Education, Philosophy, Politics, Science / Tech

The Politics of Science: Why Scientists Might Not Say What the Evidence Supports

Suppose a scientist makes a bold claim that turns out to be true. How confident are you that this claim would become widely accepted?

Let’s start with a mundane case. About a century ago, cosmologists began to realize that we can’t explain the motions of galaxies unless we assume that a certain amount of unknown matter exists that we cannot yet observe with telescopes. Scientists called this “dark matter.” This is a bold claim that requires extraordinary evidence. Still, the indirect evidence is mounting and most cosmologists now believe that dark matter exists. To the extent that non-scientists think about this issue at all, we tend to defer to experts in the field and move on with our lives.

But what about politically contentious topics? Does it work the same way? Suppose we have evidence for the truth of a hypothesis the consequences of which many people fear. For example, suppose we have reasonably strong evidence to believe there are average biological differences between men and women, or between different ethnic or racial groups. Would most people defer to the evidence and move on with their lives?

More importantly, would most scientists pursue the research and follow the evidence wherever it leads? Would scientists then go on information campaigns to convince the public of the truth of their hypothesis?

Probably not. I want to explore some explanations for why we might be justified in believing a hypothesis that scientists shy away from even when that hypothesis is consistent with the best available evidence.   

Pluralistic Ignorance

Many comic and tragic social situations are premised on pluralistic ignorance, which occurs when most of us believe that other people believe something that they don’t in fact believe. For example, if most of us believe that enough other people think we should attend a Super Bowl party, even if we don’t want to go, we might all attend a party that none of us enjoy. Most of us don’t want to go, but we believe that other people think we should go. Norms create expectations, and most of us want to stick to norms that we think other people endorse, even if (unknown to us) most people don’t endorse the norm and would prefer to switch to a new norm.

There are many forms of pluralistic ignorance, and some of them are deeply important for how science works. Consider the science of sex differences as a case in point. Earlier in the year James Damore was fired from Google for circulating an internal memo that questioned the dominant view of Google’s diversity team. The view he questioned is that men and women are identical in both abilities and interests, and that sexism alone can explain why Google hires more men than women. He laid out a litany of evidence suggesting that even if average biological differences between men and women are small, these differences will tend to manifest themselves in occupations that select for people who exhibit qualities at the extreme ends of a bell curve that plots a distribution of abilities and interests.

As many commentators have pointed out, if men and women differ in their desire to work with people or things, professions that deal mainly with people (like social work and pediatrics) will tend to attract more women, and professions that deal mainly with things (like computer science and engineering) will tend to attract more men.

When Damore circulated his memo, he seems to have believed his supervisors at Google would consider the evidence, and that they would welcome his contribution to the discussion. In fact, Damore believed that other people’s beliefs, and the norms they endorsed, were different than they were. Ultimately Damore was fired, and other Google employees have been blacklisted for political heresy as a consequence of their expectations that other people’s commitments were different than they are.

The Damore case illustrates a related principle: even when other people share your commitment to changing the norms of discourse, they may publicly condemn you while privately praising you for raising important possibilities. As it turns out, a majority of Google employees believe Damore should not have been fired.

Virtue signaling” is an important concept in evolutionary psychology that has been popularized by the rise of social media. In its popular use, it refers to a situation in which individuals say something in anticipation of the praise it will get them, even if they’re not really sure it’s true. In the case of James Damore, some people on the fence about the science of sex differences might nevertheless publicly criticize Damore even if, had they been in a private conversation or alone in a room with a book on the science of sex differences, they would agree with Damore’s memo.

The Logic of Collective Action

Apart from widespread uncertainty by individuals about what other people believe they should say, each scientist or person whose beliefs are sensitive to evidence faces a collective action problem. When a topic is politically contentious, and there is some risk to our reputation or career from endorsing a view, we may hang back and fail to either form a belief on that topic or publicly proclaim our allegiance to that belief.

The logic of collective action is that when the costs of expressing a belief are borne by the individual, but the benefits are shared among all members of an epistemic community, it is perfectly rational to fail to reveal our beliefs about that topic, no matter how justified they might be.

Consider the cases of Ed Wilson and Arthur Jensen, who published their belief that different racial groups probably have different cognitive propensities and capacities. They were harshly denounced, typically on moral grounds rather than on the scientific merit of their arguments. Their careers were threatened, and people who might otherwise pursue this research or publicly explain the evidence for these hypotheses learned to keep their mouths shut.

It is often said that non-specialists who want to figure out how the world works should defer to a consensus of scientists when forming our beliefs about the topics they study. Generally speaking, that’s true.

But the case for deferring to scientific consensus on politically contentious topics is much weaker. This is true because what scientists publicly say may differ from what they privately believe. It is also true because, as Nathan Cofnas argues, some of the research that bears on a topic might not get done due to the fact that those who authorize or accept funding for it might incur reputational costs for working on a topic that is likely to produce results that most people don’t want to believe.

Public Goods and Private Costs

In some ways, it is obvious that politically contentious scientific topics can produce a public consensus that is at odds with the best available evidence. When there are career-advancing opportunities open to those who symbolically reject sexism and racism by publicly affirming that science does not support any group differences, it makes sense that they would do so.

But this simple point seems to have been lost on many of those on the political left who joined the march for science last Spring in Washington, DC, but who cheered the firing of James Damore last Summer for attempting to expose his co-workers to research on the science of sex differences.

Science is the best method we have for understanding the world. But to the extent that its success requires a willingness to entertain ideas that conflict with our deepest desires, scientific progress on politically contentious topics tends to be slow. Scientists learn from each other’s mistakes – not just scientific mistakes, but also public relations mistakes that have the power to get people fired.

Just ask Jason Richwine, Larry Summers, and James Damore. As these cases show, sometimes we have strong social incentives to publicly condemn a hypothesis that we have scientific reasons to welcome to the public conversation.

 

Jonathan Anomaly is a core faculty member of the Department of Political Economy, and Assistant Professor in the PPEL Program, at the University of Arizona.

 

37 Comments

  1. Ruben says

    I was hoping for something else than that tired “gender differences do exist” argument. What else do you have?

    • Come on, Ruben. Sex differences is a case study in an overall argument. The point of the column was to explain why scientists might not say what the evidence supports. And why they might even publicly oppose what they have good reason to believe.

      • Ruben says

        @jack – Yes I get that part. I just think that the whole argument would be more convincing if it brought more examples. Right now it reads as an indictment of the left who likes to claim the mantle of science but is guilty of occulting scientific evidence or shunning scientific research when it goes against its political views. This claim rests mostly on reactions to the Google demo but could be made stronger if it were supported by more examples.

        • Here’s another example: nutrition science. Promulgating low fat dogma became the social norm for people in the nutrition field several decades ago, unsupported by actual hard science that showed it was really the best way for homo sapiens to eat. This made it incredibly hard for scientists who wanted to test other hypotheses of the aetiology of chronic modern diseases, especially with regard to excessive carbohydrate consumption. Many scientists reported that it was such a deeply institutional issue that they could not get funding for studies, and some were pilloried for going against the low-fat position. This tanker is finally starting to turn, with more and more studies critical of low-fat appearing, but even as this is happening there’s still a lot of professional social problems around it, to the extent that some dietetics associations have had to put out position statements asking their member nutritionists to start behaving more professionally and stop bullying each other.

          In the end this whole situation in the nutrition world probably has far less to do with righteous morality positions (though some of that does play in) and a lot more to do with simple vested commercial interests, and perhaps to a lesser extent the legal and political liability for those who continually pushed a message about diet that was actually making quite a lot of people unhealthier.

    • Maybe firearms research & gun-control policies?

      The interesting thing here is that I think the virtue signalling is in both camps – some gun owners fear “exposing” their beliefs about “reasonable” gun control because it doesn’t match the NRA and gun social group line. Also, some people on the left fear exposing their beliefs about reasonable gun ownership because it would be seen to enable firearm tragedies in their circles.

      • Slightly different problem. The “research on reasonable gun control” ties into a problem of Constitutional rights where the research is irrelevant, rights are granted…period. A parallel to trigger the political Left would be research on “reasonable voting rights control” since the lack of any voting rights control results in a statistically minor % of fraudulent votes. An extremely small % of gun owners commit crimes/mass murders just the same as a small % of people cast illegal votes.

        That being said, the author is illustrating a problem actually rooted in the Theory of Least Effort. Every action is evaluated and a cost associated. Whether or not that action is performed is determined by a cost function (cost-benefit) and the author is pointing out that the stigma/reputational damage for an unpopular scientific finding dissuades the pursuit of knowledge in that area. Whether it is gender differences, the effects of CO2 on temperatures, or even why the glaciers in Antarctica are shrinking — all are simply case studies to the premise.

        We have descended into the scientific dark ages when “the science is settled” and “the scientific consensus says” are weapons to stifle discussion, research, and publication.

        • You nailed it … If you dare point of the fact appeal to consensus is a logical fallacy, at a conference of “scientists” no less at an elite world class university like Georgia Tech, get ready of an avalanche of insults. Look at how Jordan Peterson or Steven Pinker are labeled racist for mentioning “The Bell Curve” .

      • Anomaly says

        Right about that. We’re all subject to motivated reasoning, and virtue signaling often reflects our motivated reasons.

    • You could suggest something. How about the resistance to Wegener’s ideas that led the way to what we now know as plate tectonics? Geologists threw down every obstacle possible including firing people, denial of tenure denial of publishing to what can now be observed almost in real time if you monitor data provided by PBOs.

    • The point isn’t that ““gender differences do exist”, the point is that you may be fired from your job by stating that ““gender differences do exist”.

      It’s not a trivial matter.

  2. I was hoping for something else than that tired “gender differences do exist” argument. What else do you have?

    ‘I’m bored with talking about cereals, what else have you got against Lysenkoism?’

  3. Three quick points.

    First, someone has to pay for science, and that investment needs to present some sort of return on investment for society, even if that return is nothing more than “broadened cosmic consciousness” or whatever. One can imagine avenues of research that would not be particularly fruitful in that light. Imagine the outcry if it were discovered that there were 189 university research labs in the US engaging in a search for the causes of diarrhea of the sylvilagus floridanus (bunny rabbit).

    I suspect that some scientists who are not leaping to their feet in defense of defenestrated colleagues are partly considering calculations as to the social payoff of specific heretical avenues of research.

    Second, we are trying to coax talented women into environments in which they can deploy their gifts for maximum social benefit. Truthfully, we still have no idea as to the precise mix of immutable preferences/adaptations vs. positive and negative social conditioning that gives rise to the status quo. Damore’s hypotheses are obviously not implausible and we all have our potted theories. But meanwhile the grand social experiment to encourage women to deploy their math and science talents continues and won’t deliver final results during our lifetimes. One can argue that the social return on investment for publically ventilating doubts such as his is indeed negative, and in this case because doing so severely contaminates the conditions of the main social initiative/experiment.

    Ditto with respect to members of racial minorities who are situated towards the RHS of their curves.

    Finally, although it is certainly fair game to doubt the underlying strength of a supposed scientific consensus, one needs to avoid changing the topic and methodology inherent to scientific discourse in favour of wild conspiracy theories or quasi-science. Our friends on the authoritarian left love to pull this stunt with their pretend scientific disquisitions. Those on the paranoid right do this every day with vacuous claims of group-think in the vast field of climate science. But truthfully, we all should agree that the price of admission to actual scientific discourse is solid, replicable findings driven by the scientific method (and behind that standard epistemologies), real data, peer review, etc. It’s put up or shut up and actual findings need to have pride of place in the public theatre of scientific endeavour. Other mutterings *about* science (and I include this comment of mine) are just caffeinated banter by patrons during intermission.

  4. I love the photo. I know people who got on a plane to join in the March for Science. They refuse to eat anything heated in a microwave oven or on an induction surface because…you know…radiation.

  5. Pingback: Lemmings – FTN Blog

  6. Individual scientists still have group affiliations and moral norms to uphold in a socially connected world. Institutions still reward those willing to risk their reputations on unpopular claims– if indeed they are found to be true. Examples abound.

  7. Duane says

    The arguments over global warming and “climate science” is a perfect example. The warmists spend most of their efforts trying to shut down argument and delegitimize actual scientific inquiry and debate, while the anti-warmists spend most of their time talking about the religiousity of the warmists.

    The true believers thus dominate both sides of the debate, and it comes down to arguments over essentially who is more heretical – the warmists or the anti-warmists, and who supports each group … while the science gets mostly ignored.

    The reality is that it is extremely obvious to any but the most ignorant of science that climate changes, period. It always has, always will, with or without humans in the equation,. And it is equally obvious the humans likely have at least some impact on climate change. The only debate worth having is, how much precisely do humans contribute to an always-changing climate, and is that contribution significant, let alone controlling?

    Finally, the luke-warmers never seem to get listened to much because they are in the “mushy middle” of a religiously-inflamed argument. Their position is yes, the climate is changing, and obviously humans contribute, but the only thing that is important to know is that humans are extremely adaptable, having already gone through many glaciation-interglacial events in the last 2.3 million years during which humans and our progenitors adapted quite well. Indeed, warm climates have always been more favorable than cool climates for humans throughout all pre-history and recorded history. But of course, that argument is neither driven by religiosity nor is it sexy, and consequently it is unattractive to the extremists on both ends who’ve been dominating the argument the last 30 years,

    • Melvin Backstrom says

      Thank you for so eloquently expressing my own thoughts about climate change.

  8. PaulNu says

    Nonsense! Everyone loves Superbowl parties!

    Otherwise I agree with everything the author said.

  9. Carl Sageman says

    The article is an excellent summary. Very easy to digest. It misses two important points

    1) today’s society is happy to engage in sexism and racism. Look for terms like “privileged white male” or “white male privilege”. This is used as a pejorative, without any evidence, for the purposes of divisiveness. Is it not racism and sexism? It certainly is.

    2) the article doesn’t get into the “why. Why are we afraid to acknowledge the differences between men and women, black, Asian and white? We’re happy to be racist and sexist (selectively). The article hints at it: social media. The rise of social media has given those with the most persuasive (and potentially fact devoid) arguments a platform for gaining influence. According to PISA, there is a significant difference in the linguistic ability between the average boy and girl (worldwide). It’s not a “patriarchy” thing or “environmental” conditioning thing and it predates computers. So, the advantage has been used to sway perception. Apply a level of “sin” (aka. Guilt) and you have a perfect system of propaganda.

    @ruben:

    Try starslatecodex. He is extremely thorough in his research. It contains detailed and reliable studies with huge data sources. It’s a long read.
    http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/08/07/contra-grant-on-exaggerated-differences/
    “It’s a very common and well-replicated finding that the more progressive and gender-equal a country, the larger gender differences in personality of the sort Hyde found become. I agree this is a very strange finding, but it’s definitely true. See eg Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Sex Differences In Big Five Personality Traits Across 55 Cultures”

    @David Chennels:
    I love seeing diverse views here David. Our views are strongly opposed, but, you try to mount a reasoned argument. I’m unsure if you don’t have the facts or don’t want the facts. Let me critique your comment.

    “we are trying to coax talented women into environments in which they can deploy their gifts for maximum social benefit”
    Do you have evidence to back this up? Veterinary science (and a host of other careers) are almost totally female dominated. Are you saying we forgot those careers, we need more women in those, or that adding more of the opposite sex (be it male or female) improves an industry. You should listen to Jordan Peterson on “diversity” who nails one of my quotes, diversity for women is another word for sexism.
    Unless you have evidence, you are purely espousing identity politics.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zBD4_20-qCM

    “Damore’s hypotheses are obviously not implausible and we all have our potted theories”
    I’m unsure if you’re trying to deflect fact into opinion on purpose, or, you’re misguided. You’re eloquent enough to know the difference and avoid such a simple mistake.
    Did Quillette interview four experts on sexual psychology? How many of those four experts strongly agreed with Damore’s memo? All four. Then Jordan Peterson, an ex-Harvard professor of psychology, weighed in and agreed with the memo, making it 5/5 expert analyses. How does anyone call this an opinion?

    You (David) see the world through identity. I see it through merit and capability. I believe that diversity is the personality (as Peterson says in his video), not through genitals.

    If you have a particular robust study that backs your views that we get more diversity with having 50/50 females/males (or even significant proportions of both), please show it. I’m yet to see a single credible study.

    Don’t get me wrong. As long as opportunity is there for all, I don’t care if women dominate veterinary science. I fully support it. I suspect you do too. However, if I asked about your support for men dominating IT, I would be consistent in my answer. Would you? If you say yes, pleas explain your comments above and in other posts where you espouse identity politics.

    @Duane
    Brilliant observation. I want to get to the bottom of climate science. Almost every article I read (pro/con man made climate change) is attacking the opposition or faking a position. Even the figure of “95% of scientists agree” was manipulative (which scientists?). It’s more politics than. Science.

    • Ruben says

      to be clear: I have no problem with the Slate Star Codex piece and the Hyde study.

  10. Pingback: Thoughts on Jonny Anomaly’s article at Quillette | Lion of the Blogosphere

  11. Carl a quick reply.

    I see the question of the extent and final significance of gender differences as still up in the air. A well-known “meta-study” (i.e. synthesis of other published studies) argued that the differences are not so large.

    See: Hyde, J. S. (2005). The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist, Vol. 60, No. 6, which is available as a PDF and consolidates a huge amount of data.

    In truth I’m agnostic about the data and believe that it’s a sufficiently open question that we need until the end of this century to determine for sure to what extent women can be re-socialized to be fierce competitors in STEM disciplines.

    Incidentally, my own concerns have precisely zero to do with diversity or group equity of results, both of which I believe are a total crock in terms of fundamental objectives.

    My guiding concern is purely human resource exploitation, that is, extracting the most social value from the raw talent available. The consideration is that there are millions of brilliant, underutilized women who **might** be guided to enter and stay in higher-value-added fields. When you consider the massive workload that the world has on its plate in terms of engineering its way out of many looming catastrophes, it’s all hands on deck.

    • Let’s say we take two species and we find a bunch of ways to measure them: height, pulse rate, weight, color, hearing ability etc. Now we calculate the difference on each metric. It will probably turn out that most of them show only fairly small differences (a few are quite large) — all life being related and all. Yet, it is quite obviously a wrong conclusion to conclude that the difference between them is small just because the average difference is small. The average difference is the wrong method to summarize the data. One should use the combined difference, i.e. a multi-dimensional distance. This will turn out to be very large, revealing what we already knew — they were two different species.

      Apply the same reasoning to human sexes, and you get the same kind of result for the same reason.

      http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0029265

    • My question is (from a female NON scientist perspective with a liberal arts degree, laugh all you want fellas) has there been a large comprehensive poll that has asked if women were interested in STEM fields?

      The questions could be framed as:
      “Were/are you interested in ____ STEM field but felt you would be discriminated against pursing it?”
      Or
      “Were you talked out of pursing it because of your gender?”
      Or
      “During highschool or college did you take an aptitude test that suggested a STEM career would be a good fit but you just weren’t interested?”

      The problem that I have with all of this social engineering is that there’s this assumption that women must to go into certain fields or else! What if it just happens that we’re just not that interested in them?

      I realize that women in the baby boomer era were probably really discouraged from pursing an engineering degree but I am on the very end of the Gen X early Gen Y and I can tell you without a doubt that we were ENCOURAGED (capital with a E) to go into any kind of STEM type field. This was pushed all around.
      I and most of my friends didn’t care because it didn’t interest us at all. It was all I could do not to pull my hair out from sheer boredom and frustration at any math class I had to take (aside from geometry which I loved).

      This is what I really hate about Fem 3.0 is that all my life I’ve been told you can do and be whatever you want. The world is yours. Great! I chose (MY choice) to be a designer and when I got married and had babies it’s been awsome because I can totally work around their schedules.
      So to me, this truly is having it all. I get to do work I love, set my own schedule and be an involved mom to my sons.

      What I’m getting at is that all the supposed goals of FEM 2.0 I feel have been reached. I chose to do all of this and I have a husband that is a great parent as well. Why can’t we all celebrate this achievement without constantly pushing, pulling, manipulating, twisting and trying to get us to fit in spaces we don’t want!

      I don’t want gender wars and all this ridiculous hand wringing about not having enough CEOs with female parts.
      I have never ever met anyone my age or younger that didn’t pursue a career because of discouragement or discrimination. This is the most overblown, totally made up issue to keep the gender studies people employeed on the Ted Talks circuit. It is literally a Non-Issue.
      Why aren’t they out there trying to recruit more female construction workers, truck drivers, deep sea fisherman or oil well roughnecks (this pays excellent by the way). Just sayin’.

      On a last note, I will say we could use more male middle school teachers. My 11 year old does much better with male teachers for some reason (I really don’t know why, not being sarcastic here).

  12. The average IQ in India is 82 but they are fierce competitors in STEM fields. Employers are willing to accept a 30% drop in quality for a 50% drop in price. That’s a proven formula for getting more women into STEM fields. Unfortunately that plan pushes out raw talent, often into early retirement.

  13. At the end of the day the statistic that matters is much simpler than all that: what is the count of individuals coming up who have the talent to contribute in a field.

    Moreover, when you take a very long term view, which is the *only* perspective that should dominate conversations of this nature, the “lump of labour” view becomes a complete and total loser. There is no finite number of positions in the economy. Once prices, demand and supply adjust and the global economy shakes off the prior arbitrary distortions, women and Indians do not displace anyone else.

    What hangs in the balance is how and whether the cat gets skinned.

    We can either utilize women to grind grain in the dust with mortar and pestle or to develop and refine the control systems in industrial plants that process grain. To make charcoal in their huts, or to work in labs developing advanced perovskite-structured materials, or whatever, to continue to drive down the cost of solar energy. To work restacking books in the local library or refining the algorithms that deliver documents online via better search results.

    Given the huge to-do-list confronting humanity, we have to hope that every individual on the planet who has the talent to innovate to solve important problems will be put to work using their full potential. That means continuing with the current grand social experiment to see whether the old social roles and constraints can be ditched and, in the mean-time, to avoid prejudicing the results, especially with public, cocksure, quasi-scientific mutterings that go way beyond what’s merited by the limited data available.

    • Dennis says

      David,

      You’re not wrong: of course we should exploit all the skilled labor out there, regardless of sex and race. Everyone should be allowed to compete for the same jobs. That’s Damore’s point, though. He advocated modest efforts at recruiting and encouraging women, but he argued that we probably shouldn’t expect every field, including computation, to be populated 50/50 by men and women, and that part of the reason is small biological differences in interests and propensities. His memo is very clear about this.

      There’s no reason to obsessively focus on these differences, as you suggest, but it’s worth trying to explain why perfectly reasonable people like Damore get fired, and why he might be more right about the science than journalists think — because scientists are just as scared as he is about coming out of the closet and saying things that might earn them scorn, or even result in a lost grant or job opportunity.

  14. Dennis, For what little it’s worth I agree that the Damore situation could have been handled much better. What was needed was a memo (or, better, a video) from the CEO acknowledging Damore’s memo, a few of the questions raised and corresponding issues of ongoing research, but also reiterating the corporate plan/vision to encourage women to come into the company and grow. And to say that part of that encouragement is for all team members to join in upholding an enthusiastic and optimistic expectation of shared success over the short, medium and long term. Something like that.

  15. This is purely anecdotal but my experience tells me that a lot of the gap that is found in the STEM fields (or any other competive fields where white or asian males dominate) is because there are some very talented women with advanced degrees in the PTA and other volunteer organizations.
    This is not meant to be decisive at all, but most of the women in the PTA at my sons elementary school all have varying advanced degrees of some kind that are currently being put to use in nonpaid but equally important and satisfying in the long term.
    I don’t know why this is so hard to grasp for our current age but most women I know who’ve had children actually want to be involved with them and their lives. I am not a religious person on the far right either and I have close friends that are as leftist crunchy granola as they come but who dropped their career in a heartbeat to stay home (if they could afford it).

    In all the talk about gender differences why haven’t I read more about the incredible biological, emotional pull to be with their offspring that every mother I know has??
    Is it only conservative moms who care about their kids? No, obviously it’s not. This is another issue that doesn’t get talked about because of inconvenient facts that muck up the leftists worldview to increase congnitive dissonance when what is preached is not practiced.

    I’ve never been on the right politically but if I were paranoid I would really think the feminist left who is pushing the gender 50/50 issue were conspiring against mothers and families in general. Or that they so devalue this one aspect that is truly unique to the female gender. Luckily I’m not paranoid.

    • KDM, your observations of current reality are absolutely fair (and brave). To any honest betting man they would tend to diminish the probability of success in reaching parity in STEM fields even over the long term. Nevertheless it’s worth a shot and continuing with the experiment. And here’s why.

      The sad truth is that the phenomenon of upper middle class, highly educated women investing mightily in the success of one or two hypercompetitive children has decidedly mixed consequences for society. Combined with assortative mating, it ends up reinforcing a highly stratified, quasi-caste society with rapidly declining mobility. The lower classes simply cannot come even close to matching that investment. The upper middle class kids end up absolutely creaming their kids in the competition for higher education slots and mates. The rich get richer, etc. And the resulting frustration and social instability always threatens to boil over. (See Trump’s base and even the Critical Theory folks’ harping about privilege.) It was one thing for women two hundred years ago to dedicate themselves full time to raising and educating ten or twelve children in the home while accomplishing so much by hand. But if talented women now can be encouraged to deploy their gifts to solving major scientific or technological problems while incidentally improving social mobility (and perhaps also alleviating the stresses these arrangements can place on men) then so much the better. We shall see.

  16. David,
    I understand what you’re saying and it makes sense (in a very weird convoluted way I guess).
    So if I’m understanding you correctly then what you’re saying is, middle to high-middle class women shouldn’t stay home and volunteer in the PTA even though that’s what they (obviously) really want to do, what they CHOOSE to do. Instead, they should go to work in STEM careers or wherever so that their kids don’t have such an advantage over lower class children???

    You’re getting a bit too close to radical egalitarianism there for my taste. America is predicated on Liberty and Equality (of opportunity). Sorry, but anything else is coercion (soft or not it’s still feels like force. I’m also betting that if lower middle class married parents are able to stay married even with little resources you can devote a lot more time to children.

    We’ll never ever be an equal society here. We shouldn’t seek to be either. What should happen is the norms that allow children to succeed should be copied throughout all classes of society. I know this isn’t always possible and crap happens but I’m talking overall statistically. It’s better to try and lift as many people up as possible rather than mowing them over at an attempt to level them out.

    • KDM, there will always be a subliminal tension between free individual choice and any movement to nudge society to evolve so that it can fire on all cylinders.

      That tension is more troubling when it involves heavy-handed public policy proposals as opposed to advocacy by individual members of civil society or corporate bodies for their competing visions. In this conversation our focus is not on coercive public policy but rather the fundamental productive social values worth supporting.

      No liberal would say that, at the end of the day, women and men should be restrained from exercising free choice in the fundamental choices of how they organize their lives. Indeed, that freedom is at the very heart of liberalism.

      At the same time, there are important unavoidable choices for everyone to make, and perhaps none more important than what guidance to give to children and adolescents, boys and girls, concerning how they should conceive of and plan for their adult lives. The argument here especially concerns whether girls who are conscientious, strong students should be raised to plan their adult lives as centred around pursuing important careers or should rather be fed doubts based on half-baked social science results that argue for supposedly intractable inner motivations and desires to the contrary. Another individual choice that is unavoidable is the relative respect and prestige one grants to highly accomplished folks who blaze paths outside the home versus those who dedicate themselves to more conventional roles within. In both cases the sort of conversation we’re having here is hopefully constructive.

      As for copying norms throughout all classes, I certainly don’t disagree, even though one must be careful to disaggregate differences that are predicated on resources (e.g. time) and actual strategies. In any case, we agree that greater relationship stability for those raising children is the sort of bona fide choice that would ideally be emulated by all.

  17. Grumpy Liberal says

    Out of curiosity, are the signs in the photo real?

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