John Leo

Some fact-free assertion still fails. For a while, many people seemed to believe (wanted to believe) that abortions in the United States rose 25 percent after Bush was elected in 2000. Howard Dean was sure of it. Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, too. But no, facts unexpectedly intruded. Abortion continued to decline, albeit slightly, during the Bush years. And lots of people seemed certain that anti-Bush voters would flock to Canada after the 2004 vote. Despite the many predictions ("Canada Awaits American Influx," was one headline), the expected stampede turned out to be a trickle. U.S. migration to Canada declined in the six months after Bush won.

With a big boost from the news media, assertion managed to topple Larry Summers at Harvard. Some reporting mangled Larry Summers' controversial comments on women and science. A headline in The Washington Post magazine said, in part, "When Harvard's president questioned the scientific aptitude of girls ..." But Summers didn't say that the best women couldn't achieve at the level of the best men. He said that there are more males than females at the very top, "about five-to-one at the high end," which is roughly what the research shows. The bell-shaped curve for the distribution of intelligence is flatter for males than for females; there are more very bright males at the top and more very dull males at the bottom.

Discussing this evidence is a no-no at Harvard, so Summers would have been driven out even if he had been understood and quoted correctly. But he was ousted by yet another fact-free assertion -- that he had somehow demeaned women. He hadn't, but the strategy of his detractors worked. Summers apologized and then quit for hurting some people's feelings. That's what happens when emotions are allowed to beat facts.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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