Social Sciences are not Falsifiable

“Academic math-intensive science is not sexist” was the message that Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, two Cornell University psychologists, meant to get across in the 2 November 2014 op-ed in The New York TimesTheir work, which reports the results of several hundred analyses of data on hiring, salary, promotion, productivity and job satisfaction for eight broad fields of science at American universities and colleges, reveals that the experiences of young and mid-career women in math-intensive fields are, for the most part, similar to those of their male counterparts.

“I think it’s an important message,” says psychologist Diane Halpern of the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, CA. Women in math-intensive fields “are not being discriminated against in the academic job market. I think that’s really something to celebrate.”

Other social scientists disagree:

  • “The problem with observational data is that you can’t determine cause and effect very easily,” says psychologist Virginia Valian of the CUNY’s Hunter College. “You don’t know what the underlying mechanism is.”
  • “Measures of equal performance or equal opportunity in hiring do not mean there is no bias,” says University of Texas, Austin, sociologist Jennifer Glass. “They mean that women have overcome any bias that may exist.”
  • The authors “seem to underrate the large body of experimental evidence pointing to the importance of bias and stereotyping and the experiences of discrimination that are driving women out of these fields,” says psychologist Corinne Moss-Racusin of Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.

My own personal experience in hiring new faculty for our physics department during my tenure (1985-2014) tends to agree with the conclusion of the authors of the op-ed. Our provosts went out of their way – by chipping in huge amounts of money for start-up funds and salaries, up to 1/3 of the latter in some cases – to help us hire underrepresented candidates.

3 thoughts on “Social Sciences are not Falsifiable”

  1. It is funny that the people who complain the most about discrimination against women in –let’s call it- hard sciences are people in “social” sciences or the media. They don’t understand science and always find ways to criticise it “There are fewer females in hard science therefore scientist are misogynist patriarchs who want to keep women out!”
    On my research area, biomedicine, the number of male and female researchers, of my own age, is pretty much the same. I teach MSc students, and some cohorts of students are 90% female. There are also many female professors and lecturers. True, there are more male big professors. But big professors tend to be over 50 (more like 60 actually) and graduated 25 years ago, when probably students were 90% male and females of my own ages stayed at home. That is -I think- the main reason there are more mal big wigs right now, but it will change.

    1. Ariel, It is always inspiring to read your frank and honest comments.

      I believe that underrepresentation is especially acute in America, and it is not restricted to women. My field, physics, is dominated by foreigners, Jewish-Americans, and Asian-Americans. So, not just women, but non-Jewish, non-Asian Americans are underrepresented in physics. That is probably because most American high school teachers of math and physics are totally incompetent. A typical student is ill prepared for college physics and math, despite the fact that (s)he has a grade of A or B in the two subjects.

  2. I have the perfect short test to measure the mathematical sophistication of a high school math teacher. It involves nothing more than high school trig.

    A unit sphere has a radius of one. Center the sphere on the origin of the xyz- Cartesian coordinates. Now consider only the top half of the sphere. Draw a line segment from the North Pole to the xy-plane. What are the (x,y) coordinates of where this line segment “hits” the xy-plane?

    Does the solution to this problem involve memorizing something? Answer: Not really. Does the solution to this problem involve creativity? Answer: not really in the way creativity is understood by the lay public.

    By the way: this is a canonical problem relevant to at least two areas of “higher math.” In other words, this is not a trivial problem.

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