Friday, March 24, 2017


With the always informative Andrew Gelman, as well as Brian Nosek and Deborah Mayo.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Taking a Break

Martinus Rørbye, Scene Near Sorrento Overlooking the Sea, 1835.
(Source: Nivaagaard Collection)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Advice to the Next Tim Hunt, Geoff Marcy, and Matt Taylor: BE COLIN MORIARTY!

Specifically, do not apologize (5:30). Don't give them anything. They are ruining everything.

First Mover Advantages

John Leo at Minding the Campus is getting impatient about the administrative response to the protests that shut down Charles Murray's talk at Middlebury College. Over at Reason, Jon Haidt warns of a "huge disruption" to the current business model of universities as the disappointment over what college has become hits home to students and the parents who pay their tuition. I, too, believe that within a decade many colleges, who have been banking on a captive audience for ideological indoctrination, will be forced to close as students find more efficient (and less exasperating) ways to gain the credentials, and especially the skills, they need to succeed in life.

I'm not as sanguine as Jon Haidt seems to be about the alternatives to four-year residential liberal arts education, though I do think it's a road too many students take. (There are too many students going to too many of these colleges without really thinking about the value of what they might be getting there.) I hope that only the ideological superstructure of today's colleges will fall apart, forcing the colleges to fall back upon their permanent infrastructure: a group of buildings, some pleasant grounds, a faculty dedicated to learning, and some longstanding academic traditions. These last will of course include free speech.

I think there are two opportunities that will open up in the wake of the coming disruption. The first is the one that Middlebury is poised (but apparently reticent) to take. It can be the first college to issue stern reprimands against students who are known to have participated in the prevention of Murray's talk. Many of them are easy to identify in the video (since, with their backs turned to Murray, they proudly face the camera.) This will win back the trust of the parents and students who are rightly concerned about the educational climate at Middlebury. The schools that make examples of truly disruptive protesters first will attract the attention of students who want some assurance that their intellectual space will be protected from ideological excesses.

The other opportunity comes out of the rubble of the colleges that fail. College campuses are highly specific places. Once they go bankrupt, they can't easily be converted to other uses. So we do well to think about how a campus can be quickly acquired and staffed, and then begin enrolling students. I'm imagining that some of these campuses may be quite nice architecturally, so the idea will be to design a low-cost, no-frills curriculum that depends mainly on the reading of widely available texts, discussion in low-tech classroom settings, and examination in straightforward written and oral forms. The students will be given an "opportunity grow" through ordinary learning of the familiar kind.

As T.S. Eliot once said, you don't make flowers grow by pulling on them, but by watering and weeding. You give students good books to read, foster lively discussion, (yes, you invite stimulating and sometimes controversial speakers), and you expel students who waste not only their own time, but that of the their fellow students, on pointless protests against their inheritance—the privilege of living in Western civilization.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Gendered Approach to Science II

I've been meaning to write about Bryan Gaensler's presentation at York University for some time. I just found another video that provides an excellent counterpoint, namely, Sarah Ballard's contribution to Jackie Speier's sexual harassment panel. Here are the two videos, which I encourage you to watch in their entirety. But this post onlymainly deals with what is said in the first two and a half minutes of each video.

I present this as part II to my earlier "A Gendered Approach to Science" for two reasons. First, because I like a good pun. In the first post, I was talking about how we might "approach" the study of science as, say, philosophers; in this post, I will be talking about how two scientists "got into" their field, i.e., how they approach their own work.

Second, this post does actually develop the theme of the first one. Both presentations, and especially Ballard, make a point of emphasizing that men and women reason differently and are differently motivated to get into science. As always, it puzzles me how easily feminists can state this fact (which I think is very plausible) and then refuse to accept that two groups who reason differently and are differently motivated might be differently represented at the higher rungs of the career ladder. It's just such an obvious contradiction to me.

But the reason I wanted to write this post is to make an even simpler point. Gaensler begins by explaining why he loves saying he's an astronomer:

Ever since I was three years old I wanted to be an astronomer. I never had any plan B; it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. It's an incredible privilege and a gift to be able to do what I always wanted. [...] And I always look back thinking there was never any doubt that I was going to be an astronomer because I wanted it so badly.

He's setting up a point, of course, (he's going "check" that "privilege") but we'll get to that in a moment. Listen to Ballard's story of how she realized that she was going to be an astronomer. Here's how she put it to Kishore Hari on Inquiring Minds about how she got into astronomy:

Hari: So you were basically interested in astronomy straight away when you came to college?
Ballard: I wasn’t … I started out in college thinking I was going to be a peace and conflict major, a gender studies major. And in fact I had taken some classes to that effect and I thought maybe I’d be a social worker. And I took an astronomy course because of what I thought of at the time as a useless physical science breadth requirement. … I felt the call of astronomy at 18.

I'm going to presume that Gaensler thinks that Ballard is precisely the sort of person that needs some extra help in a sexist world. Indeed, he has a handy graphic to make the point for him.

Ballard (being a woman) is "shorter" (in a man's world) than Gaensler (a man) and should therefore get an extra box or two to stand on. The peculiar thing is that he completely discounts the fifteen years he himself presumably spent climbing up on "the shoulders of giants" to see further into the depths of space than his school friends did. By the time he got to college, he probably already knew what a goddam "magnetar" is! Ballard by contrast, as she herself explains, heard "the call" of astronomy as a freshman by looking at a picture of space and being struck by its "magnificence".

Here's the saddening thing Gaensler finds himself saying about what is almost literally his lifelong passion for astronomy:

It was only much later that I realized that there were probably lots of other people like me who were just as focused and determined and driven to be astronomers, for whom for reasons beyond their control things didn’t work out. That was a real light bulb for me, when I realized that it wasn’t my force of will or my desire but my privilege and my fortune that allowed me to get where I am.

Actually, he's helping young women who thought they were going to be social workers when they got to college, and had to be talked in to doing science by an academic advisor, and plan not actually to do a lot of core science but "build a culture" (4:15) for younger versions of themselves (5:40), outmanoeuvre people like himself who had been obsessed with the universe since the age of three and never, for that reason, had a "Plan B"!

"No, Bryan," I want to say, "there weren't lots of people like you. That sort of passion is rare and when you have it it does actually help overcome adversity and beat out those who don't have it." If, of course, you don't let those less passionate people explain their own failures by way of the "inappropriate" affections of their professors and prop them up with all sorts of special programs. What Gaensler is basically saying to young, white men who devote their entire lives to astronomy from an early age is that they shouldn't be proud of their accomplishments. After all, perhaps even their interest in science from that early age was "engendered"!