Archive for the ‘Obviously I’m Not Defending Aaronson’ Category

The Physics Nobel, Gaussian BosonSampling, and Dorian Abbot

Tuesday, October 5th, 2021

1. Huge congratulations to the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics: Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann for climate modelling, and separately, Giorgio Parisi for statistical physics. While I don’t know the others, I had the great honor to get to know Parisi three years ago, when he was chair of the committee that awarded me the Tomassoni-Chisesi Prize in Physics, and when I visited Parisi’s department at Sapienza University of Rome to give the prize lecture and collect the award. I remember Parisi’s kindness, a lot of good food, and a lot of discussion of the interplay between theoretical computer science and physics. Note that, while much of Parisi’s work is beyond my competence to comment on, in computer science he’s very well-known for applying statistical physics methods to the analysis of survey propagation—an algorithm that revolutionized the study of random 3SAT when it was introduced two decades ago.


2. Two weeks ago, a group at Google put out a paper with a new efficient classical algorithm to simulate the recent Gaussian BosonSampling experiments from USTC in China. They argued that this algorithm called into question USTC’s claim of BosonSampling-based quantum supremacy. Since then, I’ve been in contact with Sergio Boixo from Google, Chaoyang Lu from USTC, and Jelmer Renema, a Dutch BosonSampling expert and friend of the blog, to try to get to the bottom of this. Very briefly, the situation seems to be that Google’s new algorithm outperforms the USTC experiment on one particular metric: namely, total variation distance from the ideal marginal distribution, if (crucially) you look at only a subset of the optical modes, say 14 modes out of 144 total. Meanwhile, though, if you look at the kth-order correlations for large values of k, then the USTC experiment continues to win. With the experiment, the correlations fall off exponentially with k but still have a meaningful, detectable signal even for (say) k=19, whereas with Google’s spoofing algorithm, you choose the k that you want to spoof (say, 2 or 3), and then the correlations become nonsense for larger k.

Now, given that you were only ever supposed to see a quantum advantage from BosonSampling if you looked at the kth-order correlations for large values of k, and given that we already knew, from the work of Leonid Gurvits, that very small marginals in BosonSampling experiments would be easy to reproduce on a classical computer, my inclination is to say that USTC’s claim of BosonSampling-based quantum supremacy still stands. On the other hand, it’s true that, with BosonSampling especially, more so than with qubit-based random circuit sampling, we currently lack an adequate theoretical understanding of what the target should be. That is, which numerical metric should an experiment aim to maximize, and how well does it have to score on that metric before it’s plausibly outperforming any fast classical algorithm? One thing I feel confident about is that, whichever metric is chosen—Linear Cross-Entropy or whatever else—it needs to capture the kth-order correlations for large values of k. No metric that’s insensitive to those correlations is good enough.


3. Like many others, I was outraged and depressed that MIT uninvited Dorian Abbot (see also here), a geophysicist at the University of Chicago, who was slated to give the Carlson Lecture in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences about the atmospheres of extrasolar planets. The reason for the cancellation was that, totally unrelatedly to his scheduled lecture, Abbot had argued in Newsweek and elsewhere that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives should aim for equality for opportunity rather than equality of outcomes, a Twitter-mob decided to go after him in retaliation, and they succeeded. It should go without saying that it’s perfectly reasonable to disagree with Abbot’s stance, to counterargue—if those very concepts haven’t gone the way of floppy disks. It should also go without saying that the MIT EAPS department chair is free to bow to social-media pressure, as he did, rather than standing on principle … just like I’m free to criticize him for it. To my mind, though, cancelling a scientific talk because of the speaker’s centrist (!) political views completely, 100% validates the right’s narrative about academia, that it’s become a fanatically intolerant echo chamber. To my fellow progressive academics, I beseech thee in the bowels of Bertrand Russell: why would you commit such an unforced error?

Yes, one can imagine views (e.g., open Nazism) so hateful that they might justify the cancellation of unrelated scientific lectures by people who hold those views, as many physicists after WWII refused to speak to Werner Heisenberg. But it seems obvious to me—as it would’ve been obvious to everyone else not long ago—that no matter where a reasonable person draws the line, Abbot’s views as he expressed them in Newsweek don’t come within a hundred miles of it. To be more explicit still: if Abbot’s views justify deplatforming him as a planetary scientist, then all my quantum computing and theoretical computer science lectures deserve to be cancelled too, for the many attempts I’ve made on this blog over the past 16 years to share my honest thoughts and life experiences, to write like a vulnerable human being rather than like a university press office. While I’m sure some sneerers gleefully embrace that implication, I ask everyone else to consider how deeply they believe in the idea of academic freedom at all—keeping in mind that such a commitment only ever gets tested when there’s a chance someone might denounce you for it.

Update: Princeton’s James Madison Program has volunteered to host Abbot’s Zoom talk in place of MIT. The talk is entitled “Climate and the Potential for Life on Other Planets.” Like probably hundreds of others who heard about this only because of the attempted cancellation, I plan to attend!

Unrelated Bonus Update: Here’s a neat YouTube video put together by the ACM about me as well as David Silver of AlphaGo and AlphaZero, on the occasion of our ACM Prizes in Computing.

Was Scientific American Sokal’d?

Friday, September 24th, 2021

Here’s yesterday’s clickbait offering from Scientific American, the once-legendary home of Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Games column:

Why the Term ‘JEDI’ Is Problematic for Describing Programs That Promote Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion

The sad thing is, I see few signs that this essay was meant as a Sokal-style parody, although in many ways it’s written as one. The essay actually develops a 100% cogent, reasoned argument: namely, that the ideology of the Star Wars films doesn’t easily fit with the new ideology of militant egalitarianism at the expense of all other human values, including irony, humor, joy, and the nurturing of unusual talents. The authors are merely oblivious to the conclusion that most people would draw from their argument: namely, so much the worse for the militant egalitarianism then!

I predict that this proposal—to send the acronym “JEDI” the way of “mankind,” “blacklist,” and, err, “quantum supremacy”—will meet with opposition even from the wokeists themselves, a huge fraction of whom (in my experience) have soft spots for the Star Wars franchise. Recall for example that in 2014, Laurie Penny used Star Wars metaphors in her interesting response to my comment-171, telling male nerds like me that we need to learn to accept that “[we’re] not the Rebel Alliance, [we’re] actually part of the Empire and have been all along.” Admittedly, I’ve never felt like part of an Empire, although I’ll confess to some labored breathing lately when ascending flights of stairs.

As for me, I spent much of my life opposed in principle to Star Wars—I hated how the most successful “science fiction” franchise of all time became that way precisely by ditching any pretense of science and fully embracing mystical woo—but sure, when the chips are down, I’m crazy and radical enough to take the side of Luke Skywalker, even if a team of woke theorists is earnestly, unironically explaining to me that lightsabers are phallocentric and that Vader ranks higher on the intersectional oppression axis because of his breathing problem.

Meantime, of course, the US continues to careen toward its worst Constitutional crisis since the Civil War, as Trump prepares to run again in 2024, and as this time around, the Republicans are systematically purging state governments of their last Brad Raffenspergers, of anyone who might stand in the way of them simply setting aside the vote totals and declaring Trump the winner regardless of the actual outcome. It’s good to know that my fellow progressives have their eyes on the ball—so that when that happens, at least universities will no longer be using offensive acronyms like “JEDI”!

“The Chair”: A Straussian interpretation

Tuesday, August 31st, 2021

[Warning: spoilers follow!]

Last week Dana and I watched the full first season of The Chair, the Netflix drama that stars Sandra Oh as Ji-Yoon Kim, incoming chairwoman of the English department at the fictional Pembroke University. As the rave reviews promised, I found the show to be brilliantly written and acted. At times, The Chair made me think about that other academia-centered sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, which I freely confess I also enjoyed. But The Chair is much more highbrow (and more political), it’s about the humanities rather than STEM, and it’s mostly about academics who are older than the ones in Big Bang, both biologically and professionally.

I wouldn’t call The Chair “realistic”: the sets, stuffed with imposing bookshelves, paintings of great scholars, etc., look like how a TV producer might imagine university buildings, rather than the relatively humdrum reality. But in less than three hours, the show tackles a staggering number of issues that will be recognizable and relevant to anyone in academia: cratering enrollments, a narrow-minded cost-cutting dean, a lack of free time and a desperate search for childcare, a tenure case that turns into a retention case, a woke scandal (about which more later), a faculty revolt against Ji-Yoon culminating in a vote of no confidence, and much more. There’s also an elaborate side plot involving the actor (and real-life former literary scholar) David Duchovny, who portrays himself, being invited to lecture at Pembroke, which is not the sort of thing most academics have experience with, but which I suppose many viewers will enjoy.

The show is written at a high enough level that its stumbles are those of a daring acrobat. In the main narrative arc of the first season, the writers set themselves an absurdly ambitious (and, I think, laudable) goal: namely, to dramatize a conflict between a free-spirited professor, and woke students trying to cancel that professor for a classroom “microaggression,” in a way that fully empathizes with both sides. I don’t know if the show actually succeeds at this, but that’s partly because I don’t know if it’s possible to succeed.

To start with some background: in Pembroke’s English department, there are old, traditionalist white males, who give lectures extolling the Great Men of Literature, and who apparently still wield considerable power. Meanwhile, critical theorists are presented as young, exciting upstarts bravely challenging the status quo. People with recent experience of English departments should correct me if I’m wrong, but my sense is that this is pretty anachronistic—i.e., that the last powerful traditionalists in humanities departments were routed by the 80s or 90s at the latest, so that students in the Twitter-and-smartphone era (when The Chair is set) would be about as likely to encounter them as they would professors sitting around in charcoal suits smoking pipes.

There were also some of what felt to me like … intersectional oversights? Ji-Yoon, being Korean-American, is repeatedly approached by Black female students and faculty as a “fellow woman of color,” with whom they can commiserate about the entrenched power of the department’s white males. The show never examines how woke discourse has increasingly reclassified Asian-Americans as “white-adjacent”—as, for example, in the battles over gifted and magnet programs or admissions to Harvard. Likewise, woke students are shown standing arm-in-arm with Pembroke’s Jewish community, to denounce (what we in the audience know to be) a phantom antisemitic incident. Left unexplored is how, in the modern woke hierarchy, Jews have become just another kind of privileged white person (worse, of course, if they have ties to Israel).

This brings me to the first season’s central conflict, which revolves around Bill Dobson, a handsome middle-aged white male professor who’s revered as the department’s greatest genius on the basis of his earlier work, but who, after the death of his wife, is now washed-up, flippant, and frequently drunk or high. In one class session, while lecturing about intellectuals who found the strength to resist fascism despite their own nihilistic impulses, Bill makes a Nazi salute and shouts “Heil Hitler!,” as a theatrical reminder to the students about the enormity of what those intellectuals were fighting. Alas, a woke student captures that moment on their smartphone camera and shares it on social media. The clip of Bill making the Heil salute goes viral, shorn of all exculpatory context. Soon, crowds of students are waving placards and screaming “No Nazis at Pembroke!” outside the English building. In a desperate effort to make his PR crisis go away, the dean initiates termination proceedings against Bill—the principles of academic freedom and even Bill’s tenure be damned. Ji-Yoon, of course, as Bill’s chair, is caught smack in the middle of this. It’s complicated even further by Ji-Yoon’s and Bill’s romantic feelings for each other, and further still by Bill’s role as the babysitter of Ji-Yoon’s adopted daughter.

As all of this unfolds, the show seems immensely interested in pinning the blame on Bill’s “tragic flaws,” minor though they seemed to me—mostly just pride and unseriousness. (E.g., trying to lampoon the absurd charge of Nazism, Bill offhandedly mentions that he’s always wanted to visit Hitler’s mountain retreat, and on another occasion belts out “Springtime for Hitler” from The Producers.) The woke students, by contrast, are portrayed as earnest, understandably upset, and legitimately terrified about hate crimes on campus. If they, too, have opportunistic motives to attack Bill, the show never examines them.

In one sentence, then, here’s my beef with The Chair: its script portrays a mob, step by step, destroying an innocent man’s life over nothing, and yet it wants me to feel the mob’s pain, and be disappointed in its victim for mulishly insisting on his innocence (even though he is, in fact, innocent).

With real-life woke controversies, there often lingers the question of whether the accused might really be a racist, fascist, sexual predator, or whatever else, adequate proof or no. What’s different here is that we know that Bill Dobson is none of those things, we know he’s decent to his core, because the writers have painstakingly shown us that. And yet, in a weird narrative pretzel, we’re nevertheless supposed to be mad at him, and to sympathize with the campaign to cancel him.

A casual perusal of other reviews of The Chair told me that these reactions were far from universal. Here, for example, is what one viewer wrote:

I can appreciate that this is probably close to the reality that most women/of color experience in higher education. I enjoyed watching the scenes with Joan and Yaz [two female professors] the most but the rest was a drag. I couldn’t understand why Ji-Yoon was into Bill, or why anyone was into Bill. I found him to be an insufferable man-baby. That is such a turn off. So she’d put him straight but then still be pining for him. He wreaked [sic] of entitled, white male, tenured privilege and never showed any contrition for his actions or even awareness of their impact. i’m so tired of the “brilliant _” being used to justify coddling someone. And for the rest of the stuffy old patriarchal farts– boot them out! They weren’t good teachers and weren’t able to meet the needs of today’s students.

I asked myself: did this person watch the same show? It’s like, the script couldn’t possibly have been clearer about Bill’s character, the fact that he’s the polar opposite of the woke students’ mental construct. And yet, if the show had drawn an unambiguous corollary from Bill’s goodness—namely, that the effort to cancel him is a moral travesty—then The Chair itself might have been denounced as conservative (or at least classical liberal) propaganda, and those who’d otherwise form its core viewership wouldn’t have watched.

So, if I were a literary critic like the ones on the show, I might argue that The Chair begs for a Straussian interpretation. Sure, there’s an “overt” reading, wherein Bill Dobson is done in by his own hubris, or wherein it’s a comedy of errors with no one to blame. But then there’s also an “esoteric” reading, wherein Bill is the victim of an extremely specific modern-day collective insanity, one that future generations might look back on with little more ambivalence than we look back on McCarthyism. The writers of The Chair might hint at this latter reading, through their sympathetic portrayal of Bill and the obviousness of the injustice done to him, but they can never make it too explicit, because of the political and cultural constraints under which they themselves operate.

Under this theory, it presumably falls to those slightly outside the world portrayed in The Chair—like, let’s imagine, a theoretical computer science blogger who himself was denounced for woke heresies to the point where he has little more to lose in that direction—to make the esoteric reading explicit. Unless and until, of course, a second season comes along to undermine that reading entirely.

Please cheer me up

Friday, August 27th, 2021


Update: Come to think of it, let’s circle back to the thing about kids under 13 getting banned from taking the SAT, as a ridiculous unintended consequence of some federal regulation. I wonder whether this is a campaign this blog could spearhead that would have an actual chance of making a positive difference in the world (!!), rather than just giving me space to express myself, to vent my impotent rage at the tragic failures of our civilization and the blankfaces who sleep soundly despite knowing that they caused those failures.  What if, like, a whole bunch of us wrote to the College Board, or whatever federal agency enforces the regulation that the College Board is worried about, and we asked them whether a solution might be found in which parents gave permission on the web form for their under-13s to take the SAT, given how memorable this opportunity was for many of us, how it was a nerd rite of passage, and how surely none of us have any wish to deny that opportunity to the next generation, so let’s work together to solve this?


I’m depressed that, all over the world, the values of the Enlightenment are humiliated and in retreat, while the values of the Taliban are triumphant. The literal Taliban of course, but also a thousand mini-Talibans of every flavor, united in their ideological certainty.

I’m depressed that now and for the future, the image of the United States before the world—deservedly so—is one of desperate Afghans plunging to their deaths from the last airplanes out of Kabul. I’m depressed that, while this historic calamity was set in motion by Donald Trump, the president who bears direct, immediate moral responsibility for it is the one I voted for. And knowing what I know now, I’d still have voted for him—but with an ashen face.

I’m depressed that, on social media, the same people who seven years ago floridly denounced me, because, while explaining how as a young person I overcame the urge to suicide and finally achieved some semblance of a normal life, I made a passing reference to a vanished culture of arranged marriages, to which I seemed better-adapted than to the world of today—these very same people are the ones sagely resigned to millions of Afghan women and girls actually forced into unwanted marriages, tortured, and raped, who explain that there’s nothing the US can or should do about this, even that it was folly to imagine we could impose parochial Western values, like women’s rights, on a culture that doesn’t want them. These are the people who saw fit to lecture me on my feminist failings.

I’m depressed that there’s an exceedingly good chance that both of my kids will get covid, as they’ve returned to school and preschool in Austin, TX, where the Delta variant is raging out of control, new reports of cases among the kids’ schoolmates come almost every day, Daniel has been quarantined at home for the past week because of one such case, there’s no vaccination mandate (and a looming battle over mask mandates), and—crucially, tragically, incredibly—the FDA has not only slow-walked approval of covid vaccines for children under 12, but has pushed back the approval even further than it previously planned, ignoring unprecedented public objections from the American Academy of Pediatrics. The FDA blankfaces have done this in spite of the reality, obvious to anyone with eyes and a brain, that they’re thereby consigning thousands of children to their deaths, that whatever ultra-rare risks the vaccine poses to children are infinitesimal compared to the overwhelming benefit.

Since I worry that I wasn’t clear enough, how about this: in a just world, the FDA in its current form would be dismantled, and all those who needlessly delayed the delivery of covid vaccines to children would be tried for manslaughter [while I still think the case for authorizing covid vaccines for kids right now is overwhelmingly clear, I hereby retract this particular remark, which was based on a factor 5-10 overestimate of the covid mortality risk for kids—for more, see this comment]. The blankfaces have already killed more people through pointlessly delaying the approval of covid vaccines than their agency could plausibly have saved through its entire history: do they need to take the children as well? As far as I’m concerned, those who defend the status quo—those who meet the on-the-ground reality of overflowing pediatric hospitals with obfuscatory words about procedures and best practices and the need for yet more data—are no better either morally or intellectually than the anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists, their rightly-reviled cousins.

As icing on the cake, I’m depressed that the College Board is no longer administering the SAT to children under 13, apparently because of federal regulations—-which means that Johns Hopkins CTY’s famed Study of Exceptional Talent, a program that made a big difference in my life three decades ago, has been suspended indefinitely. Imagine being a nerdy 11-year-old in 2021: no more tracking, no more gifted programs, no more magnet schools, no more acceleration, no getting vaccinated against deadly disease (!!), … oh, and if perchance you felt the urge to take the SAT, just to prove that you could outscore the grownups who decided to impose all this on you, then no, you’re no longer allowed to do that either.

The one bright spot in the endlessly bleak picture is that Daniel, my 4-year-old son, now plays a pretty mean chess game, if not quite at the level of Beth Harmon. Having just learned the rules a few months ago, Daniel now gives me and Dana (admittedly, no one would mistake either of us for Magnus Carlsen) extremely competitive matches; just yesterday he beat several adults in a park. Daniel has come to spend much of his free time (and now that he’s quarantined, he has a lot) playing chess against his iPad and watching chess videos. To be clear, he has very little emotional maturity even for a 4-year-old, and unlike me at the same age, he has no overwhelming passion for numbers or counting, but with chess I’ve finally found a winner. Now I just need to hope that they don’t ban chess-playing for children under 13.

So that’s it, it’s off my chest. Commenters: what else have you got that might cheer me up?

On standing up sans backbone

Monday, February 15th, 2021

Note: To get myself into the spirit of writing this post, tonight I watched the 2019 movie Mr. Jones, about the true story of the coverup of Stalin’s 1932-3 mass famine by New York Times journalist Walter Duranty. Recommended!

In my last post, I wrote that despite all my problems with Cade Metz’s New York Times hit piece on Scott Alexander, I’d continue talking to journalists—even Metz himself, I added, assuming he’d still talk to me after my public disparagement of his work. Over the past few days, though, the many counterarguments in my comments section and elsewhere gradually caused me to change my mind. I now feel like to work with Metz again, even just on some quantum computing piece, would be to reward—and to be seen as rewarding—journalistic practices that are making the world worse, and that this consideration overrides even my extreme commitment to openness.

At the least, before I could talk to Metz again, I’d need a better understanding of how the hit piece happened. What was the role of the editors? How did the original hook—namely, the rationalist community’s early rightness about covid-19—disappear entirely from the article? How did the piece manage to evince so little curiosity about such an unusual subculture and such a widely-admired writer? How did it fail so completely to engage with the rationalists’ ideas, instead jumping immediately to “six degrees of Peter Thiel” and other reductive games? How did an angry SneerClubber, David Gerard, end up (according to his own boast) basically dictating the NYT piece’s content?

It’s always ripping-off-a-bandage painful to admit when trust in another person was wildly misplaced—for then who else can we not trust? But sometimes that’s the truth of it.

I continue to believe passionately in the centrality of good journalism to a free society. I’ll continue to talk to journalists often, about quantum computing or whatever else. I also recognize that the NYT is a large, heterogeneous institution (I myself published in it twice); it’s not hard to imagine that many of its own staff take issue with the SSC piece.

But let’s be clear about the stakes here. In the discussion of my last post, I described the NYT as “still the main vessel of consensus reality in human civilization” [alright, alright, American civilization!]. What’s really at issue, beyond the treatment of a single blogger, is whether the NYT can continue serving that central role in a world reshaped by social media, resurgent fascism, and entitled wokery.

Sure, we all know that the NYT has been disastrously wrong before: it ridiculed Goddard’s dream of spaceflight, denied the Holodomor, relegated the Holocaust to the back pages while it was happening, published the fabricated justifications for the Iraq War. But the NYT and a few other publications were still the blockchain of reality, the engine of the consensus of all that is, the last bulwark against the conspiracists and the anti-vaxxers and the empowered fabulists and the horned insurrectionists storming the Capitol, because there was no ability to coordinate around any serious alternative. I’m still skeptical that there’s a serious alternative, but I now look more positively than I did just a few days ago on attempts to create one.

To all those who called me naïve or a coward for having cooperated with the NYT: believe me, I’m well aware that I wasn’t born with much backbone. (I am, after all, that guy on the Internet who famously once planned on a life of celibate asceticism, or more likely suicide, rather than asking women out and thereby risking eternal condemnation as a misogynistic sexual harasser by the normal, the popular, the socially adept, the … humanities grads and the journalists.) But whenever I need a pick-me-up, I tell myself that rather than being ashamed about my lack of a backbone, I can take pride in having occasionally managed to stand even without one.

On the destruction of America’s best high school

Sunday, October 4th, 2020

[C]hildren with special abilities and skills need to be nourished and encouraged. They are a national treasure. Challenging programs for the “gifted” are sometimes decried as “elitism.” Why aren’t intensive practice sessions for varsity football, baseball, and basketball players and interschool competition deemed elitism? After all, only the most gifted athletes participate. There is a self-defeating double standard at work here, nationwide.
—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (1996)

I’d like you to feel about the impending destruction of Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, the same way you might’ve felt when the Taliban threatened to blow up the Bamyan Buddhas, and then days later actually did blow them up. Or the way you felt when human negligence caused wildfires that incinerated half the koalas in Australia, or turned the San Francisco skyline into an orange hellscape. For that matter, the same way most of us felt the day Trump was elected. I’d like you to feel in the bottom of your stomach the avoidability, and yet the finality, of the loss.

For thousands of kids in the DC area, especially first- or second-generation immigrants, TJHS represented a lifeline. Score high enough on an entrance exam—something hard but totally within your control—and you could attend a school where, instead of the other kids either tormenting or ignoring you, they might teach you Lisp or the surreal number system. Where you could learn humility instead of humiliation.

When I visited TJHS back in 2012 to give a quantum computing talk, I toured the campus, chatted with students, fielded their questions, and thought: so this is the teenagerhood—the ironically normal teenagerhood—that I was denied by living someplace else. I found myself wishing that a hundred more TJHS’s, large and small, would sprout up across the country. I felt like if I could further that goal then, though the universe return to rubble, my life would’ve had a purpose.

Instead, of course, our sorry country is destroying the few such schools that exist. Stuyvesant and Bronx Science in New York, and the Liberal Arts and Science Academy here in Austin, are also under mortal threat right now. The numerous parents who moved, who arranged their lives, specifically so that these schools might later be available for “high-risk” kids were suckered.

Assuming you haven’t just emerged from 30 years in a Tibetan cave, you presumably know why this is happening. As the Washington Post‘s Jay Matthews explains, the Fairfax County School Board is “embarrassed” to have a school that, despite all its outreach attempts, remains only 5% Black and Latino—even though, crucially, the school also happens to be only 19% White (it’s now ~75% Asian).

You might ask: so then why doesn’t TJHS just institute affirmative action, like almost every university does? It seems there’s an extremely interesting answer: they did in the 1990s, and Black and Hispanic enrollment surged. But then the verdicts of court cases, brought by right-wing groups, made the school district fear that they’d be open to lawsuits if they continued with affirmative action, so they dropped it. Now the boomerang has returned, and the School Board has decided on a more drastic remedy: namely, to eliminate the TJHS entrance exam entirely, and replace it by a lottery for anyone whose GPA exceeds 3.5.

The trouble is, TJHS without an entrance exam is no longer TJHS. More likely than not, such a place would simply converge to become another of the thousands of schools across the US where success is based on sports, networking, and popularity. And if by some miracle it avoided that fate, still it would no longer be available to most of the kids who‘d most need it.

So yes, the district is embarrassed—note that the Washington Post writer explains it as if that’s the most obvious, natural reaction in the world—to host a school that’s regularly ranked #1 in the US, with the highest average SATs and a distinguished list of alumni. To avoid this embarrassment, the solution is (in effect) to burn the school to the ground.

In a world-historic irony, the main effect of this “solution” will be to drastically limit the number of Asian students, while drastically increasing (!!!) the number of White students. The proportion of Black and Hispanic students is projected to increase a bit but remain small. Let me say that one more time: in practice, TJHS’s move from a standardized test to a lottery will be overwhelmingly pro-White, anti-Asian, and anti-immigrant; only as a much smaller effect will it be pro-underrepresented-minority.

In spite of covid and everything else going on, hundreds of students and parents have been protesting in front of TJHS to try to prevent the school’s tragic and pointless destruction. But it sounds like TJHS’s fate might be sealed. The school board tolerated excellence for 35 more years than it wanted to; now its patience is at an end.

Some will say: sure, the end of TJHS is unfortunate, Scott, but why do you let this stuff weigh on you so heavily? This is merely another instance of friendly fire, of good people fighting the just war against racism, and in one case hitting a target that, yeah, OK, probably should’ve been spared. On reflection, though, I can accept that only insofar as I accept that it was “friendly fire” when Bolsheviks targeted the kulaks, or (much more comically, less importantly, and less successfully) when Arthur Chu, Amanda Marcotte, and a thousand other woke-ists targeted me. With friendly fire like that, who needs enemy fire?

If you care about the gifted Black and Hispanic kids of Fairfax County, then like me, you should demand a change in the law to allow the reinstatement of affirmative action for them. You should acknowledge that the issue lies there and not with TJHS itself.

I don’t see how you reach the point of understanding all the facts and still wanting to dismantle TJHS, over the desperate pleas of the students and parents, without a decent helping of resentment toward the kind of student who flourishes there—without a wish to see those uppity, “fresh off the boat” Chinese and Indian grinds get dragged down to where they belong. And if you tell me that such magnet programs need to end even though you yourself once benefitted from them—well, isn’t that more contemptible still? Aren’t you knowingly burning a bridge you crossed so that a younger generation can’t follow you, basically reassuring the popular crowd that if they’ll only accept you, then there won’t be a hundred more greasy nerds in your tow? And if, on some level, you already know these things about yourself, then the only purpose of this post has been to remind you of them.


As for the news that dominates the wires and inevitably preempts what I’ve written: I wish for his successful recovery, followed by his losing the election and spending the rest of his life in New York State prison. (And I look forward to seeing how woke Twitter summarizes the preceding statement—e.g., “Aaronson, his mask finally off, conveys well-wishes to Donald Trump”…)


See further discussion of this post on Hacker News.

My new motto

Sunday, August 30th, 2020

Update (Sep 1): Thanks for the comments, everyone! As you can see, I further revised this blog’s header based on the feedback and on further reflection.

The Right could only kill me and everyone I know.
The Left is scarier; it could convince me that it was my fault
!

(In case you missed it on the blog’s revised header, right below “Quantum computers aren’t just nondeterministic Turing machines” and “Hold the November US election by mail.” I added an exclamation point at the end to suggest a slightly comic delivery.)

Update: A friend expressed concern that, because my new motto appears to “blame both sides,” it might generate confusion about my sympathies or what I want to happen in November. So to eliminate all ambiguity: I hereby announce that I will match all reader donations made in the next 72 hours to either the Biden-Harris campaign or the Lincoln Project, up to a limit of $2,000. Honor system; just tell me in the comments what you donated.

Justice has no faction

Thursday, June 18th, 2020

(1) To start with some rare good news: I was delighted that the US Supreme Court, in a 5-4 holding led by Chief Justice Roberts (!), struck down the Trump administration’s plan to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Dismantling DACA would’ve been a first step toward deporting 700,000 overwhelmingly blameless and peaceful people from, in many cases, the only homes they remember, for no particular reason other than to slake the resentment of Trump’s base. Better still was the majority’s argument: that when, by law, a federal agency has to supply a reason for a policy change (in this case, ending DACA), its reason can’t just be blatantly invented post facto.

To connect to my last post: I hope this gives some evidence that, if Trump refuses to accept an electoral loss in November, and if it ends up in the Supreme Court as Bush v. Gore did, then Roberts might once again break from the Court’s other four rightists, in favor of the continued survival of the Republic.

(2) Along with Steven Pinker, Scott Alexander, Sam Altman, Jonathan Haidt, Robert Solovay, and others who might be known to this blog’s readership, I decided after reflection to sign a petition in support of Steve Hsu, a theoretical physicist turned genomics researcher, and the Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation at Michigan State University.

Information Processing: Hail to the Chief
Hsu is the one on the right.

Hsu now faces possible firing, because of a social media campaign apparently started by an MSU grad student and SneerClub poster named Kevin Bird. What are the charges? Hsu appeared in 2017 on an alt-right podcast (albeit, one that Noam Chomsky has also appeared on). On Hsu’s own podcast, he interviewed Ron Unz, who despite Jewish birth has become a nutcase Holocaust denier—yet somehow that topic never came up on the podcast. Hsu said that, as a scientist, he doesn’t know whether group differences in average IQ have a genetic component, but our commitment to anti-racism should never hinge on questions of biology (a view also espoused by Peter Singer, perhaps the leading liberal moral philosopher of our time). Hsu has championed genomics research that, in addition to medical uses, might someday help enable embryo screening for traits like IQ. Finally, Hsu supports the continued use of standardized tests in university admissions (yes, that’s one of the listed charges).

Crucially, it doesn’t matter for present purposes if you disagree with many of Hsu’s views. The question is more like: is agreement with Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, and other mild-mannered, Obama-supporting thinkers featured in your local airport bookstore now a firing offense in academia? And will those who affirm that it is, claim in the next breath to be oppressed, marginalized, the Rebel Alliance?

To be fair to the cancelers, I think they have two reasonable arguments in their favor.

The first that they’re “merely” asking for Hsu to step down as vice president, not for him to lose his tenured professorship in physics. Only professors, say the activists, enjoy academic freedom; administrators need to uphold the values and public image of their university, as Larry Summers learned fifteen years ago. (And besides, we might add, what intellectual iconoclast in their right mind would ever become a university VP, or want to stay one??) I’d actually be fine with this if I had any confidence that it was going to end here. But I don’t. Given the now-enshrined standards—e.g., that professors hold positions of power, and that the powerful can oppress the powerless, or even do violence to them, just by expressing or entertaining thoughts outside an ever-shrinking range—why should Hsu trust any assurances that he’ll be left alone, if he does go back to being a physics professor? If the SneerClubbers can cancel him, then how long until they cancel Pinker, or Haidt, or me? (I hope the SneerClubbers enthusiastically embrace those ideas! If they do, then no one ever again gets to call me paranoid about Red Guards behind every bush.)

The second reasonable argument is that, as far as I can tell, Hsu really did grant undeserved legitimacy to a Holocaust denier, via a friendly interview about other topics on his podcast. I think it would help if, without ceding a word that he doesn’t believe, Hsu were now to denounce racism, Holocaust denial, and specifically Ron Unz’s flirtation with Holocaust denial in the strongest possible terms, and explain why he didn’t bring the topic up with his guest (e.g., did he not know Unz’s views?).

If I used Twitter…

Saturday, April 4th, 2020

I’m thinking of writing a novel where human civilization is threatened by a global pandemic, and is then almost singlehandedly rescued by one man … a man who reigned for decades as the world’s prototypical ruthless and arrogant tech billionaire, but who was then transformed by the love of his wife. That is, if the billionaire can make it past government regulators as evil as they are stupid. I need some advice: how can I make my storyline a bit subtler, so critics don’t laugh it off as some immature nerd fantasy?

Updates (April 5): Thanks to several commenters for emphasizing that the wife needs to be a central character here: I agree! The other thing is, I don’t want Fox News cheering my novel for its Atlas Shrugged vibe. So maybe the pandemic is only surging out of control in the US because of the incompetence of a Republican president? I don’t want to go ridiculously overboard, but like, maybe the president is some thuggish conman with the diction of a 5-year-old, who the deluded Republicans cheer anyway? And maybe he’s also a Bible-thumping fundamentalist? OK, that’s too much, so maybe the fundamentalist is like the vice president or something, and he gets put in charge of the pandemic response and then sets about muzzling the scientists? As I said, I really need advice on making the messages subtler.

An alternative argument for why women leave STEM: Guest post by Karen Morenz

Thursday, January 16th, 2020

Scott’s preface: Imagine that every time you turned your blog over to a certain topic, you got denounced on Twitter and Reddit as a privileged douchebro, entitled STEMlord, counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie, etc. etc. The sane response would simply be to quit blogging about that topic. But there’s also an insane (or masochistic?) response: the response that says, “but if everyone like me stopped talking, we’d cede the field by default to the loudest, angriest voices on all sides—thereby giving those voices exactly what they wanted. To hell with that!”

A few weeks ago, while I was being attacked for sharing Steven Pinker’s guest post about NIPS vs. NeurIPS, I received a beautiful message of support from a PhD student in physical chemistry and quantum computing named Karen Morenz. Besides her strong words of encouragement, Karen wanted to share with me an essay she had written on Medium about why too many women leave STEM.

Karen’s essay, I found, marshaled data, logic, and her own experience in support of an insight that strikes me as true and important and underappreciated—one that dovetails with what I’ve heard from many other women in STEM fields, including my wife Dana. So I asked Karen for permission to reprint her essay on this blog, and she graciously agreed.

Briefly: anyone with a brain and a soul wants there to be many more women in STEM. Karen outlines a realistic way to achieve this shared goal. Crucially, Karen’s way is not about shaming male STEM nerds for their deep-seated misogyny, their arrogant mansplaining, or their gross, creepy, predatory sexual desires. Yes, you can go the shaming route (God knows it’s being tried). If you do, you’ll probably snare many guys who really do deserve to be shamed as creeps or misogynists, along with many more who don’t. Yet for all your efforts, Karen predicts, you’ll no more solve the original problem of too few women in STEM, than arresting the kulaks solved the problem of lifting the masses out of poverty.

For you still won’t have made a dent in the real issue: namely that, the way we’ve set things up, pursuing an academic STEM career demands fanatical devotion, to the exclusion of nearly everything else in life, between the ages of roughly 18 and 35. And as long as that’s true, Karen says, the majority of talented women are going to look at academic STEM, in light of all the other great options available to them, and say “no thanks.” Solving this problem might look like more money for maternity leave and childcare. It might also look like re-imagining the academic career trajectory itself, to make it easier to rejoin it after five or ten years away. Way back in 2006, I tried to make this point in a blog post called Nerdify the world, and the women will follow. I’m grateful to Karen for making it more cogently than I did.

Without further ado, here’s Karen’s essay. –SA

Is it really just sexism? An alternative argument for why women leave STEM

by Karen Morenz

Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to start your argument with ‘everyone knows,’ but in this case, I think we ought to make an exception:

Everyone knows that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has a problem retaining women (see, for example Jean, Payne, and Thompson 2015). We pour money into attracting girls and women to STEM fields. We pour money into recruiting women, training women, and addressing sexism, both overt and subconscious. In 2011, the United States spent nearly $3 billion tax dollars on STEM education, of which roughly one third was spent supporting and encouraging underrepresented groups to enter STEM (including women). And yet, women are still leaving at alarming rates.

Alarming? Isn’t that a little, I don’t know, alarmist? Well, let’s look at some stats.

A recent report by the National Science Foundation (2011) found that women received 20.3% of the bachelor’s degrees and 18.6% of the PhD degrees in physics in 2008. In chemistry, women earned 49.95% of the bachelor’s degrees but only 36.1% of the doctoral degrees. By comparison, in biology women received 59.8% of the bachelor’s degrees and 50.6% of the doctoral degrees. A recent article in Chemical and Engineering News showed a chart based on a survey of life sciences workers by Liftstream and MassBio demonstrating how women are vastly underrepresented in science leadership despite earning degrees at similar rates, which I’ve copied below. The story is the same in academia, as you can see on the second chart — from comparable or even larger number of women at the student level, we move towards a significantly larger proportion of men at the more and more advanced stages of an academic career.

Although 74% of women in STEM report “loving their work,” half (56%, in fact) leave over the course of their career — largely at the “mid-level” point, when the loss of their talent is most costly as they have just completed training and begun to contribute maximally to the work force.

A study by Dr. Flaherty found that women who obtain faculty position in astronomy spent on average 1 year less than their male counterparts between completing their PhD and obtaining their position — but he concluded that this is because women leave the field at a rate 3 to 4 times greater than men, and in particular, if they do not obtain a faculty position quickly, will simply move to another career. So, women and men are hired at about the same rate during the early years of their post docs, but women stop applying to academic positions and drop out of the field as time goes on, pulling down the average time to hiring for women.

There are many more studies to this effect. At this point, the assertion that women leave STEM at an alarming rate after obtaining PhDs is nothing short of an established fact. In fact, it’s actually a problem across all academic disciplines, as you can see in this matching chart showing the same phenomenon in humanities, social sciences, and education. The phenomenon has been affectionately dubbed the “leaky pipeline.”

But hang on a second, maybe there just aren’t enough women qualified for the top levels of STEM? Maybe it’ll all get better in a few years if we just wait around doing nothing?

Nope, sorry. This study says that 41% of highly qualified STEM people are female. And also, it’s clear from the previous charts and stats that a significantly larger number of women are getting PhDs than going on the be professors, in comparison to their male counterparts. Dr. Laurie Glimcher, when she started her professorship at Harvard University in the early 1980s, remembers seeing very few women in leadership positions. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is really going to change dramatically,’ ” she says. But 30 years later, “it’s not where I expected it to be.” Her experiences are similar to those of other leading female faculty.

So what gives? Why are all the STEM women leaving?

It is widely believed that sexism is the leading problem. A quick google search of “sexism in STEM” will turn up a veritable cornucopia of articles to that effect. And indeed, around 60% of women report experiencing some form of sexism in the last year (Robnett 2016). So, that’s clearly not good.

And yet, if you ask leading women researchers like Nobel Laureate in Physics 2018, Professor Donna Strickland, or Canada Research Chair in Advanced Functional Materials (Chemistry), Professor Eugenia Kumacheva, they say that sexism was not a barrier in their careers. Moreover, extensive research has shown that sexism has overall decreased since Professors Strickland and Kumacheva (for example) were starting their careers. Even more interestingly, Dr. Rachael Robnett showed that more mathematical fields such as Physics have a greater problem with sexism than less mathematical fields, such as Chemistry, a finding which rings true with the subjective experience of many women I know in Chemistry and Physics. However, as we saw above, women leave the field of Chemistry in greater proportions following their BSc than they leave Physics. On top of that, although 22% of women report experiencing sexual harassment at work, the proportion is the same among STEM and non-STEM careers, and yet women leave STEM careers at a much higher rate than non-STEM careers.

So,it seems that sexism can not fully explain why women with STEM PhDs are leaving STEM. At the point when women have earned a PhD, for the most part they have already survived the worst of the sexism. They’ve already proven themselves to be generally thick-skinned and, as anyone with a PhD can attest, very stubborn in the face of overwhelming difficulties. Sexism is frustrating, and it can limit advancement, but it doesn’t fully explain why we have so many women obtaining PhDs in STEM, and then leaving. In fact, at least in the U of T chemistry department, faculty hires are directly proportional to the applicant pool —although the exact number of applicants are not made public, from public information we can see that approximately one in four interview invitees are women, and approximately one in four hires are women. Our hiring committees have received bias training, and it seems that it has been largely successful. That’s not to say that we’re done, but it’s time to start looking elsewhere to explain why there are so few women sticking around.

So why don’t more women apply?

Well, one truly brilliant researcher had the groundbreaking idea of asking women why they left the field. When you ask women why they left, the number one reason they cite is balancing work/life responsibilities — which as far as I can tell is a euphemism for family concerns.

The research is in on this. Women who stay in academia expect to marry later, and delay or completely forego having children, and if they do have children, plan to have fewer than their non-STEM counterparts (Sassler et al 2016Owens 2012). Men in STEM have no such difference compared to their non-STEM counterparts; they marry and have children about the same ages and rates as their non-STEM counterparts (Sassler et al 2016). Women leave STEM in droves in their early to mid thirties (Funk and Parker 2018) — the time when women’s fertility begins to decrease, and risks of childbirth complications begin to skyrocket for both mother and child. Men don’t see an effect on their fertility until their mid forties. Of the 56% of women who leave STEM, 50% wind up self-employed or using their training in a not for profit or government, 30% leave to a non-STEM more ‘family friendly’ career, and 20% leave to be stay-at-home moms (Ashcraft and Blithe 2002). Meanwhile, institutions with better childcare and maternity leave policies have twice(!) the number of female faculty in STEM (Troeger 2018). In analogy to the affectionately named “leaky pipeline,” the challenge of balancing motherhood and career has been titled the “maternal wall.”

To understand the so-called maternal wall better, let’s take a quick look at the sketch of a typical academic career.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s all pretend to be me. I’m a talented 25 year old PhD candidate studying Physical Chemistry — I use laser spectroscopy to try to understand atypical energy transfer processes in innovative materials that I hope will one day be used to make vastly more efficient solar panels. I got my BSc in Chemistry and Mathematics at the age of 22, and have published 4 scientific papers in two different fields already (Astrophysics and Environmental Chemistry). I’ve got a big scholarship, and a lot of people supporting me to give me the best shot at an academic career — a career I dearly want. But, I also want a family — maybe two or three kids. Here’s what I can expect if I pursue an academic career:

With any luck, 2–3 years from now I’ll graduate with a PhD, at the age of 27. Academics are expected to travel a lot, and to move a lot, especially in their 20s and early 30s — all of the key childbearing years. I’m planning to go on exchange next year, and then the year after that I’ll need to work hard to wrap up research, write a thesis, and travel to several conferences to showcase my work. After I finish my PhD, I’ll need to undertake one or two post doctoral fellowships, lasting one or two years each, probably in completely different places. During that time, I’ll start to apply for professorships. In order to do this, I’ll travel around to conferences to advertise my work and to meet important leaders in my field, and then, if I am invited for interviews, I’ll travel around to different universities for two or three days at a time to undertake these interviews. This usually occurs in a person’s early 30s — our helpful astronomy guy, Dr. Flaherty, found the average time to hiring was 5 years, so let’s say I’m 32 at this point. If offered a position, I’ll spend the next year or two renovating and building a lab, buying equipment, recruiting talented graduate students, and designing and teaching courses. People work really, really hard during this time and have essentially no leisure time. Now I’m 34. Within usually 5 years I’ll need to apply for tenure. This means that by the time I’m 36, I’ll need to be making significant contributions in my field, and then in the final year before applying for tenure, I will once more need to travel to many conferences to promote my work, in order to secure tenure — if I fail to do so, my position at the university would probably be terminated. Although many universities offer a “tenure extension” in cases where an assistant professor has had a child, this does not solve all of the problems. Taking a year off during that critical 5 or 6 year period often means that the research “goes bad” — students flounder, projects that were promising get “scooped” by competitors at other institutions, and sometimes, in biology and chemistry especially, experiments literally go bad. You wind up needing to rebuild much more than just a year’s worth of effort.

At no point during this time do I appear stable enough, career-wise, to take even six months off to be pregnant and care for a newborn. Hypothetical future-me is travelling around, or even moving, conducting and promoting my own independent research and training students. As you’re likely aware, very pregnant people and newborns don’t travel well. And academia has a very individualistic and meritocratic culture. Starting at the graduate level, huge emphasis is based on independent research, and independent contributions, rather than valuing team efforts. This feature of academia is both a blessing and a curse. The individualistic culture means that people have the independence and the freedom to pursue whatever research interests them — in fact this is the main draw for me personally. But it also means that there is often no one to fall back on when you need extra support, and because of biological constraints, this winds up impacting women more than men.

At this point, I need to make sure that you’re aware of some basics of female reproductive biology. According to Wikipedia, the unquestionable source of all reliable knowledge, at age 25, my risk of conceiving a baby with chromosomal abnormalities (including Down’s Syndrome) is 1 in about 1400. By 35, that risk more than quadruples to 1 in 340. At 30, I have a 75% chance of a successful birth in one year, but by 35 it has dropped to 66%, and by 40 it’s down to 44%. Meanwhile, 87 to 94% of women report at least 1 health problem immediately after birth, and 1.5% of mothers have a severe health problem, while 31% have long-term persistent health problems as a result of pregnancy (defined as lasting more than six months after delivery). Furthermore, mothers over the age of 35 are at higher risk for pregnancy complications like preterm delivery, hypertension, superimposed preeclampsia, severe preeclampsia (Cavazos-Rehg et al 2016). Because of factors like these, pregnancies in women over 35 are known as “geriatric pregnancies” due to the drastically increased risk of complications. This tight timeline for births is often called the “biological clock” — if women want a family, they basically need to start before 35. Now, that’s not to say it’s impossible to have a child later on, and in fact some studies show that it has positive impacts on the child’s mental health. But it is riskier.

So, women with a PhD in STEM know that they have the capability to make interesting contributions to STEM, and to make plenty of money doing it. They usually marry someone who also has or expects to make a high salary as well. But this isn’t the only consideration. Such highly educated women are usually aware of the biological clock and the risks associated with pregnancy, and are confident in their understanding of statistical risks.

The Irish say, “The common challenge facing young women is achieving a satisfactory work-life balance, especially when children are small. From a career perspective, this period of parenthood (which after all is relatively short compared to an entire working life) tends to coincide exactly with the critical point at which an individual’s career may or may not take off. […] All the evidence shows that it is at this point that women either drop out of the workforce altogether, switch to part-time working or move to more family-friendly jobs, which may be less demanding and which do not always utilise their full skillset.”

And in the Netherlands, “The research project in Tilburg also showed that women academics have more often no children or fewer children than women outside academia.” Meanwhile in Italy “On a personal level, the data show that for a significant number of women there is a trade-off between family and work: a large share of female economists in Italy do not live with a partner and do not have children”

Most jobs available to women with STEM PhDs offer greater stability and a larger salary earlier in the career. Moreover, most non-academic careers have less emphasis on independent research, meaning that employees usually work within the scope of a larger team, and so if a person has to take some time off, there are others who can help cover their workload. By and large, women leave to go to a career where they will be stable, well funded, and well supported, even if it doesn’t fulfill their passion for STEM — or they leave to be stay-at-home moms or self-employed.

I would presume that if we made academia a more feasible place for a woman with a family to work, we could keep almost all of those 20% of leavers who leave to just stay at home, almost all of the 30% who leave to self-employment, and all of those 30% who leave to more family friendly careers (after all, if academia were made to be as family friendly as other careers, there would be no incentive to leave). Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a stay at home parent — it’s an admirable choice and contributes greatly to our society. One estimate valued the equivalent salary benefit of stay-at-home parenthood at about $160,000/year. Moreover, children with a stay-at-home parent show long term benefits such as better school performance — something that most academic women would want for their children. But a lot of people only choose it out of necessity — about half of stay-at-home moms would prefer to be working (Ciciolla, Curlee, & Luthar 2017). When the reality is that your salary is barely more than the cost of daycare, then a lot of people wind up giving up and staying home with their kids rather than paying for daycare. In a heterosexual couple it will usually be the woman that winds up staying home since she is the one who needs to do things like breast feed anyways. And so we lose these women from the workforce.

And yet, somehow, during this informal research adventure of mine, most scholars and policy makers seem to be advising that we try to encourage young girls to be interested in STEM, and to address sexism in the workplace, with the implication that this will fix the high attrition rate in STEM women. But from what I’ve found, the stats don’t back up sexism as the main reason women leave. There is sexism, and that is a problem, and women do leave STEM because of it — but it’s a problem that we’re already dealing with pretty successfully, and it’s not why the majority of women who have already obtained STEM PhDs opt to leave the field. The whole family planning thing is huge and for some reason, almost totally swept under the rug — mostly because we’re too shy to talk about it, I think.

In fact, I think that the plethora of articles suggesting that the problem is sexism actually contribute to our unwillingness to talk about the family planning problem, because it reinforces the perception that that men in power will not hire a woman for fear that she’ll get pregnant and take time off. Why would anyone talk about how they want to have a family when they keep hearing that even the mere suggestion of such a thing will limit their chances of being hired? I personally know women who have avoided bringing up the topic with colleagues or supervisors for fear of professional repercussions. So we spend all this time and energy talking about how sexism is really bad, and very little time trying to address the family planning challenge, because, I guess, as the stats show, if women are serious enough about science then they just give up on the family (except for the really, really exceptional ones who can handle the stresses of both simultaneously).

To be very clear, I’m not saying that sexism is not a problem. What I am saying is that, thanks to the sustained efforts of a large number of people over a long period of time, we’ve reduced the sexism problem to the point where, at least at the graduate level, it is no longer the largest major barrier to women’s advancement in STEM. Hurray! That does not mean that we should stop paying attention to the issue of sexism, but does mean that it’s time to start paying more attention to other issues, like how to properly support women who want to raise a family while also maintaining a career in STEM.

So what can we do to better support STEM women who want families?

A couple of solutions have been tentatively tested. From a study mentioned above, it’s clear that providing free and conveniently located childcare makes a colossal difference to women’s choices of whether or not to stay in STEM, alongside extended and paid maternity leave. Another popular and successful strategy was implemented by a leading woman in STEM, Laurie Glimcher, a past Harvard Professor in Immunology and now CEO of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. While working at NIH, Dr. Glimcher designed a program to provide primary caregivers (usually women) with an assistant or lab technician to help manage their laboratories while they cared for children. Now, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she has created a similar program to pay for a technician or postdoctoral researcher for assistant professors. In the academic setting, Dr. Glimcher’s strategies are key for helping to alleviate the challenges associated with the individualistic culture of academia without compromising women’s research and leadership potential.

For me personally, I’m in the ideal situation for an academic woman. I graduated my BSc with high honours in four years, and with many awards. I’ve already had success in research and have published several peer reviewed papers. I’ve faced some mild sexism from peers and a couple of TAs, but nothing that’s seriously held me back. My supervisors have all been extremely supportive and feminist, and all of the people that I work with on a daily basis are equally wonderful. Despite all of this support, I’m looking at the timelines of an academic career, and the time constraints of female reproduction, and honestly, I don’t see how I can feasible expect to stay in academia and have the family life I want. And since I’m in the privileged position of being surrounded by supportive and feminist colleagues, I can say it: I’m considering leaving academia, if something doesn’t change, because even though I love it, I don’t see how it can fit in to my family plans.

But wait! All of these interventions are really expensive. Money doesn’t just grow on trees, you know!

It doesn’t in general, but in this case it kind of does — well, actually, we already grew it. We spend billions of dollars training women in STEM. By not making full use of their skills, if we look at only the american economy, we are wasting about $1.5 billion USD per year in economic benefits they would have produced if they stayed in STEM. So here’s a business proposal: let’s spend half of that on better family support and scientific assistants for primary caregivers, and keep the other half in profit. Heck, let’s spend 99% — $1.485 billion (in the states alone) on better support. That should put a dent in the support bill, and I’d sure pick up $15 million if I saw it lying around. Wouldn’t you?

By demonstrating that we will support women in STEM who choose to have a family, we will encourage more women with PhDs to apply for the academic positions that they are eminently qualified for. Our institutions will benefit from the wider applicant pool, and our whole society will benefit from having the skills of these highly trained and intelligent women put to use innovating new solutions to our modern day challenges.