Nerdify the world, and the women will follow

As delighted as I’ve been with the popular response to this blog, it’s come to my attention that there are still a few readers who haven’t yet been angered or offended by anything I’ve written. That’s why today’s entry will be about women, science, and Larry Summers.

Granted, it feels strange to be blogging about why there aren’t more women in computer science and the other nerdly disciplines, having just come from a conference where Irit Dinur took the Best Paper Award for her combinatorial proof of the PCP Theorem. But the question remains: why aren’t there more Irits?

A hilarious analysis by Philip Greenspun seems like as good a starting point as any for discussing this question. Here are my favorite passages:

A lot more men than women choose to do seemingly irrational things such as become petty criminals, fly homebuilt helicopters, play video games, and keep tropical fish as pets (98 percent of the attendees at the American Cichlid Association convention that I last attended were male). Should we be surprised that it is mostly men who spend 10 years banging their heads against an equation-filled blackboard in hopes of landing a $35,000/year post-doc job?

Having been both a student and teacher at MIT, my personal explanation for men going into science is the following:

1. young men strive to achieve high status among their peer group
2. men tend to lack perspective and are unable to step back and ask the question “is this peer group worth impressing?”

Consider Albert Q. Mathnerd, a math undergrad at MIT (“Course 18″ we call it). He works hard and beats his chest to demonstrate that he is the best math nerd at MIT. This is important to Albert because most of his friends are math majors and the rest of his friends are in wimpier departments, impressed that Albert has even taken on such demanding classes. Albert never reflects on the fact that the guy who was the best math undergrad at MIT 20 years ago is now an entry-level public school teacher in Nebraska, having failed to get tenure at a 2nd tier university. When Albert goes to graduate school to get his PhD, his choice will have the same logical foundation as John Hinckley’s attempt to impress Jodie Foster by shooting Ronald Reagan…

What about women? Don’t they want to impress their peers? Yes, but they are more discriminating about choosing those peers. I’ve taught a fair number of women students in electrical engineering and computer science classes over the years. I can give you a list of the ones who had the best heads on their shoulders and were the most thoughtful about planning out the rest of their lives. Their names are on files in my “medical school recommendations” directory…

With Occam’s Razor, we should not need to bring in the FBI to solve the mystery of why there are more men than women who have chosen to stick with the choice that they made at age 18 to be a professor of science or mathematics.

If you don’t recognize any truth in the above, then (almost by definition) you are not a nerd. Yet Greenspun’s argument immediately raises four questions:

  1. Is academic science really such a crappy career choice?
  2. If not, then what else is keeping more women from going into it?
  3. Regardless of underlying causes, should we be trying to entice more women into science?
  4. If so, how?

Let me address these questions in turn.

1. Is science really as depressing as Greenspun makes it out to be?

I can only speak for myself. Unlike most people, I don’t “work” at all, in the sense of doing anything with the conscious goal of making money. All I do is think about what interests me, and discuss the results of that thinking with other people. As long as governments (and philanthropists like Mike Lazaridis) are willing to pay me for my non-work, I’m happy to take their money. If they ever stop paying me, I guess I’ll have to find some other source of income.

Of course my perspective might change once I start a tenure-track, which is part of the reason why I haven’t been in any hurry to do so. But for now, I can’t complain about my life as a postdoc. Or rather, I can complain, but then I remember the alternatives. Can I even imagine what it would be like to grapple not with the eternal verities of QMA and PSPACE, but with the fickle whims of the stock market? My only reward being a gigantic pile of cash, most of which wouldn’t even fit in my wallet when I went out for Indian buffet?

2. The trouble with ‘because’

So Greenspun’s “Albert Q. Mathnerd” theory strikes me as at best a partial answer to why more women don’t go into the nerdly sciences. But there’s a stronger argument: if Greenspun were right, then we would expect even fewer women in the humanities and social sciences (which are even more cash-strapped than the sciences), and more women trading derivatives and starting software companies.

And that brings us, of course, to the crater-pocked battlefield where hardened university presidents fear to tread. Are there Darwinian reasons to expect males to be more “spatial” and less “verbal” on average, or to have a higher variance in ability (with both more Alan Turings and more George W. Bushes), etc., etc.? If you want to read an interesting discussion of these questions — one that involves, you know, actual facts and evidence — I heartily recommend this debate (both sides of it) between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke.

But what do I think about the “root cause” of the gender imbalance in science? I’ll tell you exactly what I think: I think the question is ill-posed. When we say that A causes B, we normally mean something like “if A didn’t happen, then B wouldn’t happen either.” Thus: “if John had had the same upbringing but the biological makeup of a woman, he would have become a lawyer instead of a string theorist.” The trouble is, what does that even mean? With a few arguable and presumably unrepresentative exceptions (like hermaphrodites), no one on Earth has the biology of a man but the life experiences of a woman or vice versa.

To put the point differently: suppose (hypothetically) that what repelled women from computer science were all the vending-machine-fueled all-nighters, empty pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling, napping coders drooling on the office futon, etc.; and indeed that men would be repelled by such things as well, were it not for a particular gene on the Y chromosome called PGSTY-8. In that case, would the “cause” of the gender imbalance be genetic or cultural? This is a fascinating question, right up there with whether rocks fall because of gravity or being dropped, and whether 3+5=5+3 because addition is commutative or because they both equal 8.

3. The nerd case for feminism

Greenspun’s central contention is that we’re not doing an ambitious high-school girl any favors by steering her into the impoverished dungeon of academic science. In his words:

If smart American women choose to go to medical, business, and law school instead of doing science, and have fabulous careers, I certainly am not going to discourage them. Imagine if one of those kind souls that Summers was speaking to had taken Condoleezza Rice aside and told her not to waste time with political science because physics was so much more challenging.

Such a soul would deserve our undying gratitude.

But seriously — I draw a different moral than Greenspun does. I think it’s imperative to increase the number of women in science, not for women’s sake, but for science’s sake! Now would be a good place to insert your favorite joke about the computer labs full of horny, Perl-coding “feminists,” eager to cast off the yoke of sexism and open wide the gates of science to every young woman — whether blonde or brunette, single or possibly single, hot or extremely hot.

But there’s no need to be cynical. I’m not ashamed to assert that

  1. most people want to socialize with the opposite sex, and are unhappy (and hence unproductive) if they can’t;
  2. the conscious reasons for wanting to socialize with the opposite sex often have nothing to do with “fluid exchange” (to use the John Nash character’s phrase from A Beautiful Mind),
  3. let he (or she) who is without subconscious Darwinian motivations cast the first stone,
  4. human beings didn’t evolve to live their lives in an 85%-male environment,
  5. by the Pigeonhole Principle, not every straight male will be as lucky as I was to find a girlfriend in the remaining 15%, and
  6. computer science departments could attract and retain better people of both sexes if they felt less like monasteries or pirate ships.

Naturally, kidnapping women in the dead of night and forcing them to take Randomized Algorithms is off the table. But the question remains: how can we make the nerdly sciences more attractive to women?

4. How to seduce women (into scientific careers)

I have two thoughts in this direction.

The first thought is actually a question: assuming our social support systems made it easier to do so, would many women prefer to have kids first, and then go to grad school? That’s not a rhetorical question; it’s a genuine request for enlightenment. I ask it for three reasons:

  1. One of female academics’ most famous complaints is that, by the time they’ve battled their way to tenure, they’re already verging on infertility.
  2. If we consider the most famous female scientists — Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Emmy Noether, Lise Meitner — most were in their 30′s or older when they did their best work. This contrasts with the pattern for male scientists.
  3. From an evolutionary perspective, the age at which women in the developed world start having kids is unbelievably late. That doesn’t mean we should go back to auctioning off 12-year-old girls as brides in exchange for goats and oxen. But it does suggest, to me, that the currently “normal” ways of balancing career and family might not be Pareto-optimal.

So that was my first thought. The second thought is that, when people talk about cultural changes that would entice more women into science, they always mean changes to nerd culture. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about:

Emphasize teamwork and community over intellectual combat.

Eliminate all-nighters.

Discourage questions in seminars that might hurt someone’s feelings.

Festoon the STOC proceedings with hearts, rainbows, and ponies.

The problem with such proposals is not just that they’re patronizing (and indeed deeply sexist in their own way), and not just that successful female scientists tend to be as competitive as anyone else. The real problem is the implicit assumption that, whenever there’s a disparity between nerd culture and popular culture, the fault must lie with nerd culture.

Sure, there are nerds could stand to shower more often, read more Shakespeare and less Slashdot, etc. But there are also plenty of “normals” who could stand to follow a chain of logic to an inconvenient conclusion, unsheath their sarcasm swords when confronted with idiocy, and judge people more by the originality of their ideas than by whether their clothes match.

In short, if the reason more women don’t study science is that they’re repelled by nerd culture, then de-nerdifying science is only one solution. The other solution is nerdifying the rest of the world! Admittedly, nerdifying the world might seem like a rather drastic way to increase the number of women in university science departments. But as you might have guessed, I want to nerdify the world for independent reasons as well.

89 Responses to “Nerdify the world, and the women will follow”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Some points:

    1. “normals”. That’s funny. Sounds like “straights” from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

    2. Many women have indicated to me that things like science and engineering are “boring”.

    3. Sure “normals” may have problems with following a chain of logic but nerds have serious problems of their own. It is not very much fun to talk to someone who lacks the ability to communicate well.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    I disagree that nerds don’t know how to communicate. I don’t know how this stereotype got started. Most of the nerds I know communicate fairly well. Of course, there are exceptions; but I do not believe that the distribution of communicative ability differs greatly between nerds and the general population.

    I think the difference between nerds and “normals” is that nerds prize precision and concision. When nerds communicate poorly, it is usually because they don’t completely understand their own ideas themselves; even then, they will usually preface such statements with words like, “I’m not sure what’s the best way to phrase this,” or “This may be a bit vague.”

    When I feel it is necessary, I will often canonicalize my natural language into a form approximating first-order logic or pseudocode. I feel this reduces ambiguity and is more succinct. However, I’ve had people tell me they don’t understand this kind of writing, because it is too dense. But I think they simply have not been trained to think in this way.

    I think most people have trouble, at first, with epsilon-delta definitions. But once one becomes accustomed to nested quantifiers, many similar definitions become easier to read. The problem is that most people are unfamiliar with concepts such as quantifiers, logical connectives, and scope.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    I disagree that nerds don’t know how to communicate. I don’t know how this stereotype got started. Most of the nerds I know communicate fairly well. Of course, there are exceptions; but I do not believe that the distribution of communicative ability differs greatly between nerds and the general population.

    The more nerd you are, the more likely you are to have Aspergers. The more likely you are to have Aspergers, the less likely you are to communicate well.

    When I feel it is necessary, I will often canonicalize my natural language into a form approximating first-order logic or pseudocode. I feel this reduces ambiguity and is more succinct. However, I’ve had people tell me they don’t understand this kind of writing, because it is too dense. But I think they simply have not been trained to think in this way.

    How amusing, you seem to be a perfect example of this yourself. By any reasonable metric, someone who cannot master the ambiguity of language to express his thoughts but must revert to pseudocode is a poor communicator. This is precisely the sort of thing people who are good communicator don’t have to do. Ordinary language, with all its complexities, is more powerful than any kind of formal pseudocode can ever be. Of course, in some extreme cases something like pseudocode or a flowchart may help understanding, but if you find yourself frequently reverting to this form of expressing and then actually claiming that the fault lies with others for not understanding, I don’t think you fall into the category of people who communicate well.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    I think doing something for Science’s sake is silly. I’ve never heard Science ever complain about there being too few people studying it. Same with Theology, Poetry, …

    I think we should do things because it improves the lives of actual people. In my case, thinking about crystalline cohomology improves my life. But this has come with many personal sacrifices. I am hesitant to encourage my undergradudate students to go for a phd in math. If they want to, then I will help them, but it seems wrong to go out of my way to encourage people to spend 10 or so years moving from university to university, growing roots and then pulling them up, again and again.

    On a related note, I prefer to talk, not about under-representation of some groups, but over-representation of other groups. Of course, you can’t have one without the other, but when talking about over-representation the hard choices needed to eliminate it are closer to the front of your mind.

  5. Anonymous Says:

    Thus: “if John had had the same upbringing but the biological makeup of a woman, he would have become a lawyer instead of a string theorist.” The trouble is, what does that even mean?

    It means just what it says. It’s not some incoherent fantasy, but an experiment which one could actually undertake. What is your problem with this?

    In fact, such an experiment (or the reverse of such an experiment, to be precise) has been undertaken at least once, in the famous “Dr Money” story. There, a boy was brought up in the belief that he was a girl (because of a medical complication at his birth, he never had a penis). Well, guess what? He still prefered the toy trucks to the dolls. I don’t know whether he prefered being a scientist to being a lawyer, because he didn’t become either, but it’s perfectly conceivable (though more than a little bit unethical) to repeat the experiment with 10,000 high IQ males and see how many of them because lawyers and how many become scientists. Voilá — the “meaningless” question empirically settled.

    To put the point differently: suppose (hypothetically) that what repelled women from computer science were all the vending-machine-fueled all-nighters, empty pizza boxes stacked to the ceiling, napping coders drooling on the office futon, etc.; and indeed that men would be repelled by such things as well, were it not for a particular gene on the Y chromosome called PGSTY-8. In that case, would the “cause” of the gender imbalance be genetic or cultural? This is a fascinating question, right up there with whether rocks fall because of gravity or being dropped, and whether 3+5=5+3 because addition is commutative or because they both equal 8.

    I honestly don’t understand how you reason here. It seems a perfectly coherent and legitimate question, not a pointless tautology.

  6. Peter Norvig Says:

    Actually, someone did take Condi Rice aside and change her major — but the change was in to political science rather than away from it, and that someone was: Madelaine Albright’s father, Josef Korbel. Albright said that back when Rice was at Stanford, they used to talk about politics and about her father. Now when they meet, she says, “we just talk about shoes.”

  7. Scott Says:

    The more nerd you are, the more likely you are to have Aspergers. The more likely you are to have Aspergers, the less likely you are to communicate well.

    I’m staying with Dave Bacon, and last night I picked Dirac’s 68-page “textbook” on general relativity off his bookshelf. It’s one of the sparest documents I’ve ever seen: no motivation, no levity, not an unnecessary word. Yet would we say Dirac was a “poor communicator”? I think we’d say that compared to other people, Dirac wrote with greater concision and exactness, but less sympathy for the failings of his audience.

  8. John Sidles Says:

    “Peter Norvig said … OMFG!!!! Are you the same Peter Norvig who is the author of The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation? Sir, you are a genius, and I worship at your feet.

    Anonymous said … When I feel it is necessary, I will often canonicalize my natural language into a form approximating first-order logic or pseudocode. I feel this reduces ambiguity and is more succinct.

    It is interesting that John von Neumann’s spoken and written style was very similar … here is von Neumann’s voice in 1954, upon the dedication of a new computer.

    Now, to the point. In our UW medical school, we have about 55% female enrollment. What teaching style do we use that attracts this balanced gender mix?

    Simple … we immerse students in the daily practice of medicine. This teaching style is called “immersive apprenticeship”, and it is a tradition that is relatively new in academic medicine; it was introduced about a century ago, by WIlliam Osler.

    The central principle of immersive medical apprenticeship is this: no one—whether faculty or student—is ever allowed to practice medicine as a solitary activity. Because, when the resident sees the senior surgeon begin to sweat, is when the learning begins.

    All procedures are done with many eyes watching, and all medical students, male and female, benefit from this tradition of complete openness. So much so, that for a person to insist on practicing medicine alone is grounds for immediate mandatory counseling, for both faculty and students.

    The only people who do not benefit from the compulsory openness medical education are the most talented faculty.

    If physicians practiced their skills in secrecy and solitude (the way Gauss practiced mathematics), and showed only their results, the resulting culture of medicine would value talent above community. This culture of medicine predominated in the middle ages; and not by coincidence, medicine was male-dominated during these centuries.

    So IMHO the solution is not to “nerdify” the world of mathematics and science, but rather “Oslerize” it — practice everything publicly (even the boring bits).

    No more mathematics behind closed doors!

  9. A little night musing Says:

    Female mathematician here. Nerdify the world? Sounds good to me.

    anonymous 5:20:34 said:
    “I’ve never heard Science ever complain about there being too few people studying it. ”

    Gee, Mathematics was just leaning on my shoulder, sobbing, that she feels so abandoned! (Yes, Mathematics is female – but you knew that, didn’t you?) She especially desires the company of women!

    But seriously, the arguments which appeal to me the most, in favor of attracting more people (and specifically different people) into the sciences, are:

    1) Increasing the diversity of “styles” in the sciences. This is not a frivolous wish. We get in ruts. There are only a teeny handful of people working on a given problem at a time (I speak strictly for mathematics, but I imagine it’s not so different in other fields). By this I don’t mean for example “people working on proving the Riemann Hypothesis,” but “people trying to apply ergodic theory techniques to the distribution of prime numbers.” Progress often comes from someone who takes a new sideways approach to the problem. Diversity of thinking styles favors progress.

    2) I could personally testify to the forces which conspire to keep women out of mathematics, and this post is right on target as far as I’m concerned. Well, except for the late nights. I’m as much of a night owl as any stereotypical nerd. But as a matter of simple justice, why should one-half of the population be forced to have to fight, suffer, kick, scream, and claw their way into a career in which they can do what they love? And, by the way, when I say “half,” I mean “more than half,” because it has been brought to my attention that some of these same things tend to keep male non-white people of some groups out of the science world as well. The things we are talking about are peripheral to the actual business of doing science but have become part of its culture.

    The more the larger culture becomes like the culture of doing science, the better, as far as I’m concerned. This could happen because of US taking on some of THEIR stuff (not much, I hope! but there are some things that would help) or vice-versa.

    OK, I’ve got to stop before I talk myself into a position I don’t actually believe in.

  10. Scott Says:

    In fact, such an experiment (or the reverse of such an experiment, to be precise) has been undertaken at least once, in the famous “Dr Money” story.

    Yes, that’s exactly what I was referring to when I mentioned hermaphrodites as an unrepresentative example.

    I hate to sound like some postmodern theorist, but the problem in such cases is where you draw the boundary between genders. Specifically: does a boy who’s “raised as a girl” actually have the life experiences of a girl? It seems more than likely that, because of subtle emotional cues, people will realize that “she” acts more like a boy and will therefore treat “her” like one. To some, this will illustrate the primacy of biology. To others, it will illustrate the pervasiveness of discrimination in our culture based on “male” and “female” emotional cues that ought to be irrelevant.

  11. Scott Says:

    John:

    No more mathematics behind closed doors!

    OK, but in that case, just try to keep it down a bit. :)

  12. Scott Says:

    Thanks for the insights, night musing!

    Gee, Mathematics was just leaning on my shoulder, sobbing, that she feels so abandoned! (Yes, Mathematics is female – but you knew that, didn’t you?)

    Of course I knew that; I just wish she wouldn’t keep refusing my advances. If she gave me a nonzero chance, I know we’d constitute a perfect matching, each dual to the other.

    (From The Onion: Nobody Really Understands Me, by Fermat’s Last Theorem)

  13. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    This is a very nice post and comforts people who find it hard to find girlfriends because of their nerdy behavior.

    Assuming nerdifying world takes a very long time how should a nerd try to socialize with opposite sex. Would you say he should start masking his behavior to occlude his nerdity so as to increase probability?

    Not everyone can be as lucky as John Nash or as you are (if I remember correctly you have a girlfriend right.)

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Why do the nerds want nerdy girlfriends? i.e. why do you consider yourself lucky to have a scientific girlfriend? Get a non-scientific girlfriend.

  15. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    Getting a non-nerdy girlfriend being a nerd and not being “cool” all the times is really hard. Believe me.

  16. Anonymous Says:

    But the question remains: why aren’t there more Irits?

    But there are. We have Irit Katriel who is also a very talented young CS researcher. There is also Irith Hartman, and Irit Gat-Viks. I think anymore Irits than that and it would be confusing.

  17. Scott Says:

    Why do the nerds want nerdy girlfriends? i.e. why do you consider yourself lucky to have a scientific girlfriend?

    Those are two questions. The answer to the second question is: because I like her, and she’s great.

    As for the first question, you could just as well have asked why most non-nerdy girls don’t want nerd boyfriends. I’ll tackle both questions in future posts.

  18. Scott Says:

    But there are. We have Irit Katriel who is also a very talented young CS researcher. There is also Irith Hartman, and Irit Gat-Viks.

    Thanks for the iriterie!

  19. Anonymous Says:

    nerdette here…
    as a young woman in science, but not computer science, i’ve noticed that a few of the men i know in CS are the most misogynistic educated men i can think of. besides maybe metaphysicists. it’s not the all-nighters or the sarcasm, it’s their fascination with boobs that puts me off. I’ve had MORE THAN ONE computer guy tell me I’d look hotter in a trekkie suit. The CS guys, starting in high school, were the guys who got suspended for making fake nudie pics of the popular girls and circulating them online, changing the school computer backgrounds to display some busty woman or another, and for storing files on the network about how their wives shouldn’t own property in their own names. I have a t-shirt that says “Talk nerdy to me.” I like nerds. I even like some of the CS nerds. I am a scientist! But I have never found an educated demographic more likely to oogle and objectify women than the guys in CS.
    YES, this is my own experience. I realize that. And I knew plenty of exceptions. I’m just disagreeing that girls are merely put off by all-nighters and nerdy conversation. My guess is that the women in med school accept all-nighters as part of the culture there, they just don’t want their colleagues to creep them out at them.
    Also, to one of the previous comments about putting his own speech into first-order logic and/or pseudocode, I study language processing. Human language often means something entirely different than the equivalent in first-order logic might mean, so to do this might make you HARDER to understand, not easier. Here’s an example:
    If I say “Some of the guys went to the party,” logically that is compatible with “All of the guys went to the party.” But in terms of pragmatics and language usage, asserting that “some of the guys went to the party” implies that NOT all of them went. This is just one case where the logic does not line up well with how many people will understand and interpret your utterance.

    -natalie

  20. Anonymous Says:

    gee, what’s happened to the women in science? i thought that was a rhetorical question .. at first.

    open your eyes! maybe a disproportionate number of women can’t find a damned job! maybe someone should hire them to do what they invested their lives into doing instead of shuffling them to the side, patting them on their collective heads and telling them “there, there little girl, adjuncting is good enough”.

    in fact, adjunct teaching is nothing more than an “academic ghetto” that is comprised predominantly of women and, as a “job”, is HUGELY unsatisfying, pays shit for wages, is incredibly demanding, has no security, and is damaging to one’s desired career trajectory.

    the lack of a penis doesn’t mean that women should be trapped into a shit job merely because we “love science”. it’s no wonder women are leaving in science in droves, we are becoming THE academic ghetto. who would ever have thought that, after all the sacrifices, the hard work, the ignored summer days .. that the the combination of boobs + PhD + postdoc = no job?!

    honestly, i wish i HAD gone to medical school. at least i would be able to have a MEANINGFUL career that requires at least some intellectual input, that also puts food on my table, and puts a table into my rat-infested apartment!

  21. Scott Says:

    Natalie: Thanks for the insight! I completely agree with you that there’s no ethical justification for any male, whether nerdy or not, to obsess over a woman’s boobs … tits … mmmmmm……

    Sorry, before losing my train of thought momentarily, what I meant to say is that the guys you describe (the ones who put nude pictures on school computers, etc.) were “losers” rather than “nerds.” A nerd (as I understand the term) would be too mortified by what the girls would think of him to contemplate such a thing.

    But even in the case of losers, there’s an interesting question of causality. Are these guys unable to communicate with women because they’re obsessed with boobs, or are they obsessed with boobs because they’re unable to communicate with women?

  22. Anonymous Says:

    Natalie, thank you! I agree completely, save perhaps for the part about “metaphysicians” (what does that mean? 17th century philosophers?) being even more misogynistic. However, I would say that the problem extends beyond sexistic attitudes, it’s attitudes towards other people in general and failures of self understanding. I have met far too many nerds in my life, online and otherwise, who insist that they can’t get any girls because they have so nerdy interests, because they are so smart and most girls are dumb in comparison (often referred to as only interested in “make up and clothes” or something similar), etc. Only occasionally do they have the insight that it might be because of poor social skills, but even then they often frame the problem in a way that makes it sound like something desirable, i.e. “I prefer to spend lots of time alone thinking about interesting problems, instead of talking about the latest football game like the other sheep”.

    To the majority of the thinking population, simply being intelligent and interested in things that fall under the vague umbrella term “nerdiness” stops being a stigma once one leaves high school or thereabout, if not earlier. People who think that they can’t get a girl because they prefer reading the proof of IP = SPACE to Cosmopolitan need to take a look in the mirror and try to understand what the real problem is.

    I am the nerdiest person I know. I also have never in my entire life, post-high school, had even the slightest problem meeting women. If I want to go home with a cute girl when I’m in a bar, I almost always do. That may sound like bragging (though it would be quite pointless to brag to people who don’t know who you are), but I only bring it up to point out once and for all that there is no correlation between having a nerdy disposition and meeting girls.

  23. Anonymous Says:

    “If I want to go home with a cute girl when I’m in a bar, I almost always do. That may sound like bragging …”

    You sound like a total jerk and women go for jerks …

  24. Anonymous Says:

    Hey Scott — how come you can make the obvious joke in response to Natalie’s post, but when I do (and, in my own humble and completely unbiased opinion, in a funnier way) the comment gets deleted?

    PS:

    I think anymore Irits than that and it would be confusing.

    Oh, it already is.

  25. Anonymous Says:

    You sound like a total jerk and women go for jerks …

    I think this is rather unique to NorthAmerica. In other countries women pay a lot more attention to how they are treated by their suitor, while in NorthAmerica they seem to prefer men that are slightly dismisive of them. Not sure why, though.

  26. Anonymous Says:

    You sound like a total jerk and women go for jerks

    I knew someone would reply with something like this, but why can’t I say it if it’s true? The only reason it’s not acceptable in normal social interactions to say something like that is that it is usually said in order to present oneself in a good (impressive, cool, whatever) light. But here that doesn’t apply, since I am completely anonymous. So, again, why can’t I say it? Does the mere fact of my knowing about it make me a jerk?

  27. Scott Says:

    how come you can make the obvious joke in response to Natalie’s post, but when I do (and, in my own humble and completely unbiased opinion, in a funnier way) the comment gets deleted?

    Well, I see at least three differences:

    1. I was making a joke about myself, not belittling Natalie.

    2. The discussion surrounding my joke had at least some “redeeming social value.”

    3. If for any reason Natalie was offended by what I wrote, she’d know exactly who to blame.

  28. Scott Says:

    Does the mere fact of my knowing about it make me a jerk?

    Yes.

  29. Anonymous Says:

    Acting as devil’s advocate, let’s ask the following unpopular and un-PC questions:

    1. Why do we want women to be represented 50%-50% in exact sciences/engineering? If not 50/50, what is that ratio?

    2. Is there discrimination against women who really want to get tenure in sciences/engineering but are discouraged in grad school, or as postdocs?

    3. Should we look at other under-represented groups? For example, among grad students in math/physics categories such as jewish, asians (korean/chinese/japanese), indian or western-european (former USSR) are grossly over-represented. Africans, mexicans, south americans, middle-eastern (non-israeli) students are grossly under-represented. Is this because of discrimination by asian/jewish professors? I sound like Pat Robertson.

    Chris Rock said “You wouldn’t want to trade places with me. And I am rich!”. I think this is a good test of discrimination. I wouldn’t want to trade places with black or hispanic person. I also wouldn’t want to trade places with other discriminated groups – such as gays or transgender.

    But as a male scientist, I am not so sure I wouldn’t want to trade places with a woman scientist. In fact I think I would totally trade. Looking over rumor mill webpages for faculty positions, I see a lot of women offered positions, despite relatively few publications or achievements. Based on that empirical evidence, I think now is the good time to be a woman scientist on job market – not too much competition from other women scientists, but a lot of pressure on departments to hire a woman and dilute the pool of old white men a little. Maybe some of it is a move towards bio-medical areas of research.

    On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to be an asian scientist on the job market. There seems to be a bias against their leadership skills as lab managers, and language barrier, poor name/face recognition works to their disadvantage in the job market.

    Final point about markets – ultimately any company/lab/university that discriminates based on sex/race/age will suffer in competition against other competing companies/labs/universities.

    This includes all kind of discrimination – reverse or direct. So if place A decides not to hire a top outstanding candidate who happens to be jewish because of fears of being seen too “jewish-leaning” and instead goes with a much inferior candidate from Peru, because they have nobody from that part of the world, then place B that decides to hire the best person for the job, will benefit from place A practices.

    Similarly, if place A decides to hire or not hire a candidate because she is or is not a woman, while place B evaluates candidate without much consideration for the sex of their candidate, place B will be able to assemble a far superior scientific team. No?

    I also think we underestimate the women’s biological clock thoughts. I wonder how many women in their early-to-mid 30ies would agree to take a prestigious tenure position, which also means they will not get a chance to have children of their own?
    I think everyone wants a solid career, but at what cost?

    Cost for men is not that high – we can procreate, well, whenever… For women the balance is different.

  30. Anonymous Says:

    Does the mere fact of my knowing about it make me a jerk?

    Yes.

    Wow, what hostility, all because of a single sentence. Maybe you’re joking, and in that case ha-ha, but otherwise, what’s the problem? Is one prohibited to draw conclusions based on empirical data if they might be favorable?

  31. t Says:

    big topic.
    first comment: on average the women scientists i meet on my campus are more intelligent (in a complex way) than the men. i don’t feel like justifying this claim. i’m glad they get the jobs because maybe along with some of the bs academics must do along the career path, they will
    1. do research that appeals to them or is useful in a more complex way and
    2. (related to 1.) they will have a bigger positive impact on society.

    i’ll emphasize that some men who are scientists are as mature and complex as my average woman above. and also that some scientists will be successful and fulfilled in spite of being terribly focused on one miniscule subject for decades of their lives.

  32. Scott Says:

    Africans, mexicans, south americans, middle-eastern (non-israeli) students are grossly under-represented. Is this because of discrimination by asian/jewish professors?

    A more immediate explanation might be the poverty and lack of educational opportunities in those regions (as well as the religious fundamentalism that led Yousef Ibrahim of Saudi Arabia to decree that “The earth is flat. Whoever claims it is round is an atheist deserving of punishment”).

  33. Anonymous Says:

    1. I don’t completely get your points on why attracting women to CS is important. In my opinion this is important for two reasons:

    (a) a male dominated field tends to perpetuate itself, and so we’re missing out on half of the potential talent.

    (b) the more variety of people doing research the more likely that there will be a variety of ideas and approaches.

    Since in particular TCS deals with some of the most imporant and hardest to solve questions of science, we can’t afford to miss out on (a) or (b).

    2. Among all possible careers, being an academic is one of the most parent friendly, and I don’t see why women would shy away from this option because of their biological clock.

    The problem with being an academic (as opposed to being say an MD or lawyer) that it’s not “spouse friendly”: you have to move several times and usually can’t pick the location you’ll work in if you want to get ahead. I believe part of the problem is that with a man/woman couple, it’s usually the woman that is willing to relocate because of the man’s career and not vice versa.

  34. Anonymous Says:

    2. Is there discrimination against women who really want to get tenure in sciences/engineering but are discouraged in grad school, or as postdocs?

    Not sciences/engineering, but maybe still relevant: Some years ago there was a Swedish study of medicine postdoc positions. The conclusion was that women had to publish significantly more to have the same change of getting the job as a man.

  35. scerir Says:

    Once again nobody speaks of Grete Hermann! Haahhh! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grete_Hermann

  36. Anonymous Says:

    Africans, mexicans, south americans, middle-eastern (non-israeli) students are grossly under-represented. Is this because of discrimination by asian/jewish professors?

    Is Iran middle eastern? they have lots of top notch scientists?

  37. returning to the fold Says:

    You people seem to know a thing or two about careers in science. What advice would you offer to someone who has come back to their previously abandoned undergrad degree at the age of 25, who will be finished said degree at age 26? Is it too late for that person to become a “good” scientist? Would it be better to just use the degree to find work in some other area?

  38. Anonymous Says:

    Dear Scott,

    You wrote:

    “I’ll tell you exactly what I think: I think the question is ill-posed. When we say that A causes B, we normally mean something like “if A didn’t happen, then B wouldn’t happen either.” Thus: “if John had had the same upbringing but the biological makeup of a woman, he would have become a lawyer instead of a string theorist.” The trouble is, what does that even mean? With a few arguable and presumably unrepresentative exceptions (like hermaphrodites), no one on Earth has the biology of a man but the life experiences of a woman or vice versa.”

    In the literature this sort of statement is called a counterfactual.
    There is a substantial literature in philosophy, logic, and more recently AI on the topic of formalizing counterfactuals, and causality in general (you mirror Hume’s observation that the two concepts are related). See Judea Pearl’s Causality book for a historical discussion, as well as for a possible way of formalizing counterfactual utterances we make in natural language.

    In fact, if we agree on a certain formalization of what a counterfactual might mean, there is even a way to compute its ‘truth value’ from information we can reasonably obtain (in other words information that does not rely on time travel or going to parallel worlds).

    Sincerely,

    — a causality researcher

  39. Anonymous Says:

    “Not sciences/engineering, but maybe still relevant: Some years ago there was a Swedish study of medicine postdoc positions. The conclusion was that women had to publish significantly more to have the same change of getting the job as a man.”

    I have also seen studies where people have been shown identical resumes and asked to guess whether the person is a student, postdoc, assistant/associate/full professor, and people tend to downgrade resumes if the name was female, and upgrade if it was male.

    However, my personal observation of admission process based on rumor mill webpages seems to indicate otherwise. For example, several female candidates with only 5-6 publications have been offered a faculty position, while male candidates with 10+ publications have been ignored. Of course publication list is not the only consideration, but if you look at other elements of their work, it seems there’s a lot of interest in female candidates (at least in physics departments) lately.

    Harvard faced a lot of controversy due to Summers comments, but their recent hires represent quite a healthy share of female faculty – of the 18 most recently hired junior faculty (with PhD received over the past 20 years), 5 are women – the female/male ratio of 1:2.5 is quite a bit higher than the female:male ratio of PhD students Harvard is capable of recruiting, which is more like 1:5.

    Part of the reason, I think, is that they are desperately trying to fix their image, and changing male:female ratio among faculty is not easy over short period of time, since old-timers (males) are there for 40+ years…

    Interestingly, mathematics department at Harvard doesn’t have a single female faculty.

  40. Anonymous Says:

    The reasoning of anonymous 4:23 is flawed. Using a real life example, the first ten or so black players in major league baseball were well above average. So a large percentage of them were still playing five years after being called up to the majors. Yet according to your (flawed) logic there was no discrimination against blacks because a larger percentage of them stayed in the major leagues.

    Ditto for women in the hard sciences, one can expect that as a group only the very best are making it into a PhD in the hard sciences and hence they ought to be overrepresented at hiring time.

  41. Scott Says:

    Causality researcher: Yes, I know what a counterfactual is. :-)

    Some counterfactuals are certainly meaningful — if they weren’t, a huge chunk of ordinary language (including this sentence!) would go out the window. I was arguing that specific counterfactuals like “Suppose this man were a woman…” are not as meaningful as is often assumed.

  42. Anonymous Says:

    I find Natalie’s post offensive. But in any case:

    But even in the case of losers, there’s an interesting question of causality. Are these guys unable to communicate with women because they’re obsessed with boobs, or are they obsessed with boobs because they’re unable to communicate with women?

    I think it pretty clearly would be the latter. (If by “obsession with boobs” you substitute “attitude toward women.”)

    Since in particular TCS deals with some of the most imporant and hardest to solve questions of science, we can’t afford to miss out on (a) or (b).

    I don’t know that I would agree. Most important problems? If you want to change the world these days, go into biology (?). If you want to understand nature, go into physics or chemistry. TCS is more like math, in trying to understand logic (nothing wrong with that). How does TCS deal with the “hardest to solve” questions of science? (This is such a weird quote I don’t even know where to start. How to define hardest to solve? What does “deals with” even mean — not solve, I guess. :) And what dealing with the hardest problems even matter, unless you are trying to impress Greenspun?)

    I also disagree with Greenspun. Nobody chooses a career to impress people. (And his example of “best math undergrad at MIT” is also a bit meaningless, since you can substitute almost anything here.) They do it for lots of different reasons. The money isn’t all that bad (and if TCS people really can’t communicate, as seems to be the consensus here, then their earnings potentials elsewhere are limited anyway). A big reason is because they enjoy it, they’re good at it. For certain people (who have been in and done well in school for their whole lives), it is also the path of least resistance.

    Generally, I don’t think the connection to “nerdiness” is as significant as you make it out to be.

  43. Anonymous Says:

    I was making a joke about myself, not belittling Natalie.

    Uh… yeah. Because that was what I was doing. Right.

  44. Anonymous Says:

    Dear Scott,

    I would argue all counterfactuals used in natural language are meaningful (can be made to correspond to some mathematical object). Now it is true that the truth of some of these statements cannot be obtained by a ‘physically realizable’ computation. But this does not mean such counterfactuals are not worth studying, if for no other reason than finding conditions when counterfactuals can be computed and when they cannot.

    Similarly, many objects studied in complexity theory correspond to entities without a known physical realization (oracle machines for example). Nevertheless they are well defined, and (I assume) worth studying :).

    – a c r

  45. Anonymous Says:

    In particular, a counterfactual of the form

    “Would Bob, a person with identical qualifications and upbringing as Alice, but male gender, choose life in the Sciences?” is perfectly meaningful, and perhaps even computable, under some causal assumptions.

    These sorts of counterfactuals arise a lot in practice. For example, in gender discrimination cases, the question often boils down to whether hiring would happen had gender been different but everything else been the same.

    – a c r

  46. Anonymous Says:

    to 5:03 post.
    Interesting point, I never thought of it this way. So the argument is that the women who manage make it into/through grad school are so far ahead of average men (to compensate for discrimination), that they have a higher chance to be recruited as faculty members.

    This would imply that the same faculty members who discriminate on graduate admission levels, are rather fair on faculty hiring level.

    This is strange, but justifiable if one considers that graduate admission is based on scores and recommendation letters (the students have not really proven themselves), while on faculty level they have a track record in publications, etc. So there’s more ground for objectivity.

    I like this theory. But a “social pressure” theory is equally plausible: female students who are not the top crop will have less confidence and will be more likely to succumb to pressure from their friends and relatives to pursue alternative careers. Highly talented and more ambitious scientists more likely to persevere and apply for grad school despite peer pressure. Same self-selection result, different cause.

    I wonder if anyone has statistics on GRE (Subject) scores of accepted male/female students in math, physics, comp. sci? Of course, I heard theories that females are worse in taking high-pressure multiple choice tests than males, which may be true, but is a dangerous point as it could be turned around as another proof of “biological” differences between males and females.

  47. Anonymous Says:

    I disagree with Greenspun on a few points (even though I agree that it’s not obvious why so many people should pursure science career – many do for wrong reasons):
    First of all, people in industry make plenty of money. He mentions biotech scientists making 100K+, and then follows up with “Considered on purely economic grounds, these jobs don’t justify the time and foregone income invested in a PhD. There are 22-year-olds earning $150,000 per year selling home mortgages.”

    I am not so sure about home mortgages. Despite the increase of home sales and home prices, the salaries of real estate agents and home mortgage loan officers remain the same and relatively modest. This is because every housewife and her friend decided that there’s a lot of money to be made in real estate. Since the job requires not much in terms of skills, everyone is immediately qualified. I’d like to see some data on fresh-out-of-college $150K a year mortgage salesmen – and I assume we are talking about average, not some guy who happens to make it one good year because of selling a single $30 million mortgage .

    100K+ for 9-to-5 job in pharmaceutical industry for recent PhD graduate pretty much undermines the rest of his argument. Anyone who thinks 100K+ is a low-paying salary (for a scientist) raise your hands.

    Also, government lab positions in physics, chemistry and other applied disciplines (he uses Sandia as an example) DO PAY a lot of money. Oppenheimer postdocs earn 100K a year in Los-Alamos. Do you know how much more 100K a year can buy in New Mexico, as opposed to NYC?

    Admittedly, if you are in science to make a lot of money, you are in it for all the wrong reasons. But plenty of people, including faculty, government and industry folks, manage very comfortably, to say the least. I happen to know a physics professor at MIT who makes over $300K a year. He also happens to be a big name in his field, which is the point of Greenspun argument, I guess.

    I agree with Greenspun on some points – if you use money as the sole measure of success, then science is not a worthy pursuit, not by a long shot. But to think that the money is everything in life is rather primitive, even though quite american. Most people, probably something like 99.9% of them, go to work for one purpose only – to make money so they can pay the bills. If someone paid you the same salary to do whatever you want, those 99.9% would stop working – cause they hate their jobs. I like to think that scientists, along with musicians, artists, painters, actors and a few other professions, would work just as hard, because they enjoy it. Maybe it’s too romantic, but it’s the way I see things.

    The problem is that there are too many PhDs and not enough permanent jobs. This is a real problem that needs to be addressed. Almost everyone thinks they can become a faculty one day, until reality sets in. And I have seen too many dreams come crashing down – it’s painful to watch. But there’s nobody to warn those confused under-achievers, because everyone like to have a free slave (graduate student), or a slightly more independent slave (postdoc) working for them for a few years. The system is crooked, im a sense that a lot of young talented (but not super-talented) people spend years working for free in hopes of making it to the “big game”, while it’s clearly never going too happen. Not so different from kids playing hoops all day to become NBA star or waiting tables in hopes of becoming a Hollywood superstar one day. But it’s still sad when it doesn’t happen.

  48. Scott Says:

    These sorts of counterfactuals arise a lot in practice. For example, in gender discrimination cases, the question often boils down to whether hiring would happen had gender been different but everything else been the same.

    The argument I made was much more specific than what you’re responding to. I agree that it’s meaningful to ask whether someone would be hired given an identical resume but with “Jane” instead of “John.” But a person’s life experience encompasses much more than what’s on a resume, and that’s what leads to the ambiguity I mentioned — between experiences that are “intrinsic” to the person (i.e. would have occurred had the person been “the opposite sex but otherwise identical”), and experiences that are merely “incidental” consequences of being male or female.

  49. Anonymous Says:

    Dear Scott,

    I don’t understand your reluctance to consider a counterfactual about ‘life experiences’ and ‘career decisions’ as meaningful if you are already willing to concede meaningfulness in case of resumes and hiring. They seem like the same sort of animal, only one has a lot more variables than the other.

    It’s true that it’s far easier to switch the gender in a form than in real life, but I am hoping that is not the criterion you use to decide meaningfulness.

    – a c r

  50. Anonymous Says:

    I would argue all counterfactuals used in natural language are meaningful (can be made to correspond to some mathematical object).

    Natural language doesn’t tend to conform to the straightjacket of logic. Since a counterfactual has the form “if x then y” where x and y can be any propositions, it’s pretty obvious that you can’t hope for every counterfactual to “correspond to some mathematical object” (because all propositions don’t). In Scott’s case, x is the proposition “this man is a woman”. What “mathematical object” does that correspond to? It’s a vague, imprecise, messy proposition that could be interpreted in a myriad of ways, none of which is right, and thus a particular formalization cannot be either.

    Out of curiosity, what level are you at and where do you do your research? I don’t mind discussing causality (one of my best friends does his Ph.D. on Judea Pearl’s ideas, so I’m no stranger to the subject), but your first post reads more like you were trying to show off than trying to contribute to the discussion. Why would a postdoc in complexity theory need to be lectured on what a counterfactual is?

  51. Anonymous Says:

    ACR, sorry, that came out a little wrong. Subjectwise I stand by my post, but it wasn’t my intention to sound so hostile.

  52. Anonymous Says:

    Dear Anonymous,

    It was certainly not my intention to show off or lecture Scott (can one show off anonymously?) However, the tendency to expel counterfactuals and causality as ‘mysticism’ from scientific discourse is pretty widespread, and it is perhaps understandable to get a little defensive and hide behind ‘substantial literature’ when it is asserted that the object of one’s study is meaningless or vague.

    Your statement “This man is a woman” seems to be (A and not A). To me, it’s false, but not meaningless.

    Scott’s statement, if I understood him correctly, is a little different, and tries to capture the nature/nurture distinction between men and women, as it relates to choosing career paths. I think that statement is both meaningful and important, regardless of interpretation.

    Moreover, even if there are multiple formalizations of statements such as Scott’s, choosing the ‘right one’ or at least discussing differences as they relate to practical decision making seems like an important conversation to have.

    – a c r

  53. Frank Says:

    Couldn’t you shorten point 2 to “if you aunt had balls, she’d be your uncle?”

  54. Anonymous Says:

    I don’t usually post comments online, due to the fact that many other people have interesting, intelligent and (often) more relevant comments to make than I. However, having been interested by the original article referenced in this comment, I feel obliged to answer.

    As background, I have a degree in Physics and a minor in Computer Science. Guess what I do for a living? (If you didn’t guess computers, deduct 10 points).

    Here are the essential reasons why pursuing a career in physics didn’t make sense:
    1)Computer work makes more money, and is achievable for anyone who can handle hard-core science. More money supports other life goals.
    2)I can think about interesting facets of the universe on my own time, late at night, just like I would if I did this for a living.
    3)If I actually think up something interesting, I’m capable of contacting people in the field who I’ve met professionally, telling them, and still getting published (maybe in co-author form, but published).
    4)I can wear jeans or RADICALLY I can wear a skirt, put on makeup, and generally act girly without being insulted by my colleagues (or random strangers on the web; as you know, concern for personal grooming among geeks = idiocy).
    5)I can choose to speak either in pseudocode or English, as I am capable of determining which is the best way to get my point across for my audience.

    The only problem with a career in pure science is that you must live your entire life within the structure defined by your job. However you look at it, whether the pain required to achieve tenure, the moving from location to location, or the long hours + low pay, the job of being a career scientist is the focus of your life. (There are limited high-pay jobs – don’t tell me that because you found one I can too. Also don’t tell me that I can’t find one because I’m incompetent – you don’t know me.)

    If you want the focus of your life to be MORE than that, you can’t accept the limits that North American society places on us – scientist are not in demand. People want engineers – make something with the theory, don’t theorize. And even in engineering women are looked down on, to the point where I’ve been in meetings, ignored, then looked upon with astonishment when I pointed out something that was (to me) an obvious deficiency – it just wasn’t expected from the woman (they think I’m the sales/marketing guy, because I’m too well dressed).

    Given this, the choices are to avoid the system (taken by most people who are limited by it, aka women, minorities – this is the easy choice), or to change the system (much more difficult, martyrs and the like).

    When in this position, one smart choice (not the only one – sticking it out is good too, but takes a will beyond many people) is to avoid the problem.

    Because you must sacrifice so much, science (or the moon, or whatever) is a harsh mistress…

  55. Anonymous Says:

    How amusing, you seem to be a perfect example of this yourself. By any reasonable metric, someone who cannot master the ambiguity of language to express his thoughts but must revert to pseudocode is a poor communicator. This is precisely the sort of thing people who are good communicator don’t have to do. Ordinary language, with all its complexities, is more powerful than any kind of formal pseudocode can ever be. Of course, in some extreme cases something like pseudocode or a flowchart may help understanding, but if you find yourself frequently reverting to this form of expressing and then actually claiming that the fault lies with others for not understanding, I don’t think you fall into the category of people who communicate well.

    I don’t think you understand what I mean when I say I canonicalize my language. I write full English sentences, but make use of nested bulleted lists to show which if-statements are within the scope of other if-statements. You try flattening that out to paragraphs without adding ambiguity.

    Of course, natural language is more powerful. But it is not about power, but about the aptness of a particular type of expression to a particular type of idea. People didn’t invent specialized notations because they were so smart, but because they were stupid. Learned scholars used to have a lot of trouble doing arithmetic; yet school children do it by rote today. Are children today smarter than the adults in the past? Or was it that people back then were trying to do arithmetic with Roman numerals or some other cumbersome notation? I cannot read music. If I hand score sheet to a musician and ask him to explain it to me in plain English, is it his fault for being a poor communicator when I fail to understand?

    I, myself, revile software-engineer-speak and jargon. I hate it when someone says to “ping” someone else for information, or when they say in a meeting that we should take a topic “offline”. This type of jargon can and should be replaced with common English. But some ideas are best expressed with specialized conventions. I’m not asking that people to read code, but that they be able to understand nested if-statements when they are written out as full English sentences.

    However, I do think that most people would benefit from some training in formal logic. It helps one understand how to use natural language precisely. I remember a conversation I had with a PM (program manager). In the following, “line” and “distribution” have specialized meanings in terms of the application, but I think they can simply be treated as undefined terms here.

    Me: We will show the line only if the condition applies to at least one distribution of the line.

    (I could see the PM’s eyes start to glaze over, so I quickly rephrased the sentence.)

    Me: We will not show the line if the condition applies to no distribution of the line.

    PM: Oh OK, that’s much clearer.

    To me, the second sentence should be harder to understand than the first, because of the two negations; but I suppose the PM thought otherwise. However, if the PM had some training in logic, the second sentence would have been unnecessary.

  56. Anonymous Says:

    OMFG!!!! Are you the same Peter Norvig who is the author of The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation? Sir, you are a genius, and I worship at your feet.

    I would have thought that Peter Norvig would be better known for his work in AI than for his Powerpoint presentation.

  57. Anonymous Says:

    Also, to one of the previous comments about putting his own speech into first-order logic and/or pseudocode, I study language processing. Human language often means something entirely different than the equivalent in first-order logic might mean, so to do this might make you HARDER to understand, not easier. Here’s an example:
    If I say “Some of the guys went to the party,” logically that is compatible with “All of the guys went to the party.” But in terms of pragmatics and language usage, asserting that “some of the guys went to the party” implies that NOT all of them went. This is just one case where the logic does not line up well with how many people will understand and interpret your utterance.

    Yes, I realize this; I used to think about this sort of thing all time. My example is the following:

    I didn’t eat all of the fries.
    I didn’t eat some of the fries.

    Most people would understand those two sentences to mean the same thing, despite the difference in quantifiers. I do try to be careful about introducing this kind of confusion when translating from formal to natural language.

    However, I think training in formal languages helps one identify such problems. Most people without such training would not even understand why there is an issue.

    Here is another example:

    If anyone can do it, then why can’t you?
    If any student breaks the rules, all shall be punished.
    If any girl will date him, he will be a happy man.

    Is the man in that last sentence desperate? Or is it simply stating the obvious?

  58. Anonymous Says:

    Sorry for posting off topic. I have a conjecture related to Scott’s work on Learnability of Quantum States. If someone smarter than me can prove or disprove it, I will be elated. Conjecture
    R.R.Tucci

  59. Anonymous Says:

    My impression is that the less applied a field is, the more likely professors in that field are to be politically to the left, and so probably the more likely they would be to value gender parity. For instance literature and math on the left side and engineering, medicine, law, and agriculture more to the right. But on the other hand, it also seems gender disparity rises with the extent to which the field is mathematical, and this doesn’t have much to do with the applicability of a field. For instance math, engineering, literature, and medicine cover the four corners of the math/applied square.

    For the people who are convinced that bias against women in the mathematical sciences explains the disparity: Do you agree with the above? And if so, how do you explain it? Are all the ostensibly leftist math professors unknowningly or secretly bigots, while the publicly right-wing law professors secretly encourage their women students?

    -jb

  60. Anonymous Says:

    R.R. Tucci:

    Your conjecture would imply that BQP does not equal BPP. A proof of this would be a major achievement in complexity theory. Your time would be better spent on easier problems, like separating BPP and PSPACE.

  61. Anonymous Says:

    However, the tendency to expel counterfactuals and causality as ‘mysticism’ from scientific discourse is pretty widespread, and it is perhaps understandable to get a little defensive and hide behind ‘substantial literature’ when it is asserted that the object of one’s study is meaningless or vague.

    I thought it was pretty clear that what Scott objected to was the idea that there was a clear interpretation of what “if this man was a woman” meant. This doesn’t say anything about formal causality theory, it just says that a particular phrase in English has no fixed meaning. Yes, we can try to find the most appropriate formalization, but that presupposes that we have first found the most appropriate meaning of it, which is precisely what is the subject of discussion. This is a problem where bringing up things like Judea Pearl’s theories and “computable counterfactuals” is not only useless, but merely serves to introduce confusion into the discussion.

    I’m still curious as to where you do your research and what level you are at. Is this secret?

  62. Anonymous Says:

    ” 2. Is there discrimination against women who really want to get tenure in sciences/engineering but are discouraged in grad school, or as postdocs?

    Not sciences/engineering, but maybe still relevant: Some years ago there was a Swedish study of medicine postdoc positions. The conclusion was that women had to publish significantly more to have the same change of getting the job as a man.”

    There is discrimination in sciences and engineering. First of all, what “rumor mills” are people talking about? Can you please cite such a rumor mill for CS? Second, it is true that often there is a top woman candidate in CS who gets all the interviews/offers because everyone wants to look like they are interested in hiring women. The discrimination is in the lower levels. When a non-top department is choosing between a non-top woman and non-top man, they are going to pick the man.

  63. John Sidles Says:

    Humans like to tackle problems one-at-a-time. But in the real world, sometimes problems have to be tackled all-at-a-time.

    Consider the similarity between mathematicians and sea otters — both are beautiful free creatures that exist at the top of the food chain.

    One day, we note with alarm that the sea otter population is declining, and in particular that young sea otters are doing poorly!

    The cheap, politically easy, solve-one-problem-at-a-time solution is easy: breed more sea otters and release them. But this simple solution will almost surely fail, won’t it?

    For example, suppose the underlying problem is insufficient abalone and kelp. The released sea otters will starve due to lack of abalone, and be eaten by sharks due to lack of kelp habitat.

    The politically easy and obvious solution will be — a BIGGER sea otter release program!

    Let’s applying this lesson to gender equity issues. If we analyze the math and science community like an ecosystem that is in poor health, it becomes clear that one of the central problems that has to be fixed is insufficient economic resources.

    The “abalone” of our technological society is manufacturing, and engineers are the “kelp”. Until these components of our math and science ecosystem are restored to robust health, no amount of good will and committment to gender equity and social justice will have much effect, will it?

    The technological “otter population” in the US has been declining for forty years. This decline reflects shamefully on my entire generation of scientists and engineers. In particular, it reflects shamefully on me personally — a person who for many years saw this problem, and did nothing.

    Fixing these problems, IMHO, will require that everyone think like ecologists.

  64. Kurt Says:

    John, you’re being kind of hard on yourself, aren’t you? I love your sea otter analogy, but I’m having trouble following you when you get to this point:

    The “abalone” of our technological society is manufacturing, and engineers are the “kelp”.

    At the risk of turning your analogy into something totally banal, it seems to me that our scientist-otters can live in a couple different types of habitat – research departments in private industry, or academic institutions; and the source of sustenance could be corporate research budgets or public grants.

    I’m not in a position where I have much of a personal perspective on the issue, but the impression I get from other comments is that the problem is not so much the habitat for “adult” scientists, but a lack of good “breeding grounds” for young scientists. But getting back to the original point of the post, why is it that the current habitat seems to favor males of the species over females?

    Sorry if I’ve mangled your analogy.

  65. John Sidles Says:

    Kurt said: why is it that the current habitat seems to favor males of the species over females?

    Hmmmm … the word “favors” is freighted with a lot of meanings, isn’t it? The person who is (IMHO) the most influential scientist of the 20th century has written extensively on this topic. And anyone considering an academic career would do well to read Franz Waals’ Chimpanzee Politics.

    So as not to duck your question, though, the technical professions are male-dominated for two reasons that, as far as I can tell, in North America carry (very roughly) equal weight: unjust prejudice against women in technical careers, particularly younger women, coupled with a lack of “eco-social health” in the technical sector that causes prudent women to wisely shun these careers.

    These issues are profound, though. Like any parent of both girls and boys, I wish for all my children the very best that life has to offer. Yet, one of my sons, serving in the USMC, has volunteered for a second tour of duty in Iraq, even though he was gravely injured during his first tour. Why do young men, more than young women, embrace such risks?

  66. Anonymous Says:

    Scott, I am a woman computer scientist and I could not agree with you more. I recommend you try harder next time about the offense!

  67. Scott Says:

    Scott, I am a woman computer scientist and I could not agree with you more. I recommend you try harder next time about the offense!

    Thanks so much! But shouldn’t you be cooking and cleaning instead of reading my blog? ;)

  68. Scott Says:

    (Alright, I give up … I’m just an amateur offender.)

  69. Grad Girl Says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues recently, too, and I posted some thoughts
    here. Obviously, I can only speak to my own experience, but I think the issues extend well beyond the “nerd culture” vs. “pop culture” dichotomy.

  70. DrSkrud Says:

    Nerdify the world, you say? I am totally with you on that. Let us rise up, nerdly brothers!

  71. Chris Says:

    Final point about markets – ultimately any company/lab/university that discriminates based on sex/race/age will suffer in competition against other competing companies/labs/universities.
    Only by objective performance standards. (Some nerds will assume that those are the only standards that matter…) The well-being of the institution as a whole is often not defined simply by the quality of work it produces, *especially* for universities. Public image can play as big a role, if not bigger.

    However, this only compounds the problem – to actively discriminate against women would be bad for actual performance *and* worsen an institution’s public image.

    This strongly suggests that nobody is doing it deliberately – you’d have to be actively trying to sabotage your institution – but instead, has absorbed delusions that are dominant in the popular culture.

    Humans’ tendency to adopt any idea, no matter how absurd, if it seems to be popular in the surrounding culture is well known. (Or should I say “most humans”, since there may be a minority that is resistant to this effect?) What’s not so well known is how to dislodge these shared delusions.

    I think it may be wise not to overlook the role of religion, though, particularly in the US. Substantial segments of the population are afflicted with highly misogynistic and sexist religions, which will obviously tend to restrict girls and women from those backgrounds from entering careers that are “inappropriate for women”, which may mean any career at all.

    At least, to the extent that they fail to throw off their upbringing, but that’s pretty difficult and it seems unfair to expect *everyone* to be Frederick Douglass.

    Religious beliefs are notorious for their extreme inflexibility, especially in the face of evidence.

    I am the nerdiest person I know. I also have never in my entire life, post-high school, had even the slightest problem meeting women. If I want to go home with a cute girl when I’m in a bar, I almost always do. That may sound like bragging (though it would be quite pointless to brag to people who don’t know who you are), but I only bring it up to point out once and for all that there is no correlation between having a nerdy disposition and meeting girls.
    I don’t think you know what a “correlation” is, if you think it can be disproved by one counterexample. You may be telling the truth about your social success, but such imprecise use of a technical term clearly proves that you are not a genuine nerd, thus undermining your already invalid point. :)

    Ok, maybe that’s a silly ad hominem, but the existence of one outlier (or a small number of outliers) really DOESN’T prove a lack of correlation.

  72. John Sidles Says:

    Grad Girl said… I think the issues extend well beyond the “nerd culture” vs. “pop culture” dichotomy. … and Chris said…
    By objective performance standards … some nerds will assume that those are the only standards that matter.

    Let’s look to complexity theory to unite what Grad Girl and Chris are saying. What are the social consequences for Grad Girl’s “nerd culture” in the emerging case that Chris’ “objective standards” NP-hard to compute?

    As motivation, the NP-hardness of objective standards is turning out to be the rule, rather than the exception. This is true of fields as diverse as physics, biology, control theory, and economics. As a recent example from physics, consider Gurvits’ proof of the NP-hardness of the objective quantification of quantum entanglement.

    But, why is the ubiquity of NP-hard objective measures socially confounding? Within a free-market Jefferson democracy (as they are traditonally conceived) the social contract assumes that the free market is understandable by individuals, such that all citizens can freely participate in making the market more efficient.

    But when the economic value of a web of (e.g.) derivative contracts becomes NP-hard to evaluate, then it rigorously follows the only entities that are free to participate in the market are entities with enormous computational budgets (i.e., Enron-scale entities). Free individual citizens can no longer participate in the market, when market values become NP-hard to assess.

    This leads to: The NP-Hard Social Dominance Principle:Free markets, individual enterprise, social justice: pick two. Is this an inescable consequence of modern complexity theory?

    Based on the valuation set by the current job market, the answer is clearly “yes”. And we can easily conceive of profound gender differences in the willingness to embrace this principle.

  73. Anonymous Says:

    Just because optimal market participation is ‘hard’ does not imply poly-bounded agents cannot successfully participate in a market, nor does it imply the resulting market cannot achieve efficiency.

    Perhaps using complexity theory to validate political views is taking
    Manuel Blum’s advice about seeing the world in your grain of sand too far.

  74. John Sidles Says:

    Looking for inspiration to the practical and social consequences of math and science has an honorable tradition.

    John Bardeen (electrical engineer, and director of research at Xerox Corporation) famously summarized this tradition as follows:

    “Invention does not occur in a vacuum. [Most advances] are made in response to a need, so that it is necessary to have some sort of practical goal in mind while the basic research is being done; otherwise it may be of little value. [...] There is really no sharp dividing line between basic and applied research.”

    Is this a viable philosophy? Well, it might not work for everyone, but it worked pretty well for Bardeen–he won Nobel Prizes for Physics in 1956 and 1972.

    An even more striking example is provided by Claude Shannon (another engineer/scientist). Shannon’s “practical goal” was personal financial gain, and this goal led Shannon to associate, later in life, with some astoundingly colorful characters, and engage in secretive get-rich schemes (which worked!).

    There is a tantalizing review of this little-known aspect of Shannon’s research in American Scientist, in which the reviewer asserts “No one who has made a legitimate fortune in the markets believes the efficient-market hypothesis. And conversely, no one who believes the efficient-market hypothesis has ever made a large fortune investing in the financial markets.”

    I mention this to illustrate that, even at the highest levels, it is very common for researchers to take an intense interest in the practical and social applications of their research, and this interest is very often the key to their research success.

  75. BioGeek Says:

    Greenspun’s “Albert Q. Mathnerd” theory seems to be backed by some recent research.

    “Men conduct scientific research (or do anything else) in order to attract women and get married (albeit unconsciously),” [evolutionary psychologist Kanazawa] says.

    However, the research doesn’t answers the question as to why no more women go into the nerdly sciences.

  76. John Sidles Says:

    The tepid response from students to this vitally important thread amazes me. Our QSE Lab maintains a whole bookshelf of subversive literature relating to gender constructs and social implications in science, extending from Spinoza’s Ethics, through James Tiptree, Ursula LeGuin’s The DIspossessed, and Max Berry’s Jennifer Government.

    Unfortunately, it turns out to be darn tough to persuade our science and technology students to read outside their narrow specialities, especially literature whose ideas the students may find disquieting.

    The default attitude among science and engineering students seems to be that human society and the planetary ecosystem are entities that “happen by themselves”, due to “the free market” and “evolutionary forces”. Whatever.

    The central theme of the authors on our subversive bookshelf is that intellectual passivity is not just wrong-headed in general, it is disastrously wrong-headed from the specific viewpoint of science and technology.

  77. Anonymous Says:

    Dr. Sidles, I ask this question not as a rhetorical device, nor as an attempt to ‘catch you,’ but as a result of genuine curiousity.

    Has any of the subversive literature you read cause you to modify any of your political views? If so, what book and what issue?

    Personally, I think your comment does the ‘hard science’ community an injustice. Blindness and indifference are universal human problems, and humanities and sciences both have their own advantages in overcoming these problems.

  78. John Sidles Says:

    Anonymous asked: Has any of the subversive literature you read cause you to modify any of your political views?.

    In aggregate, the following books led me to change careers from science to engineering (though in practice, my daily life didn’t change much; “same car, different bumper sticker”). Politically, I ended up neither liberal nor conservative, but rather, federalist (in the sense that the Founding Fathers used the term).

    I will list these literary works in descending order of influence on me personally. They are all in our QSE Group’s Subversive Library (except the ones that have been stolen, which is the best fate for them; someone cared, hurrah!).

    RIght at the top are the classic nonfiction works on evolutionary biology: E. O. Wilson’s Naturalist and Consilience, Goodall’s Chimpanzees of Gombe, and De Waals’ Chimpanzee Politics. These prepare us to read Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650 –1750, followed by The Federalist Papers of Madison, Adams, and Jay, followed by Ed Cray’s General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman.

    We proceed up in the modern era with Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat, and we look to the future with Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

    What these works have in common is this: they portray human political history as not wholly the product of blind market forces, geographic accident, and Darwinian evolution, but rather, a collective enterprise that is in large measure designed and created by individuals.

    Turning to fiction, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels vividly convey to us the idea that our lives are voyages, which can be either a boring–but-safe daily shuttle on a ferryboat, or “a long voyage, a tremendous voyage, possibly a circumnavigation” (from The Far Side of the World, if memory serves). But of course, even ferryboats sink sometimes.

    O’Brian’s novels are pretty melodramatic, but almost all of the engineers whom I know love them dearly! And, there are nineteen of them, which solves the Birthday Present Problem for many years to come.

    Then, the novels of Solzhenitsin, in particular First Circle trace the ambiguous roles of science and scientists (hey, I forgot that Solzhenitsin was a trained engineer!), as does Zinoviev’s Yawning Heights (hey, Zinoview was a mathematician!). Turning to science fiction, we find first and foremost in the subversive library the complete works of Cordwainer Smith (a linguist!), followed by a great many stories by James Tiptree (a scientist!), and then works by Ursula Leguin, Octavia Butler, Walter Mosely, and Rudy Rucker (a mathematician!).

    What makes these fictional works “subversive” is this: the biology, the hardware, the sociology, the politics, and the mathematics get roughly equal billing. Also, these stories are subversive in being neither utopian nor dystopian — these authors all think that recently evolved chimpanzees (like us) are too dumb to create upopias, yet too smart to create dystopias.

    Uhhhh … we humans are smart enough to avoid dystopias, aren’t we? Which reminds us to include darkly comic dystopian novels like Adam Johnson’s Parasites Like Us, Max Berry’s Jennifer Government, and last but not least, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

    Obviously, the above books do not not constitute a complete and consistent set of axioms describing human existence — but then, not even the mathematicians expect that, anymore.

    But here is the main point! Any work of literature is subversive, if you take it seriously; this is the main point of the QSE Subversive Library, to encourage students to think about these matters seriously.

  79. John Sidles Says:

    Oh yeah, I forgot the most subversive and dystopian science-related fiction of all … Carter Scholz’s Radiance.

  80. Anonymous Says:

    Biology has the opposite problem. Maybe we could just merge and mix our offices and labs so as to equalize gender distribution?

    I also wish there were more male admin staff. It would be fun to be bossing men around. How come we never hear complaints about gender inequality there?

  81. Anonymous Says:

    I have never felt discriminated against by being a woman in mathematics. But I’m aware that if I chose to have children and spend a few years looking after them I’d have trouble getting an academic job again. Why would an employer hire someone who hadn’t published for years? Even if they had proven ability before, they are never going to look competitive against someone who has been recently active. I think the lack of security is a big reason many women go to industry or the corporate world after their phd.

  82. anna Says:

    I’m a female and I really like mathematics. I’m doing a Phd in pure mathematics, after following a fairly meandering career-path.
    I’m still not sure what I’ll do for a job when I graduate (but I think I will stick to academia as well as I can; I don’t feel particularly employable outside it). So long as I can get by, I just want to learn more about mathematics and physics.

    Anyway, the thing that’s made me meander and consider not continuing with mathematics is that I worry all the time that I’m too stupid. I always worry that perhaps I never “really understand” things at the same level as the guys from my class.

    I initially felt a bit selfish for accepting my scholarship – I felt like maybe I was wasting the money, since I’m am not really good enough at mathematics to contribute anything much. But then I thought, there’s so many worse things I could do… I’m not really hurting anyone (and I didn’t think I was really contributing that much to the world by selling homewares). So I went ahead.

    I wonder if feeling like you’re too stupid is common among other women?

  83. anna Says:

    But then perhaps I’m just not very smart.

  84. Kurt Says:

    Anna,

    I don’t know how women feel, but I can tell you that when I was in grad school, I generally felt pretty dumb and inadequate most of the time. I think that feeling is pretty universal, except maybe for outliers like Scott. When you spend all day studying things that are genuinely difficult to understand, it’s pretty hard not to feel dumb. Perhaps men, on average, are more inclined to ignore those feelings than women are.

  85. anna Says:

    Hi Kurt,

    Thanks for replying. And thanks for letting me know that feeling dumb is pretty universal. I’ve improved on that front over the years.

    You helped me clarify my thoughts: Sometimes the question
    “How can we get more females to study math?”

    gets instantly changed to

    “How can we get more females to want to study math?”

    but the questions are really very different, because women don’t just do what they want.

    I always wanted to do math (and I knew that I got good enough grades get a PhD scholarship). Making research more enticing wasn’t really the issue.

    The thing that held me back was because I still worried as to whether I SHOULD do it, seeing as I felt obliged to contribute something to the world or help society and wasn’t sure I would if I spent my time studying mathematics. I figured it was only okay to study mathematics or physics if you were really really really smart and so would be sure to contribute something. (But then eventually my selfishness won out).

    Maybe this isn’t peculiar to women either though. I’m not sure.

  86. Kurt Says:

    Anna,

    When I was young, my mom used to tell me that, “when you grow up, you should use your mind to help mankind in some way.” Unfortunately, I think she’s still waiting… But unless I were to do something drastic like switch to medicine and volunteer my time in third world countries, I don’t think I would be helping the world in a tangible way no matter what.

    I don’t think anyone can predict what kind of contribution they will make in the long run. Suppose, in the worst case, that you get a job in academia, where you produce papers with little incremental results that are unremarkable, but you have a good time doing it and you inspire your students to pursue careers in mathematics. Would that be sufficient justification for doing it?

    The only thing I know for sure is that, of the decisions I’ve made in the past, the ones I’ve come to regret usually involved choosing the pragmatic alternative over the idealistic one. Don’t hesitate to pursue your dreams because they might seem selfish in some way; selfishness can be a virtue.

    (BTW, the only reason I saw your comment at all was because Scott recently moved to WordPress and set up an rss feed for the comments, so kudos to Scott for that. On the other hand, there is this little spam problem now…)

  87. anna Says:

    Yeah, I was a bit surprised when you replied! Sometimes I just comment on these things because I feel like it, long after I’d expect anyone would read it.

    Anyway, now I totally believe that doing mathematics can help you contribute to the world in various ways. Even though the results I’ve made in my research are small, I still think they are nice, and they might help physicists a very very tiny bit in helping to understand the world, which I think is really cool.

    Also, every now and then I’ll read about people doing silly things because they are innumerate (like medical professionals who don’t understand Bayesian statistics or something) and think, “maybe what I know is not so useless after all”. (I think I’d still have trouble convincing my parents of that though).

    But I used to think mathematics was pretty useless for anything related to saving the world or making it a better place. It’s not. But perhaps it has a reputation for being so a little. So if people want to attract women to it, as well as a lot of guys, (and that’s if they do, I’m still not sure) then maybe they should try to promote this aspect of it as well.

  88. anna Says:

    PS: I also think now that perhaps the idea that you have to be really really really smart to do good mathematical research is a bit of a myth. So I’m sticking at it in the hope that one day I can help disprove it.

  89. Shtetl-Optimized » Blog Archive » Setting The Record straight Says:

    [...] Despite these and other minor errors, I’m glad that my plan to increase the number of women in science by “nerdifying the world” has now received the wide public airing it deserves. [...]