Robert Green

Love this video of the lego version of highlights of England vs. US soccer from Saturday.  My dad’s name is Robert Greene, so we all got a kick out of the failure of Robert Green.  Still, my dad probably shouldn’t make any plans to visit England in the near future :-).

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Interpreting the Constitution

Dahlia Lithwick (my current target as an NCSU guest speaker) has an excellent column on David Souter’s recent speech on Constitutional interpretation.  The main point, contrary to Antonin Scalia’s suggestions, and all John Roberts’ ridiculous talk of Justices as umpires calling balls and strikes; there is no simple and easy interpretation of the Constitution.  You just cannot take human judgement (and thus, individual predispositions, out of it).  My favorite parts:

But Souter went on to show that certain provisions of the document are in tension with others. “The Constitution is no simple contract,” he explained, “not because it uses a certain amount of open-ended language, but because its language grants and guarantees many good things, and good things that compete with each other and can never all be realized, altogether, all at once.”

Under such circumstances, justices can no more be neutral umpires—in Chief Justice John Roberts’ famous formulation—than they can be dispassionate microcomputers. You can be the greatest reader of text in the world and the most profound diviner of linguistic meaning, but it still won’t help you in any but the handful of very easy cases, which, as Souter correctly observed, “do not usually come to court, or at least the Supreme Court.” That is precisely why, he added, “the fair-reading model has only a tenuous connection to reality.” It describes a nonexistent universe in which all cases are easy and all the constitutional directives are perfectly clear…

Contrast Souter’s honesty to the nonsense you hear at judicial confirmation hearings, up to and including the chief justice’s claim at his hearing that “umpires don’t make the rules. They apply them. The role of an umpire and a judge is critical. They make sure everybody plays by the rules.”…

But could we at least ask that the nominee, and the senators, decline to insult our collective intelligence with the suggestion that judging is so easy, and the Constitution so crystal clear, that a second-year associate could do it.

As I tell my classes, there’s simply no universal and obvious interpretation of things like “unreasonable” search and seizure; “cruel and unusual” punishment; a “fair” trial, etc.  That’s why we have a Supreme Court.  This stuff is tough.  Pretending otherwise doesn’t do anybody any favors.

Sadly, I know from my blog stats, that y’all pretty much never follow my links, but this one is certainly well worth reading.

The Math Gap

Here I am teaching about the “math gap” in my gender and politics class this week (under the broader heading of Education Policy), and Jon Chait helps me out by pointing out the latest research on the matter.  First, the gap… men outperform women on math throughout the world, but, the more gender equal a society, the smaller the gap, until it basically disappears in Scandinavian countries.

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Figure 1: Gender gaps in math and reading versus women emancipation, 2008

What Larry Summers got in trouble for several years ago was not suggesting that men are better than women at math, but at the very extremes of math ability, e.g., 99.9 percentile, men may have a natural advantage.   Here’s the summary from the Times’ John Tierney:

The Duke researchers — Jonathan Wai, Megan Cacchio, Martha Putallaz and Matthew C. Makel — focused on the extreme right tail of the distribution curve: people ranking in the top 0.01 percent of the general population, which for a seventh grader means scoring above 700 on the SAT math test. In the early 1980s, there were 13 boys for every girl in that group, but by 1991 the gender gap had narrowed to four to one, presumably because of sociocultural factors like encouragement and instruction in math offered to girls.

Since then, however, the math gender gap hasn’t narrowed, despite the continuing programs to encourage girls. The Duke researchers report that there are still four boys for every girl at the extreme right tail of the scores for the SAT math test. The boy-girl ratio has also remained fairly constant, at about three to one, at the right tail of the ACT tests of both math and science reasoning. Among the 19 students who got a perfect score on the ACT science test in the past two decades, 18 were boys.

Meanwhile, the seventh-grade girls outnumbered the boys at the right tail of tests measuring verbal reasoning and writing ability. The Duke researchers report in Intelligence, “Our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail, with some favoring males and some favoring females.”

Here’s Chait’s smart take on this:

There’s nothing like having a daughter to make you understand the ways that culture can effect a person’s development from a very young age. But I think the point is that, from the perspective of how a university should treat the problem, it fundamentally doesn’t matter. From a societal perspective, it’s crucial to identify sexism and differential socialization that may contribute to the disparity in male-female math performance at high levels. But Summers was addressing how universities should treat the problem, and it’s clear that by the time you’re dealing with university-level students, a significant gender disparity is already baked in the cake.

I remain very interested in the nature vs nurture aspect of this, and like Chait, I definitely chafe at the idea that we shouldn’t even discuss if biology is at stake.  Is it really a big deal that should affect our national policy or conception of gender roles in any way if at the amazing 99.9% extreme of math ability men are better than women?  Not that I’m all convinced that it is.  Just because the ratio has stopped changing doesn’t mean that there’s still not real sociological differences.  Perhaps, we’ve already gotten all the “low hanging fruit” and the remaining disparities in elite mathematics are harder to conquer.  Over a 20-30 year period, women rapidly moved from about 6% of state legislators to about 24%, with very little improvement over the last decades or so.  Does this suggest that women have now maxed out their ability as legislators and men are just better?  Either way, it’s certainly worth investigating further and considering all the possibilities.  Until then, raise your daughters to be mathematicians :-).

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