Talent, Hard Work, and the Economist; audiences, commenters, and the importance of ‘feelings’

A few months ago, I was chatting to a colleague about the course I was in the middle of teaching – playing the usual game of trying to judge from student assignments how well I was getting the material across. I mentioned the assignment feedback I had given out the previous week: ‘I tell them that I can see the effort that they are putting in, and that those who are putting the work in are doing well’. The colleague responded: ‘oh, but of course: that’s what all the educational theory tells you you need to do, to debunk the myth of it being about talent’.

We then nodded sagely at each other, or something like that.

A paper just published in Science has now demonstrated this principle within scientific disciplines, by asking researchers in those disciplines whether success is more about talent, or about hard work. Responses that value talent over hard work come from those disciplines where women and African Americans – those demographics disproportionately excluded from science as a whole – are least well represented.

My immediate reaction when reading it, was: ‘well, this isn’t new, but I’m really glad they’ve done the work to get some data together and demonstrate the effect’. I ignored the first couple of headlines where the novelty of the findings were emphasised, because frankly, it seems you have to put the word ‘new’ in the headline if you’re discussing a scientific study. And the study itself was certainly new – so so far, so good.

But there was something about the reporting of the study that continued to bother me. What it was was only made clear when a colleague passed me the version of the study, as told by the Economist. Now maybe I’m biased, but I should say that my blood was already boiling before I remembered my earlier post on the Economist and a story about gender in science.

I had a quick look at the versions of the story that had appeared in my timeline on twitter at that point. Nature, Science, the Washington Post, and the Economist: does it matter who you are – and who you are writing for – when you report such a study?

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Does it matter, whether you talk about women being ‘kept out’, or report that ‘women shy away’ from science? Does it matter whether the background that you give includes the extensive literature on unconscious bias and women in science? Does it matter if you refer to the Larry Summers hypothesis?

I think all of these things matter. At the very least, they define who it is you are writing for. And I’m not saying that I dislike the Economist’s version because I disagree with it: not at all. The Larry Summers hypothesis can be raised – and if you raise it, and decline to discuss unconscious bias, then you are certainly putting your cards on the table. I just think you should be honest about it. Honest about the fact that you are speaking to an audience of ‘us’ (white, male) about ‘them’ (women and POC).

Maybe this is an accident of language, in an article about particular identities: the author presumably had no choice but to refer to women as ‘them’. Or to POC as ‘them’. But by framing the article as being about the subjects of exclusion – them – rather than the real actors in the drama, the (overwhelmingly) white male respondents to the survey, who think that their discipline requires

a special aptitute that just can’t be taught

(which, by the way, seems to indicate that Education is the wrong business for them to be in!), the Economist’s version of the story is something that feels different to read, as a member of one of those groups of ‘them’, than it does for a white male reader.

And yes, you are welcome to scoff at the ‘feelings’ of us poor weak and overly sentimental women.* What I’d like to think about now, are the feelings of the men who read these pieces.

An analysis of the comments made on websites discussing the findings of the Moss-Racusin study, looked at the gender differences between the types of comments made: whether or not the commenter refuted the findings, and on what basis. It turns out, that men don’t like evidence of sexism in science, and are much more likely to reject such findings in favour of their own interpretation. The paper, published in Psychology of Women Quarterly (despite arguably demonstrating more of the psychology of men), was led by Moss-Racusin herself.

Are men likely to be more irrational about evidence of sexism? Does it hurt more? Probably – and frankly, I have some sympathy for that. But the ways in which women are regularly portrayed in descriptions of the problem – as objects, or worse, as foolish and uncommitted, making the wrong decisions – is a constant. And yeah – we’re kind of used to it.

So – I thought I’d go and have a look at the comments section on the Economist. I know, I know, you should never read the comments… but sometimes, I think it might be worth studying them.

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And then, somewhat ironically, giving my own reaction to the piece:

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Maybe I was wrong?

Anyway – the point of all this is, as I see it, that we all have feelings. I am writing this not from any desire to censor the Economist piece, but because I think there are better kinds of discussion to be had, and I’d like to point people in that direction.

The Washington Post piece, by @rachelfeltman, is great.

*actually, no you’re not.

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