Trouble accepting what I have not seen…

I wonder if it is a human trait to reject the experience of others if that said experience is not a part of one’s life.

For example, it has been difficult to persuade my conservative friends that darker skinned males are often seen as “suspect” by the police (example)

I had a brush with being profiled (probably many things, including having a cheap car with Texas plates) and note one of the comments that I got on that post.

It is tough to accept what we haven’t experienced, observed, or been a party to, especially when we don’t want it to be true.

In my case: I have trouble accepting that sexism within the sciences still exists. What caught my eye was this story (from outside of the United States):

In the final months of my physics degree, one of my professors asked me into his office – an exciting prospect, given that I assumed we’d be discussing subjects for my potential honours theses. He closed the door, invited me to sit, and declared he’d fallen in love. He wanted to have an affair, he said, and if I couldn’t share in that plan he couldn’t continue as my advisor – he’d find my presence ‘too distracting’. He was a senior academic, and married; but this was Australia in the late 1970s and the subject of sexual harassment wasn’t on any university radar. It seemed this was just one of life’s inequities, another hurdle facing being a woman in science. So I made the decision to leave physics – a subject I loved – and in the following academic year switched to computer science at a different university.

Now of course, the reasons I resist this claim so strongly is that:

1. I don’t want it to be true.
2. I haven’t seen this in person.
3. I haven’t ever done this to another person.

Note: the degree data I’ve seen in mathematics surprises me. I do know that we’ve had more success in hiring female math professors than we’ve had in the past; is a bad job market part of the reason? I do know that things are better than when I first got my Ph. D., but evidently the numbers have stagnated.

Anyway, I do believe in data and facts though.

Of course, part of what turns me off is the low quality of the arguments that I’ve read. For example, from the article that I quoted from::

Part of what women are up against in science is a continuing widespread attitude that, deep down, we’re not really up to it, which by extension implies that a high rate of attrition is no big loss. That view was startlingly articulated in 2005 by Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, when in a conference he mused that if there weren’t more women in top science positions at elite universities it might be in part because women’s mental abilities are different. The ensuing furore led Summers to resign and precipitated a great deal of hand-wringing about academic sexism. Yet here we are, a decade later, with yet more academic sexism.

What surprised me about Summers was not what he thought – in my experience, it’s not an uncommon view among elite academic men – but that he thought he could say it out loud. He didn’t seem to understand the absurdity of stating, in an intellectual forum, that half the Harvard student body might be inherently unsuited for intellectual success.

I see two big problems here. First of all, “he thought he could say it out loud”: this is a hostility to freedom of expression that I find troubling. Also: “that half the Harvard student body might be inherently unsuited for intellectual success”.

The author of this article misses the point badly. For one, Summers remarked that the demands of science at the world class level may be incompatible with family life and it “could be” that women were more interested in the latter. As far as the intellect: remember that Harvard faculty are supposed to be world class; we are talking about the extreme ends of the “bell curve” here. Might it be possible that the variation between men and women are statistically different? Again, I am talking about the “extreme ends”, which is where Harvard STEM faculty would be. That has nothing to do with, say, people like me (ordinary Ph. D. people with a modest publication record) and nothing to do with the student body at Harvard (on the whole.

And, I’ve been turned off by some of the hare brained “sexism!” complaints I’ve seen (e. g. calling an animal part a “penis”).

So yes, some of the “sexism in STEM fields” arguments are bad arguments. But that doesn’t mean that sexism doesn’t exist; I think that I am now convinced that it does.

A bad argument for a position doesn’t invalidate that position (e. g. there are bad pro-evolution arguments out there) , though it does mean that the person making the argument did not make a convincing case for it.


May 31, 2016 - Posted by | mathematics, science, social/political | ,

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