Shame, shame on the New York Times!

Right now the NY Times is featuring on its front page a link to Tierney’s disgraceful article that clearly promotes an idea already discredited in the NY Times itself. The idea is that the lack of gender balance in the ‘hard’ sciences, maths and engineering merely reflects women’s preferences.  Tierney doesn’t seem to be able to find hard evidence of actual bias.  And when I last looked, all the featured comments reinforce his view.

Well, Tierney might have looked at the NY Times itself for hard evidence about bias diminishing women’s participation in those fields.  As we noted here, there is a 2005 article in the Times itself that details a lot of evidence of bias.

23 thoughts on “Shame, shame on the New York Times!

  1. Tierney is consistently appalling. He’s an even worse science journalist than he was an opinion columnist, and he was a pretty bad opinion columnist. On the blog entry that’s companion to today’s column, he describes the purpose of the column in this way:

    In my column I review evidence that women’s own preferences explain their relatively low numbers in fields like physics and engineering and computer science.

    The `evidence’ consists of (a) two completely uncited studies (one by a defender of The Bell Curve) showing correlations between career choice and individual interests/personality and (b) groundless speculation by the clinical psychologist sister of Stephen Pinker (the Harvard psychologist who defended Larry Summers) and Christian Hoff Sommers (the antifeminist philosopher associated with right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute).

    As best I can tell, there are only two epistemically acceptable claims Tierney makes in this column: `information technology workers especially enjoyed manipulating objects and machines, whereas workers in other occupations preferred dealing with people’, and this goes for both women and men.

  2. Brave Noumena for reading the whole thing!

    The idea that this was featured on the frontpage was too much,

  3. You might want to have a look at our very own UK proponent of ‘preference theory’ – Catherine Hakim. She is just as appalling in her claims that women choose, and are hence responsible for, their own disadvantage. The problem is that she collects very good large-scale labour market statistics which convinces many people who don’t know how to critique the assumptions built into her research.

  4. Lauren, thanks! I assume our UK component knows about it, but I’m wondering if there’s anything you’d recommend we read. No doubt the blogsphere will be a good resource for info, but good criticism might be harder to find.

  5. There was a very interesting debate in 2005 between two social psychologists at Harvard: Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke. I’ve summarized it here (shameful promotion of my own blog). You can find the original here. I’ve found this to be a very good summary of the current research, albeit a bit dated by now since the study based on PISA clearly supports Spelke’s position (I assume I have a two link limit, so no link here – a search for “Culture, Gender, and Math” will quickly get you to the Science Mag cite).

    Although here is evidence toward self-selection, there is also evidence that this self-selection is driven by societal influence, not by genetic differences. Articles like the one in the NYT are part of that societal influence… If I think that women are no good at math, why should I work hard at math?

  6. Isn’t Noumena’s comment just one ad hominem after another? It would be nice if this site actually engaged with opposing arguments and research, rather than simply decrying it as ‘disgraceful’, ‘appalling’, etc. That’s hardly going to convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you, after all.

    For those insufficiently “brave” to read articles which argue against their prior viewpoints, here’s some of the evidence that Title IX quotas are a bad idea, and that different preferences play a large role in explaining the gender gap:

    (1) The American Institute of Physics “found that women with physics degrees go on to doctorates, teaching jobs and tenure at the same rate that men do. The gender gap is a result of earlier decisions. While girls make up nearly half of high school physics students, they’re less likely than boys to take Advanced Placement courses or go on to a college degree in physics.”

    (2) After tracking a cohort of the mathematically gifted: young girls tended to be more interested in “organic” subjects, and they grew up to be as successful in their chosen careers as their male peers. “Dr. Lubinski and Dr. Benbow concluded that adolescents’ interests and balance of abilities — not their sex — were the best predictors of whether they would choose an “inorganic” career like physics.”

    (3) From Rosenbloom and Ash: “Once the researchers controlled for that personality variable, the gender gap shrank to statistical insignificance: women who preferred tinkering with inanimate objects were about as likely to go into computer careers as were men with similar personalities. There just happened to be fewer women than men with those preferences.”

    Maybe there are flaws in all these studies that I’m not aware of. But actually showing this would surely be a better response than the unsupported complaints and ad hominems I’m seeing here.

  7. Richard, to adopt your penchant for labels, I think the fallacy you have committed is call “the straw man.” We have looked at the arguments for and against. They are extremely well known (see Lauren’s comment above). But I and others agree with the very hard data that the earlier NY Times article describes, which I linked to.

    The earlier article describes some of what is going on at one site of NSF’s advance program; the data accumulated by participants in that program is immense. Have a look at what’s being done and discovered:

    We’ve also covered in other posts facts that challenge the preference theory. For example, there are huge national variations in women’s participation in the sciences. Rachel’s last para above is relevant to this.

    Warning: there is a great deal to be gone through on the nsf site. I’ve spent weeks and weeks going through it.

  8. Tierney offers evidence that

    (P) Much of the gender gap in the hard sciences is explained by sex differences in preferences, and so would persist even in the absence of discrimination.

    You respond with evidence that:

    (Q) There is some sex discrimination.

    These look to me like compatible claims. So highlighting Q does nothing to show that P is false. It looks to me like the evidence supports both: there is some sex discrimination, but it doesn’t play as large a role as preferences in explaining the gender gap.

    We’ve also covered in other posts facts that challenge the preference theory. For example, there are huge national variations in women’s participation in the sciences. Rachel’s last para above is relevant to this.

    Rachel’s last para seems a bit confused — who said that “women are no good at math”? Tierney’s claim is about preferences, not abilities, and about averages, not exceptionless laws.

    But yes, preferences are obviously socially influenced, so I would expect huge national variations in them. I’m not sure how that shows that preferences aren’t the cause of the gap here.

  9. Richard –

    Look more carefully at the specific claims I made:
    * Tierney is consistently appalling.
    * Tierney was a pretty bad opinion columnist.
    * Tierney is an even worse science journalist.
    * Various claims regarding his evidence and sources.
    * A claim that only two of Tierney’s claims are epistemically acceptable.

    None of the arguments for any of these are ad hominems. Could you be more specific?

    It would add that I included everything you quote as (1)-(3) from Tierney under (a). To be more specific, (1) doesn’t support Tierney’s claim, (2) is the paper by the defender of The Bell Curve, and the conclusion from (3) isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s read up on Carnegie Mellon’s efforts to address the underrepresentation problem in computer science. All together, as I wanted to imply, this is very sketchy evidence.

    Next, your use of `quotas’ to describe Title IX compliance standards is incorrect. Title IX requires educational institutions to provide equal opportunities for men and women. In the case of sports, this primarily means equal access to athletic scholarships and intramural teams. If it used quotas, college football as we know it today would be impossible.

    And finally, in your assessment, `there is some sex discrimination, but it doesn’t play as large a role as preferences in explaining the gender gap’. But neither Tierney nor you — nor, I think, anyone in this thread — has cited anything that analyses how much underrepresentation and the leaky pipeline effect are caused by different factors. Your (P) is therefore, at best, premature — neither you nor Tierney, if you grant (Q), have given an account of how much each factor contributes to the problem, and this account is necessary for (P) in light of (Q).

  10. None of the arguments for any of these are ad hominems. Could you be more specific?

    Certainly. Here’s you again, a few lines later:

    (2) is the paper by the defender of The Bell Curve, and the conclusion from (3) isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s read up on Carnegie Mellon’s effort… [therefore?] this is very sketchy evidence.

  11. Ohhh I see the misunderstanding now. My point with Lubinski was that, as a defender of The Bell Curve, his credibility suffers. That’s not an ad hominem; remember that we’re talking about theory choice, not formal logic.

    Of course, following many philosophers of science, one could also recognise that scepticism about Lubinski on the basis of his past support for racist science — regardless of its `pure’ epistemic status — is a perfectly legitimate use of value judgements to narrow the logical gap between evidence and hypothesis. That would be an ad hominem — but then the question is, whether it’s an epistemically acceptable ad hominem. Which is probably a dispute for another thread.

  12. a gentle reminder about keeping the tone nice…

    and a point about richard’s claim, (P), that given differential preferences, the gap would remain;
    Clare Chambers has an excellent recent book (Sex, Justice and Culture) in which one of the main claims she argues for is, in brief, this: given the social construction of preferences (as acknowledged, richard), simply looking at preference and choice need not be where the buck stops in policy making.
    In particular, if those preferences are formed under conditions where the preferences lead to inequality or injustice – especially if that inequality is to the advantage of some other group – there may be reason to implement policy to alter social arrangements or conditions.
    So, suppose preferences for subjects other than hard maths are formed early in young women due to gender socialisation, leading to a later gender gap in the sciences, and this gender gap perpetuates an unjust situation. (I’m not arguing for these claims here, just sketching the claims that would need arguing for.)
    One way of altering such an unjust situation may be to introduce policies that ensure representation of women in the sciences – perhaps via equal opps, perhaps via quotas – which may, by providing role models, in turn gradually influence the social norms that shape women’s preferences for subjects other than hard science.

    So *even if* it is a matter of differential preferences, that doesn’t settle the matter.
    But that’s aside from the problems about bias that have been much discussed.

  13. Thanks, stoat, for both the reminder and the point. Ann Levey has a little paper in Hypatia (vol. 20 no. 4) that makes almost exactly the same basic argument. She reminds us that it’s a point feminists have been making since Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill. Martha Nussbaum has written about this quite a bit, too. A whole chapter of Women and human development is about adaptive preferences (and it’s a theme that runs through the rest of the book, IIRC), and Levey also cites a paper, `Adaptive preferences and women’s options’, Economics and philosophy 17:67-88 (2001).

    Levey’s piece is especially interesting (compared to Taylor, Mill and Nussbaum) because she argues that, since adaptive preferences are freely chosen but harmful to women as a class, liberalism as a tradition in political philosophy can’t adequately theorize them.

  14. Thanks, Stoat and Noumena, for the points and the references. It does seem really important to remember that group membership can deeply affect us. If there are “insider” and “outsider” groups, we really need to be careful about rationalizing the two by referring to the different characteristics the groups possess. This is so just because the characteristics may be created by the grouping.

    The stereotype threat is relevant here. In a society where it is widely believed that white men can’t jump, reminding white men of their race right before a basketball game tends to degrade their performance; similarly for women and maths.

    One thing I clearly remember from an SPP conference: some young men were presenting a poster that caught my interest; when I went over to ask about their poster, they looked at me clearly expecting something close to inane. (I tried to imagine this too familiar experience from their point of view in
    It’s extremely hard – at least for me and surely many others – to pull together a technical point where the people you are talking to are just short of rolling their eyes.

  15. Thanks for the levey reference noumena; i’ll have a look at it.

    JJ- one can imagine that, even in instances when contrary to social norms a preference for (e.g) sciences is formed and acted upon, that kind of reaction might make one doubt one’s aptitude in that domain(in particular if stereotype threat is active)… you’d expect that to influence drop out rates. But the discussion earlier (richard at 8) suggested the progression rates were not lower for women? (I admit i havent trawled through the material at the link you posted!)

  16. Stoat, my bad. I didn’t see that one. Here’s what the National Science Foundation says:

    Although women earn half of the bachelors degrees in science and engineering, they continue to be significantly underrepresented in almost all science and engineering fields, constituting 29 percent (in 2003) of doctoral science and engineering faculty in four-year colleges and universities and only 18 percent of full professors. Women from minority groups are particularly underrepresented in science and engineering, constituting approximately 3 percent of science and engineering faculty in four-year colleges and universities.

    What the NSF is worried about is that basic research fuels US economic development, it is done almost entirely in universities, and there aren’t enough Americans to do it anymore.

    So what about physics? I’m pretty sure I’m remembering correctly that only 4% of physics full professors are women, so we certainly need an explanation before the Physics Institute’s figures have much meaning. It may be that physics excludes women at a much earlier stage. There is another possibility that the supposed facts do not reveal. Four year liberal arts colleges can be heaven for humanities scholars, but they are less good for scientists. It is exceptionally difficult to continue a significant research program in a science without graduate students. Now, guess where most women trained in science end up. High powered research universities or really nice and comfortable liberal arts colleges? Hmmmm. If you guessed the latter, then you got it. And a lot of the reason why has been investigated: women get much poorer letters of recommendation than comparable men do, their cv’s are systematically under-rated. In studies where teams were given cvs that differed only in the gender suggested by the names, men were rated as more qualified than the women. Men are typically mentored much more effectively in grad school. And on and on. These explanations are not guesses; they are the results of hard studies.

    It is also true that academia is very rigidly structured around men’s lives, and still does not in general accommodate well the differences women’s lives create. It is, if you think of it, quite astonishing that this is still so. Shirley Tilghman, a scientist who is the president of Princeton, echoes James Carville in saying, “It’s daycare, stupid.”

  17. Trackback:
    “I’ve spent the past week reading Iris Marion Young’s Justice and the politics of difference, and the last day or two thinking about this thread on the underrepresentation of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines….”

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