Thoughts on rationalism and the rationalist community from a skeptical perspective. The author rejects rationality in the sense that he believes it isn't a logically coherent concept, that the larger rationalism community is insufficiently critical of it's beliefs and that ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY IS NOT THE TRUE CALIF.

Moral Badness vs. Punishment

Just Because You Didn't Demand Sex Doesn't Make It Better

The (now confessed) allegations against Louis CK are certainly awful behavior and shouldn’t be tolerated but they raise an interesting issue about the distinction between appropriate punishment and moral harm.

For instance, we set the penalty so high for some crimes (cheating on taxes or insider trading) not necessarily because those crimes are such atrocious moral infractions but because we need sufficiently high penalties to deter that behavior effectively. I’d argue that a similar thing is going on when someone uses their power over someone’s career to extort sexual favors.

Obviously, its morally unacceptable to ruin someone’s career for your own selfish reasons. However, we often tolerate people with power harming the careers of others out of pure pique, spite or other selfish reason. Now the individual moral harm of offering someone a choice (sleep with me or I hurt your career) is no more1 than the harm of simply hurting their career out of spite or pique.

However, this doesn’t mean we should reserve the same level of punishment (and here public condemnation is a form of punishment) for those two behaviors. The unfortunate fact of the situation is that without serious and strong punishment (legal or social) for, even implicitly, conditioning (non-sexual, porn-stars and prostitutes are hard cases) career success on sexual favors we risk creating an environment in which succeeding in an industry requires providing sexual favors. In contrast, when someone with power hurts a career out of spite, pique or on a lark we don’t face the same danger of creating an environment in which some people are systematically disadvantaged (we still face some risk of that). But, at least in an environment where demands for sexual favors aren’t the norm that doesn’t make the harm of the individual act greater.

Anyway, this is all a very long way of pointing out that while we appropriately punish people who condition career advancement on sex more it’s just as morally wrong to harm someone’s career for no reason or because you have some kind of personal or political disagreement with them. No, this is not an attempt to minimize the harm of behavior like that of Louis CK but, rather, to point out its no better when you screw over someone’s career because you dislike their politics, find their voice annoying or any other random (job unrelated) reason.


  1. I realize this claim is arguable but I think it’s true on reasonable psychological assumptions. 

Sexual Discrimination I’ve Seen

An Alternative To Me Too

So in response to my criticism of me too someone suggested I should post about an experience I’ve had. I won’t post about a situation where I’ve done something useful to combat sexual discrimination nor extreme violations of the law since that isn’t particularly helpful in my opinion. The goal isn’t to signal moral virtue or share scary stories but, instead, to illustrate the ways in which unfair treatment can hide even in surprising places so we can excise those last remnants of sexism and discrimination.

So the story I’ll convey is about how at an academic institution I attended a friend of mine was repeatedly asked to perform administrative tasks and food provisioning tasks by an elderly professor because of her gender. Certainly, she could have raised a fuss but doing so would have caused her more grief than going along with the situation. What I think is instructive about the situation is that this reflected only the messed up priorities of one member of the faculty but despite this the fact that it was easier for all the other faculty members not to get involved meant that this was all it took.

As far as solutions go I think this illustrates the importance of not simply relying on complains or formal channels to solve these problems. Its important for people to be aware when their colleagues are imposing an unfair policy (gender based or otherwise) and say something. I also think it reveals how some people find they virtually never experience this kind of treatment and other people experience it frequently. While I don’t think it would have mattered in this case (female victims were in short supply here), I can easily imagine that a less stubborn/crotchety instigator would specifically target those individuals who seemed least likely to report/complain.

Anyway I’ve kept details vague to avoid identifying anyone but this is the kind of description I felt would be helpful as opposed to merely ‘me too’.

The Absurd Idea That Privileged Individuals Should Step Aside From Discussions Of Harassment, Aggression and Discrimination

If Anything Cis-White-Men's Lived Experience Makes Their Views More Valuable Than Those Of The Usual Victims

So frequently when social media gets involved in solving/addressing/recognizing racial or gender aggression (like the ‘me too’ trend) I see (or get) the attitude that its somehow not appropriate or bad for cis-white men (or some subset thereof) to offer their opinion on whether the effort is effective, morally justified, etc.. Not only does this attitude seem to lack any semblance of justification but it pretty clearly places the holder’s concern over their moral righteousness or social standing above the welfare of the group they claims to care about helping. Furthermore, by abandoning the hard won cultural consensus that it is the value of an individuals ideas, character and contributions that matter not their gender or skin color it risks less obvious, but more extensive, harm to the philosophical foundation on which we’ve built our turn away from bigotry and intolerance.

I recognize that this last point is only convincing once you accept that there isn’t a systematic reason that cis-white-mens’ views on these issues are almost categorically1 certain not to be worth hearing so I’ll start there and focus on the ability of men to contribute to conversations about harassment.

I’ll first argue that not only is there no particularly unique experience that living as a woman (even almost) ensures that one has nor is there any reason to think that gender, rather than Myers-Briggs type or socioeconomic status, would be the way to identify conversational participants most likely to understand the experience of being a victim of harassment. Then I’ll point out that it’s not even important for participants in the conversation to have a good idea of how or why harassment is bad much less what it feels like to experience it. All that’s really important is that people in the conversation agree that it is bad and work to eliminate it. Finally, I’ll point out that its primarily men’s beliefs and behaviors that need to be changed to make progress against harassment and, as such, the life experiences that offer the most value to conversation or planning are those that offer insight into men’s psychology and can identify what will and won’t be persuasive to men. Then, having demolished any claims this attitude has to epistemic virtue I consider why so many people seem to find it intuitively attractive despite the fact that it represents an abandonment of core principles in the struggle against hatred, bigotry and intolerance. In particular, I’ll suggest that we need to be careful not to conflate group membership with moral guilt nor confuse what feels just with what will be most likely to produce a more just society.

Before I continue, however, I should address two important points. First, I’m not talking about interactions where victims are seeking out a compassionate, understanding ear and may feel more comfortable with one gender. I’m talking about public discussion of matters of societal concern. Secondly, I’m aware of those little verbal catchphrases used by the social justice community to respond to criticisms of this attitude but disparaging the speaker isn’t a compelling argument. Simply acting like this question has already been decided isn’t sufficient. If you don’t agree with my criticisms you need to offer an actual argumentative defense.

Of course, I could be missing something so if you think I am please let me know.

Does Gender Offer A Unique Experiential Understanding of Harassment?

Now, obviously there are certain feelings or gestalt impressions which are difficult to fully appreciate without first hand experience. Just as I will never fully appreciate what it feels like to be engrossed in an Olympic bobsled run I won’t ever fully experience the exact way in which sexual harassment (or the concern that one will be harassed) are hurtful. Of course, different women and minorities also experience these events in different ways. Indeed, variation here is sufficiently large that I’m quite confident that I have a much better grip on the emotional experience my wife has when she gets catcalled or is otherwise hurt/slighted based on her gender than a random women pulled off a US street would have based merely on their status as women in the states. This already pokes some serious holes in the usual argument that, lacking the experience of living as a woman, there is some epistemicly critical aspect information about how female victims feel which is somehow denied to men but available to other women. In short, being female neither ensures you agree about the frequency or emotional impact of harassment2 nor does being male mean you aren’t constantly perceiving this behavior to be going on around you or that the empathetic distance from you to any particular female victim is greater than it is for other women.

Of course, it will be true that other women will be more likely to both be aware of when, how and with what frequency harassment occurs then the average man but that is no more an argument for discouraging men’s contributions than the fact that blacks in the US are less likely to have a college degree is a good reason to throw out applications from blacks for a professorial position. In both cases its absurd to use the individuals racial or gender identity instead of simply checking if they know what they are talking about. Even if we had to adopt the (repugnant) policy of picking some feature with which to screen potential contributors to the discussion we could almost certainly do better by instead selecting for culturally liberal men and women who have been the victim of bullying or other sustained emotional cruelty. While being bullied isn’t the same as being sexually harassed this criteria at least ensures that the selected population understands how many small slights or disguised verbal assaults can amount to an unbearable psychological assault for the victim even while, viewed in isolation by colleagues and authority figures, each incident appears trivial and clearly not worth reacting to. In contrast, there are no shortage of female religious nutjobs who not only don’t believe sexual harassment happens but think it would be a woman’s place to quietly endure it if it did.

Is First Person Experiential Understanding Important?

For the sake of argument suppose that it was true that almost all women and almost no men have a first person experiential understanding of what it feels like to be a victim or likely potential victim. What conclusions should we draw from that? Well, perhaps in certain discussions that turn on details of the experience and aftermath its plausible that women would be systematically better able to contribute than men. For instance, I think its probably true that people with first person understanding are better equipped to contribute to a discussion about how best to manage/alleviate the emotional aftereffects of such experiences. However, even in cases where the specifics of the experience are relevant, its not always true they help reach better conclusions or productively contribute.

For example, while my experience of being bullied in junior high certainly left me with a profound sympathy for the victims and concern about the issue it also compromises my judgement. I know intellectually that many bullies aren’t bad people (I even befriended some eventually) and the worst ones are often victims of some kind themselves but when the topic comes up in discussion I can feel my vision go red and I find myself advocating extreme solutions and dismissing promising compassionate interventions with bullies. Worse, when it comes to offering advice to prospective victims or parents I find myself assuming that every situation resembles a suburban catholic school in the Midwest during the early 90s and baselessly assuming that just because authority figures could do nothing for me they have nothing to offer (except disciplining the victim under zero-tolerance policies).

Yes, the fact that I’ve thought about the issue a bunch and feel strongly about fixing it means I probably have more opinions on the problem than the average man on the street but those are more than balanced by my impaired judgement about the issue and the reluctance I feel to consider certain possibilities3. Indeed, I’m quite certain that if I’d found myself talking only to other victims of bullying while everyone else felt it was inappropriate to chime in I would be making the situation much worse and be blind to potential solutions.

Moreover, even setting aside the downsides of first-person emotional experience it’s not even clear that understanding the exact nature of the victim’s experience is helpful at all. Returning to the analogy with bullying, it’s certainly true that there are aspects of how it made me feel, ways its affected me and details of how it happened that are hard to convey to those who haven’t had similar experiences. However, appreciating the precisce way I or others were hurt offers no particular advantage in combating the problem. Anyone who believes the experience is very painful (so worth addressing) , is capable of evaluating the evidence and can usually recognize the harmful behavior when they observe it is just as capable of contributing to the discussion about what can be done to make things better. The same reasoning tells us that discussing the best way to combat harassment doesn’t require any kind of first person experience or understanding merely the genuine belief that it can cause substantial suffering.

Benefits of Male Lived Experience

The attitude that men shouldn’t participate in these conversations is obviously motivated by the idea that women are particularly vulnerable to being harassed and harassers are particularly likely to be men. While we shouldn’t pretend there aren’t also male victims (especially given the greater stigma for reporting) and female offenders I’m sure that the vast majority of cases are male offenders and female victims. While many people seem to have the intuition this is good reason for men to keep quite when women talk about harassment, exactly the opposite is true.

Given this breakdown of victims and perpetrators there isn’t any reason to suspect that the experience of being a woman could offer any particular insight into improving the situation. After all, we don’t want women to change their behavior and feel obligated to avoid `tempting’ men into harassment. Rather, we want to figure out how to change the way men behave so they don’t harass.

In contrast, the experience of being a man and interacting with other men (in the absence of women) offers a great deal of useful information to improve the situation. For instance, despite being about as far from a bro as its possible to be even my experience immediately suggests some useful facts. While I can’t be sure that the little just-so stories I offer in this footnote4 are completely accurate they are the sense I get of some of the ways men end up harassing women. Obviously, by inviting more men into the conversation, especially those who have engaged in various kinds of harassment in the past, one could gain a great deal of useful information about the factors that cause harassment to happen and potential mitigation strategies.

However, despite the fact that in this case men’s life experiences offer more value to the discussion than women’s, that’s certainly no reason to discourage women for participating. Rather, both sides should simply share the relevant experiences they’ve had so everyone can evaluate a single larger pool of evidence and come to a more accurate conclusion.

Dangers Of Gender Based Evaluation

Alright, so discouraging contributions based on the contributors gender risks keeping important information and perspectives out of these discussions not to mention reinforcing potentially counterproductive (if totally human and understandable) emotional responses to the state of affairs with respect to risks like harassment. Obviously, the mere fact that this attitude impedes us from reducing the problem of harassment that we supposedly care so much about fixing is enough to reject it but slightly slower progress is the least of the dangers.

Least importantly, in the eyes of anyone even slightly critical of the social justice community and millennial leftists, this kind of attitude confirms all their most absurd stereotypes. Presenting this attitude makes life substantially more difficult for all those women struggling to be believed or convince someone to take action about the fact they are being sexually harassed (or even assaulted). Each time some cop in the Midwest or mine owner in the West runs across someone saying guys should but out because only women have something useful to say they think, “Huh, I guess it is all absurd BS just like Fox news says,” and the next time someone tries to report a crime or workplace violation they will be just that much more skeptical.

Moreover, as women should know there is an especially strong reaction when one is rejected from something on the basis of an irrelevant, but psychologically salient, property like gender. For some reason making categorical judgements based on certain attributes is something people find especially infuriating even if other judgements (e.g. being treated worse because you aren’t as attractive or aren’t a morning person) are no less unfair. You may not think men should have this kind of reaction when it is the privileged gender that is getting the short end of the stick but they do and it will push men away from the causes you care about.

Now maybe you think this is all silly. Of course its not a big deal if men don’t get to contribute to this particular discussion or you deviate from the principle of supposed gender blindness in this understandable way. And if you could control everyone else who would might use a similar justification to exclude men from some contributing to some conversation or issue that might be a good argument. However, remember that not only are there always extremists out there but there are a thousand different opinions about exactly which conversations men should or shouldn’t be excluded from and once you open deviate from the principle that each person’s contribution should be evaluated solely on its merit not the gender (or race or etc..) of the contributor someone else will take it too far or try to apply a similar rule somewhere it isn’t appropriate and eventually you risk undermining the broad consensus for the idea that incidental features like gender, race, sexual orientation etc.. shouldn’t be relevant to most decisions.

It doesn’t matter that you may have defined discrimination in such a way that it can only apply to policies that hurt the underprivileged. There is a large segment of the population who won’t see the difference between rules which treat people differently based on gender in what you see as a good way and what you see as a discriminatory way.

Intuitions In Opposition

Ok, so what accounts for the widespread intuition that men should be excluded from such conversations?

Well part of this is simply a response to the fact that, given a norm in circles sympathetic to harassment claims against male participation of course the men who nevertheless participate are overwhelmingly likely to be saying something stupid and offensive. However, that’s hardly a justification for having the rule in the first place. Sure, even in the absence of such a rule its almost certainly true that men will be over-represented among the dismissive and mocking responses but since such respondents won’t be inclined to obey such a rule in the first its not really a good reason for having such a rule. Moreover, there are any number of subjects where either men or women are particularly likely to be mean and insensitive but we don’t favor general gender based contribution bans.

Another part of the explanation is the ambiguity, in some circumstances, as to whether the conversation is truly about discussing useful fixes or taking actions as opposed to simply venting/bitching. I suspect that often people like to adopt the pretense they are interested in finding solutions or fixing a problem but really just want to vent and bitch. As such, almost any contribution from a man will be unwelcome as, even if they are offering helpful insight into how one might make the situation better, it will force those participating in the conversation to switch gears from simple venting to seriously considering proposals and useful actions. I can understand why people find this annoying but I think there are serious social harms in allowing mere venting to masquerade as serious consideration of social problems. When we vent we are liable to say a great many things (e.g. how about we have a curfew on men on college campuses) we don’t really mean. If we don’t clearly delineate what is mere venting from serious suggestions in online conversations people will get the wrong idea (at the very least detractors will use such ambiguous discussions against us). So, while I appreciate the need for such venting we already have good reasons to clearly distinguish it from genuine discussions about how one should make the world better.

Finally, I think many people have the idea that since harassment is a harm that is predominantly (though not exceptionlessly) inflicted on women by men somehow it seems unjust or unfair for men to also take a significant role in discussing how to combat the problem. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it implicitly assigns blame to all members of an identity group for actions taken by some members. Just as it would be unreasonable to say that a black homeowner shouldn’t be able to speak at a town meeting because it was black teenagers vandalizing homes largely owned by whites so too its unreasonable to act as if men as a group are guilty for the bad behavior by some members. This sends the message to young men that they should be ashamed of being men and that male sexuality is inherently somehow bad and harmful. But, even if we put this aside, this attitude places symbolism over actual progress. As I’ve argued above excluding men from such discussions reduces our ability to actually make the situation better and thats what should matter not the symbolism along the way.


  1. While I will argue that men’s voices are, if anything, particularly valuable in these discussions all that is necessary to indict this policy is that men aren’t so obviously less able to contribute that it makes sense to screen them based on their gender rather than simply evaluating their individual contributions. We normally think that it is inappropriate, and often irrational, to use statistical differences in rates of criminal behavior, workplace productivity or even upper body strength based on race or gender to deny members of those groups the opportunity for an individual evaluation even when, as in the case of upper body strength, there are clear biological differences giving rise to a large performance gap. 
  2. There are always women, despite the social pressure, who are willing to admit (or even speak up and say) that they experience harassment so rarely and find it so unimportant when they do that its a less pressing concern than more mundane concerns, e.g., whether people at their work get to annoy them by eating at their desks. 
  3. For instance, emotionally I don’t want to believe it was primarily a midwestern catholic school thing and if I’d just switched schools things would have been orders of magnitude better. Though its obviously a good thing if most kids don’t have to endure quite that level of unpleasentness the idea that if I’d just be born a few years latter in California the same traits which I was mercilessly mocked for would have been accepted if not popular. My wife claims this was what things were like growing up in Berkeley but I’m still not sure I believe her. 
  4. For example, the temptation to catcall, make a show of continued (unwanted) sexual advances and other kinds of ‘strutting’ are most acute when men are in a pack together. Despite the fact that the comments and behavior are putatively directed at the woman they are really a show put on to advertise masculinity/dominance to the other men in the group. As such, we ought to be careful before suggesting women should give as good as they get and shout back or otherwise retaliate against the catcaller as, by increasing the perceived risk (up to a point) of showing off that way, may also increase its apparent value. The crude sexualization talk, e.g., Trump and Billy Bush, is also largely a performative behavior for other men but in a very different sense. Here it is about making friends and being seen as a good guy. Shared transgressions, e.g., unflattering remarks about the boss, shared gossip, sexual exploits, are normal and unproblematic for both genders but things can go poorly if someone starts pushing things in the direction of harassing remarks as everyone else is reluctant to be the one who pulls back and offers criticism. Of course, in other cases the guys really are assholes and think harassment is an acceptable form of transgressive male bonding. 

‘Me Too’ Is A Silly And Potentially Dangerous Trend

The Folly Of Mindless Identification

So at the moment there is a trend for women on social media to post ‘me too’ to indicate they have been a victim of sexual harassment or assault. The originator described the idea saying

If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem

While I understand the attraction of wanting to fix things by posting on social media this craze is about as useful as trying to fix racism by posting facebook updates saying ‘racism is bad’ making it at best silly. At worst it further discourages women from entering male dominated areas (STEM, CS, congressional politics) by increasing the level of fear and anxiety felt about harassment with potentially other negative rebound effects.

Presumably, the idea is that, by illustrating the number of women affected people will realize just how big a problem this is and extra resources or attention will help rectify the situation. However, one would hardly expect this to either convince those who resist the idea that this is a serious problem or who accept it but don’t realize their actions are part of the problem.

Of course, one might respond that the true point is to convince those who have been victims of sexual harassment or assault that their experience isn’t an isolated case and its a problem shared by many other women. Unfortunately, the mere fact that a large number of other women post ‘me too’ just isn’t a good measure of the magnitude of the problem. Knowing that many people have once experienced something that they are willing to construe as sexual harassment/assault when doing so lets them feel they are making a difference and gaining social approval isn’t very informative. Heck, if I were female and I believed this would help I would lie and say ‘me too’ even if I hadn’t so experienced it just to help make a difference.

So even other victims of sexual harassment/assault shouldn’t have their estimate of the frequency of such behavior elevated by this information provided they at least realize that many other women out there believe sexual assault/harassment is a problem that deserves more attention. Something they surely must to even process and understand this new evidence. After all, provided many other women believe that sexual harassment/assault deserves more attention they would be inclined to post ‘me too’ even if they only had a single moment of harassment once in their life (the people posting believe they are helping and want to be part of that solution by helping). I don’t believe that is what is happening but the point is that seeing other people post ‘me too’ should leave your prior about how frequent and serious the problem is roughly where it is.

Ultimately, then this leaves this whole trend down in the messy world of emotional effects where I fear there are more potentially. harmful emotional effects (discouraging or scaring women) as there are potential beneficial ones.

To be clear I do think it could be helpful if women posted descriptions of their individual experiences with harassment or assault and described how those experiences affected them. Seeing people describe both the frequency, severity and emotional harm is at least plausibly the sort of thing that could convince skeptics but this is something that women are going to be, understandably, reluctant to do. What I’m objecting to here is the idea that just be saying ‘me too’ and nothing else one is likely to make things better.

Lawsuit Demanding Students Be Barred From Accessing Offensive Content

Do We Really Want To Stop Victims of Harrasment From Learning What's Being Said About THem?

I pretty much agree with everything Prof. Volokh says in this post but I would add that is is particularly disturbing and dangerous that these claims not only made it to the lawsuit stage but also that sufficiently many people in the Feminist Majority Foundation (not mainstream but not tinfoil hat nutters) thought this was worth pursuing.

Sure, demanding censorship of mean, hurtful and demeaning comments about your group or identity isn’t anything to write home about. However, what really sets this situation apart is that the demand wasn’t to punish the anonymous individuals responsible but to stop students from choosing to access an information source because it might allow them to read these awful things.

Demands for censorship in response to hurtful/mean/awful comments is nothing to write home about (from either side of the political aisle) but I think something is particularly distasteful about demanding policies that would allow all the assholes in a 5 mile radius to continue attacking, degrading, spreading hurtful gossip about and otherwise making life bad for some women on campus while barring those very women from keeping abreast about what is being said about them so they can refute malicious gossip, take threats to the police and otherwise protect themselves (reputationally and physcially).

Sure, I know those filing the suit no doubt intended to discourage people from posting such hateful and derogatory remarks in the future by eliminating the on campus audience for them. However, this line of argument could equally well be used to deny students access to a contrarian blog (say by a former student) making an extended argument that, because of innate ability differences, the schools affirmative action policy was driving reductions in academic rigor/performance. Even if the students visiting the blog were driven by simple curiosity and desire to evaluate the claims for themselves, if the continued posts were clearly motivated by the blogger’s desire to reach so many students with his message there would be an equally strong argument for barring students from accessing the site. With the predictable result that it would probably only increase the extent to which students agree with those unpopular views (the feeling that a view is being suppressed is far more alluring than poor arguments for it).

In a different context I would be far more charitable. If a private university were being asked to ban the platform I’d still oppose the suggestion but it wouldn’t really be fair to suggest the proponents would be responsible for denying victims a chance to (easily) make themselves aware of attacks against them so they can respond. After all, the advocates would be presumably be suggesting that in the particular case the benefits would outweigh the costs. However, the plaintiffs were asking the courts, an institution designed to apply predicatable precedent not case specific balancing, to rule that such an outcome was required. As such I do think its fair to point out the plaintiffs are asking for a rule which, in many of its applications, would deny the victims warning and an ability to respond without substantially reducing the torrent of hate and insults.

The fact that this resulted in a full court case with published opinion makes me worry that the argument was either plausible enough that reasonable lawyers thought it had a chance of prevailing or, perhaps more likely, those advancing the suit felt the risk of enduring such a lawsuit would discourage universities from being quite so protective of free speech in the future. Particularly so for private universities who aren’t bound by any need to comply with the first amendment.

Opinion | Court rejects Feminist Majority Foundation’s demand that public university block access to Yik Yak

University of Mary Washington had no obligation to “ban Yik Yak from the campus wireless network ,” because such a ban “may have exposed the university to liability under the First Amendment” (and in any case wasn’t required by Title IX or the equal protection clause.

Gender Neutral School Uniforms

Leave Schoolgirl Outfits To The Adults

Regardless of your views on transgender children how is this not a no brainer? The competing interest in allowing girls to wear skirts is only that it lets them express themselves as identifying as female but if you believe that self-expression is more important than the uniformity and equality conveyed by having all students wear the same outfit you shouldn’t be having students wear a uniform in the first place.

I mean something is seriously weird about a policy which tells children that generally conformity and equality are more important than expressing your individual features except for your gender. At best it suggests that gender is a particularly important division, more important than interests, abilities or other personal characteristics. At worst it encourages teachers to apply gender based stereotypes.

Perhaps you are skeptical that the mere symbolic differentiation between boys and girls would have any real effect. Maybe not. But if you don’t believe these kinds of symbolic distinctions make real differences what are you doing insisting on uniforms in the first place1? If you don’t believe that uniformity sends any important message but are willing to suppress the full range of individual student expression just for disciplinary convenience then surely the issues raised by girls wearing shorts (skirt length etc..) alone are enough to justify eliminating this last, much less valuable, irregularity even ignoring the extra concerns raised about gender.

School bans skirts to make uniform gender neutral for transgender students

“But when it was explained to us, it was about inappropriate dressing, I think it was the right decision to make.” The new uniform only applies for Year 7s but students in Year 8 to Year 11 are welcome to adopt the new uniform.


  1. One might try and suggest that uniforms are important to disguise income differences between parents but that this concern doesn’t implicate any strong symbolic value to the uniformity of the outfit. However, it certainly acknowledges that wealth differentiation based on student outfits make a big difference. Moreover, as someone who had to wear uniforms at school growing up I’m skeptical of this justification. It is still easy to tell who has money as expressed through haircuts, backpacks and other accessories (and tailored higher quality uniforms at some schools) and the uniforms themselves must be purchased in addition to casual outfits (except perhaps at some boarding schools) and differentiation based on parental income is generally less intense than differentiation based on style/interest. 

Skepticism About MIT’s Gender Balance Win in MechE

If it really is true, as MIT suggests, that the gender ratio in their department is convincing a substantial percentage of women to enter MechE who otherwise would have avoided a STEM field its a big deal. However, upon reflection there are some aspects that are troubling.

First, as the article suggests, they engage in fairly extensive recruitment and some degree of affirmative action for female students in STEM fields. This calls into question the existence of any such effect as for all we know MIT is just recruiting women interested in MechE away from other schools. Indeed, even just considering the benefit MIT is suggesting (women are more attracted to programs with a reasonable gender balance) one should expect MIT’s efforts here to be worsening the gender balance at other schools like caltech

But if you really believe that gender imbalance both makes life worse for female students and repeals them from the field it seems downright irresponsible to attrach female MechE majors from other schools (without a better understanding of how these effects work). If, as seems quite plausible, the discomfort (and willingness to drop out/not major) is most extreme when the percentage of women is the least (e.g. superlinear as percent goes to 0), then this could be a substantial net harm as the gains from greater gender equality at MIT are more than offset by the decreased gender equality at other schools. It all depends on the specific numbers but its concerning that people seem convinced this is a good thing without even having an intuition about the size and direction of this cross school interaction.

Before anyone applauds these results we really need some good studies checking that MIT’s efforts really are bringing more women into MechE. I hope they are but I fear that they may be doing the exact opposite. If I had to guess I’d bet that any positive effect of gender balance is offset by the fact that MIT is harder/more competitive than the other schools who would otherwise get many of the women MIT recruits and I expect the harder/more competitive a science class the more likely people (of either gender) are to drop out to a less quantitative subject (but that’s just speculation).

Also, I’d like to know what people whether MITs affirmative action efforts create a situation in which men tend to noticeably outperform women. As much as I hated the huge gender ratio at caltech I very much appreciated the fact that they were obviously equals. Now, like everything else, what I appreciated isn’t what matters but it does seem like we should at the very least have a pretty firm grip on what kind of effects on subsequent attitudes affirmative action has before we praise the policy. Even if, this effect doesn’t appear at MIT right now (e.g. they most just steal girls from caltech and cmu) it might if more schools try to implement such a policy.

I find it pretty crazy when MIT is congratulating itself when they don’t seem to have any grip (or at least are hiding it) on what they are trying to achieve or whether their policies achieve it.

Now, of course, most social programs will depend greatly on priors and I’d be happy with a short little explanation about why they think the net benefit of achieving gender balance in their departments is worth the effect it has on other schools. Are they suggesting their policy would and could universalize and benefits would be seen from that? Some words about why would be nice. Also some words about why they have the intuition any blowback is worth the cost. As it is it kinda makes one feel like you are being scammed with a meaningless advertising statistic.

I think its quite possible MIT’s policy is net beneficial but I’ve yet to see any cogent account of why I should think that so if you have one I’d love to hear it.

As an aside I’d add that while I don’t think there is any inherint moral value in making sure men and women are equally represented in every discipline, only in making sure they are equally welcome and have equal access, but I do think there would be substantial societal gains to increasing the number of women in STEM fields. Not only would this make scientists happier (and less socially isolated and less likely to accidentally harass) but merely making it clear that quantitative, systematic thing oriented reasoning isn’t anti-female.

Does Anyone Really Object To Normalizing Racism/Sexism?

Or Reasons Not To Call Trump Racist

When it is revealed that a public figure said something with racist/sexist overtones criticism piles on fast. Even if it is clear that the figure doesn’t really have these racist/sexist attitudes the common refrain is that its still extremely harmful because it normalizes racism/sexism/etc.. Presumably the theory being that if other people believe that high status people commonly behave this way they will think its ok for them to as well.

Is this just a lie (or self-deception) for partisan purposes? I mean consider the implications if you really believed the following back when Bush was President (No one will plausibly believe Trump isn’t saying sexist things whatever you do):

  1. G. W. Bush isn’t really a racist/sexist (replace with Clinton if you prefer) but he sometimes uses racist/sexist language without thinking in the privacy of the white house.
  2. If people realized the president was saying these racist things they too would think that racism was ok and it would have bad consequences.

First, you should be much more angry at whatever staffer leaked the fact that the president used racist language than at the president himself. The staffer who leaked it had time to contemplate it and still choose to make the country think the president uses racist slurs while the president has a slip of the tongue from time to time. Indeed, you should be most angry if the staffer is a minority themselves who claims to be leaking the information because of his concern for racial justice. Even if you give the leaker some kind of pass for ignorance1 at the very least you should be trying your damnedest to (quietly) discourage any future such leaks.

Second, you should be archenemies with the liberal activists and members of the social justice community who spin stories about how racist/sexist the president is even, perhaps especially when it is true (excepting perhaps the very rare case where you believe it will do enough to affect the balance of power to outweigh the harms to race relations). Even with Trump it should be inexcusable to make allegations about dog whistle racism without absolutely rock solid evidence such as staffer testimony of intent and recognition in the community.

Third, you should be worried about maximally racist/sexist interpretations of a public figure’s comments. Even if it is plausible they meant them in the worst possible way you should favor the least racist/sexist interpretation that is plausible just so you don’t further normalize racism/sexism.

Yet, while I see people make the ‘this normalizes X’ argument all the damn time I’ve yet to see them get angry upset or even remonstrate people who are working to push marginally plausible theories of racist/sexist intent or dubitable claims of racist/sexist language. I’ve certainly never seen anyone making such an argument even suggest that it was bad/wrong for someone to leak that information. To the contrary they usually suggest it was in the national interest.

So how should one understand such claims? They can’t really believe the harm from normalization is that big a deal or they wouldn’t be on board with accusations that offer only minor political benefit at the cost of normalizing such behavior. My best guess is what they really mean is: how dare you break this social norm which I feel is very important. Even though your action only had a really tiny harmful effect the norm is really important because without it people would come to believe it was normal and acceptable to engage in racism/sexism.

That’s a fair statement but notice the implication: since any particular incident only does minor harm to this norm and barely nudges people’s sense of what is normal only a minor penalty is appropriate. After all, the benefit to the speaker is presumably virtually nothing from the slur and its sufficient if everyone takes relatively weak action to ensure they don’t utter any slurs so a small deterrent should suffice. In other words we still can’t interpret the speaker as making a cogent complaint as their intent in raising the specter of normalization was to show why this kind of behavior was so serious we couldn’t just let it go with a slap on the wrist but the speaker’s own disposition to prioritize a modicum of political advantage over avoiding further instances of normalization shows that he can’t coherently believe that the possibility of normalization shows the seriousness of the offense.


  1. Shouldn’t the speaker get the very same pass if he hasn’t worked harder to control his occasional slips of the tongue because he isn’t aware that it has any negative effect on others? Often racist phrases are picked up simply from hearing them said so the speaker isn’t in any way morally more responsible than the leaker…indeed arguably a better position as the leaker has to sit down and think over if he should leak while the speaker may have never even done that regarding his slips of the tongue. 

Evaluating Gender Bias Claims In Academia Part 1

Does The Data Support The Interpretation

For a number of reasons I think it’s vital that we have a good empirical grip on the reasons why different genders are over/under represented in various disciplines and at various levels of acclaim in those disciplines. There is the obvious reason, namely that, it is only through such an understanding that we can usefully discuss claims of unfairness and evaluate schemes to address those claims. If we get the reasons for under/over representation in various areas wrong we not only risk failing to correct real instances of unfair based treatment but also undermining the credibility of attempts to address unfair treatment more generally. This isn’t only about avoiding gender based biases but, more broadly, identifying ways in which anyone might face unjust hardship in pursuing their chosen career and succeeding at it1.

Also, even putting questions of fairness and discrimination to the side there are important social and cultural reasons to care about these outcomes. For instance, the imbalance of men and women in STEM fields both imposes personal hardships on both genders in those fields but also creates an excuse for dismissing the style of thinking developed by STEM disciplines. As such, identifying simple changes that could substantially increase female participation in STEM subjects is desirable in and of itself and similar cultural considerations beyond mere fairness extend to other fields. However, I worry that incorrect interpretation of the empirical data could lead us to overlook such changes especially when they don’t fit nicely into the default cultural narrative2.

Point is that I genuinely want to accurately identify the causes of gender differences in educational attainment and academic outcomes. One could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve already nailed down these causes. After all every couple of months one sees a new study being touted in the mainstream media claiming to show sexism playing a role in some educational or professional evaluation. Unfortunately, closer examination of the actual studies conducted often reveals that they don’t actually support the interpretation provided and everyone suffers from a misleading interpretation of the empirical data.

So, in an attempt to get a better picture of what the evidence tells us, every time I see a new study claiming to document gender bias or otherwise explain gender differentials in outcomes I’m going to dive into the results and see if they support the claims made by the article. While I can’t claim that I’m choosing studies to examine in a representative fashion I do hope that comparing the stated claims to what the data supports will help uncover the truth.

Gender and Publishing in Political Science

I ran across this claim that there is gender bias against female authors in political science in the wall street journal blog monkey cage. For once, the mainstream media deserves credit because they accurately conveyed the claims made by the study.

The study claims to show gender bias in political science publication based on an analysis of published papers in political science. By coding the authors of published papers the study gives us the following information about the rate of female publication.

Line A represents the share of women in the ladder faculty at the largest 20 PhD-granting departments in the discipline (27%). Line B represents the share of women among all APSA members (31%). Line C represents the share of women among all newly minted PhDs as reported in the NSF’s survey of earned doctorates.

The paper deserves credit for recognizing that this may reflect some degree of sorting by subfield and recognizing that sorting into subfield might falsely create the impression of bias even when none was present. However, any credit granted should be immediately revoked on account of the following argument.

However, gendered sorting into subfields would not explain is the pattern we observe for the four “generalist” journals in our sample (AJPS, APSR, JOP and POP). These four journals—official journals either of the national association or one of its regional affiliates—are all “generalist” outlets, in that their websites indicate that they are open to submissions across all subfields. Yet, as figure 3 shows, women are underrepresented, against all three benchmarks, in three of those four “generalist” journals.

The mere fact that these are generalist journals in no way means that they are not more likely to publish some kinds of analysis rather than others. As the study goes on to observer women are substantially underrepresented in quantitative and statistical work while overrepresented (at least as compared to their representation at prestigious institutions) in qualitative work. Despite the suggestion by the study authors to the contrary choosing, for valid intellectual (or even invalid gender unrelated) reasons, to value quantitative work more highly and publish it more readily doesn’t constitute gender bias in journal publication in the sense that their conclusions and ethical interpretations assume.

Line A represents the share of women in the ladder faculty at the top 20 PhD-granting departments in the discipline (27%). Line B represents the share of women among all APSA members (31%). Line C represents the share of women among all newly minted PhDs, as reported in the NSF’s survey of earned doctorates (40%).

Ideally, the authors would have provided some more quantitative evaluation of what part of the observed effect was explained by choice of subfield and mode of analysis. However, I think it’s fair to say based on the graph above that women aren’t so overrepresented in publications in qualitative areas for subfield preferences to explain everything so lets put the concern about subfield/analysis type based sorting to one side and return to the primary issue

This paper also deserves praise for recognizing that merely comparing the percentage of women in the field with the percentage of prestigious female publications will merely reflect the fact that past discrimination means the oldest, and most influential, segment of the discipline is disproportionately male. In other words, even assuming that all discrimination and bias magically vanished in the year 2000 one would still expect to find men being published and cited at a greater rate than women for the simple reason that eliminating barriers to female participation biases female representation to the less experienced parts of the discipline. By breaking down authors by their professorial rank the study is able to minimize the extent to which this issue affects their conclusions.

Percentage female authorship by professorial rank

Importantly, in the discussion section (and throughout the paper) the study makes it clear that it takes this result to be evidence of bias. The WSJ post was quite right in understanding the paper to be alleging gender bias in publication. Yes, the study doesn’t claim to decide whether this bias is a result of female authors being rejected more frequently or female authors being less likely to publish in the most prestigious journals but in either case it assumes that the ultimate explanation is pernicious gender bias.

The paper also explores the issue of gender based coauthorship and the relative prevalence of papers with all male authors, mixed gender etc.. etc.. These patterns are used to motivate various speculations about the fears women may face in choosing to coauthor but the complete lack of any attempt to determine to what extent these patterns are simply the result of subfield and analysis type preferences, e.g., quantitative and statistical analysis might lend themselves more frequently to coauthorship, and the relevant percentages of women in those fields undermines any attempt to use this data to support such speculations. While I believe that female scholars do face real concerns about being insufficiently credited as co-authors the ways such concerns could play our are so varied that I don’t think we can use this data to draw the conclusion the study authors do: women aren’t benefiting equally from trends toward coauthorship. However, I’m going to set this issue aside.

Political Science Hiring Biased Toward Women?

At this point one might be inclined to think this paper should get pretty good marks. Sure, I’ve identified a few concerns that aren’t fully addressed but surely it makes a pretty good case for the claim of gender bias in political science? Unfortunately, that’s simply a mirage created by thinking about the data in exactly one way. Notice that one could equally well use the same data and analysis to draw the conclusion: Women Hired in Political Science Despite Fewer Publications. After all the way one gets professorial jobs is by publishing papers and this data suggest that women at the same professional level have less publications than their male colleagues.

Now I think there are multiple plausible ways of resisting the conclusion that this data shows a bias in favor of women in hiring. For one, if past discrimination means that men and women at the same professional level haven’t had the same amount of time to right papers (e.g. women are more likely to have just got the job) then the conclusion is suspect. For another, one might point out that not all the jobs given the same professorial rank in the study are really equivalent. There are further reasons to doubt these conclusions, but each and every reason equally well undermines any support this data provides for claims of gender bias.

Ultimately, I think it’s safe to say that while this study shows that women publish in influential journals at a rate lower than their representation in the political science profession would suggest it does little to identify a cause. If you came into this with the prior that said: the reason women are underrepresented in political science is because they face bias and other obstacles you’ll explain this effect in terms of bias and obstacles. In contrast, if you came in with the prior that said: the reason women are still underrepresented in political science is because of gender related differences in ability/interest (which need not be negative it could as well be a greater affinity for some rival career option) then the data are perfectly compatible with women gravitating towards more qualitative less rigorous aspects of the profession and putting greater focus on teaching and other aspects of the profession that don’t result in publications.

Frankly, I don’t know enough about political science to have much opinion on this point one way or another. However, I do think we can safely mark this study down as misleading at least insofar as it is cited as further evidence of gender bias against women. Don’t get me wrong, I think that is a very plausible interpretation of the data but I’m just sharing the bias I came in with rather than being persuaded by evidence.


  1. For instance, differences in male/female performance might justify studying ways in which standard pedagogy favors/disfavors particular learning styles. Accurate empirical data on this subject, regardless of what it shows about gender, lets us correct the ways in which the current system may be unfair to those with particular learning styles, e.g., consider the recent evidence about how mandated attendance can actually hurt performance by those who don’t find the lecture component of a course useful. 
  2. For instance, I worry that it is precisely women’s better performance in high school mathematics and generally greater willingness to approach subjects as desired by their high school (or early college) teachers rather than going their own way which is responsible for some of the observed disaffinity towards studying higher mathematics among women. Ideally, one would teach mathematics by merely communicating the underlying ideas and allowing students to use their conceptual understanding to solve problems. However, few students have the interest and ability to, say, use their conceptual understanding of the derivative to find the maximum value of a given function and the educational system is unwilling to abandon the idea that almost all college freshmen should be able to solve such problems. As a result lower level mathematics is forced to adopt a formulaic approach the favors rote memorization of algorithms meaning that gaining real insight and experiencing mathematics as an enjoyable puzzle often requires rejecting the approach seen in the classroom and working things out on one’s own. I worry that we lose many women who might otherwise be interested in mathematics simply because they are more devoted to working within the framework they are given but because this is largely seen as a positive value it gets neglected as a potential problem. If true, it might be that simple interventions like explicitly encouraging students to deviate from the rote rules being taught if they understand enough to do so could make a big difference.