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Extropians Take Their Cue from Bigotry

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

"MIT certainly lowers standards for women and Œunderrepresented' minoritiesŠ The average woman at MIT is less intelligent and ambitious than the average man at MIT. The average Œunderrepresented' minority at MIT is less intelligent and ambitious than the average non-Œunderrepresented' minority."

So say the MIT Extropians on their World Wide Web site and in the pamphlet that they sent out to freshmen a few weeks ago. Under the self-applied label "reasoned discourse," the Extropians' founders, Hanyoung Huang G, Jason P. Davis '98, and John R. Bender '00, are out to stir up and promote good old-fashioned white suburban prejudices.

A new group, the Extropians, gained considerable renown over the summer after they tried to include their literature in the freshman mailing put out by the Association of Student Activities - and, later, after the secretary of the MIT Corporation decided to extract the submission from the mailing, when they surreptitiously mailed out their pamphlet to freshmen using mailing money out of their own pockets. And because Huang is a former publisher of Counterpoint, his appearance at the head of a prejudiced, Libertarian threesome has tarnished the image of that formerly conservative publication and caused a buzz of gossip on the fourth floor of the Student Center.

"It's absolutely racist and intolerant," said Jeremy D. Sher '99, Counterpoint senior advisor and former colleague of Huang. "It made me really mad. I was just absolutely floored to see these opinions presented seriously at MIT at all. It is absolutely not Œrational discourse'; it is filled with propaganda."

The idea that affirmative action reduces the quality of entrants and stigmatizes members of the groups it tries to help is by no means original to the Extropians. Its roots lie in the heart of 1960s race politics, beginning with the Chicago marches and so-called white backlash. Backlash produced the protest against "busing" (and, by extension, all integration) and "law and order" (playing on stereotypes whites had about criminals). When these code words fell out of favor, they were replaced by the Buchananite condemnation of affirmative action and "quotas."

So what do Huang and his fellow-travelers have to do with '80s paleoconservatism? Admittedly, not much. A read through their Web site reveals that their prejudices are more the product of a geeky, high school inferiority complex than anything else. Here we read what must be autobiography, cloaked in third-person narrative:

"Oh, you are going to try to excel at everything. Be totally hard-core, get straight A'sŠ write articles for some newspaper or magazine. You especially can't wait to meet the intense interesting peopleŠ" The authors go on to discover, shockingly, that people don't constantly stand around talking about quantum computing and the Mandelbrot set. They also decry fraternities for "their anti-intellectualism," not to mention - gasp! - foosball tables.

People here have lives? The horror. And worse: All this anti-intellectualism is caused by affirmative action. Although the authors admit that "not all women or all Œunderrepresented' minorities are unqualified," they note that women comprise the majority of "architecture, biology, management, or brain and cognitive sciences, obviously the less rigorous majors." Proof positive, by Extropian standards.

But the authors reveal a far better ruler for judging women on campus: "Ask upperclasswomen, better yet ask a sorority, how often a group of women will sit down on the weekend to discuss what Bell's Theorem and the Aspect Experiment imply for a hidden variables interpretation of quantum mechanicsŠ Such women are so rare here that these scenarios never happen. (What some men would do for intellectual women who are serious about living the exalted life.)"

While I leave the reader to imagine what the real motivation for such sentiments might be, I'm going to suggest it isn't reasoned discourse.

And what about this "rational discourse"? For some reason, that phrase is often associated with Libertarianism - and the Extropians are Libertarians, judging from the Ayn Rand promotion smeared across their site. Yet the Extropians' professed worship of the word "rational" falls flat when their outrageous assertions go wholly unsupported by fact.

In an effort to find the facts about affirmative action in admissions, I talked to Marilee Jones, MIT's interim director of admissions:

"I would just say that all the students coming in have about the same preparation. Which happens to be extraordinary," Jones said.

"The only difference that you see in the different groups would be in the test scores," Jones said "That's a phenomenon that's not well understood."

The college board, which has studied test score patterns in detail, has concluded that score differences between groups is not related to the actual knowledge or preparation of the groups in question. The differences appear to be caused by an external factor, perhaps related to the phrasing of questions. The college board has also determined that the score anomaly has no bearing on the groups' future performance in college. "The college board tells us not to use it in the same way," Jones said.

Indeed, Jones added, the board scores of underrepresented minorities at MIT are higher than the mean scores for all students attending the top 40 schools. Because of this, Jones doubts anyone could reasonably draw any conclusions about differences in qualifications.

"It does seem to me that the Extropians are using perception instead of fact," Jones said. "They're obviously working off some pre-conceived perception."

So the fact is that all the available evidence indicates that women and underrepresented minorities admitted by MIT are every bit as qualified as everyone else. So why don't they hang out with Huang, Davis, and Bender, raving about Bell's Theorem and The Fountainhead? Then again, would you want to hang around a clique of bigoted geeks?