A "forum for new ideas" or a platform for strawman attacks?

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Last Wednesday, the Chronicle‘s cultural blogger Kyrie O’Connor responded to recent comments by Harvard president Larry Summers:

It’s just not possible to have to go through this again. It’s not possible that the president of Harvard would say this, is it? Oh, sure it is. The oldest trick in the book: Criticize a man for what he does, but criticize a woman for who she is. Anatomy is destiny? Apparently it still is.

The blogosphere had already been discussing the story, which appeared in Monday editions of the Boston Globe, for several days at that point. We speculated among ourselves that O’Connor’s (liberal) conventional wisdom would probably find its way into a staff editorial, since the story had finally registered with the New York Times and had thus made its way onto one Chron editor’s radar.

We were not disappointed by the Chronicle editorial page, which weighed in on the matter yesterday in just the manner we expected:

The offense comes this time from the man at Harvard’s helm, University President Lawrence H. Summers, who served as Treasury secretary during Bill Clinton’s administration. At an academic conference titled “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities, and their S&E Careers,” Summers suggested that there are fewer women than men on the engineering, math and science faculties at top research universities because of biological differences that give men enhanced math and science capabilities.


Summers said his remarks were an exploration of theories besides discrimination to explain why there were fewer women in the physical sciences departments at the best schools. But there is a large irony in offering innate biological inferiority in lieu of discrimination as an explanation for the underrepresentation of women.

Studies do not bear out Summers’ biological explanation, and his proposing it suggests he believes the very biased thinking he claims to reject.

Here, the Chronicle editorialists deploy a favorite tactic of twisting facts into a convenient straw man, and then knocking down that straw man.

The first bolded portion is where the Chronicle‘s misleading attack on Summers falls apart. Although no transcript has been released (since the seminar was supposed to be “off the record”), various reports seem to concur that Summers pointed to research on biological differences in men and women that might well be one factor in some discrepancies. He did not say it was the only possible factor, and he most certainly did not offer it “in lieu” of discrimination as a possible explanatory variable, as the Chronicle editorial asserts. As an economist, Summers is familiar enough with econometrics NOT to suggest a bivariate model to explain such a complicated social phenomenon (if only the Chron‘s editors were so familiar with quantitative methods of social science!). The Chronicle‘s attack on Summers is, therefore, rendered inaccurate and impotent. As for the last bolded portion in the editorial — Summers reportedly did refer to specific studies. Can the Chronicle editorial board provide citations to back up their assertion that “studies” don’t support Summers?

As we frequently concede, the Chronicle is welcome to adopt whatever position it would like for its editorial pages. However, we do not consider inaccurate, strawman attacks to be indicative of editorials “in their ideal state” (a standard that interim editorial page editor James Howard Gibbons has established).

Further, we would note that the Chronicle is running quite a few radio ads proclaiming that the newspaper “provides a forum for new ideas and debate.” Since even the online version of the newspaper isn’t particularly interactive, we don’t see how it’s much of a forum. And this editorial is hardly an example of new ideas.

For those who are interested in something besides the liberal conventional wisdom on the Summers affair (as told by the Chron editorial board and cultural blogger), here is additional reading from around the web: Sex ed at Harvard (Charles Murray, New York Times), Summers is right (Claudia Goldin & Lawrence F. Katz, Boston Globe), Gender Fender-Bender (Ruth R. Wisse, Wall Street Journal), Summers storm (Ruth Marcus, Washington Post), The truth about men and women is too hot to handle (Andrew Sullivan, Times of London), Don’t worry your pretty little head (William Saletan, Slate), Mathematical virtues (Linda Chavez, Washington Times), Socializing Summers (George Neumayr, American Spectator), The First Amendment fights for its life (R. Emmett Tyrrell, Town Hall)

Further discussion is encouraged in OUR forum for ideas and debate. Just click on the handy “discuss” link below.

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Kevin Whited
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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX