tests, induce more general theories out of the individual conjectures that have passed the test of time, and deduce their consequences in other contexts.

The main difference between the radical politically "correct" movements and the notorious totalitarian ideologies from the past is that the former have not yet found a country whose government, legislation, and courts would be completely controlled by the politically "correct" ideology. Thanks God or Nature (or thanks to the fact that we only live in 2006 which has not yet seen such a system).

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