Anti-Intellectualism Among the Academic Elite

Dr. Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, has been excoriated for suggesting that innate differences between men and women might be one of the reasons fewer women succeed in the higher reaches of science and math. Adding insult to injury, he also questioned the role of sex discrimination in the small number of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.

Professor Nancy Hopkins, an MIT biologist, attended the National Bureau of Economic Research conference titled “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce” where Dr. Summers gave his lecture. She had to leave the lecture, explaining to a Boston Globe (Jan. 17, 2005) reporter, “I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.” In today’s campus anti-intellectualism, it’s acceptable to suggest that genetics explains some outcomes, but it’s unacceptable to use it as an explanation for other outcomes. Let’s try a few, and guess whether Professor Hopkins would barf.

Suppose a speaker said that sickle cell anemia is genetically determined and occurs almost exclusively among blacks. Would Professor Hopkins stomp out of the room, charging racism? What if it were said that a person’s chances of being a carrier of the gene for Tay-Sachs disease, a disease without a cure, is significantly higher if he is an Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jew? Would Professor Hopkins barf and charge the speaker with anti-Semitism?

Jon Entine, in his book Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We’re Afraid to Talk About It (1999), says, “All of the 32 finalists in the last four Olympic men’s 100-meter races are of West African descent.” The probability of such an outcome by chance is all but zero. The genetic physiological and biomechanical characteristics that cause blacks to excel in some sports — basketball, football and track — spell disaster for those who have aspirations to be Olympic-class swimmers. Entine says, “No African American has ever qualified for the U.S. Olympic swim or dive team. Indeed, despite a number of special programs and considerable funding that have attracted thousands of aspiring black Olympians, there were only seven blacks who could even qualify to compete against the 455 swimmers at the 1996 Olympic trials.”

Do you suppose Professor Hopkins would charge Entine with racism? The only behavioral genetic explanation that campus anti-intellectuals unquestioningly accept is that homosexuality has genetic origins.

What about women in the professions? In my colleague Thomas Sowell’s 1984 book Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality, there’s a chapter titled “The Special Case of Women.” He says, “The economic ramifications of marriage and parenthood are profound, and often directly opposite in their effects on men and women.” Marriage increases male labor-force participation and reduces that of women. Marriage increases career interruption for women but not men. That’s important for career advancement and selection. If you’re a good computer technician, engineer or specialist in the higher reaches of science and technology, and you leave your job for a few years, much of your skills and knowledge will be obsolete when you return. The same obsolescence is virtually absent in occupations such as editor, librarian and schoolteacher. This factor, instead of sex discrimination, might explain some of the career choices made by women.

But what about the flap over Dr. Summers’ suggestion that genetics or innate differences might play a role in the paucity of women in science and engineering? It’s not that important whether Dr. Summers is right or wrong. What’s important is the attempt by some of the academic elite to stifle inquiry. Universities are supposed to be places where ideas are pursued and tested, and stand or fall on their merit. Suppression of ideas that are seen as being out of the mainstream has become all too common at universities. The creed of the leftist religion is that any difference between people is a result of evil social forces. That’s a vision that can lead to the return to the Dark Ages.