The Polite Liberal

A rant-free discussion of liberal philosophy and policies.


The Polite Liberal is the pseudonym of a "nontraditional" graduate student in mathematics (for nonacademics, "nontraditional," is a polite way of saying, "older than 25.") The Polite Liberal is an attempt to spur real policy debate, instead of partisan insults and conspiracy theories. Conservatives (and liberals, of course!) are welcome.

Monday, March 07, 2005

The trouble with Larry

In my own perch in the lower bowels of the ivory tower, there's been a lot of blasting back and forth over the President of Harvard's recent speech in which he suggested that the reason that relatively few women get tenure in top-flight institutions in math and science could have something to do with innate differences in mathematical ability.

Liberals blasted that it was absurd and insulting to even consider innate differences. Conservatives piously wondered what had happened to free speech in academia.

To my mind, there were two key problems with his speech, and neither was the consideration of innate differences.

The first is simply that he ordered his list of potential reasons in precisely the order that left him least culpable for the problem. Quite apart from the merits of the arguments, one ought to be immediately suspicious of an argument that runs (stripped to its fundamentals) "There are many possible reasons for this problem. The most likely by far is that it's not our fault and we can't do anything about it. It's also possible (but much less probable) that it's entirely our fault, for at least seven reasons."

The bigger problem, though, is that his argument assumes as a matter of course that what gets you onto a science faculty is raw, native ability, and that top-notch professors were simply born with vastly more ability than everyone else. Some math and science types like this idea, because it makes them sound a bit like Michael Jordan (despite having no other obvious similarities). Since Mr. Summers in an economist (a field that tends to throw around a lot of math), I suspect he doesn't mind thinking of himself as six standard deviations out from the mean in ability.

The problem is that you already see vastly fewer women in math and science as graduate students or even undergraduates. Take it from me--you don't have to be a math god to be a graduate student in math. You just have to be reasonably good and put a lot of work in.

That's where the "native ability" idea gets pernicious. Math is honestly hard. So's physics. You have to do a lot of work to get good at it. If you think it's all native ability, then there's a temptation not to do the work---after all, if you find it tough, you must not have been born with the "math gene," so why bother?

Did Mr. Summers have any right to make a speech like that? Of course he did! We all have an inalienable right to make fools of ourselves--or to point it out when others have done so.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Can someone explain this?

I really, really try not to be cynical. I tend to think that a cynical pose is both unhelpful and unfairly dismissive of other points of view.

That said, can anyone please explain to me why it's good public policy to block chapter 7 bankruptcy protection for people bankrupted by medical expenses? We're not talking about people going berserk with plastic, here--we're talking "that heart surgury just wasn't covered by your insurance policy." That sort of situation seems to me to be exactly why we have chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in the first place, but apparently every singe Republican senator and a handful of Democrats disagree--they shot down an amendment that would have protected homeowners who get wiped out by medical debt.

How can this possibly be good public policy? For that matter, how can this possibly be morally right?

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Of Computers and Quals

If you've been wondering, I'm still alive.

My backup computer (which I used for my last post) lasted exactly a week before its six-year-old hard drive decided that it had had just about enough of all that spinning in its old age and packed it in. That left me with no computer except at my office, and I have this strange feeling that I should be... y'know, working or something when I'm there. I'll be replacing the computer later this month, finally (money gets in really short supply when you return to graduate school in your thirties with children).

The other thing that's putting a crimp in my blogging style is my upcoming Qualifying Exam. For those who haven't taken a shot at a Ph.D. before, most schools have two great chances to toss you out on your ear: a Preliminary Exam (typically a written exam) in your first year and a Qualifying Exam (typically an oral exam in front of a committee of professors) by the end of your second year. I'm just finishing my second year, so the Qual is looming.

In a math Qual at my university, faculty members grill you for 2-3 hours on topics that you select ahead of time. Just to be clear, there's no notes or reference to books---you just stand there with a bit of chalk and try to handle what's thrown at you. If you do so to the satisfaction of your committee, you get to stay in university for another three years or so and write a thesis. If not, you get a second chance; if you fail that one you're handed a nice, shiny MS and told to go find a job.

The really depressing thing is that I already passed one of these wretched things back when I was a Physics student in the late '90s; starting in math has rewound the clock.

Basically, I have to memorize the greatest hits of six textbooks. My posting here will be a bit thin until I pass the sucker.