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More About This “Men vs. Women in STEM” Thing August 9, 2017

Posted by geoff in News.

Just to make sure I completely step in it with both feet, I thought I’d weigh in on the #Goolag business. Again.

I’ll admit that I haven’t studied men’s and women’s mental characteristics and their differences. I haven’t studied sexual discrimination in education and the workplace. But I have complete confidence that my take is as informed as anybody else’s.

How can I be so arrogant when my credentials are so weak?

It’s simply this: The vast majority of social sciences research is absolute crap.

Now that’s not necessarily their fault, but it remains true nonetheless. The simple reason is that it is incredibly difficult to do a meaningful experiment or analysis of a population in the physical sciences, let alone the life sciences, let alone social sciences. Just look at how many nutritional recommendations have been overturned in the past decade, and how many medical “truths” have had to be corrected.

Most of those reversals came after earlier statistical studies were shown to be invalid – those studies used the same statistical methods that the social sciences use, and even though they were analyzing physical, measurable parameters, their conclusions were incorrect. I think the most obvious reason for this lies in the complexity of the systems (i.e., the human body) they’re studying.

Now look at the social sciences, which deal with equal or greater complexity, but have dirty datasets (i.e., the data is contaminated with other influences) and terrible measurement tools. It’s easy to see why social sciences papers often come to wacky conclusions – conclusions that most often are driven by confirmation bias.

“And They Knew Not Their Hole From an Ass in the Ground.*” A second major problem is that social scientists, like journalists, don’t really understand what they’re studying. Take math, for instance.

There’s no such thing as “math.” The different fields of math all require distinct suites of mental skills. I’m sure you’ve known people who kicked fanny at arithmetic and then fell behind in geometry or trigonometry. Let me tell you, when you start getting to real math, the skill sets are vastly different from K-12 math skills. And the mental traits that allow one to do well at statistics, for instance, are not the same as those that assist one in partial differential equations.

Take me, for instance. I aced the math sections of the SAT, ACT, SAT Achievement Test, and GRE, so according to social science surveys, I’m “great” at math. But there’s no way I could have majored in math in college, or could have succeeded in math as a career. Because mathematics at that level is nothing like K-12 math.

Which brings us back to bad measurement tools. Social science surveys often use the standardized tests (like the SAT, etc.) to show that women are underrepresented in technical fields. “They are obviously qualified based on these test scores, so why aren’t they a large fraction of people in that career?”

They should check their premise and realize that these things hold true:

  1. “Math” consists of diverse fields that require different skill sets.
  2. Nobody knows what the optimal suite of mental skills is for a given mathematical field.
  3. Nobody knows how to measure those mental skills or how to measure “success” in mathematics.
  4. The math competency they think they’re measuring has little to do with real-world professional math used in STEM career fields.
  5. Except for IT guys, who don’t do much math.

I know a bit about science and engineering, and I believe that the same lessons hold broadly true across those disciplines. When the survey bins all physicists, for example, it does not distinguish among experimental, applied, and theoretical physicists, who all have very different jobs and aptitudes.

Conclusion. The vast majority of social sciences research is absolute crap. This is not normally a problem – social scientists should actually be lauded for trying to work in such a difficult field. But when they oversell the accuracy and significance of their results, as climate modelers have with their computational predictions, then they do significant harm by trying to influence public behavior and policy.

Stick with the science and realize its limitations, guys.

*Obscure Firesign Theater reference.


1. Sobek - August 10, 2017

Well said.

2. Cathy - August 10, 2017

Thanks Geoff.

Got two degrees. Business-Information Systems and Theology. The theology degree included a lot of behavioral science, but I also needed it for the business degree.

For business-science degree I did a lot of number crunching in finance, statistics, systems, computing stuff, operations research and production but I always knew what the purpose was — to improve the bottom line in business applications. Honestly for me business-science was all kinda a geeky form of behavioral science. And all coursework was required to use the ‘scientific method’ in the structure of the coursework. It was a BS, a science degree, back in the seventies. Good stuff.

The theology degree required a lot of behavioral science too — organizational and family systems, clinical work, a study of history through the ages that helped me observe and assess why people made decisions they did in very narrowly focused areas like theology and religion, which influenced entire societies, wars, cultures, events, etc. throughout the world. To teach, encourage, and counsel folks, knowing ways human beings think and respond is essential.

But Geoff, I think you are on to something. I believe that current university curriculums across the board are bent on lying to make young minds stupid, weak and dependent. Their agenda is not to teach with the goal of forming adult minds that maintain healthy skepticism. What’s coming out of universities is of concern. Many young minds seem to have little understanding or respect for FACTS. Some seem to not know how to read them, observe them, apply them, or remember them for recall. They also seem to lack the ability to think critically — the LOGIC — the mental exercise of applying facts through a structured disciplined METHOD of analysis and learning something from all of it. Following these rules keeps the results closer to something we all can trust and apply to life.

Praxis! Theorem! Praxis! Then rinse and repeat.

I don’t think it’s the ‘fault’ of the behavioral science in it’s true form, which can be observed, hypothesized, studied, and measured, to offer some level of humble conclusions that can help us make decisions and then test the results of those decisions in the future. The core problem is that those teaching and lording over the ‘learners’ don’t have this as their mission anymore. I’m hearing regularly about students who challenge the agenda get punished by the profs and other students. That’s kinda evil.

3. Cathy - August 10, 2017

…thinking more on this as I hear more ‘news’ about this story.

The core problem — whether in the classroom, the work room, the board room, or the lunchroom — seems to be the shutting down of free speech.

4. lauraw - August 11, 2017
Cathy - August 12, 2017

Thanks Laura.

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