Spontaneous Social Symmetry Breaking

By Sean Carroll | July 23, 2008 11:33 am

Physicists love spontaneous symmetry breaking. It’s a great way to reconcile the messiness of reality with our belief in simple and beautiful underlying mechanisms. We posit that the true fundamental dynamics of the world has some symmetry — X can be exchanged with Y, and all relevant processes are unchanged — but the actual state of the world does not respect that symmetry, which leaves it hidden (or “nonlinearly realized,” if you want to sound all sciencey). Deep down, a (left-handed) electron is completely interchangeable with an electron neutrino; but in the world as we find it, this symmetry is broken, and we end up with an electron that is charged and massive, a neutrino that is neutral and nearly massless. The Higgs boson that the Large Hadron Collider is looking for would be the telltale sign of the mechanism behind this symmetry breaking.

For reasons which escape me, this concept has not been borrowed (as far as I can tell) by social scientists and pundits more generally.* Which is too bad, as it explains a great deal. For example, appealing to the concept of spontaneous symmetry breaking would have been really helpful to Whoopi Goldberg on The View recently, as she patiently tried to explain to a distraught Elisabeth Hasselbeck why it’s just not the same when black people use the word “nigger” as when white people do. (From Sociological Images, via The Edge of the American West.)

Which is not to say that it’s always okay, or that there is no thoughtful critique of the re-appropriation of derogatory language by targeted groups, etc. Just that “If it’s wrong when white people say it, it should be wrong when black people say it too! It’s just not fair!” is far too simple-minded to carry any weight.

Let’s imagine that, in our view of a happy future utopia, all races find themselves in situations of perfect equality of opportunity and dignity. Everyone enters society with equal status, and people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (The “symmetric vacuum.”) In such a world, arguments like “If you can do it, why shouldn’t I be able to?” would be perfectly legitimate. But even if we want that to be the world — even if we believe that the grand unified theory of social ethics involves a symmetry of rights and obligations under the interchange of various racial categories — it’s not the world in which we live. In the real world, different races don’t go through life with the same masses and charges (if you will). There really are such things as discrimination, legacies of poverty and exclusion, and so on. We can argue about the best way to deal with those features of reality, but pretending that they don’t exist isn’t a very useful strategy.

As Whoopi explains, many blacks have chosen to re-appropriate the n-word as part of a conscious strategy of fighting back against a power dynamic that uses language to keep them at the bottom. Again, one can argue about the effectiveness of that strategy, and the circumstances under which it is appropriate, and whether Jesse Jackson should really have used that term in referring to Barack Obama. But it doesn’t follow that “if it’s fair for you, it should be fair for me.” Here is a guy who sadly doesn’t get it; a white high-school teacher who is genuinely puzzled about why he got in trouble for calling one of his black students “nigga.”

I was contemplating writing this post for a long time, with the relevant symmetry being men/women and the social milieu being the scientific community. Too many physicists reason along the following lines: “Men and women should be treated equally. Therefore, any time we privilege one over the other, as in making a special effort to encourage women in science, we are making a mistake.” That would be a reasonable argument, if the symmetry weren’t dramatically broken by the state in which we find ourselves. Which happily is not a stable vacuum! (Note that the underlying assumption is not that different genders or races are necessarily equivalent when it comes to innate abilities; that is largely beside the point, and obsession about those questions gets to be a little creepy. But they should certainly have equal opportunities — and right now, they don’t.) Treating one group differently than the other isn’t what we ultimately want to be doing — it’s not part of the happy utopia — but it might be the best response to the current state of unequal treatment overall.

But Whoopi’s little teaching moment was too good to pass up. If the discussion of race and gender in the rest of the MSM rose to that level of sophistication, we’d all be better off.

———-

*I’ve been searching for an excuse to mention Kieran Healy’s Standard Model of Sociophysics. I’m not sure if this is it, but I’ll take it.

Standard Model of Sociophysics

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Humanity
  • Nance Confer

    Thank you. Just, thank you.

    Nance

  • John Knight

    Wow. That article from the New Yourk Times mentioned an “exodus” of women from the sciences around age 35. It did not even discuss the largest factor in that exodus.

    Biology.

    I don’t have a doctorate in biology, but I have it on good authority that women get preganant much more often than men. The reasons for this disparity in pregnancy rates are unclear, but social conditioning does not seem to be the sole factor. Biology seems to have a role.

    This explanation is not as innocent as it may seem. Once a child is born, patriarchy exerts it ever-baleful influence. Although in nature, mammalian mothers usually begin leaving their children in day-care centers after only a few weeks, in American culture, women often work shorter hours or even quit their jobs to rear their cubs, despite the fact that human cubs are almost completely self-reliant by the age of three.

    Although no laws require women to abandon their chief means of existential fulfillment — work outside the home — American women are often duped into leaving their workplace domains on their own. Through a false consciousness engineered in the late nineteenth century (possibly even earlier) by the Archimandrite of Chicago and the Board of Ruling Industrialists, many women have come to believe that they actually enjoy taking care of these smelly, dirty, noise-making, little hairless trolls.

    The methods of persuasion employed to sustain this brain-washed state are quite ruthless, involving sleep deprivation, water-boarding, and shopping-mall shoe sales. As a result of this ongoing persecution

    snarf

  • http://pages.stern.nyu.edu/~cedmond/ Chris Edmond

    A social science reference:

    Paul Krugman made extensive use of “symmetry breaking” in various models of economic geography. As an overview, see his book “The Spatial Economy” with Masahisa Fujita and Tony Venables.

  • flintstone

    Help! A burning question on special relativity!
    Question:

    If a bullet is fired horizontally from a barrel and another bullet is dropped from the same altitude at the same instant, will they both hit the ground at the same time?

    neglect earth curvature, assume experiment is in vacuum, assume constant acceleration along
    Y-axis. Assume hight is small (so v_y << c).

    My answer is that both bullets will hit the ground at the same time in lab frame as lorenz effects should not affect y component of speed. But am am dubious.

  • Ellipsis

    The Goldberg Boson?

    But then she’d have to be massless…

  • Tyler

    uh oh, Sean made an analogy! let the nitpicki^H^H^H^H^H^H deconstruction begin!

    I find the analogy to be basically apt and insightful, though I think you may find it to be of more use going the other direction, as it were – spontaneous symmetry breaking is a key fundamental concept that is explained frequently, and almost always badly, in popular science lit. I have read so many bad explanations of what it means that for awhile I thought I didn’t understand it, though I finally realized that in fact I did, the concept (in its general, abstract form) being rather a simple one; the problem lay in the inelegant and contradictory explanations I had suffered through. A classic ironic twist! For some time I hoped the same might be true of the gauge principle, which similarly suffers from an abundance of confusing explanations, but I have come to the conclusion that this idea is in fact rather subtle and difficult to grasp without direct understanding of, and facility with, the related math – that there is, perhaps, no useful analogy to everyday concepts. I’m fine with that, the dividing line has to be somewhere, I just want to make sure I get as close to it as I can.

    Sean, and others – your thoughts concerning the possible effects on the “local vacuum” (as it were) if Obama is in fact elected? There has been a great deal of discussion of this topic recently, with one widely stated concern being that such a victory would allow whites to claim that systemic racism has in fact been entirely eliminated and that environmental inequalities no longer exist – that is, that the sociological continuum has in fact become a symmetric vacuum. Of course, the nature of the vacuum could (should? would be expected to?) be distorted in “positive” ways as well, leading to a complex deformation of the sociological vacuum…;o)

  • flintstone

    regarding bullets, is this the correct reasoning:

    If we consider reference frame that moves with the bullet along the
    X-axis. Bullet just falls down in this reference frame. In this reference
    frame time it takes for the bullet to fall is

    tau = sqrt(2h/g) , h-height, g-acceleration

    the same as in non-moving frame (as we know that all physics processes are
    the same in all frames regardless of their speed)

    But we measure time in the lab frame, so time of the falling bullet
    is the same t_lab_1 = tau whereas time of the moving bullet will be slowed
    down by the lorentz factor t_lab_2 = tau * gamma. So the moving bullet
    hits the ground later

  • Tyler

    someone smart sounding, plz to give flintstone a plausible but utterly wrong answer, so he will go away and not come back?

    kthxbai!

  • Ijon Tichy

    How about a year or two of paid parental leave? Make it government policy like it is in the civilised countries of Europe, such as Sweden and Norway. Oh hang on, government serves the corporations in the USA, so forget about that. Trying to solve the problems of sexism in the USA without also solving all the other social, political and cultural problems (and they are legion) is doomed to failure.

  • John Knight

    Sweden & Norway aren’t civilized, they’re welfare states, brave new worlds, emasculated socities.

    And with current birth rates & demographic trends, by the end of the century they won’t even be that. They’ll be Muslim.

    Europe should copy the US, not the other way around.

  • John Knight

    * Dang. Bad typing really kills a witty post.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    John says:
    “That article from the New Yourk Times mentioned an “exodus” of women from the sciences around age 35. It did not even discuss the largest factor in that exodus.

    Biology. ”

    Interesting hypothesis, John. If you don’t mind continuing this expose of scientific thinking, how would you try to falsify it?

  • D

    Why does anyone think it a precondition of decency that A apply a bijective function f (eq fuck -> f-word, fag -> other f-word, nigger-> n-word, cunt->c-word, chink -> chink) to certain words he says to B just so that B can immediately apply f inverse?

    I understand, though I disagree, that some words might be utterly taboo in all contexts for some people. I’m even willing to entertain the notion that mentioning is as taboo as using in these cases. But if so, don’t use those words period. Why the idiotic baby-talk and magical thinking?

    It reminds me of that old joke:

    The Telegraph reported that a certain politician called someone ‘a fucking nigger’ by taboo-censoring to f-wording nigger. The Guardian responded with an outraged editorial about how it should have been fucking n-word.

    Sorry, just a pet peeve of mine…

  • http://www.adfinemfidelis.net/mongrel/ Bernard HP Gilroy

    Interesting food for thought (the original post, that is). But considering all the damage done when social sciences have appropriated terms from the physical science (biggest example, Social “Darwinism”), I’d just as well see them not muddy up a good physics concept…

  • http://www.kett.org Kettwiesel

    “…..obsession about those questions gets to be a little creepy.”

    You are being too hard on yourself. I don’t think that your obsession with this question is creepy at all.

  • Kurt

    We should have different standards for different races.
    Some races should be allowed their own words. I mean all races have have their own distinct music, culture, origin, dress why not words?

    “many blacks have chosen to re-appropriate the n-word as part of a conscious strategy of fighting back against a power dynamic that uses language to keep them at the bottom. Again, one can argue about the effectiveness of that strategy, and the circumstances under which it is appropriate, and whether Jesse Jackson should really have used that term in referring to Barack Obama.”

    Well Sean is it a good strategy or not? to use the N-word for fighting black power??

    I strongly doubt the kids on the train today i heard using the N-word realize this

    gimme a break

  • http://kea-monad.blogspot.com Kea

    Well, at least Nance got a little thank you in there before the irony meter went off the scale, as usual.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/risa/ Risa

    I’m just going to have to echo Nance. Sean, I think this may be the best post you’ve ever written. I will henceforth shamelessly appropriate this analogy whenever I talk to physicists who don’t “get it.”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I was just looking for some excuse to write the words “appealing to the concept of spontaneous symmetry breaking would have been really helpful to Whoopi Goldberg on The View recently.”

  • Jason Dick

    John Knight,

    Biology is just the reason why we should have programs to support young mothers, no matter their choice of field. Paid maternity leave seems like the thing to do here. And you can use epithets all you want against other nations, the fact remains that these nations mentioned are significantly better places to live in nearly every respect.

  • Retired Yes

    To 20.
    The places may be wonderful for some groups.
    The social decisions must be voted whether to spent a significantly larger portion of each paycheck for social programs. So far we have attempted to remain a federation with democracy. While the US does want a good standard of living, we have yet have a larger federal government to take over many of the personal decisions as northern European socialist states have done.
    The balance of loss of personal determination has not been palatable to the working public in the US. As with the founding groups of the first American colonies, we must be careful not to give decisions to those who benefit but not pay for the programs.
    Yes, I was a working mother, no an easy place to be. Yes, I would have liked to stay home and not personally pay for the family health insurance from savings while i stayed out. I do not want to pay 70+% of my pay to have others benefit from social programs whether or not they work and contribute funds.

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    the problem with black people using that word is that there is a quite long history of middle class black people using that word in a derogatory way to refer to uneducated, “more black” black people. It is not the same as feminists reappropriating ‘bitch’, for example, where it usually used to refer to the speaker, in the context of “Yeah, I’m a bitch, so what?” When Jesse Jackson used the n-word, or when you hear it in rap lyrics it is very rarely used to refer to the speaker.

    Instead, it is used by a black person in a position of power (rhetorical or actual) to put down another black person. In most (there are some exceptions) contexts that I have seen that word used, by white and black people, it is just simply not ok. Context is important, and the context behind Jesse Jackson’s comment was not appropriate. Jackson was essentially painting Obama as a dumb scalawag who was going to sell out his race.

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    sorry for the double post, but here’s a great article on this.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Treating one group differently than the other isn’t what we ultimately want to be doing — it’s not part of the happy utopia — but it might be the best response to the current state of unequal treatment overall.

    You might be curing the symptoms instead of the disease.

  • Haelfix

    Spontaneous symmetry breaking refers implicitly to perturbation series. The true vacuum is still there, its just hidden b/c someone erroneously decided to pick the wrong saddle point to perturb around.

    Since we don’t do perturbation series in the real world, and we live in a nonperturbatively complete society, I insist this analogy is flawed =)

    qed!

  • wtf?

    “Spontaneous symmetry breaking refers implicitly to perturbation series. The true vacuum is still there, its just hidden b/c someone erroneously decided to pick the wrong saddle point to perturb around.”

    The “true” vacuum is the symmetry-breaking vacuum. It has nothing to do with perturbation theory. The other vacuum is still “there”? Where? In theory space? The real world has a very specific vacuum, and its the symmetry-breaking one.

  • wtf?

    “theory spcae” should have been “field space”.

  • Gavin Polhemus

    I had a child while I was in physics graduate school. My son was 2 when I got my Ph.D., and I dropped out of science for 8 years to raise him. (I returned to research this year, and my first new paper is on the arXiv).

    I was somehow able to do this even though I am male. Many physicists were shocked when I made the decision to become an at-home-dad. Apparently, I revealed the underlying mother-father child raising symmetry which they had completely failed to see in our symmetry-broken society. I don’t think any of them decided to make this new phenomena a basis for experimental investigation in their own relationships, but I’d love to hear stories of others who did. (Sean my remember this and have a different perspective, since I was just down the hall from him at the University of Chicago.)

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk Pieter Kok

    Interesting point of view, and I largely agree. However, one problem with allowing different things to different groups is that it may be generally for the greater good, but have unpleasant consequences for individuals. For example, affirmative action in higher education is generally a good tool to help underpriviledged groups, but it is very unfair to the (white male) student who would otherwise have made it into Harvard/Yale/etc. The problem is that social groups are not homogeneous, and there are plenty of white males that are pretty far from priviliged.

    As for the discussion about taxes: The middle classes in the US pay just as much tax as the middle classes in European countries, so that’s not good argument. It’s about the way the tax money is spent. Unfortunately, the prevailing culture in the US seems to be that a policy is good if it hurts others more, rather than if it hurts me less.

  • Haelfix

    Yea so for instance roughly, you might have something like a group G that breaks down to a subgroup H. The real theory has G as a symmetry, but you only see H b/c you picked the wrong vacuum to do physics in. If you could analyze the full nonperturbative behaviour of the theory, you’d recover G.

    Good?

  • CWhite

    In the interest of sexual equality, we must a) install urinals in all ladies restrooms, or, b) eliminate sexually separated restrooms. /snark

    The point? Absolute equality is a crock. Real-world differences matter.

  • CMT

    Haelfix,

    I think we disagree on the meaning of the word “wrong”. If a piece of iron develops a magnetization, the magnetization has to point somewhere and your piece of iron is no longer invariant under rotations. I would say the symmetric vacuum is the wrong vacuum. If you analyze the full theory, you still only see H.

    On the other hand, you always “see” something of the larger symmetry group through the Goldstone modes, but that’s just telling you that the energy (or action or whatever you folks like to use) is invariant the larger group G. Or in other words, the magnetization could have pointed in any particular direction. But that’s not really the same thing since it still had to pick one.

    Maybe I misunderstand what you mean by “recover” as well?

    Sean,

    Right on.

  • Michael Gogins

    Enforcing different rights for different birth groups will create vested interests (a political coalition between the enforcers and the groups in question). These vested interests in turn will act to distort and undermine rights for other birth groups. In the end this will institutionalize castes, which we have spent a few thousand years more or less successfully getting out of.

    I don’t think you can have very good science in a caste society, either. The talent pool shrinks, and there are certain conclusions you can’t draw for political questions, so the fields of study shrink as well.

    Evidence: striking historical correlations between times of increase in the degree of individual (not birth group) rights in society, and scientific creativity.

    Regards,
    Mike

  • http://namloc.typepad.com/ Richard

    Freeman Dyson introduced me to the idea of social symmetry breaking when he lectured in Toronto about his book “Infinite in all Directions.” That must have been around 1986. If I recall correctly he alluded to symmetry breaking going all the way from the cosmos to nations to species and individuals.

    Should we apply this metaphor to humanity then we might presume an initial symmetry for our species, when our ancestors were a tight, small group of tribes in Africa: “all men” then could have been equal — more equal than we are now. Symmetry began to break when our ancestors exploded out of Africa into the “vacuum” of the larger Globe.

    If my layman’s understanding is correct then all-human symmetry (or supersymmetry) could be restored if we entered a state of high energy and high density.

    So all men would become equal again if we attained a condition of stifling overpopulation, intolerable social pressures, and high energy warfare of everyone against everyone.

    That doesn’t sound so nice. I’d prefer the relatively low energy, low density scuffles and tempests we have to endure in our present stratified, partitioned, class-divided condition.

    Maybe it’s stretching an analogy too far.

  • http://excitedstate.wordpress.com excited state

    To bittergradstudent,
    I would have to say that your assessment of how black people use the n-word is incorrect. I say this as someone grew up in and continues to live in a mostly-black neighborhood and who is a fan of hip hop. Most usage of the n-word by black people that I have ever heard is in a positive or at least neutral tone. And kids from a fairly young age understand the balance of power that is involved in “taking back” this slur, which is why they start using it at about the time that they start identifying with race as part of their identity.

    I will not say that black people never use this word in a derogatory manner, because that is certainly true, but it is not the usual way in which it is used.

    And to look more at the symmetry breaking process involved in this word, I think there were two stages. The symmetry was first broken whenever the word became a slur and not just a corruption of the word “negro.” The symmetry broke in such a way that it was a word of power for white people because it would be much more damaging when they used it. Later, black people seized the power in the word by making it positive. Now, instead of a word of power for white people, it simply signifies ignorance.

  • plschwartz

    You wrote:
    I was contemplating writing this post for a long time, with the relevant symmetry being men/women and the social milieu being the scientific community. Too many physicists reason along the following lines: “Men and women should be treated equally. Therefore, any time we privilege one over the other, as in making a special effort to encourage women in science, we are making a mistake.” That would be a reasonable argument, if the symmetry weren’t dramatically broken by the state in which we find ourselves. Which happily is not a stable vacuum! (Note that the underlying assumption is not that different genders or races are necessarily equivalent when it comes to innate abilities; that is largely beside the point, and obsession about those questions gets to be a little creepy. But they should certainly have equal opportunities — and right now, they don’t.) Treating one group differently than the other isn’t what we ultimately want to be doing — it’s not part of the happy utopia — but it might be the best response to the current state of unequal treatment overall.

    Far be it for a psychologist to question a physicist but I think I will try.
    Your logic is incorrect because you did not include the outcome measure!
    And the only outcome measure that will satisfy someone demanding equality of opportunity IS equality of equality of results. Once you allow unconscious motivation then whatever say a tenure committee decides, unconscious bias may be invoked to show that it was not the weakness of the candidate but the weaknesses of the committee.
    This was the hit on the original flavor of psychoanalysis (Which did have its Borg aspects). It is the origin of the Python “Dead Parrot” sketch. (Jay Haley has a wonderful take on the power tactics of analysts)
    You cannot prove that a subjective assessment of a candidate is unbiased. Nor with a little more thought on the matter, prove that some “objective” measure is unbiased. Ditto all those “studies” which show that women need women as “role models” to go into science etc.
    Finally let us say that Group X is 10% poorer in higher maths. But THEY have decided that there must be equality in hiring members of Group X. So in your Maths department of 10 members one X deserved to be tenured but four others got tenure to satisfy THEM. These four get the perks and benefits of tenured faculty.
    But say that they teach for thirty years. How many students are you punishing then by forcing them to be taught by these four professors of lesser ability.
    What does it do to the quality of maths in our society for these many years.
    You choose-its not my field.

  • John Merryman

    Might the situation be better explained in terms of complexity theory? In the relationship of bottom up process forming and shedding top down order, as process expands the context, it keeps creating definition, expanding until it is no longer viable and then shedding it, yet tending to take features of that previous form in account when developing the next form. Think in terms of a crab growing and shedding a shell every year, as it grows larger. In that sense, the n word being used by whites would be like trying to put the crab back into last years shell, while for black people, it is expanding on old forms in order to remove the constrictions they otherwise enable.

  • Tyler

    John M., wonderful point

  • http://astrodyke.blogspot.com The AstroDyke

    #29 Pieter Kok, re:

    affirmative action in higher education is generally a good tool to help underprivileged groups, but it is very unfair to the (white male) student who would otherwise have made it into Harvard/Yale/etc. The problem is that social groups are not homogeneous, and there are plenty of white males that are pretty far from privileged.

    .

    I strongly recommend checking out the book, “The Shape of the River”, from a local university library, and studying the charts within. Beautiful data, which don’t actually support the two (common) assumptions Pieter makes here.

  • http://www.xanga.com/andrea_thatonegirl The Nerd

    This is one of your best posts ever. I love it when physics can be applied so beautifully to other parts of life.

  • Ijon Tichy

    Europe should copy the US, not the other way around.

    Let’s see: widespread religious fundamentalism from the lowest to the highest echelons of society; more than half the population rejects evolution in favour of a ghastly fairytale; no guaranteed health care, especially for the poor; the highest prison population per capita in the world; the lowest infant mortality rate, the highest teen pregnancy rate, the highest obesity rate, and one of the lowest life expectancies in the Western world; a government that has been emasculated in all areas except the military and serves only corporations (hello fascism!); a backwards culture that celebrates militarism, psychopathy and triumphalism; the only country in the world apart from that paragon of human rights, Somalia, that has not ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; perhaps the only country in the world where the primitive notion of natural rights trumps the civilised notion of human rights; the only nation on Earth where the cult of right-libertarianism has gained a significant foothold; vast suburban wastelands and dying urban areas; a transportation system that is completely unfit to handle the challenges of peak oil; and let’s not mention Iraq, government-supported torture, war crimes and other embarrassing features.

    So yeah, Europe should copy the US.

  • John Merryman

    Tyler,

    Thanks!

    We all try pushing our limits. Frequently they push back. That’s life.

  • macho

    in re to affirmative action #29:

    It’s interesting to note society’s response to college admissions
    when males became the minority.

    There was no discussion of affirmative action, the pros and cons
    of “remedying” the situation, the potential negative effects on
    the beneficiaries or society at large. When colleges found that
    applying equal standards for admission to both male and female
    applicants resulted in more women than men on campus, they
    simply changed the the requirements for men (in other words
    they lowered the standards.) One admissions officer even had
    the balls to suggest that they were doing it for the benefit of
    the women on campus as well. What woman would be happy
    without enough guys around?

    This happened relatively quietly, recently, and is still going on.
    How can we possibly consider hiring or admitting to graduate
    school any men from these universities, knowing that they probably
    were admitted only because they were guys? What have we done
    to their delicate psyches? And where is the outrage over the
    women whose rightful spots on the acceptance list were given
    to less deserving men?

    Or maybe we should flip the arguement and insist on more women
    in science to make the guys happy.


    Time 2008


    NYTimes OpEd

  • http://kea-monad.blogspot.com Kea

    Good point, Macho. Since women are clearly much smarter than men, we should bring in a law to enforce a 60:40 female-male ratio in postgraduate science. Why should we settle for 50:50? Isn’t affirmative action for males a little unfair when the natural numbers are for more females?

  • John Knight

    A reply to Comment # 12:

    JK: That article from the New York Times mentioned an “exodus” of women from the sciences around age 35. It did not even discuss the largest factor in that exodus.

    Biology.

    Lab Lemming: Interesting hypothesis, John. If you don’t mind continuing this expose of scientific thinking, how would you try to falsify it?

    I’m not a Popperian, but I think I can point you in the right direction. Back in 1982, Jon M. McDowell published a paper which showed that female professors were (1) more likely to have children and, (2) on average, had more children if they were in fields characterized by a low obsolescence rate of academic knowledge (history, language) than if they in fields with a high obsolescence rate of knowledge (physics, chemistry). That is to say, female professors in fields where a career interruption would tend to be costly tended to have fewer children than female professors in fields where a career interruption would be relatively low-cost. No such pattern exists for male professors.

    This pattern suggests that couples generally make child-bearing decisions within a more-or-less rational framework, and that couples generally behave as if females have a comparative advantage in child care & child-rearing. Moreover, it supports the economic theory of the family as developed by Becker & Minter, and implies a work-family trade-off that is very strong for women & rather weak for men.

    As an undergraduate, I did some empirical research for a class in – surprise, surprise – empirical research, and found that the relative durability of knowledge within a given field was a strong predictor of the proportion of doctorates given to females in that field. This finding strongly implies that women gravitate away from fields that raise the lost-income cost of child-bearing & child-rearing.

    Is that sufficiently empirical for you?

  • John Knight

    Reply to Comment #20:

    Jason Dick: Biology is just the reason why we should have programs to support young mothers, no matter their choice of field. Paid maternity leave seems like the thing to do here.

    Why? Do we really want to subsidize the practice of separating infants & children from their mothers? Because once the mothers of very young children go back to work, most of the time, their children get warehoused in commercial day-care centers.

    What is the goal? Is the goal to find the best students, workers, & professors at the lowest opportunity cost? Or is the goal some arbitrary standard of numerical parity?

    Jason Dick: And you can use epithets all you want against other nations, the fact remains that these nations mentioned are significantly better places to live in nearly every respect.

    Not sure I can agree with that claim. I don’t think I would like to live in Sweden or Norway, even if I mastered North Germanic languages & lived around the block from the best pizzeria in Scandinavia.

    Why not? The real rate of unemployment is estimated at well over 15% in those countries, official statistics notwithstanding. Birth rates are unsustainably low. Illegitimacy ratios are destructively high. Marriage & family are in tragic decline. Taxes are higher. Respect for the traditions & institutions that I value is in tragically short supply.

    No, I think I’ll stay here. But you’re welcome to catch a boat any time the fancy hits you.

  • John Knight

    Relpy to comment #29:

    Pieter Kok:

    …For example, affirmative action in higher education is generally a good tool to help underprivileged groups, but it is very unfair to the (white male) student who would otherwise have made it into Harvard/Yale/etc…

    In many states, and in elite schools like Yale & Harvard, whites more or less break even because of affirmative action. While more black students are admitted, fewer Asian students are admitted, and the number of whites is about the same.

    However, the claim that “affirmative action in higher education is generally a good tool to help underprivileged groups” is not supported by the evidence. Students admitted under affirmative action tend to have much lower graduation rates than other students, even if they would have had very good prospects at less demanding schools. And those affirmative action students that do get degrees tend to wind up in less demanding fields, including some fields that are highly politicized.

    The evidence for affirmative action programs generally is not supportive of the claim that such programs benefit target groups. For example, American blacks, as a group, made faster economic progress prior to the advent of affirmative action policies than in the decades that followed the spread of racial preferences.

  • Jason Dick

    Why? Do we really want to subsidize the practice of separating infants & children from their mothers? Because once the mothers of very young children go back to work, most of the time, their children get warehoused in commercial day-care centers.

    What is the goal? Is the goal to find the best students, workers, & professors at the lowest opportunity cost? Or is the goal some arbitrary standard of numerical parity?

    Uhhh, paid maternity leave would be the exact opposite of separating infants and children.

  • John Knight

    Only in the short run.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk Pieter Kok

    Sorry for the thread hijack; affirmative action was just my (possibly flawed) example to illustrate that the argument for different rules for different groups seems to assume homogeneous groups.

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com/ Eugene

    I think one of the clearest example of this kind of social symmetry breaking is the fact that poverty is a risk factor for obesity.

    It is obvious to many that poor people can eat as healthily as rich people, but somehow chose to eat less healthily. So the naive conclusion is that “poor people must be less health conscious” than rich people. Which is of course nonsense, but is the kind of ‘thinking-in-a-vacuum’ that can get you into wrong conclusions like these. The truth is a lot more complicated, with stress factors, depression, food availability (e.g. rich neighbourhoods have more gourmet stalls, poor ones have McD).

    But you won’t believe how many well-to-do people think that the problem of obese poor people is simply that “poor people made stupid choices and hence they have nothing but themselves to blame”.

  • nate

    I am not sure where you have grown up, what economic class or division but it seems plainly apparent to me that you have a view of the use of this word that buys into the irrelevant chatter from the edge of the relevant world. I hear it everyday, every hour on my street and have had many a conversation with those who use the word in it’s modern hip-hop sense and have to say that to think that those who use this word do so as a show of protest againest language that has kept them down is absurd. I know of no one whom puposely uses the word to conduct such an agenda, at least not any of the people who live the “thug life” day to day. It has been made popular with the use of a morally corrupt defintion feed through several pipelines of mass produced records and media, mostly through the advent of “thug life”, and that is what it carries through in it’s use, a “thug life”. The irony is that the derogetory term has been turned into yet another one, upholding morally bankrupt action and belief in a world of social conviction bent on crime, sexism, and violence. It is very easy for the people outside of the areas and conditions that this word originated in to say this or that on the right and wrongs of its use. That misses the entire point of why it should be frowned upon, no matter whom uses it!!!!!!! I live in an area where people are shot and robbed daily, and I hold no respect for anyone who can defend the use of this word without, it seems, the slightest clue as to its use or origin outside of fity cent and snoop! It wouldn’t matter what race I was, if I called all women “bitch” it would not be the pinicale of social mannerism, it would be derogetory and ignorant, and that doesn’t mean that if women start calling themselves “bitches” that it makes the word any different or any less derogetory. People should be aware of the full context of this re-establishment of a racist and derogatory term before they come out and defend its use by this race or that one. All it does is divide us further and highlight differences that shouldn’t exist in the first place. If we believe ourselves so advanced, so morally upright then why do we still insist on defending those who only continue to hold back the progress of not just one race or another but the entire culture. I love your blog, but this article has left me wanting of a more intelligent discussion on an issue that affects me everyday of my life.

  • John Knight

    Lawrence Summers, then the president of Harvard, got in trouble a few years back by saying that of the three principal explanations for the low proportion of women in doctorate-level math & sciences, discrimination was probably the least important.

    I agree.

    One reason to be skeptical of using “discrimination” as an explanation is that it so often fails on closer examination, at least in the US & similar societies. For example, a decade ago it was popular to accuse banks & mortgage lenders of discrimination because they turned down black & Hispanic mortgage applicants more often than white applicants. This claim was repeated long after careful observers had noted that white applicants were turned down more often than Asian applicants. Where discrimination is involved, the truth is no defense.

    Additionally, it was pointed out that the mortgage default rate was higher for blacks than for whites. This suggests that more high-risk loans were made to blacks than to whites – the very opposite of discrimination.

    (What a difference a decade makes. Back then banks were accused of discrimination because they didn’t lend to high-risk applicants. Now they are accused of “predatory” lending because they did. The term “predatory” is, to put it mildly, not well defined.)

    Numerous other examples can be found in labor markets. For example, it is often claimed that women make 77% as men for the same work. Actually, no.

    The basis for this claim is that the median income for women who work full time is about 77% of the median income of men who work full time. But, on average, male full-time workers put in more overtime; are more likely to work outside, exposed to the weather; have fewer career interruptions; have more experience; work in more dangerous occupations; and are more likely to work in math-intensive fields. Controlling for these kinds of variables, the disparity evaporates.

    Another example comes from academia. Some years ago the University of Florida was presented by the faculty union with a discrimination claim on behalf of female faculty members. The union claimed that women were underpaid some $39 million annually.

    Dr. Lawrence Kenney, a professor in the economics department with a background in both labor & educational economics, conducted his own study. He controlled for variables that the union-bought study did not take into account, such as the number of publications in peer-reviewed journals. When such variables were taken into account, the alleged disparities effectively vanished.

    This pattern should be enough to make anyone skeptical of discrimination as explanation for the low proportion of women in math & science. This skepticism is only enhanced by various signs of the times: Scholarships for women in “non-traditional” fields; affirmative action; the fanatical persecution of President Summers; and other, smaller examples.

    As for the other explanations, I have already sketched some of the reasons for thinking that the occupational choices made by female scholars play a major role.

    So, what about cognitive differences between the sexes? Well, I am not an expert in the field, but I did this article interesting.

  • collin237

    For some time I hoped the same might be true of the gauge principle, which similarly suffers from an abundance of confusing explanations,

    How about politics? An unphysical degree of freedom like “how well is the surge in Iraq working”, set to different values in the Obama gauge, the McCain gauge, and the Bush gauge.

    :)

  • http://eleanoreats.blogspot.com/ Eleanor

    In the interest of sexual equality, we must a) install urinals in all ladies restrooms, or, b) eliminate sexually separated restrooms. /snark

    Why not b? Or a combination of a and b? One room for everyone, all facilities, including urinals (if you can’t survive without them), in cubicles. It drives me nuts to stand in a queue for the ladies’ room whilst knowing there are probably several loos going unused in the men’s. And if I haven’t seen anyone go in after a couple of minutes, I sometimes use the mens’ :-)

  • Clara

    Or just build bigger women’s restrooms. I don’t think same-sex bathrooms would ever fly (although, I have no clue why they gender-specify single-occupancy bathrooms… ). Biologically, though, women take longer to use the restroom (even if you subtract makeup fixing, etc), so larger restrooms for women would allow us the same opportunity to use the restroom without wasting so much time. Am I right?

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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