Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Perspectives . . .

IT'S NOT EASY, SOMETIMES, to be politically-correct. Being part of the vanguard of the progressives requires a certitude of righteousness that can triumph reality on occasion. It's when reality bites back, that problems arise.

John Tierney's article in the NYT, "Social Scientist Sees Bias Within" is a fascinating look at this process by which the politically-correct bludgeon those with whom they disagree.

“If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community,” he said. “They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” It’s easy for social scientists to observe this process in other communities, like the fundamentalist Christians who embrace “intelligent design” while rejecting Darwinism. But academics can be selective, too, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan found in 1965 when he warned about the rise of unmarried parenthood and welfare dependency among blacks — violating the taboo against criticizing victims of racism.

“Moynihan was shunned by many of his colleagues at Harvard as racist,” Dr. Haidt said. “Open-minded inquiry into the problems of the black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed. Only in the last few years have liberal sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along.”

Similarly, Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, was ostracized in 2005 for wondering publicly whether the preponderance of male professors in some top math and science departments might be due partly to the larger variance in I.Q. scores among men (meaning there are more men at the very high and very low ends). “This was not a permissible hypothesis,” Dr. Haidt said. “It blamed the victims rather than the powerful. The outrage ultimately led to his resignation. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely.

Instead, the taboo against discussing sex differences was reinforced, so universities and the National Science Foundation went on spending tens of millions of dollars on research and programs based on the assumption that female scientists faced discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias. But that assumption has been repeatedly contradicted, most recently in a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by two Cornell psychologists, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams. After reviewing two decades of research, they report that a woman in academic science typically fares as well as, if not better than, a comparable man when it comes to being interviewed, hired, promoted, financed and published.

“Thus,” they conclude, “the ongoing focus on sex discrimination in reviewing, interviewing and hiring represents costly, misplaced effort.


West End Bob said...

Now you're using Larry Summers, infamous for his role in torpedoing the Glass-Steagall act in the Clinton administration as a reference?

He who teamed up with Alan Greenspan and Bob Rubin to tie the hands of Brooksley Born of the CFTC in reigning in the out-of-control derivatives market?

The pronunciations of this guy don't have a whole lot of credibility . . . .

Boris said...

Ah. The PNAS article is worth its own review.

A couple rapid thoughts:

What it describes is a systemic bias against women. The academic system is a legacy system from an era when men dominated the scene and women stayed at home and made babies. The institutional structures are built around that era and continue to reproduce themselves. Cosmetic changes don't go far enough, and the authors' conclusion is nothing short of a revolutionisation of the academy.

Second, the concern over math scoring represents an epistemological privileging. The privilege of math is becomes reflection of male privilege and bias given the prevelance of males in that field and the privilege of that knowledge. Math is held as the language of scientific knowledge and therefore modernity. The big disciplines of a material, growth oriented society are economics (I include commerce and business here), engineering, and physics which are dominated by men and privileged. We're close to killing our planet because of it.

My department contains a math discipline and another one which is far less math oriented. There are qualitative and mixed scholars in this one and a much higher representation of women. We have one male and mixed at that. He is invited into math males' coffee club researches with them on projects the women are not ever approached and sometimes criticised as "feminist". The discourse from some of the math oriented male faculty perjoratively ostracises people who do not study or present results in formulae and statistical tables. "It isn't real science!" "How are know the results valid?" variations of which start to sound like 'you're not a real scientist." We've got one or two Don Cherries in our faculty who very much appear to link their maleness to their research.

So it might not be so much a bias against women at the micro-level in terms of research and such, but there could well be a systemic bias against some of the fields that women enter for the very reason that these fields are not accepted at the same level the math heavy, male dominated, disciplines are by the men which occupy the majority of positions in those socially privileged fields.

Boris said...

Dr. Haidt is a piece of work. According to the NYT piece, he provides no rationale beyond in-group bias for the large proportions of 'liberals' in the social sciences. If he stopped picking on the psych crowd and looked at economics, he might find the reverse.

My peers in the social sciences like geography, sociology, psych, etc tend to be motivated by a desire to help other human beings, often the most vulnerable. In the present day, this could not be said to be a value held by conservatives. Their field is by definition their value system. Moreover, the nature of the problems we study can often be shown to be the result of some conservative-like ideal or another.
For example, root causes of crime tend to be social(like poverty) and are not remedied simply by building more prisons. Nor are wars solved by more wars. Etc.

Haidt is blaming his liberals colleagues for his minority status, while failing to account for the nature of the discipline itself or the debates within it.

CathiefromCanada said...

I guess we must agree to disagree -- I see nothing wrong with calling out pseudo-science when it attempts to justify prejudice.

CathiefromCanada said...

Sorry, my comment was addressed to Ed, not to Boris.

Smartpatrol said...

Ed needs some cheese to go along w/ his whine.

Rev.Paperboy said...

having attended a university that was a mecca for engineering, I can assure you that spending ten minutes at the weekly POETS (Piss On Everything, Tomorrow is Saturday) pub sponsored by the Engineering students would leave no doubt at all in your mind that there was a high level of institutional and individual personal sexism running through the entire engineering school.

Kevin said...

There is an interesting response to that column here: