Tag Archives: feh

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: 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?


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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