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People in science and technology

My comments about the text by the three original authors follows the bullets.

A private response to a text by three respected people from Stanford, Princeton, and MIT

Harvard President Lawrence Summers' recent comments about possible causes of the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering have generated extensive debate and discussion—much of which has had the untoward effect of shifting the focus of the debate to history rather than to the future.

  • Interestingly enough, the reason why a meaningful discussion about a scientific topic is primarily based on the data from the past and not so much on data from the future is that we know the past, but we don't know the future - at least I don't know it. Maybe the authors of the text above know the future and they can therefore use it as the primary argument, in which case I apologize. ;-)
The question we must ask as a society is not "Can women excel in math, science and engineering?"—Marie Curie exploded that myth a century ago
  • ... fair enough ...
—but "How can we encourage more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these fields?"
  • This is an important educational and political question, but president Summers wanted to modestly suggest that we should first ask whether we should expect a higher percentage of women to pursue careers in these fields. The answer is definitely not obvious, although it is treated as a self-evident dogma in the sentence above.
Extensive research on the abilities and representation of males and females in science and mathematics has identified the need to address important cultural and societal factors.
  • Other, more hard-science oriented research - and also president Summers in his speech and others - have also identified the need to address other important factors.
Speculation that "innate differences" may be a significant cause of underrepresentation by women in science and engineering may rejuvenate old myths and reinforce negative stereotypes and biases.
  • Lawrence Summers was much more polite - he did not explicitly identify the idea about "important negative stereotypes and biases" as an "old myth" although there exist reasons to use this language.
Why is this so important? Our nation faces increasing competition from abroad in technological innovation, the most powerful driver of our economy, while the academic performance of our school-age students in math and science lags behind many countries.
  • Sounds fine, except the fact that the causal relation between these politically attractive cliches and the question under consideration is not explained.
Against this backdrop, it is imperative that we tap the talent and perspectives of both the male and female halves of our population.
  • Good.
Until women can feel as much at home in math, science and engineering as men, our nation will be considerably less than the sum of its parts.
  • This assertion could very well imply that the nation will always be considerably less than the sum of its parts, although I don't exactly know what the second sentence means quantitatively. The sentence above is based on the assumption that the only natural situation is when different groups of people feel as much at home in all fields as other groups of people. What is missing is a piece of evidence supporting this statement - especially because there seems to be evidence that the assumption is not true. So I suppose that the opinion that everyone must feel equally at home everywhere is treated as another dogma that does not have to be justified - and the heretics who do not believe this dogma must probably be tortured.
If we do not draw on the entire talent pool that is capable of making a contribution to science, the enterprise will inevitably be underperforming its potential.
  • Well, definitely - if the words "talent pool" are defined scientifically, as opposed to a definition with a politically twisted meaning.
As the representation of women increases in every other profession in this country, if their representation in science and engineering does not change, these fields will look increasingly anachronistic, less attractive, and will be less strong.
  • Well, it does not seem terribly realistic to say that computer science and state-of-the-art electronics, for example, look "anachronistic" just because they happen to be pre-dominantly run by the males. Or are males themselves anachronistic?
  • The only sense how can I understand the statement about the field being "less attractive" is based on the visual feelings of the males. Obviously, their sentence seems to imply that they think that a field with a higher concentration of males is less attractive - which does not sound as a terribly balanced and fair comment about the genders. Some fields are attractive for someone but not attractive for someone else.
  • A field would become "less strong" if it did not use the talent pool, as discussed in the previous paragraphs. There can be various reasons why the talent pool is not used efficiently - and the political criteria that would eliminate some talented people and replace them by people who better fit some quotas would be one imaginable reason of reduced strength.
The nation cannot afford to lose ground in these areas, which not only fuel the economy but also play a key role in solving critical societal problems in human health and the environment.
  • It's hard to understand why "human health" and "the environment" were picked as examples of the "critical societal problems". First of all, they are just two examples of important problems for the society. Second of all, these particular societal problems are not associated with the fields in which women are most clearly underrepresented. Their percentage is lowest in fields like computer science, physics, mathematics, engineering - and neither of these fields seems to be primarily focused on human health and the environment.
Much has already been learned from research in the classroom and from recent experience on our campuses about how we can encourage top performance from our students. For example, recent research shows that different teaching methods can lead to comparable performance for males and females in high school mathematics.
  • Note that the authors themselves acknowledge that there are differences between the way how boys and girls typically learn mathematics. What the authors do not allow to be questioned is their assumption that the different ways of learning mathematics must always statistically lead to the same careers and outcomes.
One of the most important and effective actions we can take is to ensure that women have teachers who believe in them and strong, positive mentors, male and female, at every stage of their educational journey—both to affirm and to develop their talents.
  • I am happy to agree.
Low expectations of women can be as destructive as overt discrimination and may help to explain the disproportionate rate of attrition that occurs among female students as they proceed through the academic pipeline.
  • There are many factors that can be destructive. Equal expectations from two people who are not equal represent another important example - once again, the three authors only see one side of the coin.
Colleges and universities must develop a culture, as well as specific policies, that enable women with children to strike a sustainable balance between workplace and home.
  • It is definitely politically possible to impose new policies and offer the same benefits (and pay the same salary) to a person who does 1/2 of the work that another person does, and the remaining 1/2 of the time is dedicated to other activities. Another question is whether it is the right thing to do and whether the society will benefit from such policies. And it is not too hard to guess what the economists such as Claudia Goldin or Lawrence Summers think about this question.
Of course, achieving such a balance is a challenge in many highly demanding careers. As a society we must develop methods for assessing productivity and potential that take into account the long-term potential of an individual and encourage greater harmony between the cycle of work and the cycle of life—so that both women and men may better excel in the careers of their choice.

Although we have a very long way to travel in terms of recruiting, retaining and promoting women faculty in scientific and engineering fields, we can also point to significant progress. According to the National Science Foundation, almost no doctoral degrees in engineering were awarded to women in 1966 (0.3 percent), in contrast to 16.9 percent in 2001. And in the biological and agricultural sciences, the number of doctorates earned by women rose from 12 percent to 43.5 percent between 1966 and 2001.

  • Great. But I guess that until the percentage will be below 50 percent in a single field, there will exist some type of dissatisfaction. How many generations of fair treatment will be necessary before one will be "allowed" to argue that the theory of discrimination and discouragement as the only explanation can't fit the rich data that paint very different pictures in different fields?

Our three campuses, and many others, are home to growing numbers of women who have demonstrated not only extraordinary innate ability but the kinds of creativity, determination, perceptiveness and hard work that are prerequisites for success in science and engineering, as in many other fields.

  • The women at Harvard have demonstrated at least as much creativity, determination, perceptiveness, and hard work as the women at these other universities - and it is not quite clear why exactly the three campuses are mentioned and not Harvard even though this discussion was initiated by the president of Harvard University. The only explanation I have is that the three authors wanted to picture their campuses as the "nicer ones" although such a description can't be justified.
These figures demonstrate the expanding presence of women in disciplines that have not, historically, been friendly to them.
  • ... and to which many women were not friendly in the recent decades, judging by the numbers how many of them chose these fields.
It is a matter of vital concern, not only to the academy but also to society at large, that the future holds even greater opportunities for them.

... Oh, and finally, let me say that the text was written by the presidents of MIT, Stanford, and Princeton. Although there are three of them, I doubt that their text will become as stimulating and important as the speeches of the president of Harvard University.

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snail feedback (14) :


reader Anonymous said...

Hi Lubos,

If you ever decide to become a politician, before you do,
please move to where I can vote for you. %)

P


reader qmechanic said...

Dear Lubos,

I agree with many of your comments. There is quite a lot of politically correct drivel in this statement. I say this, even though I attended MIT as an undergraduate (don't tell President Hockfield!). But I think the spirit of the statement is basically correct if you replace "women" with "women and men." As the authors state, we want the best people to go into science. If they are driven away for a reason that we can do something about, we should try to make an improvement as long as the accomodation is not unreasonable. When I was at MIT, I had a few friends (all men except for one woman) who decided not to go to graduate school because they were either uninterested in slaving away in academia for little reward or because they felt unwelcome. One guy even said that he was interested in having a family and he didn't think the academy would be a good environment. I've met men in graduate school who have very low self-confidence. I've also met women in graduate school who claim to have experienced discrimination. One woman was told by a fellow male student that women physicists weren't any good because he had never met a good one. I'm a woman and I've had a great experience in science. However, I understand that there are a lot of people who are interested in science but are deterred for some reason. As long as they are promising scientists, they should be helped and nurtured to their full potential. I think this is particularly crucial in physics. It used to be that physics was an extremely popular major in American universities. But nowadays, very few people want to study physics. So we need all the good people we can get. Even at the world-famous MIT physics department, the number of majors has dropped dramatically. According to Professor Greytak, associate head of education in physics, the average number of physics majors was around 70 per year in the 1980s. Now it's around 40-50 a year.

The one part of your commentary I disagree with is the part about women having families. Society has changed over the past few decades and now in the majority of married couples, both partners work. If industry accommodates couples, allowing them to have children, I see no reason why the academy should not do the same. I don't think a person should be paid a full salary for doing half the work, but a person can certainly be more productive if he/she feels less pressure on having to choose between job and family. The majority of effort in raising children is in the first five years and that is but a small portion of a scientist's 40 year career.

Sincerely,

qmechanic


reader CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I agree with almost all of qmechanic's comments and even (for once!) with Lubos, but does the country really need more physicists? I wonder if the situation in physics isn't sort of like that in theater, where the important actor once told the aspiring but uncertain student: "if anything can stop you, let it."

I haven't heard of any shortage of physicists, and a lot of seemingly promising researchers wind up working in finance or building things that go bang.

I don't know about MIT, but I've heard and seen remarks from students at that Cal tech school that the curriculum there seemed designed to make students hate science in general and physics in particular. There is a certain Darwinian logic to this notion.


reader Lumo said...

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

thanks for your feedback. I kind of agree with your comments. But let me say a few words.

Yes, we should ask whether the physics community should still grow. My guess is still that the answer is "yes", but once again, it's a serious question.

There are subquestions within physics. What is pretty clear is that biophysics, for example, will continue to grow. Fundamental physics (incl. particle physics, cosmology) may grow or decline, and the LHC and a few other experiments will influence the answer.

When you say that no one is interested in physics and graduate studies, you obviously have not served on the graduate admission committee. ;-) This year, the Harvard physics department has received 404 applications. Virtually each of them is a "top 1 percent" candidate, and your task is to go through these 404 folders (hundreds of pounds) and in two rounds, you must eliminate 5/6 of these top people people.

Darwinian logic: while I think that physics should look attractive to the general public, when it comes to attractivity to the physicists, I am against drawing fictitious nice pictures. The physicists should know what it really is. It can often be boring and frustrating, and not everyone would choose it. We should be fun for each other and we should think that our life is fun - but not just in one physics lecture that is meant to fool the future physics candidates.

Concerning discrimination. I know that some people have not meet a smart woman, and this forms their opinion. While I doubt that in most of these cases it's true that they have not met a smart woman, it is certainly plausibly theoretically that they have not. In that case, their opinion is a legitimate one. I don't know why and how could you ever force such a person to believe something that contradicts his (and usually it is "his") experience.

All the best
Lubos


reader Lumo said...

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

thanks for your feedback. I kind of agree with your comments. But let me say a few words.

Yes, we should ask whether the physics community should still grow. My guess is still that the answer is "yes", but once again, it's a serious question.

There are subquestions within physics. What is pretty clear is that biophysics, for example, will continue to grow. Fundamental physics (incl. particle physics, cosmology) may grow or decline, and the LHC and a few other experiments will influence the answer.

When you say that no one is interested in physics and graduate studies, you obviously have not served on the graduate admission committee. ;-) This year, the Harvard physics department has received 404 applications. Virtually each of them is a "top 1 percent" candidate, and your task is to go through these 404 folders (hundreds of pounds) and in two rounds, you must eliminate 5/6 of these top people people.

Darwinian logic: while I think that physics should look attractive to the general public, when it comes to attractivity to the physicists, I am against drawing fictitious nice pictures. The physicists should know what it really is. It can often be boring and frustrating, and not everyone would choose it. We should be fun for each other and we should think that our life is fun - but not just in one physics lecture that is meant to fool the future physics candidates.

Concerning discrimination. I know that some people have not meet a smart woman, and this forms their opinion. While I doubt that in most of these cases it's true that they have not met a smart woman, it is certainly plausibly theoretically that they have not. In that case, their opinion is a legitimate one. I don't know why and how could you ever force such a person to believe something that contradicts his (and usually it is "his") experience.

All the best
Lubos


reader Lumo said...

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

thanks for your feedback. I kind of agree with your comments. But let me say a few words.

Yes, we should ask whether the physics community should still grow. My guess is still that the answer is "yes", but once again, it's a serious question.

There are subquestions within physics. What is pretty clear is that biophysics, for example, will continue to grow. Fundamental physics (incl. particle physics, cosmology) may grow or decline, and the LHC and a few other experiments will influence the answer.

When you say that no one is interested in physics and graduate studies, you obviously have not served on the graduate admission committee. ;-) This year, the Harvard physics department has received 404 applications. Virtually each of them is a "top 1 percent" candidate, and your task is to go through these 404 folders (hundreds of pounds) and in two rounds, you must eliminate 5/6 of these top people people.

Darwinian logic: while I think that physics should look attractive to the general public, when it comes to attractivity to the physicists, I am against drawing fictitious nice pictures. The physicists should know what it really is. It can often be boring and frustrating, and not everyone would choose it. We should be fun for each other and we should think that our life is fun - but not just in one physics lecture that is meant to fool the future physics candidates.

Concerning discrimination. I know that some people have not meet a smart woman, and this forms their opinion. While I doubt that in most of these cases it's true that they have not met a smart woman, it is certainly plausibly theoretically that they have not. In that case, their opinion is a legitimate one. I don't know why and how could you ever force such a person to believe something that contradicts his (and usually it is "his") experience.

All the best
Lubos


reader qmechanic said...

I've been told that the depth of really talented, first rate physicists has dropped (at least in theoretical physics). In other words, there are still really great people but fewer of them. I don't have any direct evidence and I have no way to judge, but that's what I've been told.

-qmechanic


reader Anonymous said...

I've noticed over the years that many kids who traditionally would have chosen science or engineering majors in the past, are now majoring in things like business, accounting, marketing, etc ... If technical science skills are not highly valued by private sector companies in the future, then kids may question whether majoring in anything technical and/or science related is a ticket to a steady middle-class lifestyle. Perhaps they are making a "rational" economic decision, when they see less and less people getting jobs in computer science, engineering, and science in general. If I was a freshman college kid these days, I surely would be questioning whether majoring in engineering or science is worthwhile with all those huge tech/computer companies firing a lot of employees over the last several years. Last I heard was that majors like math, physics, and some areas of engineering (ie. computer, electrical and/or aerospace) were still frequently the hardest and most time consuming majors at many universities. Kids may question whether all that time consuming hard work is worth anything in the end, if there's very little to no good job opportunities once they finish.

Stories of medical doctors having financial problems in dealing with things like lawsuits and malpractice insurance, have been driving away some kids from the medical profession. There's a perception that the medical profession is no longer a ticket to a high paycheck.

If there's a perception of very little difference in future financial payoffs for college graduates compared to people who worked in a blue collar job and/or starting up one's own small business, kids may start to question whether going to college is worth their time and effort. Some may opt out of college altogether and go into business in a similar manner to Bill Gates or Michael Dell.

Perhaps it's no big surprise as to why many college kids try to go into the investment banking sector.


reader Anonymous said...

The same marketplace that keeps women with their lesser innate ability out of physics will also regulate the number of physicists, and the schemes to increase interest in physics will not work.


reader Quantoken said...

It's all darwinism applied in social science: Survival of the fittest.

One has got to be surviveable: Getting a decent job and live a comfortable life with adequate material supports, before one can talk freely his or her interests in science. Unfortunately the two goals are not compatible with each other as I found out a long time ago.

I think Prof. Kartz said it very well:
http://wuphys.wustl.edu/~katz/scientist.html

Career in science is a miserable career. It's OK to spend 10 years as post doc and live on a meager income and rent an apartment, and don't have a girl friend and all that, if you are strongly interested in science and want to pursuit the scientifc truths. The truth is you still can not fulfill that dream after you have pay all the prices that most people would not want to pay.

You can't really explore your ideas freely. The truth is if you do not stick with the main stream, your funding becomes a problem, and you are not going to survice within the circle. At the end of day, you would have wasted your life with little achieved.

Quantoken


reader Anonymous said...

For once quantoken, I am in agreement with you. What you describe is, unfortunately, the truth.


reader TripleIntegral said...

look - we have been over this ground before - equal opportunity for all - survival of the fittest - blah -blah - blah.

the more interesting points are this:

--the fact that there are "seminars" and "studies" about the lack of women in science menas that there is a perceived "problem" that must be "fixed"

--if the "problem" does not actually exist, then big efforts to "fix" it will lead to a misapplication of society's human capital and slower progress in **all* fields - kind of like artificial price controls or bad taxation policy

--the burden is on those who believe there is a problem to prove it from the initial conditions - not the final conditions. this is a classic liberal fallacy.

--it is not society's job to create policies that optimize any individual's desired outcome ["i want to be a physicist - why can't i? if i can't it must be someone's fault!"]. this is childish.

--as someone involved in economics and mathematics i welcome every new competent colleague! like all fields, there are never enough truly outstanding people, but maybe enough mediocre ones...


reader Quantoken said...

Regarding "--the fact that there are "seminars" and "studies" about the lack of women in science menas that there is a perceived "problem" that must be "fixed"

It is a fact of reality and scientific fact that we have a smaller percentage of women in math and physics. The statistics is true. But it is NOT scientific to so conclude that it may be due to any "lack of innate ability" nonsense. To so deduce a conclusion would infer the lack of innate ability of any one who hold that view to se the false presumption before that conclusion can be drawn.

They assumed that all smart men and women must all wants nothing better than to become top scientists, then as they grow up, any one who does not materialize in that wish must have been lacking on the ability side. What a wishful thinking!

The truth is, very few girls want to pursuit a most likely miserable career in science. It's certainly no fun, and such girls are viewed as none-attractive by the society.
Lots of girls would want to marry a male Einstein. But how many men wants to marry a female Einstein?
Men wants their wifes to be pretty, sexy, romantic, artistic, family oriented, loyal to husband, take care of the family and raise good kids, all that. On the other side, women want their husband to be successful in their careers more than anything else. That difference directly causes the disparity in the male/female ratio in academies, since both men and women are trying to maximize their market values.

It has nothing to do with abilities or any biology differences.


reader Anonymous said...
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