Op-ed submission: Response to Jonathan Katz’s April 16 Submission

Joshua Landman, Rachael Holloway | Class of 2017

I don’t have much of a place commenting on the status of discrimination in the physics department as a student in another department, so I’m not going to do that with this piece. I do, though, want to comment on a couple of the statements you made in your recent submission (April 16, 2017) and your lack of scientific rigor and logic in constructing your arguments.

1) “There is no basis for rejecting the hypothesis that men’s and women’s minds, as well as their personalities, are intrinsically different.”

You use this statement as a way of effectively stating that there is no discrimination in your department. That doesn’t really hold water. Let’s say you have an experiment with two samples, A and B. You’re trying to test how well they score on variable X. Your null hypothesis is this: There is no difference between sample A and sample B. It turns out that those two groups score very differently with respect to X. This leads us to two possible conclusions:

a. There is a fundamental difference of some sort between groups A and B.
b. Groups A and B are affected by some external force leading to a difference in their scores on variable X.

As Jen McLish accurately pointed out in her April 13 article, possibility (a) is not actually a possibility at all—men and women have no demonstrated difference in aptitude for any academic field. There are already innumerable documents, scientific and otherwise, discussing the external pressures that women, people of color and other minorities face, not just in STEM fields but also elsewhere. The logical answer, with no contest, is conclusion (b): systemic, institutional discrimination. I’d like to include links to a couple of studies at this point—you did request sources, after all. Here’s one published online by the American Physical Society. Here’s an article published in Scientific American; it references reports published in Nature, the American Physical Society website and PhysicsWorld. In case it was not immediately obvious, these are not forums dedicated solely to psychology: They’re dedicated to good science in general.

2) “Serious students don’t care if their instructors look different from themselves…Serious students do not feel ‘anxiety and isolation’ if ‘everyone except you, including the professor, looks the same.’”

If our University is an example (and I’m pretty sure it is, correct me if I’m wrong), then serious students definitely do care. That’s why there’s so much activism on campus. Groups like Women in Computer Science, the Society of Women Engineers and the Association for Latin American Students are some examples of students coming together to form communities of people from underrepresented demographics—you don’t see a group for Straight White Men in Physics. Do you think that all of the Wash. U. students in those groups aren’t “serious students”? There are few people I know here, if any, that believe that to be the case. Research on representation in classrooms also shows that students who have role models and mentors to look up to are more likely to stay in school. (PDF of original study here.)
It may be tempting to respond to that study by saying that those who were more likely to stay in school when they had black teachers were “less serious” students, but it’s worth asking why these patterns show up in social science research repeatedly—patterns that demonstrate that representation matters, and that it’s harder to succeed when you don’t have models of people in your own group succeeding. Is it that certain groups (coincidentally, the underrepresented ones) are all just “less serious” as students? Or is it perhaps that your sweeping statements about who is “serious” and who is not are tone-deaf and dismissive of both entire fields of research and entire groups of underrepresented and marginalized individuals?

It’s disheartening to me that you, a tenured professor, accuse a student of misusing basic scientific principles and logic while simultaneously doing so yourself. You “cite” statistics for various points without sourcing them on multiple occasions in your article. I would ask that you refrain from giving us numbers without valid sources in the future—a request I’m sure you’ve made of many students.

  • Val Ryland

    “As Jen McLish accurately pointed out in her April 13 article, possibility (a) is not actually a possibility at all—men and women have no demonstrated difference in aptitude for any academic field.”

    First of all, that a “demonstrated difference does not exist” does not exclude the possibility that an (undemonstrated) difference does exist. However, the more important point is this: it is quite plausible that there is no difference in the average aptitude between men and women for a given field, say, theoretical physics. However, physics is not a game for the average _person_, of either gender. The field itself by its very nature demands exceptional ability, and the pervasive competitiveness means that even those merely “above average” need not apply.

    The question is then this: is there a difference in the number of exceptionally able men and women? The answer, surprisingly, is yes. This is despite the absence of evidence for a difference on the average. Men just have a higher _variance_ in their abilities. There are more male geniuses just as there are more men populating the pages of the Darwin awards. This has been observed in numerous studies, and is an entirely reasonable hypothesis that can explain the gender gap in fields such as physics without invoking some elusive form of systemic discrimination.

    “If our University is an example (and I’m pretty sure it is, correct me if I’m wrong), then serious students definitely do care. That’s why there’s so much activism on campus. ”

    Activism is not evidence of seriousness. In fact, activism is often detrimental to one’s studies. Things, of course, are hardly ever black and white and it’s perfectly possible for a very serious student to join a group in order to have contact with other people which may have had similar experiences as themselves. However, the minute a student protests that the physical appearance of the faculty body is not to their liking, that student is, by definition, engaging in discrimination. It doesn’t matter how benevolent such discrimination may sound. If a student is more concerned that an instructor “look like themselves” than that they do quality work, that student is, again by definition, not serious.