Tag Archives: john tierney

John Tierney can have my rubberized playground surface when he pries it from my cold, dead hands

In the NYT, John Tierney unloads this week on playground equipment, which in his view is not high enough or dangerous enough and is contributing to the weak moral fiber of These Kids Today.  Kids need to break their arms more, because breaking your arm and getting over it is part of growing up.

Even if children do suffer fewer physical injuries — and the evidence for that is debatable — the critics say that these playgrounds may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone…. Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

This article is more annoying than Tierney’s usual schtick, because this time I agree with his overall psychological stance.  I’m on board with the CBT model of phobia treatment, in which you attenuate a fear by graduated exposure.  I watch CJ struggle with things that scare him all the time, and I share his pride when he handles them.

That said, I think it’s premature to worry that you’re letting your kids grow up underfractured.  Tierney declines to say what “studies” he’s referring to above, but I’m pretty sure it’s Evidence for a non-associative model of the acquisition of a fear of heights, a 1998 paper in Behavior Research and Therapy by R. Poulton et al.  It’s a good paper!  But let’s look at what it really says. They used data from a longitudinal study to see what relation, if any, there was between severe falls early in life and fear of heights later.  What they found was this.  A fall before age 5 didn’t significantly affect fear of heights at age 11.  A fall before age 5 also didn’t significantly affect fear of heights at age 18.  Also, a fall between the ages of 5 and 9 didn’t significantly affect fear of heights at age 11.  But there was a significant negative association between falls between the ages of 5 and 9 and fear of heights at age 18.

That’s pretty far from “safe playgrounds stunt kids’ growth.”  All the more so when you stop to think that there might be other reasons that kids who were fearless about heights at 18 might have broken their arms more as kids.  Maybe they were fearless about heights to start with!  The authors of the study explicitly raise this possibility.  Tierney does not — strangely, considering how much he digs innate biological explanations when it’s time to explain where all the women math professors are.

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In which John Tierney annoys me regarding women in science, part — wait, I’ve lost count

Here’s Tierney in the New York Times:

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.

Here’s a Google Scholar search for “gender differences in cognition.” The first page of results includes the 1995 paper “Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: A meta-analysis and consideration of critical variables,” by Voyer, Voyer, and Bryden, which has been cited 791 times.

Camilla Benbow’s paper Sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability in intellectually talented preadolescents: Their nature, effects, and possible causes” has been cited over 300 times:  the abstract concludes “It is therefore proposed that the sex difference in SAT-M scores among intellectually talented students, which may be related to greater male variability, results from both environmental and biological factors.”

Here’s a selection of papers from the Organization for the Study of Sex Differences, including “Evidence for sex-specific shifting of neural processes underlying learning and memory following stress,” about cognitive differences between men and women under conditions of stress.  The OSSD’s 2010 annual meeting was funded by the National Science Foundation.

All I can say is, this is some really crappy taboo enforcement.  Politically correct mandarins of academia, get on the stick!

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In which John Tierney continues to annoy me: featuring reader survey!

John Tierney has annoyed me before on the subject of women in science.  And now he’s back, this time recapping the conventional wisdom that math departments like mine are 90% male because of the inborn boyish math power we men possess.  He styles this as “daring.”  The chutzpah!

Anyway, this time around he presses some perfectly respectable social science into service.  Here’s a fact:  more boys than girls get perfect scores on the math SAT.  And a recent study by Jonathan Wai, et al found that that among students who scored over 700 on the math SAT in 7th grade — just 1/10,000 of their sample — boys outnumbered girls by about 13 to 1 in the 1980s, a figure which dropped to 4:1 by the early 1990s and has stayed roughly constant since.

Now here’s how the standard — oops, sorry, I mean “daring” — argument goes:  mathematicians surely possess a math aptitude among the top 1 in 10,000 of the population.  That segment of the population is mostly men, as proven by science.  Ergo, most mathematicians should be men.

A mistake here, or at least a potential mistake, is thinking of success in mathematics as something driven by a variable called “aptitude”, which can be measured on a scale — as if getting tenured at Harvard were something like getting a 10 million on the math SAT.  Wai et al find that girls make up a substantial majority of extremely high 7th grade scorers in the English and writing sections of the exam.  Should one conclude on aptitudinal grounds women should be a majority among English professors?  It’s easy to mistake your operationalizations for reality, as when Wai et al write:

Giving the SAT-M in the 7th grade allows individual differences in the extreme right tail of the distribution (i.e., the top 1% which includes over one third of the ability range) to be captured adequately

I can think of lots of things they might mean by “one third of the ability range” but none which have any content.

Not that I’m saying it’s meaningless to ace the SAT before getting your driver’s license.  It’s a vanishingly small proportion of people who get a 700 on the math SAT at 13.  But I’d think it would be a very small proportion of mathematicians too!  If 10% of mathematicians were extreme child math prodigies, and those extreme child math prodigies are 80% boys, one hasn’t gone far towards explaining why US math research faculties are overwhelmingly male.

There’s actually an empirical question here which I know nothing about.  So let’s contribute to my know-nothingness by undertaking a brutally unscientific survey.  If you’re a working mathematician — say, a Ph.D. student in good standing or a faculty member at a university — did you score above 700M on the SAT when you were 13 or younger?  Since I think it’s a fairly small proportion of the world that takes the exam that early, let’s ask a more widely applicable question as well:  if you took the SAT as a senior in high school, did you get 800 on the math section?  (If you answer this, you might mention whether you took the exam before or after the 1995 recentering.)

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In which John Tierney annoys me: women in science edition

John Tierney writes in yesterday’s New York Times — correctly, I think — that science departments don’t need federally mandated quotas, a la Title IX, in order to improve the situation of women in science.

So what’s so annoying? Stuff like this:

The members of Congress and women’s groups who have pushed for science to be “Title Nined” say there is evidence that women face discrimination in certain sciences, but the quality of that evidence is disputed. Critics say there is far better research showing that on average, women’s interest in some fields isn’t the same as men’s.

Are these really the only two choices? Couldn’t we — without “Title Nining” away our autonomy — push our profession to be as open and as attractive to all mathematically talented people as we can? Is it possible that an effort of that kind could drastically increase the number of women who enjoy successful careers in research mathematics? Of course — because that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for years, and a drastic increase is exactly what happened. Not that you’d know it from Tierney’s article. There, any disparity between men and women is understood by all reasonable people to be the result of immutable personality differences. In which case our choice is: freedom, or an assault on human nature by the full coercive power of the state?

Feh.

On his blog, Tierney writes

Why, now that women students are approaching a 3-to-2 majority on campus and predominate in so many disciplines (including many science departments), is Washington singling out a few male-dominated departments in engineering and physical sciences? The answer from advocates of this policy is that science must be “Titled Nined” for women to get “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” to borrow the title of the 2007 report from the National Academy of Sciences on women in science. The answer from their critics — call them the Anti-Title-Niners — is that this bias exists largely in the imagination of well-organized activists, and that women on average just aren’t as interested as men are in these disciplines.

I just want to draw your attention to a rhetorical trick in that last sentence. Have you ever noticed that when you want to forbid people from thinking critically about what you’re saying, you can stick in a “just” and make your assertion seem like an eternal fact about the universe? Read the last sentence again without the “just.” Sounds different, doesn’t it? I learned this trick from listening to a lot of sports talk radio in my car, where you routinely encounter arguments of the form “Brett Favre is one of the five best players in the history of the National Football League. He just is.” If women report being less interested in going into mathematics, you might ask: why is that? But if they just are less interested, well, what is there to say?

If you want to see some different views about women in science (which do not, I guarantee, suggest that evil men are conspiring to hold the sisters down, that unequal representation is proof of discrimination, or that math departments should be federally bludgeoned into numerical parity) have a look at Amanda Schaffer’s six-part series in Slate or the work of Virginia Valian.

And now I will make fun of Tierney’s “about my blog” blurb. He writes:

With your help, he’s using TierneyLab to check out new research and rethink conventional wisdom about science and society. The Lab’s work is guided by two founding principles:

  • 1. Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
  • 2. But that’s a good working theory.

Cute! But let us not forget the idea “girls don’t care for math, and left to their own devices they wouldn’t be interested in boring boy stuff like scientific careers” does appeal to a lot of people, and it kind of is the conventional wisdom. Dare I say Tierney just isn’t taking a particularly bold or contrarian stance on this issue?

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