Truth's two prongs – unsightful, offensive

Freedom is expanding around the world, but it's still possible to get in trouble in some places for speaking your mind – such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Harvard.

Like Kim Jong Il and the House of Saud, America's most prestigious university enforces some sacred taboos, as President Larry Summers can now attest.

Summers, a distinguished economist, had the absurd notion that despite being a university administrator, he has the right to behave like a scholar by challenging prevailing wisdom. At a recent academic conference in Cambridge, which was supposed to be off the record, he talked about factors that might explain the relative dearth of women in math and science positions at elite universities.

One possible – not definite, but possible – explanation he mentioned was the existence of biological differences between the sexes.

The reaction from some women was swift and angry. MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins walked out. "When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn't breathe, because this kind of bias makes me physically ill," she said later. Mary Waters, chair of Harvard's sociology department, said it would hurt recruiting that "the president of Harvard didn't think that women scientists were as good as men."

Actually, that's about as far from what Summers said as Cambridge is from Dogpatch. Several women scholars, recognizing as much, came to his defense. Harvard economics professor Claudia Goldin, for example, said she "left with a sense of elation" that "the president of my university retains the inquisitiveness of an academic."

Summers nonetheless had to apologize for uttering forbidden thoughts. He also promised a group of women professors that he would "address diversity issues in the coming days," as a university spokesperson put it.

But why should he have to beg forgiveness or take corrective action? It should not be Summers' job to make sure no one is ever offended. On the contrary, free inquiry demands a willingness to question even the most widely cherished ideas. The quest for truth should allow academics to pursue facts wherever they may lead. The beauty of academia is that anyone who thinks Summers is a bigot or an idiot always has the option of mercilessly refuting him.

But his critics act as though personal indignation is all the argument they need. This attitude has no place on a university campus. As Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker said of Summers' remarks, "The truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is 'offensive' even to consider it?"

It's hard to see why it should be offensive to wonder if women and men may be genetically prone to different strengths and weaknesses. No one would be howling if Summers had suggested that biology might help explain why men commit far more homicides than women, or why they die more often in accidents, or why they are more disposed to autism.

As it happens, Summers has ample evidence to support his suggestion about women and math. On average, men and women are equal in mathematics ability. But that doesn't mean they are identical.

Men are more likely to be "outliers" – scoring very high or very low on intelligence tests. David Geary, chair of the psychological sciences department at the University of Missouri, says that among adolescents scoring at the very top levels on standardized math tests, males outnumber females by a staggering 13 to 1.

Other studies show that females who are gifted in math are far less likely than men to get degrees in math and engineering, and more likely to study, say, medicine or law. Why? Because they tend to be "more verbally talented" than men and more inclined to pursue "opportunities that draw on verbal-linguistic skills," according to a study by Vanderbilt University scholars Rose Mary Webb, David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow. The "problem" is that these women are more talented than their male counterparts, giving them broader options

Critics may blame this pattern on discrimination. That doesn't square with the study's findings that job satisfaction is virtually the same among the women as the men.

All this evidence is subject to rebuttal, but scorn and abuse don't refute it. In a scholarly environment, we ought to encourage people to examine even the most inconvenient notions to find out if they have any validity. That's how knowledge advances – not by suppressing debate and vilifying provocative thinkers.

Contrary to what Steven Pinker says, the truth may be offensive to some people. But that doesn't make it any less true.

(E-mail Steve through the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com)