Monday, October 09, 2006

Sometimes "post hoc ergo propter hoc" does some good work

My dad pointed me to this article in the New York Times, on the new National Academies report on women in science. (Unfortunately the article is blocked to most users at this point -- I went through LexisNexis. The report can be read online for free.) Dad's a great guy, so presumably he pointed it out because I might think it was interesting (full disclosure: I work for the National Academies) or because it might lead to a lot of people asking for this book (full disclosure: I run the bookstore there), not because it's a poorly-argued penis-waving screed that would be guaranteed to piss me off. But it is, and it did.

See, I have this new theory about Republicans: their primary problem is their inability to deconstruct. This is not to say that they're stupid, or necessarily ignorant in any but a very specific way. Rather, they are self-centered (not necessarily egotistical, but cognitively constricted to their own perspective) enough that they have a hard time understanding how "the way things are" often reduces to "the way things have been" -- not to mention that they have no inclination to think this way. This is how you can have perfectly intelligent individuals saying ignorant shit like "we shouldn't have affirmative action, because blacks aren't as smart or don't perform as well as whites, so we're bringing down the overall level of the institution if we require a leveled playing field." They think they're being logical, but they have a huge blind spot when it comes to considering how background, socialization, privilege, and history might affect a situation. And that blind spot, as far as I'm concerned, all but nullifies the argument.

So now we have this John Tierney fellow saying, with a perfectly straight face, things like:
One well-documented difference is the disproportionately large number of boys scoring in the top percentile of the SAT math test. And when you compare boy math whizzes with girl math whizzes, more differences appear. The boys score much higher on the math portion of the SAT than on the verbal, whereas the girls are more balanced -- high on the verbal as well as the math.

The girls have more career options, and they have different priorities than the boys, as the psychologists David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow have demonstrated by tracking students with the exceptional mathematical ability to become top-flight researchers in science and engineering.

As adolescents, the boys are especially interested in abstract theoretical pursuits and "inorganic" disciplines involving things, whereas the girls are more interested in "social values," "people contact" and "organic" disciplines. Plenty of these girls end up going to graduate school, and some become superb physicists and engineers, but many choose law, medicine, education and so-called soft sciences like biology or psychology.

After decades of schools pushing girls into science and universities desperately looking for gender diversity on their faculties, it's insulting to pretend that most female students are too intimidated to know their best interests. As Science magazine reported in 2000, the social scientist Patti Hausman offered a simple explanation for why women don't go into engineering: they don't want to.
Period, end of story, all of women's innate inferiority explained! Except that this is all descriptive -- none of it, literally zero, is explanatory. Tierney doesn't even attempt to argue a biological basis for these differences, as many bigots do; he merely describes them, with the implication that their very existence implies the explanation he finds most easy and comforting. (Incidentally, I do not mean to imply that only bigots argue biological differences between male and female aptitudes -- there is some interesting research here, but see this post on why I think it should be used carefully.)

In fact, it doesn't work this way. Whether or not Tierney likes it, the phenomena he describes could be, and almost certainly are, not just causes but results. That is, certainly fewer women go into science because fewer women are interested in science -- but why are fewer women interested in science? Tierney's not interested in exploring that, but I am, and so are the conscientious scientists here at the Academies. In refusing to deconstruct what he sees, in taking at face value evidence that supports his preferences, Tierney is most certainly engaging in the "favoritism" of which he accuses the report committee.

When I say that "post hoc ergo propter hoc" is my favorite fallacy, I mean two things: first, I am a nerd, and second, I love that this simple phrase diagnoses so many logical and scientific missteps. I do not mean that I recommend that anyone assume that "after this" means "because of this." That said, there is some utility -- especially when discussing social science! -- to recognizing the impact of the past. Our present-day society does not exist in a vacuum, no matter how comfortable that idea is to the people at the top. It is irresponsible, ignorant, and logically and theoretically repugnant to assume any different.
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