Everything Would Be Better With Shitloads of Money

Over in Twitter-land, somebody linked to this piece promoting open-access publishing, excerpting this bit:

One suggestion: Ban the CV from the grant review process. Rank the projects based on the ideas and ability to carry out the research rather than whether someone has published in Nature, Cell or Science. This could in turn remove the pressure to publish in big journals. I’ve often wondered how much of this could actually be drilled down to sheer laziness on the part of scientists perusing the literature and reviewing grants – “Which journals should I scan for recent papers? Just the big ones surely…” or “This candidate has published in Nature already, they’ll probably do it again, no need to read the proposal too closely.”

And, you know, I sympathize, at least to a point. Paper-counting is dumb, and impact-factor-weighting is even sillier. But then, there are a lot of problems with this idea, most of them tracing back to the fundamental fact that there isn’t enough money to go around.

That is, yes, in an ideal world, you would give out grants on the basis of “the ideas” in some abstract sense. But there are lots of people with cool ideas out there, and a pretty large fraction of them even have “the ability to carry out the research” (we’ll assume for the moment that there’s some sensible way to establish that ability without a CV). But we’re in a world where grant approval rates dip toward single-digit percentages, so a bunch of those people aren’t going to get funded. So we end up accreting stupid criteria for approval, just because you need to do something to cut the pool down.

And this happens in all sorts of places in academia. There are all sorts of factors that get used in academic hiring that are problematic to various degrees, the classic example being the nebulous catch-all of “fit,” but that happens because there isn’t enough money to hire everyone who deserves a job. When you’ve got 200 people applying for a single tenure-track job, good people are going to get left out through no real fault of their own. And the sloooow progress on faculty diversity has similar roots– I’m sure that if you gave the administration of the University of Missouri the money to hire 400 new faculty and staff they would be thrilled to make their racial diversity problem go away. But nobody in academia has the money to do that.

Absent a sudden influx of astronomical amounts of cash, I don’t know what realistic options there are to do a better job with allocating the limited resources we do have. At some level, it would probably be just as fair and effective to distribute grant funding by filtering out the small number of totally unqualified people and then rolling dice to determine the lucky folks who actually get funding. I doubt that’d make people any happier, though. For faculty positions you’d probably need to combine random number generation with massively illegal collusion, to make sure that the same handful of superstars don’t get offered all the jobs.

I’m sympathetic to the concerns of the open science community, and more generally to concerns about the absurd pressures placed on junior faculty. But most of the things people propose as solutions would need the sudden appearance of shitloads of money to work out as intended, and that’s just not happening.

And on that depressing note, I’m going to go edit some photo-of-the-day pictures.

On Sports Injury Rates, or Today in Why I’m Glad I’m Not a Social Scientist

The topic of sports injuries is unavoidable these days– the sports radio shows I listen to in the car probably spend an hour a week bemoaning the toll playing football takes on kids. Never a publication to shy away from topics that bring easy clicks, Vox weighs in with The Most Dangerous High School Sports in One Chart. You can go over there to look at their specific chart, which is drawn from a medical study of cheerleading; I don’t find the general ordering of things all that surprising.

There was, however, one aspect of this that I found sort of surprising, namely the difference between rates for girls’ and boys’ versions of the same sports. The chart Vox shows has girls’ soccer as the second-most dangerous high school sport in America, but boys’ soccer is all the way down in ninth place. And this pattern is consistent. So I copied their data and used it to make a bar graph of my own to highlight that:

Injury rates for boys and girls in equivalent high school sports.
Injury rates for boys and girls in equivalent high school sports.

The bars here are comparing injury rates for sports that are equivalent, or at least analogous– I tacked softball and baseball on at the end as approximately the same game, though each is played only by a single sex. The only sport for which the injury rate is higher for boys is lacrosse, and my extremely limited understanding is that the rules are rather different between the two, with much less contact allowed in the girls’ game.

Excluding lacrosse, softball, and baseball, the average ratio of girls’ injury rate to boys’ injury rate is 1.4+/-0.1. So female high-school athletes playing a given game are roughly 40% more likely to suffer an injury (“defined as anything that required the attention of a physician or athletic trainer, or kept the athlete off the field for at least one day” from Vox) than their male classmates playing the exact same game.

It’s a striking correlation, but what’s the causation? Well, this is the “I’m glad I’m not a social scientist” part, because as with any system involving more than about two atoms, it’s a hopeless muddle. Are girls more fragile than boys? More likely to report injury or less likely to try to play through pain? More likely to have their injuries treated as serious enough to count toward this statistic by coaches, athletic trainers, and sports-injury researchers? Probably all of those, to some degree.

I considered trying to bend this into a “Football Physics” post over at Forbes. But while it would be nearly as good clickbait there as at Vox, I would feel some obligation to try and draw a sensible conclusion or connect this to some sort of policy recommendation. And, you know, I’m on vacation in Florida (though currently taking a vacation from vacation-with-kids to do a bit of Internet writing).

So instead I’ll throw the graph up here, say “Huh. That’s odd,” and return to thinking about the simple interactions of small numbers of frictionless spheres.

Kids and Schools and Liberal Guilt

Matt “Dean Dad” Reed is moving to New Jersey, and confronting one of the great dilemmas of parenting (also at Inside Higher Ed): what school district to live in. This is a big problem for lots of academics of a liberal sort of persuasion:

From a pure parental perspective, the argument for getting into the most high-achieving, “desirable” district we can afford is open-and-shut. TB and TG are wildly smart kids who will rise to the expected level; I want the level to be high. That strategy also has the benefit of higher resale value for a house, since other parents make the same calculation. But it also involves pretending not to know certain things, or deciding not to care about them.

That’s hard. I want the kids to know that the world is larger and more diverse than the Honors track in a competitive suburban district. And while I want my kids to “win,” I also know that the game is rigged in a host of ways.

We bought our house a long time before SteelyKid came along, but the school district did play a role in that, albeit somewhat indirectly (lots of other public services correlate with school quality). And it was hard not to notice that “Niskayuna schools” in a real estate ad bumped up the price by $30,000 over an equivalent house a few blocks away in the Schenectady district.

There was a thread on one of the faculty email lists a while back encouraging new faculty not to avoid the Schenectady school district, which has had a bad reputation for years. Many people said their kids had had a great experience there, and a few explicitly raised the issue of the extreme inequality between neighboring districts. I have to admit to a few pangs of liberal guilt over that, given that my kids (like other faculty kids) will almost certainly be just fine wherever they go to school, because Kate and I have the educational and financial resources to provide enriching experiences that would make up for anything they couldn’t get in their regular school. And I know very well that it’s possible to get a good education at a not-that-great school, having attended the rural public school where my father taught.

At the same time, though, there were aspects of that process that I’d just as soon not have my kids go through. It took a lot of work on my parents’ part to maximize what the school could offer, aided by the fact that my father worked in the district and knew what teachers to steer us to, and which administrators to yell at to get stuff done. And even with that, I was behind some of my classmates from wealthier suburban districts when I got to Williams. Those problems have only gotten bigger as AP classes have expanded in prominence.

SteelyKid and The Pip will, of course, get whatever they need (within our ability to provide it) to pursue their education. It’d be a whole lot more pleasant for all of us to have that come in the context of the regular school system, though, rather than being something we have to scrap and fight to provide outside of normal channels. Which argues for living in the best possible district, even if that means contributing in a small way to the problems of inequality.

Which is, of course, why this sort of thing is such a thorny problem. The obvious fix is to go away from the insane system of funding schools almost entirely through local property taxes, but there are enormous political obstacles to that. Inequality in housing and schools isn’t driven just by greed (which can be made a political liability to some extent), but by the desire of parents to provide for their children. That’s a hard thing to argue against, even with politically aware parents who can rattle off all the problematic aspects of the way the system is rigged. You end up pitting a fairly diffuse public good against the very concrete personal interests of families in good districts, and that’s not even close to a fair fight.

So, yeah, a hard problem. On the one hand, I’m in favor of making a more equitable educational system for everyone. On the other, though, I’m not in any hurry to move out of the elite suburban district we live in, so as to put my kids’ education where my mouth is (as it were). Good intentions, meet road to hell.

A Constructive Response to Professorial Anxiety

Engaging in a bit of tab clearance before I head off to DAMOP tomorrow afternoon, I noticed that I still had How to Teach an Ancient Rape Joke open. This is because while I found it kind of fascinating, it’s not all that directly relevant to what I do, and I didn’t have anything all that concrete to say beyond “Huh. That’s interesting.” So it languished in one of the many, many open tabs cluttering up Chrome, too interesting to just close but not anything I could see a clear angle to comment on. And eventually it was sort of forgotten until I set about paring down open tabs before an out-of-town trip.

I have a slightly different slant on it, though, after the past week’s blow-up on academic social media over a pair of articles on Vox. The first was an anonymous professor complaining that he fears students and the second a response saying that the real problem is the deprofessionalization of the professoriate and the rise of contingent faculty making everything more stressful. These generated a great deal of heat, and not all that much light.

One of the more disappointing aspects of the whole thing is the insistence on both sides that this is an all-or-nothing question when, in fact, it’s perfectly possible for there to be truth in both of those articles. That is, changes in the relationship between faculty and the institutions that employ them have unquestionably increased the strain on contingent faculty (whether adjuncts, visitors, or those lucky enough to be on the tenure track) in ways that carry over into what they teach. That doesn’t mean, though, that the current political moment can’t also have changed the classroom atmosphere for those faculty in ways that are not particularly helpful. It’s true that contingent faculty will always find something to freak out about (God knows, I was a giant ball of stress before I got tenure, and that was before the job market really cratered), but that doesn’t mean that their freaking out can’t involve some genuinely problematic elements.

In that context, the Jezebel “Ancient Rape Joke” piece stands out as something that we could use more of. That is, it explicitly acknowledges that increased sensitivity to issues around sexual assault have genuinely made it harder to teach certain types of material that appears in works that cannot easily be cast out of the syllabus. And it goes on to talk about some constructive approaches to handling that material in a way that’s sensitive to legitimate concerns (that have recently taken on much greater weight), but respects the importance of the original sources.

So, you know, more like that, please.

Miscellaneous Academic Job Market Notes

A few things about the academic job market have caught my eye recently, but don’t really add up to a big coherent argument. I’ll note them here, though, to marginally increase the chance that I’ll be able to find them later.

— First, this piece at the Guardian got a lot of play, thanks in part to the dramatic headline Science careers: doomed at the outset but even more thanks to the subhead “Has it become harder for graduate students to thrive, and are our best potential scientists giving up on academia?” Most of the people I saw re-sharing it used basically just that last clause, often stripping out the punctuation to make it a statement: Our best potential scientists are leaving academia.

Only, it doesn’t really show that. That’s not to say it’s not a major indictment of the bad state of graduate education, just that it doesn’t really connect the dots to show that “our best potential scientists” are leaving. There’s an argument to be made there, to be sure– you might reasonably believe that the best potential scientists are also the students most likely to have other options, and thus the most likely to get out while the getting is good. That argument remains largely implicit, though. And it bugs me to see it asserted as fact.

You could, with only slightly less plausibility, make a counter-argument that “our best potential scientists” are those with such focus and drive that they will pursue science no matter what, even in the face of all sorts of unreasonable hardship. In fact, that’s the standard argument in favor of the hazing-like structure of graduate education in a lot of places– we need to weed out the unfit, to select the best.

If you want to make a definitive that “our best potential scientists” are leaving, I’d like to see some data showing that the “best” students are disproportionately discouraged. I’m not sure how you’d really generate that, though, given that there isn’t a generally agreed-upon measure of the quality of scientists, let alone the potential quality of students.

My own guess, if you put a gun to my head and made me stake out a position, would be that the discouragement process is basically random. At least in terms of “quality” and “potential”– it’s probably selecting for something, but I suspect that something is pretty much orthogonal to actual scientific ability. that’s just a guess, though, and I might add that if you’re going to go around pointing guns at people over stupid shit like this, you need to re-think your life choices.

— Somebody on Twitter– I’m pretty sure it was Ben Lillie, but can’t confirm because Twitter– linked to this PDF report on underrepresented minorities in STEM fields a week or so ago, and I’ve had it open in a tab for a while. This is a little old– I think this version is from 2010– which you can tell by the fact that it doesn’t use “STEM” over and over and over. Ah, those idyllic days…

Like all responsible investigations in this area, this is kind of a Rorschach blot of social science, in that you can find more or less whatever you want. If you’re a glass-half-empty sort, you can point to the summary table showing that, in physics, 5.6% of Ph.D.’s granted in the ten years leading up to 2005 were earned by students from underrepresented groups, while only 2.5% of faculty in 2007 were from those groups. There’s also a small decrease in diversity from 2002 to 2007, with the total fraction of faculty from underrepresented groups falling from 2.6% to 2.5%, and the assistant professor fraction dropping from 5.2% to 4.4%.

On the other hand, if you’re a glass-half-full sort, you can reasonably point out that the discrepancy is less bleak when you look at more direct comparisons. After all, looking at percentages over all faculty ranks sort of mushes together the stratigraphy inherent in academic hiring– assistant professors are mostly drawn from recent Ph.D.’s, while full professors can date back to the disco era, when Ph.D. cohorts were much less diverse than they are now.

If you compare the numbers for recent Ph.D.’s and assistant professors (the larval stage of tenured faculty), the gap is much, much smaller– 5.6% of Ph.D. recipients are from underrepresented groups, and 4.4% of assistant professors. Broken out by subgroup, you see a similar picture– 2% of Physics Ph.D. recipients are black, compared to 1.2% of assistant professors; 2.9% of Ph.D. recipients are Hispanic, compared to 3.3% of assistant professors.

They also have gender statistics, which are much the same– women are 14.3% of Ph.D. recipients up to 2005, and just 9.1% of faculty. But women are 16.8% of assistant professors, slightly better than their representation in the graduating cohort.

So, you know, half-full, half-empty. Whatever picture you want to present, you can pull numbers to bolster your argument from this report.

— That by itself wouldn’t really justify a post, but the interesting wrinkle in this report, to me, was that it actually tries to look at the question of prestige. The argument about comparing Ph.D. demographics to assistant professors is not new, and the usual response is that yes, women are hired into new faculty positions at a slightly higher rate than their representation in the Ph.D. cohort, but they mostly get lower-prestige jobs.

This report gets at that a tiny bit by looking at the top 100 departments in each field (by some ranking), and breaking out the statistics for the top 50 and numbers 51-100. Interestingly, this shows the opposite effect usually claimed– the overall comparison is 14.3% of women in the Ph.D. class to 16.8% of assistant professors, but for the top 50 it’s 14.3% to 17.5%, and the bottom 50 it’s 14.3% to 15.6%. The fraction of women in new faculty ranks is actually slightly higher at the more prestigious institutions.

The difference is more striking for black Ph.D.’s and faculty. Overall, the split from Ph.D. to associate professor is 2.0% to 1.2%, but for the top 50 it’s 2.0% to 1.6% and for numbers 51-100 it’s 2.0% to 0.5%. Again, the numbers are better at the more prestigious institutions.

Again, though, there’s something for everyone, because if you move up a rank, the fractions reverse– women are 12.6% of associate professors at Top 50 institutions, and 14.3% at numbers 51-100 (this probably ought to be compared to an earlier Ph.D. cohort; they give a value for the ten-year period up to 1995 of 10.8%). For black Ph.D.’s and faculty, it’s 0.4% associate profs at the top 50, and 0.8% at numbers 51-100 (compared to 1% of Ph.D.’s up to ’95). So, there’s an argument to be made that the top institutions are paying attention to diversity in hiring, but not tenuring those folks. I suspect this is muddled, though, by the tendency of people who don’t get tenure in the Ivy League (and equivalent) to end up with tenured positions at schools a little farther down the prestige scale.

You can also argue that by looking only at the top 100 institutions, this is working in very rarified territory and ignoring the community colleges and lower-level state universities that serve the majority of students, etc. Which, yes, it is. But then, the usual argument is that things are much worse for women and underrepresented minorities in elite academia than at the lower levels, and these numbers suggest that the “much worse” of elite academia isn’t all that terrible in an absolute sense.

So, you know, social science continues to be messy, and analysis of the academic job market is complicated and confusing. Also, the Sun rose in the east this morning, and my kids are super cute.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

Over the last month or so, it’s been kind of hard to avoid this book, even before it hit stores. Big excerpts in the New York Times and The Guardian generated a good deal of buzz, and arguments on social media. Unsurprisingly, as one of the main elements of the book is a look at the phenomenon of social-media shaming, so anybody who had participated in or even watched one of these unfold had an opinion.

I’ve enjoyed Ronson’s previous books a great deal, because he brings a real empathy to all the interviews and profiles he does. Even when he’s profiling really problematic people, like some of the wack jobs he interviewed all the way back in Them, he presents them in a way that’s sympathetic without excusing their flaws.

Like the previous books, this is a set of profiles of people who have been on the receiving end of public shaming, in one way or another– Justine Sacco, whose job-destroying tweet is described in the Times excerpt; Lindsey Stone, who had a joke Facebook photo blow up; Jonah Lehrer, whose attempted apology speech was accompanied by a live Twitter feed of people ripping on him. These also include a few folks who came through remarkably unscathed– Max Mosely, whose sex scandal fizzled, and a preacher caught in a prostitution scandal in New Hampshire, who lost his job but was surprised to find that his friends and neighbors were more sympathetic than judgemental.

The Sacco and Stone excerpts give you a pretty good idea how this goes– Ronson’s treatment of his subjects is very sympathetic, but doesn’t really excuse their mistakes. He’s also not especially judgmental toward those who take part in these shamings– he’s mostly interested in documenting how these things play out, and how they affect the people involved. On both sides– he gives about as much space to Michael Moynihan, who exposed Lehrer’s fake Bob Dylan quotes (and is clearly still conflicted about that), as he does to Lehrer himself. He’s not exonerating or condemning, here, just telling stories.

Which is, as always, a little frustrating, in the usual manner of books that identify a problem but don’t propose a solution. Ronson’s charming enough as a narrator to mostly get away with that, though. And it’s a genuinely difficult problem to suggest solutions for– as I said back when the excerpts started appearing, the only real fix is for people to think more carefully about what they’re doing.

And that’s really impractical, because a lot of these things really have very little to do with the person being shamed. They’re really about the people doing the shaming, because the act of participating in these things is a way of demonstrating membership in the tribe of Right-Thinking People (whichever of the many subgroups thereof you might be seeking to belong to). Ronson doesn’t really get into the performative aspect of the whole thing, which I think is the biggest weakness of the book, because that’s the thing that makes this such a tough nut to crack. This is something Freddie de Boer writes about a lot, and stuff like Ian Bogost’s piece on “supertweets” is also interesting in this context. For many of the people heaping abuse on Justine Sacco or Lindsey Stone, it’s not so much about the specific things Sacco or Stone did but about defining themselves in opposition to what they think Sacco and Stone represent.

(I almost think what we need is a set of Markov chain text-generating robots to establish plausible-seeming social-media profiles for a few months, then drop in something awful in one direction or another. Then everybody can heap shame on the robots, reaping the self-definition benefits thereof, and we can reboot the bots under a new name for the next go-round…)

Along with the promotion for the book, of course, it’s been all but impossible to avoid responses to it, many of them critical. Having read a few of those reviews before reading the book, I mostly come away unimpressed with the criticism. A lot of the negative responses seem to me to be founded on misinterpreting stuff that Ronson says, or at least over-interpreting it to the point where Ronson seems to be saying things I doubt he’d agree with. (Not naming or linking here, because I’m not interested in picking fights.)

Anyway, I liked this a good deal; Rosnon’s a charming narrator, and he provides excellent and humane illustrations of some things that have really been bugging me about the culture of social media. It doesn’t really make me any less ambivalent about social media (I’m constantly about this || close to writing Twitter off completely), but it’s a good read and food for thought.

As I said on Twitter, if I were going to be the subject of a magazine profile, I’d like Ronson to do it, because his genuine empathy stands in stark contrast to the withering contempt that is the dominant critical stance these days. Of course, the easiest way to end up with him writing about you (to this point, at least) is for something to be horribly wrong in your life, so I’ll be happy to hold off on that honor for a while… If he announces a new project on “Reasonably Well-Adjusted Scientists and Authors,” though, I’ll sign on in a heartbeat.

Yet More Academic Hiring: 2:1 Bias in Favor of Women?

I continue to struggle to avoid saying anything more about the Hugo mess, so let’s turn instead to something totally non-controversial: gender bias in academic hiring. Specifically, this new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science titled “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track” with this calm, measured abstract that won’t raise any hackles at all:

National randomized experiments and validation studies were conducted on 873 tenure-track faculty (439 male, 434 female) from biology, engineering, economics, and psychology at 371 universities/colleges from 50 US states and the District of Columbia. In the main experiment, 363 faculty members evaluated narrative summaries describing hypothetical female and male applicants for tenure-track assistant professorships who shared the same lifestyle (e.g., single without children, married with children). Applicants’ profiles were systematically varied to disguise identically rated scholarship; profiles were counterbalanced by gender across faculty to enable between-faculty comparisons of hiring preferences for identically qualified women versus men. Results revealed a 2:1 preference for women by faculty of both genders across both math-intensive and non–math-intensive fields, with the single exception of male economists, who showed no gender preference. Results were replicated using weighted analyses to control for national sample characteristics. In follow-up experiments, 144 faculty evaluated competing applicants with differing lifestyles (e.g., divorced mother vs. married father), and 204 faculty compared same-gender candidates with children, but differing in whether they took 1-y-parental leaves in graduate school. Women preferred divorced mothers to married fathers; men preferred mothers who took leaves to mothers who did not. In two validation studies, 35 engineering faculty provided rankings using full curricula vitae instead of narratives, and 127 faculty rated one applicant rather than choosing from a mixed-gender group; the same preference for women was shown by faculty of both genders. These results suggest it is a propitious time for women launching careers in academic science. Messages to the contrary may discourage women from applying for STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) tenure-track assistant professorships.

Especially not those last two sentences. Nope, not provocative in the least…

I actually knew this one was coming, having been alerted to it by a colleague when I last wrote about gender in academic hiring. So, what is the deal with this?

Well, as is often the case, this is a paper study– they sent a bunch of faculty in four different fields (engineering and economics, where women are badly underrepresented, and biology and psychology where they’re not) “hiring committee reports” on sets of three imaginary candidates for a faculty position and asked them to rank the three candidates. Two of these were the experimental test, the third a “foil” deliberately designed to be somewhat weaker than the other two; the “foil” was nevertheless chosen first in about 2% of the tests, which contrary to the popular saying, lets you precisely account for tastes…

The test candidates were drawn from a set of 20 packets randomizing a bunch of features, but all designed to be equally strong. The most important random feature was the pronoun used for the candidate (some got male pronouns, others female; if I read this correctly, none got names), but they also varied “lifestyle” factors: marital status, number of children, past parental leaves (these were mentioned as spontaneously offered by the candidate in the “report” from the “search committee”). One other important feature was that they varied the specific adjectives in the letters of recommendation, describing some candidates with words most commonly associated with letters for men (“analytical, ambitious, independent, stands up under pressure, powerhouse”) and others with words generally associated with letters for women (“imaginative, highly creative, likeable, kind, socially skilled”). They swapped pronouns on both sets of letters, so that some “women” got “male” adjectives, and some “men” got “female” ones.

Each test got one fictitious woman and one fictitious man from the experimental set to rate; the “foil” was always a man. Taking out the tiny fraction of oddballs who picked the foil, they found that the paper reports identified as women were preferred by a two-to-one margin, across the full range of conditions. The only sub-group of faculty who didn’t have a strong preference for the woman in the test sample were male economists, who were slightly pro-male (55%-45%) in contrast to their female colleagues (68%-32% in favor of the woman).

Fig. 1 from the paper described in the text, showing the percentage of faculty rating each of the test candidates as their first choice for different fields and genders.
Fig. 1 from the paper described in the text, showing the percentage of faculty rating each of the test candidates as their first choice for different fields and genders.

In follow-on experiments they try to sort out a bunch of the individual factors involved– presenting faculty with full fake CV’s rather than just “search committee reports,” varying just the family status of the candidates, and asking their test faculty to rate just a single candidate rather than doing a head-to-head comparison. There are a few small quirks– this is, after all, social science– but the general result is very consistent: when asked to evaluate this set of paper candidates, the faculty in their sample show a strong preference for hiring women.

This runs counter to a lot of conventional wisdom, and just as with the abstract, the concluding discussion features some language that borders on the combative regarding the current state of academic hiring, including the sweeping claim that:

Our experimental findings do not support omnipresent societal messages regarding the current inhospitability of the STEM professoriate for women at the point of applying for assistant professorships (4–12, 26–29). Efforts to combat formerly widespread sexism in hiring appear to have succeeded. After decades of overt and covert discrimination against women in academic hiring, our results indicate a surprisingly welcoming atmosphere today for female job candidates in STEM disciplines, by faculty of both genders, across natural and social sciences in both math-intensive and non–math-intensive fields, and across fields already well-represented by women (psychology, biology) and those still poorly represented (economics, engineering).

From a slightly more impartial perspective, though, there’s one obvious way to reconcile these results with the picture of academic hiring as highly biased, which has to do with a difference in experimental design. The much-cited big paper-resume study showing bias in favor of male students was deliberately designed to use kind of marginal candidates in their fake resumes– good-but-not-great grades, and so on. This study, on the other hand, uses fake candidates who are carefully designed to be equally strong— that is, they present the faculty in their sample with a difficult choice between two excellent candidates.

The obvious way to reconcile these is to push the gender bias back to an earlier stage in the process. That is, to say that while this study may show a strong preference for hiring women who are rated as exceptionally qualified, bias in letter-writing, interviewing, etc. mean that very few actual women are rated this highly in real hiring situations, so the direct head-to-head comparison they test here only rarely comes into play in the “real world.”

They sort of attempt to address this with the adjective thing I mentioned earlier (though I don’t see any detailed breakdown of those results in there). The probably more useful counter (or, I guess, counter-counter-argument) is in the data they give about actual hiring rates, namely that while women are less likely to apply for faculty jobs, they get hired into assistant professor positions at about the same rate that they get Ph.D.’s. That would allow you to reconcile this study’s strong preference for highly qualified women with previous studies’ tendency to under-rate women. The former basically undoes the latter, ending up with hiring that is mostly neutral in a statistical sense.

Which, I guess, is the next angle for a paper-resume study: put together packages that under-rate the imaginary female candidates, and see what happens then.

In terms of allocating grant funding, though, it might be better to put together a study of why male economics professors are such assholes relative to their colleagues in other fields…

STEM Is Not an Alien Menace

Everybody and their extended families has been sharing around the Fareed Zakaria piece on liberal education. This, as you might imagine, is relevant to my interests. So I wrote up a response over at Forbes.

The basic argument of the response is the same thing I’ve been relentlessly flogging around here for a few years: that while I’m all for a broad education, the notion that studying a STEM subject and studying “the human condition” are in opposition or even cleanly separable is just foolish. But it’s a great excuse to start that argument at Forbes, so…

“Talking Dogs and Galileian Blogs: Social Media for Communicating Science”

That’s the title of the talk I gave yesterday at Vanderbilt, and here are the slides:

The central idea is the same as in past versions of the talk– stealing Robert Krulwich’s joke contrasting the publication styles of Newton and Galileo to argue that scientists spend too much time writing technical articles aimed at an audience of other experts, and need to do more “Galileian” publication aimed at a broad audience. And that social media technologies offer powerful tools that can enable those who are interested to do this kind of communication with relatively little effort.

This version of the talk is a little more image-based than older versions, reflecting a general shift in the way I give talks these days, which might make it less comprehensible from just the slides than older versions. But then, that’s just more reason to invite me to give it live and in person at your place of work…

“Talking Dogs and Galileian Blogs” at Vanderbilt, Thursday 3/26/15

I mentioned last week that I’m giving a talk at Vanderbilt tomorrow, but as they went to the trouble of writing a press release, the least I can do is share it:

It’s clear that this year’s Forman lecturer at Vanderbilt University, Chad Orzel, will talk about physics to almost anyone.

After all, two of his popular science books are How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog. Orzel, an associate professor of physics at Union College in New York and author of the ScienceBlog “Uncertain Principles,” is scheduled to speak on campus at 3 p.m. Thursday, March 26.

As is the custom among my people, I sent them a title and abstract:

Title: Talking Dogs and Galileian Blogs: Social Media for Communicating Science

Abstract: Modern social media technologies provide an unprecedented opportunity to engage and inform a broad audience about the practice and products of science. Such outreach efforts are critically important in an era of funding cuts and global crises that demand scientific solutions. In this talk I’ll offer examples and advice on the use of social media for science communication, drawn from more than a dozen years of communicating science online.

This shares some DNA with the evangelical blogging-as-outreach talk I’ve been giving off and on for several years, but that was getting a little outdated. So I decided to blow it up and make a new version, which I nearly have finished… with less than 24 hours before my flight to Tennessee. Whee!

Anyway, if you’re in the Nashville area or could be on really short notice, stop by. Otherwise, stay tuned for Exciting! Blogging! News! early next week (give or take).