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.

7 Comments:

Blogger Nick said...

Some days, I have to wonder if rolling my eyes too often will cause some form of permanent damage.

In science, or at least for scientific misconceptions by the public, I think post hoc ergo propter hoc probably covers most of the mistakes, so it's an error that should be pointed out as often as possible. Personally, I prefer the more transparent, "Correlation does not imply causation" not least because I don't speak Latin anyway.

I also prefer to encourage people to "think critically". The term deconstruct just reeks a bit too much of postmodernism, which often descends into its own unique form of idiocy. ;-)

I guess it's all a matter of taste.

I've just been reading The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould, so this fits very appropriately into that motif. Gould makes the point over and over that in essentially every society people at the top of the social order will try to make the argument that it is the natural order of things. One might hope that people in our society would be so acutely aware of this tendency by this point that we'd be vary careful about falling into this trap. Apparently that hope would be in vein.

Just the other day, I was reading about Paul Broca arguing for the inferior intellect of women using his measurements of the small weight of their brains as compared to men. In that case, the main obvious influence on the difference is overall body size. Broca was even aware of the correlation between body size and brain size, but he simply ignored it claiming that one knows that women are somewhat less intelligent than men, so not all the difference in brain size can be due to body size (or other factors). What circular logic!

In this case, social factors are a very obvious possible influence on the data, and without attempting to remove that spurious influence one can draw no sound conclusion from the data, but as with their ideological predecessors, the biological determinists of today demonstrate the power of preconceptions to blind one from reason.

Another point Gould makes is that one "inferior" group is always used as a stand-in for another. In the day of craniology, this meant showing that the brains of woman, "savages", and "lower races" were all similar, so the inferiority of one argues for the inferiority of all. This then leads to the question, if you look won't you probably find that people from different ethnic minorities are less interested in going into science? So, what conclusion would you suppose Mr. Tierney would draw about that?

Anyway, maybe that's going a bit off topic.

October 09, 2006 1:36 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Another possible angle (that, I'm assuming, Tierney ignores as well) is that women are going into the "soft sciences" not only to escape hard science, but perhaps in order to study/effect social change. A conceivable effect of being marginalized is the desire to find out why and how you're being marginalized. Physics or organic chemistry aren't really going to shed light on that. I mean, I'm sure everyone at Smith at some point wrote the obligatory "Gender in ____" paper, but it's not just a knee-jerk response; it's a matter of import to people involved.

Of course, this tendency often leads to a negative effect (in the humanities, at least) wherein people assume because you're a woman (or black or queer) you are using a feminist (or African American or queer) theoretical framework.

The upshot of all this is (as it so often is) that there are more forces, and more subtle forces, at play here, and also that Tierney is some kind of jerk.

October 09, 2006 3:06 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Also not sure why I switched from "black" to "African American" in that last post. No significance was meant.

October 09, 2006 3:08 PM  
Blogger jess said...

Nick:
Gould makes the point over and over that in essentially every society people at the top of the social order will try to make the argument that it is the natural order of things.

Wow, that's pretty much perfect. That's why I love Gould -- he's just SO good at critical thinking. :> (Which isn't quite the same as deconstruction, at least the way I mean it... I'm intending to refer specifically to taking a thing apart to its influences instead of looking at it monolithically. It's a subset of critical thinking... perhaps we could call it "analytic thinking" as a compromise.)

Laura:
I'm sure everyone at Smith at some point wrote the obligatory "Gender in ____" paper, but it's not just a knee-jerk response; it's a matter of import to people involved.

Actually, this is a perspective on women's studies/AfAm studies/queer studies that I hadn't really thought about, believe it or not. I've always been kind of annoyed that the academy ends up pushing women into gender theory, queers into queer theory, and so forth... it seems really inequitable, like you can be a regular scholar only if you're not [modifier], and then you have to be a [modifier] scholar. And I'm sure there's some of that... but of course this makes a lot of sense too. You smart!

October 10, 2006 2:00 PM  
Blogger Nick said...

For me, what seperates "critical thinking" from merely "thinking" is being critical of one's own ideas, proposing counter arguments, examining one's logic, and considering one's assumptions explicitly. I'm not sure how many people use the term with that distinction in mind.

The term deconstruction may be at least as applicable in this case, I just can't bring myself to use it. :-) Guilt by association I guess.

October 12, 2006 8:18 AM  
Blogger jess said...

Yeah, that's what I mean when I say that deconstruction (or analytic thinking, if you like) is a subset... it involves explicitly questioning one's assumptions and cognitive biases, but specifically it requires questioning how those assumptions are informed by history and society.

Probably better to just advocate critical thinking... but I'm not sure I want to say that the Right is incapable of critical thinking. Just a particular kind.

October 12, 2006 9:03 AM  
Blogger Julie said...

Social cues in society often dictate to women what their level of achievement will be. There is a study that shows two scenarios of both genders taking an exam: In the first scenario, women are told that women generally score lower than men- and after taking the test- this proves to be true. In the second scenario, the students are told that men and women generally score about the same on the exam. When the tests are graded, there is no difference in the performance of the boys over the girls and vice versa.
Many people do not realize the way that their words and actions affect the performance and achievement of others. We can train women to achieve in science or we can teach them that they are not capable. Usually, they live up to their level of expectations, stated or not.

November 13, 2006 2:28 PM  

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