(Yesterdays NY Times article on Larry Summers has lured Dr. Edgeworth Boks from his tenure-induced opiate-haze. The following are Dr. Boks' comments on the Summers controversy.)
Harvard President Larry Summers' remark about a possible relationship between gender and math/science aptitude--the casual mention of a hypothesis for which there is modest evidence but which has neither been proven nor refuted--would not be inappropriate at an institution of higher learning.
It was inappropriate, however, at Harvard.
(And Princeton, Yale, and MIT, according the the presidents of these institutions.)
Summers should be roundly criticized for his remarks. There are things one simply doesn't say. Any deviation from what enlightened persons wish to believe--any attempt to base intellectual inquiry on evidence or to open one's mind to unpopular possibilities--must be avoided if one is to maintain one's reputation among the right kinds of people. One's primary purpose as president of a major university is to indulge intellectual prejudice wherever one finds it, to stroke the egos of wildly impassioned ideologues who care not a fig for evidence, and to be polite to academics. Truth, evidence, honest inquiry, the search for answers--these are far, far, far less important than politeness. The finest universities have a duty to place politeness above intellectual inquiry.
A major university, properly viewed, is a charm school.
The New York Times mentions that Summers has repented, as it were, for his inappropriate candor and intellectual honesty. He has been seeking advice on damage control from Bill Clinton and David Gergen, among others. Gergen compares Summers to Socrates and quips that Socrates was executed. Are we to believe, then, that what Socrates truly needed was a David Gergen--a spin doctor? Exactly that! Socrates chose to die, rather than to disavow his views. True, he became an example to millions, inspired generations to come, was venerated for his courage, his wisdom, his virtue. And yes, his philosophy would have seemed hypocritical had he capitulated. Still, if he had had a David Gergen, a Karl Rove, a Bill Clinton, to wean him from his vile addiction to intellectual honesty, he would have accomplished so much more! The powers that be in Greece would have felt placated. Everyone would have gone home with a warm feeling in his tummy--ignorant, bigoted, and blissfully unchallenged. And Socrates would have lived.
Economic models depict rational agents who act in their own self-interest. Summers failed to do this by mentioning an idea that challenged and disturbed others. Shame on him! As an economist, he more than anyone else, should know to resist the superstition of pointless integrity. He should know to calibrate his opinions so as to maximize the gain he receives from those hearing them. A passion to learn the truth--to engage the evidence, to pursue knowledge--does not enter as a component of utility in any model I have seen. It is thus a superstition. It is particularly misguided when it interferes with the quest for the wise and truly acceptable lifetime goals: the maximization of status and wealth. Shame on you, Larry.
P.S. Babcock, my misguided research assistant, believes that the role of universities is to challenge orthodoxies and to explore provocative ideas, based on evidence. He finds it appalling that Summers is now seeking advice from acknowledged masters of doublespeak and spin. Babcock believes that if the choice is between truth and politeness, an academic with integrity must choose to speak a cold truth over some warm and oily falsehood. What an ignoramus Babcock is! (How could he have studied with me, Dr. Edgeworth Boks, all these years--knowing my high reputation and the number of times I have been published in Econometrica--and still have remained so clueless and principled? I must be a very poor teacher, indeed.)
Take it from me, dear readers: Intellectual honesty is the scourge of academia. It is a dangerous virus carried by rats--very rude and insensitive rats--who must be crushed whenever they raise their ugly heads.
Fortunately, my comrade in economics, Larry Summers, appears to have learned his lesson.
Yours in warmest condescension,