Jonathan Rowe responds to
Summers Is A-Coming In, Loudly Sing “Cuckoo!”
Let me be serious for a moment. It is not entirely whacko, or cuckoo, to suggest, for the sake of discussion, that there are innate differences between men and women, and that these differences might play a role in the fields both pursue. For example, men are more likely than women to be bald, and this limits somewhat their opportunities in the "supermodel" field.

I tend to doubt that such differences play a large role in regards to science, however. I know of no peer-reveiwed studies that correlate baldness with proficiency in science. This is despite an extensive literature in the field. There are studies that correlate baldness with the first name "Sheldon" for example. That men with the first name "Sol" are more likely to write for Left wing journals than to work in sanitation, also is fairly well established. It is true that these journals generally have more men than women on their mastheads. However, preliminary research suggests that this is because Sols, unlike Sheldons, tend not to be bald. Or if they are, they are less likely to employ embarrassing comb-overs.

The case of Irvings is especially instructive. The name Irving has a definite connection to career path and even political proclivity. There have been Irvings who embraced reactionary politics just for revenge. At the same time, there are no known cases of Latin American revolutionaries by the name of Irving. Thirty years ago, if all the Irvings in the U.S. had been renamed Lance or Seth, the politics of this nation might be markedly different today. I know of no female equivalent of this phenomenon, except possibly Gertrudes. This requires further study.

Seriousness aside. One day, in my freshman year at Mr. Summers esteemed university, I sat in what was then the Alston Burr Lecture Hall. The course was Nat Sci 5, which was supposed to be biology for humanists, but which, in the careerist course of things at that esteemed university, had turned into a sort of warm-up for the pre-med grind. The topic this day was photosynthesis, and the professor was a brilliant young man by the unlikely name of -- if I remember correctly-- Johns Hopkins. Maybe it was John, but somehow Johns stuck in my mind

Johns was vaguely British, tall and angular, with straight blond hair that glistened under the spotlights. He spent the entire hour writing biochemical reactions on the chalkboards. As each filled up, he slid it up with a kind of swooping gesture and went to work on another. We all hunched over, copying this important information in our notebooks. Why this was necessary I did not know, but who was I to question? This was an esteemed university.

When finally he was finished, there was this sense of exhaustion. I'm sure I'm not the only one whose fingers ached. Then a hand went up in the front of the class. It was a young lady from Radcliffe, small and obviously a bit shy. "Excuse me," she said. "Where is all this going on?" The question was not sarcastic. She genuinely was bewildered, as were the rest of us, though we didn't have the presence or courage to admit it.

That Cliffie is a hero to this day. I have thought much about what happened that day -- my silence, her courage, and the brilliant Mr. Hopkins, so submerged in plant chemistry that he forgot about the plant and the world of which the plant was a part, let alone the people he was talking to. I have reflected on, among other things, how places such as Harvard breed this kind of person -- a kind I think of as a brilliant ignoramus.

These people are facile and penetrating within the confines of their specialties -- in particular the sciences and economics, which pretends to be a science but really isn't. They know everything and more, and are not shy about it either. But they can be clueless and even dense outside of their specialties. They often have a singular incapacity to reflect on the larger questions that those fields cannot address. The biotech whizzes want to give us pills. Economists such as Summers want to give us "growth". Each views us as mechanisms dependent upon their expert ministrations. They are people with hammers who see the world as full of nails.

The brilliant ignoramus tends not to to show much curiosity about the human condition, or to have much rapport with the problems of the heart. They relate better to their mechanical models of people than they do to actual people. It is not coincidental I think that Lawrence Summers has embraced biotech as the emblem of Harvard's future. To an economist we are all just preference curves. Our inner lives consist of cost-benefit calculations. If something is wrong we go to a brilliant doctor to fix us. What more is there to know?

Maybe, just maybe, part of the answer to Summers' question lies here. Why aren't there more women in the sciences, at Harvard and elsewhere? Maybe, among other things, they know myopia and high-class ignorance when they see it, and choose something else.

Jonathan Rowe is the director of the Tomales Bay Institute in Point Reyes Station California. He is not and never has been an economist, though he does read a magazine by that name on occasion. He generally is not funny except when he's not trying to be. His website is www.onthecommons.org.

Back to Summers is A-Coming In, Loudly Sing “Cuckoo!”

the other experts say

Author KC Cole says, “As the physicist Wolfgang Pauli once said to an eager student who asked the great man if he thought the student's theory was wrong: ‘It’s not even wrong.’” Read on
Professor Ellen DuBois says, “Everything that Emily Levine writes is just cuckoo enough to be true.  I’m surprised she left out the old joke used to explain women’s sudden loss of skill at math...” Read on