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Letters

Cambridge 02138

President Summers, drug discovery, Yasin on Pipes

May-June 2005

Getting Social Security Right

I appreciate Professor Jeffrey B. Liebman’s recognition (“Reforming Social Security,” March-April, page 30) of the “third group” that believes “that Social Security was basically a mistake in the first place,” even though he was too polite to locate our current Republican leadership squarely in this group. But in his eagerness to support a forced increase in the savings rate, he misses three important possible reforms.

First, the huge budget deficit would be even greater if the positive balance in the Social Security Trust fund were properly accounted as a government obligation; this effective raid on the fund is in fact the largest threat to future solvency, since there is no guarantee that it will be repaid in benefits: we need a “locked box.”

Second, the 12.4 percent OASDI tax rate applies only to the first $90,000 of income; thus the teacher or plumber earning $90,000 is taxed at a rate 100 times greater than the CEO “earning” $9 million; let us at least make OASDI a flat tax on all income!

Third, the usually asserted threat to Social Security is the diminishing ratio of working Americans to retired Americans; the obvious solution is to create disincentives for outsourcing American jobs or to create public jobs rebuilding the crumbling U.S. infrastructure. My fear is that even the Democratic members of Congress will fail to perceive the real needs of ordinary Americans for at least the current social insurance programs.

Michael Rice, Ph.D. ’58
Delmar, N.Y.

 

Liebman exposes his leftist bias when he states, “One of the main dangers of mixed systems that combine Social Security benefits with retirement accounts is that they might become the first step toward total privatization.”

The chances of that happening are extremely slim, but for argument’s sake, what would be wrong with that occurring? We would end up with an actuarially sound system, which our present system is not. Furthermore, beneficiaries would gain in two ways: the return on their contributions would be greater, plus they would be able to leave a legacy if they so chose.

The argument that privatization would be risky is specious. Not all of the account need be invested in stocks; safe bonds would be an option. Furthermore, the investment would be over extended periods and would weather periodic drops in stock markets. Based on history, there is no way that the argument can be made that private accounts would not be a better deal, risk and all.

Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of Liebman’s statement is that obviously he does not trust the people. A move toward partial and/or total privatization could occur only with the approval of the electorate. So many public-policy wonks do not trust the electorate to make correct decisions.

Donald Powell, M.B.A. ’59
Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

 

Social Security has been doing something very good for the people of this nation for about 70 years. All we need are long-term adjustments that can begin to be implemented in the near future. They include: (a) substantially reducing unemployment, particularly among minorities; (b) raising the minimum wage; (c) gradually increasing retirement age, while simultaneously increasing vacation time for older workers; (d) raising the “cap”; (e) not making the tax cuts permanent; and, very importantly, (f) reforming the Congress and the administration.

Frank R. Tangherlini ’48
San Diego

 

Most of the tinkering being suggested by articles like Liebman’s would make Social Security look like a bad bargain and allow the bait-and-switch tacticians to claim people would do better investing on their own. (Most wouldn’t.) Raising the income level subject to Social Security tax would incur still larger future obligations for benefits. This is a classic case of trying to fix something that isn’t broken, for the benefit of the stockbrokers and money managers and insurance salesmen.

James Morgan, Ph.D. ’45
Ann Arbor

 

President Summers

Three cheers for President Lawrence H. Summers for the speech that has aroused such paranoia, and no cheers for his apology (“Gender Gap,” March-April, page 62). No cheers either for the three college presidents who joined in chiding him, or for the Harvard Corporation in its weak-kneed support of him.

Summers suggested we might look into whether women’s genetic makeup might cause them to be less gifted, or less interested, in the sciences. Is that not a legitimate subject for inquiry? If he had asked whether man’s genetic makeup might be responsible for more men than women being imprisoned for violent crimes, would there have been calls for his head?

The fallout from this nonsense has already caused grievous harm to Harvard and, if continued, will cause more. What we are seeing is the ultimate triumph of political correctness, the contemporary equivalent of medieval theological dogma, any deviation from which is regarded as heresy. Galileo must have felt much as Summers feels now, and for the same reason, being forced to apologize while still holding to his beliefs. Is Harvard to be held hostage to the whims of neo-Victorian maidens who rush to the smelling salts at the utterance of what they regard as a naughty word—but have plenty of strength left to hike up their skirts and trot off to the nearest TV reporter? Is Harvard to reassert the primacy of free thought and free investigation or is it to bow down before a powerful anti-intellectual lobby with a specific agenda?

William M. Murphy ’38, Ph.D. ’47
Pompano Beach, Fla.

 

It is past time for Summers to resign the post that he has repeatedly misused to make divisive, inappropriate, or patently ignorant public statements. According to numerous reports, he has repeatedly attempted to bully faculty and students, both in private and public meetings. His widely reported remarks months ago equating criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government with anti-Semitism were deeply offensive, especially to Jews like myself who do not equate Ariel Sharon with the state of Israel, even less with the Jewish people. This pattern of behavior, which his recent astonishing statements about women’s aptitude in math and science only confirm, has brought our alma mater into ridicule and contempt. I will join the growing numbers of alumni who will never give again as long as Summers remains as Harvard’s president of misrule.

John Pitman Weber ’64
Elmhurst, Ill.

 

Summers hit the nail on the head. It is part of our cultural mythology that women’s biology—which really means our bodies—is the reason for our exclusion from everything you can think of that men have wanted to keep for themselves. But as one of a gazillion women trained in science, I am sure that it’s not our distinctly configured bodies, or even our distinctly configured brains, that are the impediment to our advancement.

Women have about as much chance of advancing in the sciences as they do in, say, the NFL. Or the Vatican. At a recent alumni conference in Cambridge, I joked about this: “Women in the sciences are required to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Poverty, because we earn 79 cents to every dollar a man earns. Chastity, because you can’t get anywhere on the Mommy track. Obedience, because you are never going to be the Pope.” None of the women laughed.

The expansion of the sciences that Summers proposes for Harvard—notably in bioengineering, in nanotechnology, and in stem-cell research—is a headlong rush down that same exclusive path, in areas that have already been staked out as guy territory, presumably funded with guy investment, undoubtedly with an eye to old-school guy profit, under the whole immutable guy domain that is Harvard. One way to look at this is as a closed system. Anthropologist Margaret Mead said that in every culture she ever saw, men have staked out spheres of activity from which women are excluded. The reason for this may be biology, but it surely isn’t ours; and if it turns out that men are innately incapable of sharing turf, we ought to announce it, deal with it, and move on. No sense in trying to turn a battleship.

On the other hand, the changes that Summers proposes for the Core curriculum—an interdisciplinary approach organized around problems such as poverty —offers another way to look at what we call the “sciences.” Such a problem-oriented, inclusive approach to, say, world hunger or clean water or peace could be designed from conception to allow the emergence of a more balanced domain that relies, at all levels, and in equal measure, upon the talents of both men and women; and includes the goal of making gender truly irrelevant to achievement.

Katharine M. Hikel ’74, M.D.
Hinesburg, Vt.

 

Despite the volume of commentary and condemnation that followed Summers’s remarks, there has been little attention paid to relevant biological data. There is overwhelming evidence for biologically based sex differences in cognition. In fact, few scientists today would question the existence of fundamental differences between men and women in their patterns of cognitive abilities and the structure and functioning of certain brain regions.

It is important to be clear that the relevant studies all report the average (mean) performance of representative samples of males versus females on behavioral tasks; they tell us nothing about any particular individual. Because these behavioral measures generally show considerable variability within both groups, many males and females perform counter to average trends.

One striking result from a wide range of research studies is that females consistently score, on average, higher than males in many language skills, including word articulation and measures of verbal fluency. These and other studies suggest that differences in verbal skills are influenced by exposure to sex hormones, both prenatally by the developing fetus, and subsequently during adulthood by circulating levels of these hormones.

In contrast, males tend to show significant advantages in many skills involving spatial cognition or the coordination of visual and motor function. Again, research has suggested that these differences are due, in part, to both prenatal exposure to sex hormones as well as circulating levels of these hormones at the time of testing. Perhaps the most striking differences between men and women are with respect to the representation and manipulation of mental images of three-dimensional objects. If I show you a picture of an object, can you tell me what it will look like if it is rotated 90 degrees or 180 degrees? Here, males are, on average, significantly better than females. Other differences can be found in map reading and navigation where males tend to orient according to routes, which they visualize using a mental map of their environment (what sailors call “dead reckoning”), while females tend to rely more on orienting with respect to remembered landmarks. These differences in spatial and navigational abilities are perhaps the strongest, and most reliable, differences in cognitive function between the sexes.

Although societal norms and cultural expectations could influence all of these abilities, the key role of sex hormones in modulating these differences provides compelling evidence for an underlying biological basis for many of these differences.

Any discussion of group-based differences in ability raises the specter that awareness of these differences might be used to justify prejudicial treatment. There are, however, important ways in which a deeper and clearer understanding of the differing cognitive abilities and styles of males and females could be of enormous benefit to women.

The differences between male and female cognitive styles are subtle and complex, often suggesting that men and women solve problems by relying on different abilities, alternative strategies, and possibly different brain regions. If our educational system were more attuned to the differences in cognitive styles between boys and girls, might this lead to more individualized educational methods that encourage each person, male or female, to draw on their respective strengths and individual proclivities? Could it be that many girls fail at science or math because educational programs are based not on what suits them, but on what is best for boys?

As Summers argued, it is essential that we be open-minded and pursue all possible avenues and lines of research as we consider, evaluate, and often reject, various hypotheses and conjectures. If we stick only to those beliefs with which we are comfortable, we hog-tie our future potential, limiting our ability to better understand the nature of who we are, how we differ from each other, and how the sum of our similarities and differences affects our lives, careers, and society.

Mark A. Gluck ’81
Professor of neuroscience, Rutgers University
Newark, N.J.

 

My candidate for Harvard’s presidency had been Lee Bollinger of the University of Michigan whom I had closely observed when he was law dean and later. Despite his leadership of the landmark affirmative-action litigation in the U.S. Supreme Court, Bollinger’s apparently fatal flaw was his lack of a Harvard pedigree. Although Summers has one in spades, his need for diplomatic potty training was well known on the banks of the Potomac.

But the March 15 vote to denounce him will be a huge loss to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and to the broader University. On March 16, the Crimson reported that this sobering prospect may have occurred almost immediately to some of his FAS opponents, who expressed “surprise” as soon as the votes were announced.

What follows is unlikely to be pretty.

Terence Murphy ’59, J.D. Michigan ’66
Washington, D.C.

 

Small-molecule Research

Drug discovery seems always worth trying (“The Chemical Biologists,” by Patricia Thomas, March-April, page 38). It is not easy to think of any other continuing endeavor that combines as much potential human value, intellectual challenge, and consequent financial return.

Yet, as a knowledge-creating scientific activity, chemical biology has at least as many critics as advocates within the drug-discovery community. First, it is difficult to foresee any outcome beyond enormous tabulations of individual biological tests of individual chemical structures, hopefully punctuated by welcome if rare instances of promising outcomes. Analogies are sometimes drawn to the new understandings and capabilities yielded by the human genome project. But so far the many attempts to derive more than locally valid relationships between structural change and biological response have been unsuccessful. Second, there are serious doubts about the tabulated data values themselves; for example, synthetic methods such as “split and pool” have already been tried and discarded as unreliable by almost every industrial discovery laboratory. Third, natural products, though synthetically inspiring and sometimes possessing uniquely promising biological activities, are otherwise not very drug-like (too big and complex and inaccessible), so even the more promising structure/activity observations in these tables may go ignored. Finally, some worry about confounding effects on future intellectual-property assets, the only financial justification for these always expensive and usually frustrated endeavors.

Richard D. Cramer ’63
O’Fallon, Mo.

 

Commencement Speaker Counters Pipes

It was with shock and dismay that I read Janet Tassel’s article about Daniel Pipes ’71, “Militant about ‘Islamism’” (January-February, page 38). When I gave my 2002 Commencement address entitled “Of Faith and Citizenship: My American Jihad,” Pipes was among the leaders of the campaign to have me censored, slandered, and intimidated. His attempts to silence me, and his current effort to establish a government agency to maintain ideological control over academia, clash violently with the values that led former President Charles W. Eliot to describe Harvard as the “freest” American university.

An honest appraisal of Pipes should have started by looking in depth at one of his most commonly stated, and most demonstrably false, claims. While he purports to support “moderate” Muslims, his litmus test is laughable. The only Muslims he considers moderate are those who sacrifice their religion’s commitments to social justice and intellectual honesty to support his skewed view of “American interests.” Ironically, these are among the core values Islam and the United States share, as I emphasized in my address. For Pipes, abject capitulation is the only way a Muslim can be “moderate.” By grouping leading progressives and moderates in the Muslim world such as Tariq Ramadan and Khalid Abou el-Fadl in the same “extremist” category as real threats such as Osama bin Laden, Pipes seeks to censor and silence any legitimate and authentic Muslim voices for reform.

Unsurprisingly, his views and ideas hold little sway with the Muslim and non-Muslim activists on the ground who are working to develop legitimate answers to the very difficult issues facing the Muslim world today. Rather, Pipes’s polarizing and provocative rhetoric simply foments mistrust between the United States and the Muslim world, heightening the risks of conflict. Pipes combines the sort of ideological extremism he claims to despise with a willful ignorance of both Muslim history and the modern Muslim world. A man with the self-proclaimed “politics of a truck driver” is, despite considerable intelligence and education, incapable of offering constructive input on the most important and complex political issues of our time.

When I was given the privilege of speaking at my graduation, I dedicated myself to building mutual understanding and interconnections between the two great cultures and civilizations into which I was born. Pipes has dedicated his career to the absolute opposite. Harvard Magazine’s unquestioning panegyric of Pipes was an embarrassment to the University, and a betrayal of every value Harvard claims to represent.

Zayed Yasin ’02, M.D. ’08
Boston

 

Global Warming in Fiction

Methinks yon professors do protest too much (“Overheated Rhetoric,” by Michael B. McElroy and Daniel P. Schrag, March-April, page 25). “Overheated Rhetoric” is a fitting title for this purported review of Michael Crichton’s new novel, State of Fear—except in this case, it applies more fittingly to their defensive screed about the environmental framework for the story line. The reviewers sarcastically and rhetorically ask why should such a celebrated writer (and a Harvardian at that) “be constrained by the usual requirements for fair play and accuracy.” In fiction? What fate suffers the conflict that is the lifeblood of any successful novel if the author is obliged to stop and check throughout the course of the narrative to ensure compliance with some presumably defined (politically correct?) standards? The real “state of fear” here, I believe, is that evidenced by two credentialed academics who feel compelled to unleash verbal broadsides in a shotgun pattern to refute a made-up story.

Bernard G. Elliker, M.P.A. ’69
Laurel, Md.

 

Library Cost-cutting

It was a shock to read of Harvard’s library cuts (“Leaner Libraries,” March-April, page 70). The University’s endowment fund prospers at an unrivaled pace, its books may be digitized by Google at a cost of some $50 million, yet library funding is reduced and conservation staff laid off. This is short-sighted folly. Digitization is a fragile, risk-prone, and probably ephemeral mode of replication; on-line reading is narrowly task-based, unreflective, not serendipitous.

Printed materials remain our vital resource. They alone guarantee the endurance of intellectual capital and cultural continuity. Must Harvard succumb to David Kirp’s “new era, not of ideas but of money” (Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line, reviewed in the same issue)?

Until the retrenchment program is reversed I urge alumni to earmark donations for library use alone.

David Lowenthal ’44
Berkeley

 

Radcliffe in the 1950s

As a member of the class of 1953, I can’t believe the baggage that Ann Shapiro has been carrying around all these years (“Birth of a Feminist,” March-April, page 15). Yes, things were different for women at Harvard in the 1950s. But with a little gumption a Radcliffe girl could get a first-class education, have plenty of interaction with professors and extremely talented section men (like Samuel Beer, later a full professor), and easily hold one’s own in classes. So there were more men than women in class? So what? If Shapiro was too embarrassed to be called on in class because there were too many men, she should have gone to Wellesley. I never felt condescended to either by fellow students or by faculty members. Marriage? No one held a gun to her head and forced her to get married before graduation. And if she did get married (too) young, whose fault was that? So she waited 25 years to find something meaningful to do. Why blame Radcliffe or men in general? There were many options open, and many of us found them. It’s time to quit whining.

Lois Malakoff Carswell ’53, HRP ’54
Brooklyn

 

Dostoevsky a Hedgehog

I don’t know which version of Isaiah Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” Adam Kirsch has been reading (“The Rebellion of E.E. Cummings,” March-April, page 48), but it’s certainly not the one on my bookshelf. Kirsch calls Dostoevsky a fox; on the contrary, he is explicitly included among the hedgehogs. As for Kirsch’s assertion that Tolstoy was a hedgehog, Berlin says, “The hypothesis I wish to offer is that Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog....” The entire thrust of Berlin’s essay is that Tolstoy’s hedgehog-like appearance was an imposture, a tragic lifelong deception practised on himself as well as others.

Edward Fagen ’52
Middlebury, Vt.

 

Breaking News

For coverage of breaking news at Harvard, the editors invite you to visit the magazine’s website, www.harvardmagazine.com. Those interested in following the debate in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences in recent months may do so there through the posted statements of faculty members and our news reporting (see also "At Odds"). And during Commencement week, speakers’ texts will be posted when they become available.

On the website, you may also register for “Editor’s Highlights,” a summary of the contents of each new issue e-mailed just as it is posted on the website. Readers outside the United States, who don’t automatically receive the print edition, may find this an especially helpful way to keep in touch with the University and each other.

 

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