Thursday Throughput

Thursday Throughput

[ThTh1] Figuring out the distant past ain’t easy. Our views of prehistoric times are constantly changing as more information comes in. This is unavoidable: fossils are rare and precious things that only yield their information grudgingly. So it’s not surprising that we’ve now rewritten the history of the Americas. Instead of one migration of human beings into America, it now looks like we had three.

[ThTh2] If you’re not following Dianna Cowern (aka “Physics Girl”) on the internets, you probably should be.

How to make a square vortex ring! ft. 3blue1brown

[ThTh3] Barnard’s Star, one of the closest to our own, has an interesting history with exoplanets. In the 1960s, astronomer Peter van de Kamp claimed he had made the first detection of planets outside of our solar system based on wobbles in its motion. Barnard’s is what we call a “high proper motion star” which means it moves comparatively rapidly across the sky, almost one-three hundred sixtieth of degree per year. He claimed that little wobbles in that straight line were caused by the gravity of two planets orbiting the star. It turned out he was wrong — a small adjustment to the telescope had produced a signal similar to that of planets. But he got a little bit of vindication with the discovery of super-Earths orbit the planet. The universe, it seems, is full of planets.

[ThTh4] Speaking of things that are difficult to figure out, keeping one’s weight down is a big one (as I can attest). There’s some more evidence indicating a low-carb diet works. But … it’s still an ongoing debate. In the end, there is no magic wand. The only way to lose weight is to eat less.

[ThTh5] Heather McDonald, who has a history of making somewhat incoherent arguments against “liberal” ideas, uses men’s dominance of elite Scrabble to argue … something. Her thesis, which I read before it vanished behind the paywall, is that men’s Scrabble prowess shows an interest in esoteric knowledge and that this is the real reason women aren’t as prevalent in the sciences as they should be. This seems … a reach. The gender gap in the sciences likely has many origins: sexism, the difficult of combining career and family (at least for women) and, yes, maybe some difference in the temperament of the sexes. But it’s absurd to dismiss sexism — some of which I have personally witnessed — as a factor based on Scrabble. Among other things, the “it’s all temperament” explanation fails to explain the huge differences in gender gap between the various specialties. Women do play Scrabble and can be quite good at it; they may just not have the time and inclination for the insane lengths one has to go to win in national or global tournaments. Ken White reminded me that any article titled “Sorry, X, but ….” will likely be hot garbage. He was right.

Thursday Throughput

Proof that there is no sexism in science.

[ThTh6] What was the worst year to be alive? For me personally, it was probably 1990. But for humanity in general, it was 536.

[ThTh7] The history of the Solar System is violent. And we are still finding the scars of that violence in the surface of our planet.

[ThTh8] Last night, I finished the gripping book “Bad Blood”, John Carreyrou’s expanded version of his WSJ investigation that brought down the Silicon Valley startup Theranos. The subjects has been covered expertly by our own Tod Kelly, both here and at Marie Claire. But with the full story unveiled, I have some additional thoughts.


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Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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16 thoughts on “Thursday Throughput

  1. ThTh5 – Yeah, I can’t get to it either, I do want to reply to your description of it. You make reference to a possible difference between the sexes in temperament. The argument typically is bigger than that. There appears to be a difference between the sexes in IQ variance. Men are more likely to be extremely smart or extremely stupid.

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    • The variance hypothesis is a popular one and I do think it plays a role. But:

      1) Most people in the sciences aren’t THAT far along the bell curve. The difference shouldn’t be quite so dramatic.

      2) That hypothesis is under a lot of fire lately as the data supporting it is thin.

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      • Well, this is frustrating. I got to the MacDonald article, and it’s based on this point that I just raised, that you somewhat agreed with, but that you chose not to include in your write-up. Instead you said that the article argues “…something”, that dismissing sexism is absurd, and that the article is hot garbage. That’s not a fair way to represent an article that a lot of people might not be able to get to.

        Men do dominate elite Scrabble. There are no female barriers to entry or advancement. It is reasonable to use this as evidence against the idea that greater male achievement is simply a product of institutional bias.

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        • There is institutional bias, but that bias isn’t functioning all by itself, there are most certainly other factors at play, and certainly some of them are related to gender differences (see also the gap in societies that work hardest to eliminate institutional bias).

          The focus should be on removing bias and other barriers to entry/opportunity, not on trying to get the gender numbers to be equal.

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              • Agreed. A lot of our politics in the US these days revolves around whether we’ve passed the point where outcome is a good measure of discrimination.

                I always watched Law and Order and thought, there’s no way a DA could keep hiring women who looked like Jill Hennessy and Angie Harmon without getting sued. Every one of them was hot. All but one of them were brunette. Most of them were petite. The guy had a type. That’s where our national conversation is. We’re trapped between “outcome isn’t a proof of discrimination” and “oh, come on, look at them”.

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        • Pinky: Men do dominate elite Scrabble. There are no female barriers to entry or advancement.

          Are you sure there are no such barriers to entry or advancement by women? I’m thinking, I could really like and be good at a game, but if the upper echelons are a viper’s nest of sexual harassment against me, I’m just not going to bother entering the top tournaments or devoting the energy to the level of skill needed to rise through them. My mental health isn’t worth it.

          So, if that turns out to be the case when it comes to top tier Scrabbe, is that a barrier to entry for women or not?

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  2. The thing about competitive Scrabble is that it isn’t actually about interesting esoteric knowledge, such as obscure words. It is about memorizing strings of characters. That they notionally are English words is irrelevant. The really serious players don’t waste precious brain space with unnecessary stuff like knowing how to use these character strings as English words. This realization is why I pretty much lost interest in the game. So stipulating to group differences in top-level competitive Scrabble, this is a difference in willingness to devote the time and attention to acquire this otherwise useless and uninteresting knowledge base, in pursuit of competitive advantage in a hobby. I would be cautious about deriving broader conclusions from this.

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    • You and Michael both refer to a difference in willingness to devote time and attention to being a top-level Scrabble player. I cannot help but wonder 1) Why would there be a difference between genders and 2) Could it have any relation to women being less prevalent in the sciences.

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      • I’ll admit I did not know there was such a thing as a elite Scrabble competitions until this study came out, so it wouldn’t have occurred to me, despite my interest and aptitude in science, to pursue becoming a top-level player. I do know plenty of women who are very good at other sorts of trivia games, having devoted time and attention to those. So I’m not sure why Scrabble has a gender disparity, but the pool one uses for studies is relevant and I honestly wonder how many people know elite Scrabble is even a thing.

        And maybe that has some relevance to the number of women in the sciences, in that for a very long time (and even now in a lot of places) girls simply were not encouraged to pursue science as an interest. The directions we’re pointed in, especially during our early years, do have an influence.

        Honestly, though, I doubt competitive Scrabble would have interested me, despite the fact that I love science and have a terminal degree in engineering. If there is a male/female difference there, I think it has less to do with relative participation in STEM and more to do with relative tendency memorize baseball statistics – something I find profoundly boring, even though I quite enjoyed my graduate classes in applied statistics. In fact, speaking of statistical analysis, if the claim is being made that excelling at Scrabble has some correlation to excelling in science, did this study actually look at the number of elite Scrabble players who have advanced degrees in STEM fields? That strikes me a relevant piece of data to look at here.

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  3. ThTh8: I second the recommendation of the book. What struck me was the total breakdown of corporate governance. The Board of Directors are supposed to represent the interests of the investors and generally be the adults in the room. But the one director who had enough technical knowledge to spot the problem was eased off the board because he was a troublemaker. This isn’t even evil capitalists doing bad things to make money. They lost money off of this. This rather is incompetent capitalists, beguiled by a charismatic founder who looks good in a turtleneck. Then it gets worse. Later rounds of investors looked at the board, saw a bunch of aged-out Republican statesmen and concluded this must be a solid operation. No further due diligence was necessary. It because an affinity scam for rich people. Then there was Safeway and Walgreens, where the people who actually knew about this stuff were saying this didn’t work, much to the annoyance of their superiors. Carreyrou doesn’t push the “failure of modern capitalism” angle, but I wouldn’t expect this from a Wall Street Journal guy. I am impressed at how little beneath the surface he buried it.

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      • I think it’s a failure of people to understand the difference between confidence and naivete. If someone has never been allowed to fail in her life then of course she’s going to come across as though failure is impossible for her.

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    • What’s interesting is watching Carreyrou walk the line of criticising Holmes’s boyfriend without inviting calls of racism. Anyone from England would be nodding along saying “yep, yep, yep, that’s what happens, that’s what bloody happens“, though.

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