Monthly Archives: January 2015

Brilliance

Yesterday, this paper hit my Twitter feed. It essentially argues that the gender gap in academic disciplines is due primarily to the specific perception by members of that discipline that raw talent is essential for success. That is, the disproportionate number of of male Ph.D.s in physics or math is due to physicists and mathematicians believing that raw talent is the most important element of success in their field. For comparison, in my field (molecular biology), 54% of Ph.D.s go to women, and that is explained primarily by the fact that we value hard work and training more than raw talent.

I initially responded to this paper (in the latest issue of Science) by asking if all of science was being trolled by the journal. I mean, the abstract reads like an article from the Onion. It turns out, though, that the paper makes a lot of good points, and uses data (albeit soft poll data) to do it. It’s also interesting because it doesn’t JUST consider stereotypically “low female” fields in science, technology, engineering and math, but also social science fields. For example, male Ph.D.s in Philosophy and Economics far outnumber female Ph.D.s, while there is parity in Political Science and History, and an excess of female Ph.D.s in Education and Psychology. What’s really interesting is that the data in this paper support the hypothesis across fields.

In the paper, the authors test their hypothesis (higher “field-specific ability beliefs” = fewer female Ph.D.s) against three competing hypotheses. The first of these is that fields in which the participants work more hours attract less women (I call this the “Mommy Hypothesis”). The Mommy Hypothesis is entirely unsupported by the data – there is no correlation between hours worked and percent of Ph.D.s going to women across disciplines.

The next hypothesis tests the selectivity of the discipline against number of Ph.D.s who are female, and, again, finds no significant correlation. (The measure of selectivity used was the percent of Ph.D. applicants who are accepted each year – lower acceptance rate = higher selectivity.) While I may quibble with this as a real measure of selectivity (if your institution is famous but not that rigorous, you may still have a LOT of applicants per space, and, of course, money is always a factor in how many applicants an institution may take, so it’s possible that selectivity might have nothing to do with overall applicant quality), the authors nonetheless found that the OPPOSITE (but statistically insignificant) trend is present: more selective disciplines have, on average, more female Ph.D.s.  The authors attempted to backstop their measure of selectivity with scores on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) within all fields for which data are available – higher scores on the GRE should reflect higher-quality applicant pools. Again, there was no correlation between GRE scores and percent of female Ph.D.s

Finally, the authors tested the hypothesis that the TYPE of work done in a field might influence the numbers of women vs. men awarded Ph.D.s. Specifically, they looked at whether the field tended to be more “systemizing” or “empathizing” – that is, is it a cold, hard, logical boy place or a soft, warm, emotional girl place? Here there was a significant correlation, but only at the most basic level. Not to get to deep into the nitty-gritty details of the analysis, but the correlation was there when all of the data were considered together, but the “systemizing vs. empathizing” score could not predict whether a field’s Ph.D.s are male-dominated.

The next question is whether this perception of “innate” talent being important predicts the attitudes of its members towards women. That is, do the members of fields valuing raw talent also think that women, on average, LACK that talent. The answer, unsurprisingly, is yes. On average, in fields where the field-specific ability belief score is high, members of that field were “more likely to endorse the idea that women are less well-suited to high-level scholarly work”, and that higher endorsement of this idea correlates with lower female representation. Finally, participants were asked to rate how welcoming their fields are to women, and…well, the results are exactly what you’d predict.

So, what does this mean? Well, maybe nothing. Correlation does not equal causation. But there’s a lot of correlation here, and I think it must mean something. The authors offer several potential explanations for their results, which are not exclusive of one another. Women may be discriminated against in “brilliant” disciplines because there is a stereotype that women, generally, are far less likely to have innate genius than men. Women may be less likely to enter fields where they know they are perceived to be less likely to succeed, due to stereotype threat. Women may be less likely to enter or stay in a field because it is perceived (by them, and by those IN the field) as unfriendly to women (I’m looking at you, Physics and Engineering). Women may be more likely to enter a field that values work over innate talent because women value hard work more than innate talent. (Incidentally, they tested this last hypothesis, and found that, while it is true that women, on average, are more likely to perceive hard work as the most important aspect of success, and the reverse is true for men, this doesn’t explain the results of the study. That is, while women do value hard work more than talent, they don’t seem to be choosing their fields of study based on a similar value system existing within that field.

So, what do I think? Well, I think some of this makes sense. We know stereotype threat is real, and we know that the stereotype that women are somehow less likely to be “brilliant” than men is real. Those stereotypes are well-documented. It’s nice to see that the Mommy Hypothesis, which makes me want to throw textbooks with great force, is unsupported by the data (again). I suspect that the explanation is more complex than just one factor, but that a combination of stereotype (this is what women are good at; men are more likely to be geniuses), field-specific ability beliefs, and the expectations imposed on kids when they are still very young (girls are bad at math, elementary school teachers are all women) is ultimately responsible for the gender gap.

How do we fix it? Stop with the stereotyping on ALL levels, for a start. What do you think? Suggestions/comments welcom

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Time does not equal money (or, I hated science in grad school, too)

This one sort of wrote itself. One of those times when you’re having an argument with a stranger in your head while driving your kid to daycare. It’s about this post, whose take home message seems to be that time = money, and time & money = children, and that if you’re a Ph.D. scientist, grad school and your postdoc mean losing money, and that the cost of your postdoc (relative to what you’d have made if you, say, left science entirely after your Ph.D.) is equivalent to the cost of raising a child. Plus, the time required to establish yourself as a scientist, if you are female, uses up your fertile years and leaves you facing a barren future or spending even MORE money to get pregnant.

So, as I said on Twitter, there’s some bullshit here, as well as some good points. The good points have been made MANY times over, but they’re worth reiterating:

  • Academic scientists are underpaid relative to their experience at every stage of the academic career. We know this – a Ph.D. should be worth more than $45,000 a year, which is the NIH postdoc rate. People are often startled to find out what I make as a tenure-track faculty member, because society has this perception of college professors as ivory tower wealthy folk. Right. Sure. Even in industry, it takes years of experience to get to what your degree would be worth in other fields. The ONE exception here, for me, is grad school. Yes, most folks with a B.S. make more than $30,000 out of college. But the free education you get in your Ph.D. program should be considered as part of your compensation.
  • Academic scientists work too hard, and the culture drives them to do so. You’re expected to be devoted to your science 24/7. You work late, you work EVERY DAY. I’ve used the monastery comparison before: you work, you sleep, you eat (but not much), you work, you sleep. And you don’t sleep all that much. When I was at UCSF, a lot of the postdocs lived in the housing on campus. Right across the street from the building we worked in. My response? “I don’t want to be a monk.” (Incidentally, I spent my postdoc not working weekends and going home by 6 every night.)
  • Academic science is unfriendly to women who want to have children. The overwork, above, is still expected even if you breed. There are a LOT of people who will question your dedication to your career if you also have a family. If you DO wait to establish your career before you have a family, you’ll be 40 years old, and, yeah, risking age-related subfertility, for sure.
  • We make WAYYYY too many Ph.D.’s relative to the jobs available in academia. There’s definitely a nasty aspect of “nearly free labor” in the grad student/postdoc years. Some of this could be fixed by not making “tenure track job” the only acceptable goal for Ph.D. students and postdocs. The rest we have to fix by MAKING FEWER DOCTORS.

Okay, so that’s the stuff he got right. Now for my counterpoint(s):

  • A lot of the information in the post is anecdotal, and some of it is downright incorrect based on my own not-entirely-anecdotal evidence. I’ll get to that below, but suffice it to say that, since much of it is anecdotal, I will feel free to use anecdata myself here. Also, when I say “science”, I mean “biology”, because that’s my science, so that’s what I know.
  • The examples he gives for what’s required for a postdoc who aspires to a tenure-track job are not remotely universal. I know this because I did my postdoc with an extraordinarily successful woman, who is now at a HHMI institute and a member of the National Academy of Science. None of her postdocs churned out a paper a year. None. But most of us got tenure-track university jobs (if we wanted them). Now, I’m  prepared to admit that pedigree matters in this area (she’s got a name, and we benefitted from that), but not all PIs expect that level of ridiculous productivity from their postdocs. My advisor was in favor of actual lives outside of academia.
  • On that note, one thing that IS in your control if you’re an academic scientist: you will never have more freedom of choice in your jobs than when choosing your Ph.D. and postdoctoral advisors. If balance between work and non-work life is important to you, you MUST find advisors who respect that attitude (and, preferably, share it). This is one area of my professional life where I have been very successful – my choice of people to work with as an early-career scientist.
  • Which brings me to: you don’t have to postpone starting a family until you’re 40. IF you choose your advisors well. In my postdoctoral lab, there were an average of four female postdocs at any given moment. The year I had my first child (while a postdoc), all four women postdocs had babies. We joked there was something in the water. We all took maternity leave (one of us, not me, took six months of leave). All four of us now have tenure track jobs. Two of us had a second baby in our first year or two on the tenure track, and the other two had a second baby (in one case, twins) while still postdoccing. I don’t know how the others are doing, tenure-wise, but I have gotten very favorable reviews and recommendations for tenure a year early. Now, my tenure-track job is at a primarily undergraduate university in the Cal State system, not at a Research 1 university. But that’s another aspect of “choose wisely”. I chose this job because I wanted to teach and have it be valued, AND because I wanted my family life to be a priority. We do need to change the culture of science (see above), but it’s not the same for everyone, even now.
  • I’m just not sure how many of these $100,000 “consulting jobs” there really are out there. Enough said.
  • This writer seems to be in a different lab culture than I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been in four labs, counting my own, and was considered a scientist at every stage, even as an undergrad. I consider my students colleagues, though currently very junior. I certainly was considered a scientist as a postdoc, by everyone. The idea that postdocs aren’t really considered scientists yet is alien to me.
  • Fertility, in women, doesn’t actually undergo a sharp decline at 35. That number turns out to be based on peasant women in the 19th century, and modern data seems to indicate that fertility is pretty level from 30 to 40, and the decline is shallow until menopause, actually. So you CAN often do it late, if that’s your choice.
  • The idea that people don’t meet their future spouses/partners after college because of the long hours science requires…false on its face. In my graduate class of 10, six met their spouses in grad school. So, you know, after college and while working long academic science hours. It’s true that most people don’t pair up and get married as postdocs, but I have a few examples of that, too, if you really want them. (I, incidentally, met my spouse in grad school but got married as a postdoc, which is actually quite common.)
  • The sentence, “The cost of your postdoc is your firstborn child!” is just silly. It implies that academic scientists have one less child than they would have if they’d made a different choice. Evidence, please? My anecdotal data: I wanted two, I have two. I have them later that I would have if I hadn’t gone to grad school, but I KNEW THAT GOING IN. I made that choice consciously.

So, yeah. Science is glutted with postdocs who can’t get the job they want because there aren’t any jobs. But a Ph.D. does, in fact, provide security.  The unemployment rate for Ph.D.s at the height of the recession was 2.4%, compared with 8.2% for the general public. (Hey! Actual data!) Even if you can’t get THAT job, your odds of having A job are three times that of the non-Ph.D. holder.

One last observation: the write of this article is in his sixth year of a Ph.D. program. That’s about when EVERYONE hates science. I did. I wanted OUT OUT OUT. So did almost everyone I went to school with. I can’t help but wonder how he’ll feel two years from now, with grad school and its suckitude in the rearview mirror. I fell back in love with science – I wonder if he will, too.

I mean, no one does science for the money.

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No, I don’t believe in God.

Warning: this one is a bit on the long side.

Wow. It’s almost like I have no papers or grants to write, no dossiers to prep, no classes to prep…it’s actually exactly like that.

This post, which has been bouncing around in my mind for a long time, was triggered again by a commentary I heard on NPR this morning (about the murders at Charlie Hebdo). I’m not going to comment on that beyond, “Yeah, they were racist and offensive comics. No, it’s not okay to murder anyone because you’re offended.” Again, because I am a reasonably intelligent human, I can maintain both thoughts at the same time.

But this commentary on the radio got me thinking, again, about my lack of belief in not just the Christianity I’m constantly soaking in as an American citizen, but anything supernatural. I’m an atheist. I’m not remotely conflicted about it, or unsure. I’m reasonably sure there’s no god, nor anything else approximating magic.

This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me. Although it did, at least at first, to a few people. I remember my sister being a bit surprised by it the first time I told her. (I think she’s closer to my way of thinking about this now, though.) I’m quite certain a few people who love me dearly think I’m going to Hell for sure.

This doesn’t really worry me. Again, I don’t believe in Hell, either. This post is mostly about the common questions that people ask when they find out you don’t believe, as well as a little glimpse into what it’s like to be a nonbeliever in a sea of religion.

It was recently suggested to me that I don’t believe in God because I’m a scientist. After all, most biologists don’t (though most physicists do). I don’t think it’s that straightforward, though. For one, an understanding of Mendel and Darwin and a trained scientist’s trust that those data don’t prevent belief in God. I have a lovely former lab student who stands as evidence of this fact. Several faculty in my own department are or have been quietly religious.

So, if it’s not because I’m a biologist, then…why? For a start, I think it’s more likely that I’m a biologist at least partly because I don’t believe in God. Because, while Mendel and Darwin don’t prevent belief, they do make it downright impossible to buy into certain brands of faith – namely the sort that says the earth is only a few thousand years old, and the ones that deny evolution. In addition, an understanding of the Theory of Evolution definitely eliminates any necessity for deities in the creation of life or humanity. Since the creation of life is a HUGE component of most religious texts, it does make it harder to believe.

I think, therefore, that many of us nonbelievers come to biology because we can – we have no pre-existing beliefs that prevent us from accepting the evidence. For me, it was more, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” It confirmed my previous suspicions, rather than contradicting dearly-held beliefs.

So, questions: Well, what do you think happens to your soul when you die?

Answer: I don’t think I have a soul. I have a mind, and while we don’t yet understand how the “mind” is generated in the brain, we’re quite certain that it is. My mind…well, barring computer uploads becoming reality in the next few decades, when I die, so does my mind. The things that were me are gone forever, except as they are remembered by the people I leave behind.

Question: Jesus, don’t you find that sad?

Answer: Sure. But my not wanting to believe a thing doesn’t change the reality of it. And the idea of my soul persisting after I die is, frankly, even more sad to contemplate. I don’t WANT to be a bystander in the lives of my surviving loved ones. To watch, but be unable to touch, to hug, to interact? THAT sounds like Hell, to me.

Question: If there’s no God, what gives your life meaning? (Related question: what keeps you a good person?)

Answer: I give my life meaning. It means what I decide it means. Which is so awesome, I can’t even tell you. And as for the second question: I gave up being a good person for fear of punishment decades ago. It’s called “growing up”. Yeah, it’s sarcastic, but the fact is that religion isn’t where moral values come from. Again, it’s the reverse. Religions come at least in part from moral values that already exist as a result of the evolution of social behavior, and by our own cultural and societal contracts with one another.

I guarantee this is true. Most atheists never murder anyone, don’t steal, don’t lie or cheat more than average. In fact, more murders in the U.S. are committed by people who DO believe in God. This is almost certainly due to sheer numbers of believers vs. nonbelievers, and unrelated to religion vs. atheism. If religion is required to ensure moral behavior, where are all the atheist serial killers?

(On that note, some science: there’s a fair amount of reliable data saying that psychopathy is heavily genetic.)

Question: But you let your kids believe in Santa Claus.

Answer: Yup. And the Easter Bunny. But the difference is that they will (naturally) stop believing in those things when they grow up. Harmless.

Question: Harmless? Does that mean you think religion is harmful?

Answer: Oh, boy. This is the one people get riled up over. With good reason, I guess. On average, no. I don’t think the average religious person is being seriously harmed by being religious, nor are they causing serious harm to others. Harm is done, as I noted above, by folks regardless of religion.

That said, there are a few vocal minorities in the religious world that ARE doing harm specifically in the name of their religions. Evolution-denial IS harmful, period. Denial of the methods of science leads to harm. God or no God, evolution is not up for debate, as I have said before. Teaching your children things that are demonstrably untrue is harmful. Influencing elections so that OTHER people’s children are exposed to pseudoscience is also harmful.

Question (the last): What’s it like to be an atheist in a sea of Christianity?

Answer: I’m in California, so, judging by folks I know in other places, I have it easy. That said, not a single day goes by that I am not confronted by people who believe something I am quite certain isn’t true, AND who are trying to convince me that they’re right and I’m wrong. And, on the flip side of that, not a day goes by where I don’t restrain myself from doing this exact thing: telling them why I think they’re wrong. I see Facebook posts thanking God for a loved one not getting on the plane that crashed, and wonder, “What do they think God was doing for everyone else on that plane, then? Why did God have it in for the other 200 folks?”

I’ve had that argument with wonderful, well-meaning friends who think it’s the wrong question. Perhaps. But I still can’t help but wonder.

I actually think Christianity, as defined by the teachings of Jesus Christ, is a fine thing, if that’s what you’re into. But, as John Scalzi has written, “Christianity is a fine thing. I wish more Christians practiced it.”

Finally, what it’s like to be an atheist: It’s good. I am responsible as much as possible for what happens in my life. I don’t have anyone supernatural to thank for the good, or to blame for the bad. I don’t have to try and come up with an answer to the question, “If God is good, why do children starve and die of AIDS?” Human problems are just human problems, which we must face and solve without any help from above. I live as though this is my only shot, because I’m pretty sure it is. Every human life has value, because each one is unique, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. There will never be another like it. That’s what it’s like.

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