The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University hosted a conference last week entitled “Impediments to Change: Revisiting the Women in Science Question.” The auditorium in Agassiz Theatre in Radcliffe Yard was packed. Dedicated in 1904, the theatre has been the site of many a spirited intellectual exchange. But on this day it was a forum not for debate but for indignation over the insult that the assembled referred to as “1/14” — the date when Harvard President Larry Summers fatefully speculated about the possibility of inborn differences between the sexes.
The six assembled panelists, four from Harvard, two from MIT, did not challenge one another — as scholarly panelists often do — but basked in their shared conviction that there is only one explanation for why fewer women than men teach math and physics at Harvard or MIT: sexist bias. In fact, their only motive for “revisiting” the women-in-science question, was to give a proper burial to the hypothesis that there are significant biologically-based differences between men and women.
In one weird outburst, audience member Professor Zella Luria from Tufts University warned of the dangers posed to women’s progress by a “cute guy who writes well and has a gorgeous wife.” She was referring to Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist who dared to explain why it may be that “males and females do not have interchangeable minds” in his 2002 book “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.” He was not invited to this event.
Why should they host him at Radcliffe? That would be like inviting a flat earther or a Holocaust denier. “In this day and age to believe that men and women differ in their basic competence for math and science is as insidious as believing that some people are better suited to be slaves and others masters,” one panelist, Mahzarin Banaji, a professor in the Harvard psychology department told the Harvard Crimson.
Nancy Hopkins was another speaker. The MIT biologist has become known as the professor who fled the room on 1/14. “I felt I was going to be sick,” she famously said. At the Radcliffe confab, Ms. Hopkins again talked about how Mr. Summers affected her physiology: “I had to walk out out of respect for my blood pressure.” For this show of courage, the audience gave her a standing ovation. But the room soon quieted down when she told a harrowing tale of hate mail she had received. A Harvard alum had sent her some air sickness bags and urged her to consult a physician. “I would suggest a psychiatrist,” he wrote. Audience members gasped at the sheer misogyny of it all.
Perhaps the most troubling presentation was that of Harvard psychologist Elizabeth Spelke. She declared herself a diligent researcher who cared about solid methodology and accurate results. But instead of letting the audience know that the research on sex differences is a vibrant and contentious area of science, she claimed that the thesis of innate difference had been definitively refuted. The evidence against it, she said, “is as conclusive as any case I know in science.”
If these traumatized conference participants should somehow succeed in establishing “1/14” as a notable day in American academic history, then another infamous day will also deserve adverse notice: On “3/21” Radcliffe College, once synonymous with the highest standards of women’s education, abandoned all pretense to intellectual seriousness.
Ms. Sommers and Dr. Satel are scholars at the American Enterprise Institute and co-authors of “One Nation Under Therapy,” out next week from St Martin’s Press.