Strumia’s lament

October 6, 2018

On September 28, 2018, Professor Alessandro Strumia gave a talk at CERN at a conference on “High Energy Physics and Gender.” In the talk, he took the unpopular view that the reason that there are fewer women than men in physics is primarily because of inherent differences between men and women (on average) as far as talent and interests are concerned, and not because physics is oppressive of women.

The organizers promptly distanced themselves from his talk, and removed the video recording and his slides from public access. CERN, where he is a research leader, suspended him, and his home university of Pisa put him under investigation. The ERC is considering to retract Strumia’s 1.9 million euro grant. While his talk is not available for viewing, his slides can be found online. The media have reported a general outcry and wide condemnation of the talk. A collection of physicists published an open letter, signed now by over 1600 people, in which they express their anger, and state that Strumia’s ideas are unsound.

I should mention that the impression that the media give that the whole of the scientific world condemns Strumia is incorrect. I examined some of the twitter feeds which followed the talk, and I found that besides a minority which vocally condemns Strumia and another minority which vocally supports him, the reasonable middle states that Strumia presented facts, and that they would like to see counterarguments against either the facts or Strumia’s interpretation of them, before dismissing Strumia’s statements.

What I find striking about all of this, is that most people who condemn Strumia have not witnessed his talk. For instance, the open letter starts with “[t]he statement here is based upon widely reported events, publicly available slides, and eyewitness accounts.” I.e., the only input that the writers used which is not hearsay are Strumia’s slides. I find that a weak basis for publicly raking someone over the coals.

It has to be said that Strumia’s slides give the impression that he has an axe to grind, and that rather than limiting himself to objective facts, he spent a considerable portion of his talk on his personal experiences, on politicizing his ideas, and on insulting his audience which consisted for the majority of young female physicists.

Within the slides, however, there is also some solid research. Basically, what Strumia does is examining scientific quality based on an objective measure, namely number of citations. Using a very large dataset, he makes comparisons between men and women in physics in relation to citations, and shows that with regards to citations on average women underperform compared to men. You may rightfully argue that citations do not give a complete picture of scientific quality. However, there are few other objective measures which you can use for such research, so at least he provides a factual starting point for a discussion. The question is: how do you explain the observations which Strumia makes?

Strumia compares the “mainstream” explanation (“all the differences between men and women are culturally determined and thus physics is oppressive of women”) with the, what he calls, “conservative” explanation (“women are inherently less interested in physics, and the people with the most talent for physics are predominantly men”). Neither of these explanations can be shown to be “the correct one,” but Strumia at least gives some indications on why the mainstream explanation can be considered faulty. The most damning argument against the mainstream explanation is the “gender equality paradox,” which entails that the more a country does to erase the cultural differences between men and women and the more it does to erase the barriers that women face to make free choices in their careers, the fewer women choose a career in science and technology. This observable fact falsifies the notion that there are no differences between the interests of men and women.

Strumia also rightfully wonders why people are so concerned about the fact that men form the majority of the people in the STEM fields, while nobody cares that women form the vast majority in education, psychology, the humanities, and medicine. He also notes that “equal representation of women” in a field that is dominated by men is demanded where it concerns STEM, but as soon as it concerns jobs that are dirty or dangerous (such as construction, firefighting, or mining), the fact that almost no women are found in these jobs is not seen as a problem at all.

Unfortunately, these sensible statements are overshadowed by Strumia’s wailing about his personal experiences, his suggestion that physics is a men’s job, his complaints about the way institutes tend to assume that men have no issues and that all women are oppressed everywhere, his annoyance with the widespread support that women get but men lack, and his explicit mocking of domains such as gender studies. Mind you, there are grains of truth in his wailing, but he should not have included it in his talk as it undermines the other things he says.

Strumia should simply have presented observable facts, and then either leave the interpretation up for debate, or weigh his own arguments against the arguments of “the other side.” While simply ignoring counterarguments is something that a majority position can do without penalties, Strumia is talking from an underdog position (especially at this conference), and as such he has to be much more careful about how he explains his ideas.

The open letter I referred to does provide some interesting counterarguments to Strumia’s statements. Some of these are convincing (in particular where they concern Strumia’s obsession with citations), others much less so (for instance where they refer to “unconscious biases” and where they attempt to dismiss the “gender equality paradox” by stating that oppressive countries have more women in STEM because of a lack of choice, which only underlines Strumia’s statements).

But is does not matter whether your sympathies lie with Strumia or the open letter (or neither): the point is that both Strumia’s statements and the statements of the open letter should be up for debate. And that debate is not going to happen because (a) CERN tried to erase all of Strumia’s materials, making it impossible to know what he actually said, and (b) Strumia immediately got punished so harshly for expressing his ideas that few people will be willing to examine his statements objectively, as they know that they face similar punishment if they publicly reach the same, “abject” conclusion.

The open letter, in the first paragraphs, states in bold font: “We write here first to state, in the strongest possible terms, that the humanity of any person, regardless of ascribed identities such as race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, disability, gender presentation, or sexual identity is not up for debate.” I find this text rather unworthy of serious scientists.

The statement makes clear that the authors of the text want the reader to believe that Strumia was attacking the humanity of women in physics. As far as his slides are concerned, there is absolutely no evidence of that, unless you assume that stating that there are inherent differences between men and women amounts to attacking someone’s humanity. You will find that most people believe that there actually are inherent differences between men and women, and rightly so, as these differences can be observed. Claiming that such differences do not exist is dogma and not science.

Now, the statement gives the strong impression that it considers a number of topics as “not up for debate” at all. Because as soon as you bring one of them up, you are probably going to be condemned for attacking someone’s “humanity,” and such topics may not be debated. To declare a topic so sacred that it cannot be debated is as unscientific as you can get. You may find a person’s statements despicable, but if they are supported by falsifiable claims, then your responsibility as a scientist is not to dismiss them outright (and penalize the perpetrator), but to have the debate, offer counterarguments, and if possible falsify the claims.

Unfortunately, Strumia is a proponent of reason and free speech that we could have done without. He is a man who let his frustration with certain trends in science and society get the better of him. The best thing you can hope for with a talk like this is that at least certain topics are opened up for debate rather than being untouchable. However, the steps his opponents took, making him suffer personally for daring to speak his mind, ensured that fewer people will be willing to speak up about these topics in the future.

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Identity politics and retirement

August 1, 2018

Researchers of the Dutch demographical institute NIDI argue in an article that retirement age should be lower for people who have a relatively low level of education than for people who have a high level of education. They would like to introduce three categories of people, based on their level of education. In their proposal (depending on the chosen scenario) the category of people with the lowest level of education retires 4 to 5 years earlier than the category with the highest level of education, and the middle category will end up somewhere in the middle. They state that there are two reasons for this proposal: people with a low level of education tend to start earlier with working, and they tend to die earlier.

In summary, they argue for applying identity politics to the setting of the age of retirement; i.e., they divide people into groups along some demographic criteria (in this case education level), make a comparison in some areas between the averages of the groups (in this case life span and age of entering the job market), and distribute advantages and disadvantages over people based on the group in which they end up (in this case with respect to retirement age), regardless how distant each individual person is to the average of the group they are assigned to. That this approach is an aberration is clear from the fact that according to the proposed system, an academically educated sociologist who cannot get a job in sociology and thus works in construction, retires at a far later age than an uneducated person who works in construction.

The researchers make at least two basic mistakes. The first mistake is that “correlation does not imply causation” (as this is a mantra for social scientists it surprises me highly that they make this mistake). The fact that someone has a low level of education is not the cause for them dying earlier. The reason that people with a low level of education tend to die earlier is that they tend to live more unhealthy lives — on average, they smoke more often, drink more, use drugs more often, eat more unhealthy food, etcetera. Also, some of the jobs that low-educated people hold are quite detrimental to physical health (e.g., jobs in construction). But that does not mean that everybody with a low level of education lives unhealthily or works in a physically demanding job. Neither is the starting age of work life necessarily lower for a low-educated person than for a high-educated person (in fact, unemployment is higher among low-educated people than among high-educated people). Moreover, despite the fact that on average high-educated people indeed start their work life later than low-educated people, that does not entail that they work less hours in total in their lives (in fact, high-educated people tend to spend much more time at their jobs than low-educated people).

The second mistake is that the level of education is not the demographic factor that has the biggest impact on how long people live. The factor that has the biggest impact is sex. Women live, on average, 7 to 8 years longer than men. If you are going to apply identity politics to retirement age, the logical first division that you have to make is splitting men from women, and then add 7 years to the retirement age for women. I am sure that the researchers from NIDI know this. However, I fully understand why this fact never comes up in the proposal of the researchers: bringing up this fact would be seen as “sexism.” But realistically speaking, if you want to use demographic factors to make retirement age more “fair” with respect to distribution between years of work and years of retirement, women should retire much, much later than men.

I can see that there is a “problem” in setting the age of retirement purely on the basis of birth year, in that the system is, from some perspectives, not fair. But the solution is not to apply identity politics on a grand scale, on the basis of level of education. As retirement basically should account for the fact that at some point people are too old to work in a particular job, the content of the job should be the only factor in determining retirement age. Therefore, a solution is to make age of retirement part of work packages. A possible implementation for such a solution is as follows:

The “standard” number of work years could be set to 40, or 480 months. You can retire when you have worked that long. However, in certain jobs, 12 months of work would be counted as longer, while in others it would be shorter. Any year after 20 years of age in which one does not work is counted as 9 months. If, for instance, a year of work in construction is counted as 14 months, someone who starts working in construction at 20 years of age, would retire at 54. If a job in academics would count a year of work as 10 months, someone who starts in academics at 25 would retire around 69. Without a job at any time in one’s life, “retirement” would begin at 73. Such a system would account for the kind of job that people do, the number of years that they work in different jobs, the age that they start working, the number of years that they work, etcetera. The most important advantage is that it would relate retirement age purely to the content of the work that someone does.

NIDI examines correlations between certain demographics and certain social facts. That is fine. But when they then notice a correlation which might make one think “it looks like some demographic is getting it in the shorts,” the solution is not to apply identity politics, create some demographic groups, and reward certain groups and punish others. The solution is to determine the cause of the “injustice” and try to deal with that cause. Or, if the cause proves to be an individual choice rather than a systemic issue, shrug and tell people that certain individual choices have negative consequences — if you want to be pedantic about it.


Terechte klachten

May 5, 2018

(This post is in Dutch as it relates to several articles in Dutch.)

Aleid Truijens is schrijver, recensent, biograaf, en voornamelijk bekend als columnist bij de Volkskrant. Ze schrijft over diverse onderwerpen, waarvan “educatie” er een is. Ik lees haar columns altijd met interesse. Meestal ben ik het eens met de strekking van haar verhaal. Zo ook met het stukje dat ze schreef in de Volkskrant van 27 april 2018, getiteld “Ik hoop dat de universiteit een intellectuele vrijplaats is, maar ik ben er niet zeker van.” De conclusie die ze met haar betoog bereikt, onderstreep ik volledig. Maar ze maakt een aantal bochten waar ik grote vraagtekens bij zet, en waarvan het me verbaast dat ze kennelijk de betreffende denkwijze omarmt. Bij deze mijn commentaar.

Aleid’s aanleiding voor haar betoog is een hetze van een aantal studenten van de Universiteit van Amsterdam tegen hun nieuwe “diversity officer,” Anne de Graaf, gepubliceerd in Het Parool als antwoord op een interview met De Graaf in Trouw. De Graaf, die veel ervaring heeft met het thema “diversiteit” binnen Amerikaanse universiteiten, is onder andere aangesteld naar aanleiding van een fel rapport over de “diversiteit” binnen de UvA. Dit rapport, opgesteld onder leiding van activiste Gloria Wekker, schuift “witte mannen” allerlei vermeende misstanden binnen de universiteit in de schoenen, en pleit voor quota. De studenten eisen op hoge toon dat De Graaf afstand neemt van bepaalde uitspraken, zoals haar weerzin tegen quota. Ze is ten slotte aangesteld om inhoud te geven aan de bevindingen van het rapport, nietwaar? Dus waarom stelt ze zich niet net zo op als de activisten die het rapport in eerste instantie hebben geschreven?

Kennelijk hadden de studenten verwacht dat ze met hun “diversity officer” eindelijk de betreurenswaardige slachtoffers van het witte, mannelijke schrikbewind aan de macht zouden kunnen brengen. Dat De Graaf een objectief en realistisch beeld van de werkelijkheid heeft, stoort hen in hoge mate. De studenten meten “rechtvaardigheid” af aan “percentages gemarginaliseerde groepen,” terwijl De Graaf expertise voorop wil stellen. En hoewel de studenten zeggen dat “quota een laatste redmiddel zijn,” stellen ze ook fijntjes dat “er voldoende bewijs is dat quota werken” (waarbij ik denk: natuurlijk, als je enige doel is dat er meer medewerkers van een bepaalde demografie zijn, en je niet geïnteresseerd bent in andere gevolgen van je maatregelen, dan is het instellen van quota ongetwijfeld effectief).

Aleid Truijens begint met een kort historisch overzicht. “Drie jaar geleden stelden de Maagdenhuisbezetters terecht dat de universiteit te wit en te mannelijk (de docenten) was, en het curriculum ‘te westers’. Wat er wordt gedoceerd is voornamelijk wat witte mannen eeuwenlang hebben bedacht.

Daar gaat mijn eerste alarmbel af. Wat bedoelt Aleid met dat woordje “terecht?” Is zij het eens met de Maagdenhuisbezetters? Je kunt stellen dat het op zijn minst opvallend is dat de wetenschappelijk staf gedomineerd wordt door mannen, terwijl de studentenpopulatie gedomineerd wordt door vrouwen, maar dat is onder andere een gevolg van het verleden waar veel minder vrouwen studeerden en van het feit dat mannen gemiddeld (met nadruk: gemiddeld) ambitieuzer zijn in hun werk dan vrouwen. Je kunt eventueel beargumenteren dat het belangrijk is dat er een redelijk percentage vrouwen in de staf vertegenwoordigd is, in ieder geval als rolmodel voor de ambitieuze vrouwelijke studenten die een toekomst in de wetenschap willen. Ikzelf denk dat dat percentage er al is, maar je kunt er een discussie over voeren. Dan blijft over “te wit” en “te westers.”

Hoezo “te wit?” De overgrote meerderheid van de Nederlandse bevolking is “wit.” Dan kun je dus ook verwachten dat de overgrote meerderheid van de staf op universiteiten “wit” is. Dat gezegd hebbend: als ik om me heen kijk op de universiteit waar ik werk, zie ik medewerkers van een groot aantal verschillende nationaliteiten. Goede staf is heel moeilijk te vinden, en er zijn in het buitenland veel wetenschappers die graag aan een Nederlandse universiteit werken. Aangezien expertise bij selectie voorop staat, is het geen wonder dat het percentage stafleden van niet-Nederlandse afkomst veel groter is dan je op grond van bevolkingspercentages zou kunnen verwachten. Okay, misschien is het percentage “medewerkers met een donker kleurtje” wat lager dan de bevolkingspercentages (velen komen namelijk uit Oost-Europa, Azië, of het Midden-Oosten), maar er is geen aanwijzing dat zij minder vertegenwoordigd zijn vanwege “structureel racisme.” De studentenpopulatie immers reflecteert ook niet de maatschappelijke demografische percentages.

Tenslotte: hoezo “te westers?” Nederland is een westers land, dus mag je verwachten dat aan de universiteiten de westerse normen voor educatie gevolgd worden. Deze normen zijn gebaseerd op het wetenschappelijk benaderen van kennis. Deze benadering is dermate succesvol, dat overal ter wereld universiteiten deze aanpak volgen. Kennis wordt gedeeld over de wereld als geheel (uitgezonderd bepaalde landen waar Internet sterk aan banden is gelegd). Kortom, vrijwel alle universiteiten ter wereld volgen een “westers curriculum.” Wat is er “terecht” aan het curriculum als “te westers” beschouwen? Moeten we onze gedachten over wat feiten zijn gaan laten bepalen door religieuze inzichten, zoals we zien in bepaalde niet-westerse landen? Of wellicht door politieke stromingen, wat in bepaalde Aziatische landen gebeurt? Moeten we, zoals ik een aantal zwarte studenten heb zien verkondigen, voodoo-rituelen serieus gaan nemen?

Of slaat het “te westers” zijn op die tweede zin, dat de stand van de wetenschap het gevolg is van “wat witte mannen eeuwenlang hebben bedacht?” Wetenschap is niet wetenschap omdat het bedacht is door witte mannen. Wetenschap is wetenschap omdat het gaat over falsificeerbare feiten. Wetenschap is zelf-corrigerend. Als iemand een bewering doet zonder er argumenten voor aan te dragen, wordt de bewering niet serieus genomen. Als er falsificeerbare argumenten worden aangedragen, die ontkracht worden, wordt de bewering verworpen. Wat overblijft is een bouwwerk van feiten waarvoor de bewijsvoering zo sterk is dat we erop voort kunnen bouwen. En als er nieuwe feiten worden aangedragen, of feiten ontkracht worden, wordt het bouwwerk aangepast.

Zelfs al zou het zo zijn dat, historisch gezien, witte mannelijke wetenschappers oogkleppen op hadden en daarom de wetenschap in een bepaalde richting duwden, dan is het al heel lange tijd het geval dat wetenschap internationaal en inclusief is. Iedereen, waar ook ter wereld, ongeacht geslacht, ras, of afkomst, kan wetenschappelijke vindingen doen, bekritiseren, of onderuit halen. Een wetenschapper die een tegenargument poogt te ontkrachten door te verwijzen naar het geslacht of het ras van degene die het tegenargument brengt, wordt weggehoond en verguisd. De natuur van de wetenschap is dat het blind is voor de demografische kenmerken van wetenschappers. Daarmee getuigt de uitspraak “wetenschap is niet goed want het is gebaseerd op wat witte mannen gedaan hebben” van een dermate onwetenschappelijke houding dat degene die hem maakt slechts minachting verdient.

Kortom, het minder “westers” maken van het curriculum staat gelijk met het afbreken van de wetenschappelijke integriteit, en dat kan niet worden aangeduid als “terecht.”

In dezelfde paragraaf gaat nog een tweede alarmbel af, zij het iets minder luid dan de eerste. Aleid stelt: “Er zijn beschamend weinig vrouwelijke hoogleraren of hoogleraren en onderzoekers met een migratieachtergrond.” De alarmbel klinkt bij het woord “beschamend.” De rest van de zin is een feit. Aleid vind dit een “beschamend” feit. Mijn vraag is “wie moet zich hiervoor schamen?”

Ik heb het sterke vermoeden dat Aleid vindt dat universiteiten of de Nederlandse samenleving zich hiervoor moeten schamen. Maar waarom? Onze samenleving biedt mensen een grote keuzevrijheid, en universiteiten doen dat ook. Als je je kapot wilt werken om een hoogleraarspositie te verwerven, dan mag dat. Als je het liever rustiger aandoet, een leuke baan hebt en daarnaast gezellig met je gezin veel tijd thuis doorbrengt, of een rijk sociaal leven erop na wilt houden, dan mag dat ook. Vrijheid, blijheid. Dat die witte mannen (en een enkele witte vrouw) zo nodig statusbelust moeten zijn, hun gezin verwaarlozen, hun vrienden verliezen, maar wel veel subsidies binnenhalen en veel publiceren, is hun zaak. Dat moeten ze zelf weten, de sukkels. Zitten ze daar tot diep in de nacht op kantoor, hun gezondheid naar de knoppen te helpen, een leuk salaris binnenslepend dat hun partner vervolgens kan spenderen. Lachwekkend, maar ze willen het zelf.

Als het werkelijk een beschamende zaak is dat er relatief weinig vrouwen en weinig mensen met een migratieachtergrond zijn die carrière maken op een universiteit, dan moet die schaamte gezocht worden bij degenen die te weinig hun best doen om te concurreren met de hardwerkende carrièremakers. Maar ik persoonlijk vind er niks beschamends aan dat mensen ervoor kiezen te doen wat hen gelukkig maakt. Het is een van de grote verworvenheden van onze maatschappij dat dat mogelijk is.

Na het korte historische overzicht geeft Aleid aan dat het weinig zinvol is de samenleving in groepen te verdelen waarbij mensen met bepaalde demografische achtergronden op één hoop worden gegooid. Ze hoopt dat het niet de bedoeling is dat alle geledingen “divers” worden samengesteld, “keurig van alles wat,” want het gaat tenslotte om professionaliteit. Ze geeft aan dat de gedachte van De Graaf dat er meer smaken zijn dan “racist” en “slachtoffer” niet vreemd is (een understatement), en dat studenten per definitie gepriviligeerd zijn. Je kunt beter de grote uitval van migrant-studenten aanpakken (of de grote uitval van mannelijke studenten, zou ik daaraan toe willen voegen), of de eenzijdige samenstelling van selectiecommissies (wat ik nooit geobserveerd heb, dus ik zou daar graag eens objectieve feiten voor zien). Al met al geeft Aleid hiermee aan een redelijk gezonde kijk te hebben op maatschappelijke fenomen.

Dan gaat een derde alarmbel af bij de volgende paragraaf: “De Graaf is een tegenstander van quota voor vrouwen en minderheden, omdat ze het ‘vernederend’ vindt om ergens binnen te komen omdat je vrouw bent of een kleur hebt -– ik kan me daar iets bij voorstellen. Maar de studenten in Het Parool hebben ook gelijk als ze stellen dat ‘vanwege structurele discriminatie achtergestelde groepen vaak niet worden aangenomen, ondanks hun expertise’.” De eerste zin van deze paragraaf komt overeen met wat ik veel vrouwen heb horen zeggen, dus daar heb ik geen problemen mee. Maar de tweede zin doet mijn nekharen overeind staan.

De tweede zin is een beschuldiging van crimineel gedrag. Het is in Nederland verboden om te discrimineren op basis van demografische kenmerken. Er rusten straffen op. Dus als het objectief is dat iemand de geschiktste persoon is voor een open positie, maar niet wordt aangenomen op grond van het feit dat de persoon tot een minderheidscategorie behoort, dan is er een strafbaar feit gepleegd en moeten juridische maatregelen worden genomen.

Waar komt die bewering dat universiteiten structureel discrimineren vandaan? Zijn daar objectieve feiten voor? Zo ja, dan zou ik dit graag voor een rechtbank uitgezocht zien. Of zijn dit slechts roddels? Is er iemand niet aangenomen op een plek, en roept die persoon dat dat duidelijk vanuit racistische motieven is, zonder dat hard te kunnen maken? In dat geval kunnen we deze bewering rustig naast ons neerleggen, en stellen dat de studenten in Het Parool uit hun nek kletsen.

Maar ik vermoed dat ik wel weet wat er achter deze uitspraak zit. Het is de gedachte: “als er geen racisme zou zijn, zouden we hogere percentages mensen met een donkere huidskleur aangenomen zien worden, en omdat dat niet zo is, is dat het bewijs dat er racisme is.” Deze gedachten klinken sommigen redelijk in de oren, maar zijn het niet. Ze gaan er namelijk van uit dat er tussen groepen mensen geen andere verschillen bestaan dan alleen demografische attributen. Ze houden er bijvoorbeeld geen rekening mee dat Nederland geen homogene samenleving is waar iedereen in alles gemixt is. Demografisch onderscheidbare groepen trekken zich vaak terug in “eigen kring,” met hun eigen culturele normen en waarden. Bijvoorbeeld: moslims in Nederland worden vaak religieus opgevoed, waarbij wetenschappelijke inzichten worden afgedaan als “in tegenspraak met de Koran.” Is het verwonderlijk dat we minder moslims aan universiteiten zien dan het percentage moslims onder de Nederlandse bevolking? Dat is verklaarbaar vanuit de moslim-cultuur, en er hoeft geen verklaring gezocht te worden in “discriminatie.” Een soortgelijk verhaal kun je uiteraard ophangen over de autochtone Nederlanders die met de Bijbel in de hand geboren zijn.

Kortom, zolang er niet aannemelijk kan worden gemaakt dat racistische motieven spelen in de aanstelling van medewerkers, is het lasterlijk om te beweren dat dit toch gebeurt. Het feit dat Aleid expliciet stelt dat de uitspraak van studenten op waarheid berust, vind ik griezelig.

Het verdere verloop van Aleid’s stukje kan ik alleen maar van harte onderschrijven. Haar laatste paragraaf start met de volgende zinnen: “Natuurlijk moet de universiteit een veilige plek zijn. Ik hoop dat het voor iedereen dít is: een intellectuele vrijplaats. Een plaats waar afkomst, sekse of voorkeuren niet tellen, maar waar je die onderwerpen onbedreigd aan de orde kunt stellen.” Bravo.

Ik heb de laatste jaren in diverse landen, waaronder de Verenigde Staten, Canada, Australië, en meerdere Scandinavische landen, verontrustende ontwikkelingen gadegeslagen waarbij bepaalde universiteiten veranderen van wetenschappelijke bolwerken in instituties waar vooral gestreden moet worden voor “sociale rechtvaardigheid,” met programma’s waar geen wetenschappers maar activisten worden opgeleid. Ik heb gezien dat studenten veranderen van zelfstandige, weldenkende, kritische mensen die beseffen wat voor een gepriviligeerde positie ze innemen, in watjes die menen dat zij slachtoffers van maatschappelijk onrecht zijn, en die alle kritiek op hun gedrag afdoen als racisme, seksisme, genderisme, ableisme, of een ander neologistisch -isme. Ik zie studenten die zich gedragen als verwende kleine kinderen die door hun plaatsvervangend ouder, de universiteit, beschermd moeten worden tegen de boze buitenwereld.

Gelukkig heeft dit soort ontwikkelingen in Nederland nog niet veel aan momentum gewonnen. We zijn doorgaans een nuchter en realistisch denkend landje. Maar we gaan dit soort onverkwikkelijke zaken, waarbij eisen gesteld worden op basis van vermeend slachtofferschap, steeds meer zien. Wat de studenten van de Universiteit van Amsterdam in Het Parool zeiden, geeft me het ongemakkelijke gevoel dat ze in Nederland hopen te imiteren wat in de Verenigde Staten en Canada een aantal universiteiten aan het ondermijnen is. Het verheffen van slachtofferschap tot het hoogste goed, en het toepassen van “social engineering” om mensen macht en posities te geven die ze niet verdienen op basis van hun prestaties, moet bestreden worden teneinde de wetenschappelijke kwaliteit van universiteiten te waarborgen.

Redelijk denkende mensen met een platform, zoals Aleid Truijens, kunnen daarin een leidraad bieden door deze ontwikkelingen kritisch te beschouwen. Het feit dat Aleid termen als “terecht” en “gelijk hebben” gebruikt waar ze spreekt over sommige van de slecht-gefundeerde gedachten die de activistische studenten koesteren, kennelijk zonder het nodig te vinden enige twijfel over die gedachten uit te spreken, vind ik daarom beangstigend.


Extensions vs. careers

May 2, 2018

NWO is the Dutch organization which the government supplies with funds to distribute to scientists for their research. One of the programs that NWO runs is the “Vernieuwingsimpuls” (VI), which supplies big personal grants to scientists at different stages of their careers. The three programs in the VI are (with increasing grant sizes) VENI, VIDI, and VICI. These programs have a time limit associated with them, related to when someone got their PhD. VENI has to be applied for within 3 years after getting a PhD, VIDI within 8 years, and VICI within 15 years. These time limits are extended for biological mothers. This extension amounts to 18 months per child, for a maximum total of 5 years. The reason that NWO states for providing mothers with extensions is to allow them to spend extra time on taking care of their children.

Very recently, NWO decided to also allow the partners of the biological mothers to get extensions to the time limits, to the tune of 6 months per child. According to NWO, due to changes in societal opinions, they decided to stimulate a “more balanced distribution of professional and parental tasks between the parents” by also giving the partners an extension.

My question with this decision is: “why do partners only get 6 months, and biological mothers 18 months?” Is that really stimulating a better balance of parental tasks between the parents? If two young scientists get two kids, and one of these young scientists gets 4 years to apply for a VENI grant, and the other 6 years, who of them is under the biggest pressure to get that grant application in? Who will need to spend more time on advancing their career? The only way to ensure that these young parents can distribute their parental tasks better is to supply both of them with the same extension. NWO may think they are being progressive with their decision, but in the end they are only putting a spotlight on there being more pressure on the partner (usually the father) to advance their career than on the mother. And once one partner’s career is advancing while the other one’s career is lagging behind, when a decision needs to be taken who will spend more time at home and who will spend more time at work, it is obvious which way that decision is likely to go.

Overall, I wonder whether these extensions, especially with a length of 18 months per child, are a good idea anyway. By giving these extensions, it takes off the pressure to get grant applications in. The main way to progress one’s scientific career is to get grants. My experience is that working in science is a challenging job with a lot of tasks. There is usually little time to spend on writing a grant proposal, which may easily take months of work. There is always a high-priority task which takes precedence, and putting in a grant proposal only becomes high priority when the deadline looms. Adding 18 months per child to those deadlines basically means that a young mother is stimulated to stop advancing her career for several years.

Having a career means that you have to make certain choices. These extensions are an easy excuse to choose to put one’s career on hold, because “you get extra time to restart your career.” Unfortunately, after taking a considerable pause in advancing one’s career, it tends to be hard to get it moving again. The extensions may therefore very well be a prime cause in mothers dropping out of the rat race and deciding that they do not really need to go for the higher-level positions. Not that there is anything wrong with deciding that a nice balance between home life and work is preferable over sacrificing one’s home life for a career. That is a perfectly valid choice. My problem is that the extensions which NWO provides, which are evidently meant to allow mothers to have a home life without sacrificing their careers, may actually stimulate mothers to give up on their careers.

Moreover, I wish to point out that there are many reasons why someone’s work life may suffer from a set-back. Wanting to stay home with a new-born child for a while is only one of them. But how about going through a divorce? Changing jobs? Having to take care of an ailing family member? Being a single parent who is not the biological mother? Wanting to take a sabbatical? Needing health recovery after an accident? Most people with a job find that they sometimes get into personal situations which need them to put career advancement on hold for a while. What makes young mothers such an exception that they should be richly compensated for choosing to stay home with their children?

I am definitely not against time limits on submitting grant proposals. Time limits ensure that people submit these proposals at the “right time” in their careers, and, in particular, heed people against giving too much priority to tasks other than writing strong grant proposals, which harms them in the long run. However, automatically extending the time limits for specific groups of people is rather arbitrary and may very well be harmful to the careers of many of these people.

I am not opposed to giving people extensions to the time limits, but I would not make them automatic (and not this long). Simply let people apply for extensions and let them state their reasons for wanting one. This takes off the arbitrary edge, while also putting up a barrier for making use of extensions. Such a barrier is a necessity, as it is a harmful illusion to think that these extensions allow a parent to have a full home and social life without damaging their career.


Diversity IX: Google’s wage discrimination

April 8, 2018

Last year, Google was accused by the US Department of Labor of discriminating against female employees as far as salaries are concerned. This is surprising, as Google is known for being a company which is overtly committed to, what they call, “equal pay practices.” It is also striking that the accusation came without any supporting data.

Eileen Naughton, Vice President of People Operations, wrote a memo explaining how Google determines wages. In general, this is how it works:

First, they determine what the compensation should be for a person at a certain job level, with a certain role, at a certain location, with a certain job performance. That determines the basic compensation for a person in a certain job category. The salary can be adjusted a bit by an employee’s manager, provided that the manager can provide a legitimate rationale. This procedure is blind with respect to gender.

Then, for every job category they compare the average of the compensation of men and women. If they find that there are statistically significant differences between the genders, they adjust the compensation at a group level, regardless whether this favors men or women. As Naughton states, they tend not to find any gender pay gap, so in practice such adjustments need not be made. They also do a similar comparison based on race, and no race pay gap is found either. (I do wonder why they do not also do an analysis for nationality, age, physical ability, level of education, height, and other attributes that are said to influence salary, but perhaps they get to those in the future.)

Overall, I do not fault Google for doing such an analysis. As a high-profile tech company, they tend to bear the brunt of the accusations regarding sex and race discrimination, and it is only wise that they have their defenses in order. It just gives me an uneasy feeling that the last step of their comparison methodology, adjusting salary based on which group one belongs to, is rather discriminating.

Considering how they set up their compensation plan, where they determine objectively what a person should earn with a certain job level, role, location, and performance, regardless of race, gender, or other personal attributes, there cannot be differences between the sexes by definition. So it is no wonder that their comparison procedure never finds them. The whole comparison feels completely superfluous.

The problem is what happens when their procedure does find some differences. Where did these come from? Evidently these point out that either an error was made somewhere in the original determination of earnings, or that the individual adjustments that managers make — with legitimate rationales, mind you — end up rewarding on average one gender a bit more than the other. If this then leads to an increase of the salaries of one gender, that amounts to gender discrimination.

For suppose you are a woman who does a good job but not so exceptional that her manager proposes to give her a slightly higher reward, and you are surrounded by women who do get their salaries positively adjusted. If this then leads to an average difference between the salaries of the sexes, you will see all the men who perform exactly like you getting their salaries increased, while yours stays the same. Basically, you are punished because some other members of “your group” perform exceptionally well.

In my view, Google’s initial determination of earnings, based purely on what an individual does within the company, with some individual adjustments possible for exceptional performance, is the ultimate meritocratic way of rewarding employees. Doing a check at a group level, partly to ward off accusations and partly to see if the system works as intended, is only smart. Incorporating a step that bluntly adjusts salaries at a group level if the check points out that there are significant differences between certain groups, rather than finding out how these differences came about, is just discriminatory.


Diversity VIII: Fly to the top

March 9, 2018

This week we could read in Dutch newspapers that the new CEO of the national airport Schiphol (one of the biggest and busiest airports in the world) will be a man. The reason given is: “At the moment the board consists of two men and two women. We want to maintain that balance.” This reason is ridiculous and I was surprised that the board presented it in this way.

Suppose that they start looking for a suitable candidate and find a good man for the job. As is the norm nowadays, the media and some politicians will ask “Why not a woman?” as if being a woman would make someone more suitable for the job. At that point, the board could say “We already have fifty percent women on the board, so we decided not to use affirmative action for this vacancy, and we simply picked the best candidate regardless of gender.” Nobody could fault them for that. But, by their statements, they deliberately set out to appoint a man, i.e., they used affirmative action in favor of males this time.

In my view, using affirmative action is always wrong, regardless of which gender it favors. For any job, what any company and the whole of society really should want, is that the most qualified person is appointed. Rarely does gender by itself make someone more or less qualified. For top positions, such as being CEO of Schiphol, the pool of suitable candidates tends to be small, due to requirements of experience, network, availability, and willingness to spend one’s whole life at their job. Partly for historic reasons this pool is mostly filled with men, so it is understandable that you will probably end up with a man if you do not specifically let gender weigh in. But who cares if it turns out that the board of Schiphol gets filled with only women? If they are the most suitable for the job, that is the best guarantee for optimal decision making!

Maybe, just maybe, the board of Schiphol tries to be smart and hopes that society will respond in exactly this way to their statements that they will only appoint a man for gender-balance reasons. Because if society predominantly responds with “but gender should not matter, you want to hire the best person for the job,” for the next round of hires they may be able to throw affirmative action out of a plane without a parachute.

If their goal is to ensure that the quality of their board members is the sole selection criterion for the future, making such blunt statements at this stage might be just one of the tactical maneuvers you can expect from a good CEO.


Diversity VII: Red vs. green

February 12, 2018

In discussing the wage gap (the average difference in per-hour earnings of men and women), the main statement I see being brought up is “The fact that on average women earn less than men per hour is unfair towards women.” The general rebuttal is: “You have to look at the underlying reasons for that difference,” to which the response is: “You can talk about underlying reasons until you are blue in the mouth, but at the end of the day women earn less than men, which is unfair.”

The wage gap appears to be not unfair, however. It is the result of individual decisions which people make. The correct characterization of the wage gap is not “women earn less than men,” but “people who make choices A, B, and C earn less than people who make choices D, E, and F.” Because on average women tend to make life choices which give them less earning potential than men, on average women earn less than men — however, on an individual basis a woman who makes particular choices earns just as much as a man who makes the same choices (actually, there are indications that at present, especially in the younger generations, women earn a bit more than men with the same choices).

You do not have to believe me in this respect: you just have to study the reports of the official institutions which examine the differences between men and women in the job market, such as the reports of the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and the United States Department of Labor, which point out that there are many clear reasons for the observed average differences in earnings, but that gender discrimination, if it even is one of them, has an unnoticeable effect. Thus, since it is not gender discrimination at work, the wage gap is not unfair.

Because all of this is rather abstract, I thought I would illustrate it with a highly simplified example. Imagine that there is a country called Bicoloria, where there live red and green people. There are only two industries in Bicoloria, which are of about equal size, namely a food industry which feeds the Bicolorians, and an art industry which provides the Bicolorians with entertainment. All Bicolorians work in one of these industries. The food industry, which has fairly unpleasant work circumstances, pays 200 credits per hour. The art industry, in which the work is much more pleasant, pays 150 credits per hour. The majority of red Bicolorians prefers the pleasant, artistic work in the art industry, while the majority of green Bicolorians is more interested in getting the high wages (and thus status) of the food industry. The net result is that 70% of the workers in the food industry are green, while 70% of the workers in the art industry are red.

Someone calculates that on average, a green Bicolorian earns 12% more than a red Bicolorian. “That’s unfair towards red Bicolorians!” is the outcry. Red Bicolorians say: “It is systemic oppression of the reds by the greens!” and “How are we going to explain to young reds that over the course of their lives they will earn significantly less than greens?” But is this 12% difference in earnings really unfair? Because reds have a preference for jobs that pay less per hour, and choose jobs that they prefer, on average they earn less per hour. However, an individual red who decides to work in the food industry, earns just as much as an individual green who works in the food industry.

Moreover, what would be the effect of trying to solve this illusion of injustice? I have heard several possibilities, all of which have very negative consequences. Here are three ideas (each of which I have derived from actual discussions on the wage gap, and some of which have been implemented by particular governments and industries):

Idea #1: Increase the salaries of all reds by 12%. While this will make sure that the average salaries of reds and greens are equal, in every industry reds will earn 12% more than greens for doing exactly the same work. That is unfair.

Idea #2: Stimulate reds to work more in the food industry, and greens to work more in the art industry. This can be implemented using social engineering programs, which try to push people in particular directions. Many of such programs have been tried out in Western countries (e.g., stimulating men to take part-time jobs, and stimulating women to go into STEM fields). If these programs have the desired effect, they will indeed erase the wage gap. However, in general, it is found that the effect of such programs is negligible, as long as people are still allowed to follow their own preferences. Naturally, they can be made more effective by actually forcing people in different fields than they prefer, which leads to an overall significant decrease in happiness. I assume that nobody thinks that a good policy encompasses giving up freedom of choice.

Idea #3: Equalize pay between jobs, i.e., let both the food industry and the art industry pay 175 credits per hour. Overall, the same amount will be spent on salaries, thus this can be implemented with higher taxation on food and giving subsidies to the art industry. Again, the initial result will be that the wage gap between reds and greens will be eradicated. This is a typical socialist or communist system, in which there is no link anymore between what you do and what you earn. The natural follow-up will be that most people will no longer want to work in the unpleasant food industry, as the higher salaries of the food industry were the compensation for the work being less pleasant. The net result, which is common to any socialist or communist system, is that people can no longer be free to take a job of their choosing, and that most people will not be motivated to do a good job anyway (as you do not get rewarded for doing a good job), leading to poverty, unhappiness, hunger, and corruption.

In summary, “solutions” to the wage gap either unfairly give bonuses to individuals of particular groups just because they belong to those groups, or take away freedom of choice. Both these directions are infringing upon the core Western values of equal treatment of all people and individual freedom for all people.

The wage gap is the result of a system which allows individuals, with their individual differences, to follow their own preferences in making life choices. It does not affect individuals; it is no more than a statistic which you can attach to a group. It is the necessary consequence of there being differences between preferences of the sexes in general and a beautiful system which honors individuality.


Surface Pro 3 hotness

February 2, 2018

So, my Microsoft Surface Pro 3 died. It would not start up again. I tried the Microsoft solutions, which were the following four possibilities: (1) Press the Power button. (2) Press the Power button for 30 seconds then press it for 2 seconds. (3) Press the Power button together with the Volume Up button for 15 seconds. (4) Send your Surface Pro 3 away for repair.

Nothing worked, apart from maybe the Repair option, but as the price for repairing is about the same as for a completely new Surface, I did not want to go for that option — in particular as I had backups of everything apart from the last three days or so.

For half a day, I regularly pressed the Power button for shorter and longer times, and googled for diverse terms that were about dead Surfaces. After a while I hit a particular discussion thread. It first seemed to consist of a bunch of jokers, but since my Surface was a brick anyway, I put it, as recommended, into the freezer for half an hour, then thawed it, and tried again. That did not work.

Before putting it into the freezer once more, I followed a different recommendation, which was to heat the Surface from the back with a hair dryer for a couple of minutes. Without an expectations I did that, and lo-and-behold: after two minutes of “drying” the Surface suddenly booted up again! Its backside, at the time, was clearly heated, but not extensively so. It cooled off in a minute or 2 to room temperature. The fan did not even need to go into overdrive.

I immediately made backups of my latest files, because I don’t trust that it will remain working — if it does, fine, but I am going to order a new one soon.

I know this is not much of a story, but I wanted to put it up just in case someone has the same problem and is willing to try anything. The Surface is a lovely machine, but the fact that it is almost impossible to repair, and the fact that if it dies you lose all the contents, makes it a bit of a risk to use.

Be careful if you try this — make sure in particular that the thing is really dead –, but it might be a way out should you get into similar troubles. And remember: nothing beats regular backups.


Killer robots are here already

August 25, 2017

At the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence 2017, an open letter was released, signed by over one hundred top scientists and industrialists in artificial intelligence, calling for a ban on the development of autonomous, artificially intelligent weapons, often referred to as “killer robots.”

This vapid gesture is equivalent to calling for a “ban on the development of knives that can be used to murder people.” The problem is that almost any device that can be taught behavior and is allowed autonomous functioning, can be employed as a “killer robot.” And all industrial artificial intelligence research advances intelligence, learning ability, and autonomy of machines.

Elon Musk might be in favor of a ban on the development of killer robots, but his Tesla company works on autonomous self-driving cars. Recent terrorist activities have demonstrated how cars can be used as weapons. You only need to teach a car to hit people instead of avoiding them.

Mustafa Suleyman might want to stop research into killer robots, but at the same time his DeepMind company is the leader in deep-learning research, which aims at allowing machines to learn patterns and respond to them. Such pattern recognizers can be easily placed in smart missiles or weaponized robots to autonomously find viable targets.

Jerome Monceaux signed the letter, while simultaneously heading Aldebaran Robotics, which develops general-purpose robots which can be taught or programmed to do anything — including using weapons and going on a murder-spree.

And the list goes on.

The whole point of artificial-intelligence research is to allow machines to do things that humans can do, preferably more efficiently and effectively, and preferably with a high degree of autonomy. Moreover, almost all modern artificial intelligence research is based on machine learning, i.e., teaching machines to behave in a particular way rather than directly programming them. Consequently, almost any artificial intelligence research can be used to teach machines to help people, or to behave as a weapon. This entails that machines that have the ability to operate as killer robots already exist.

Basically, the call for a ban on the development of killer robots amounts to a plea along the lines of: “Look, we are developing all this great technology which will bring fantastic benefits to humanity but please, please, please do not use it to murder people.” It is a call for sanity on the part of governments, the military, and terrorist organizations so that they won’t use the technology for evil. And we all know that the sanity of governments, military, and terrorists varies.

You cannot stop the possibility of (further) developing killer robots without a world-wide halt on artificial intelligence research altogether. I do not think that that is what any of these people who signed the letter, or anyone else, really wants. Or that it can be enforced, for that matter.

The best you can do is realize what artificial intelligence can be used for and then build in protections against misuse. For instance, autonomous self-driving cars should be strongly guarded against attempts to reprogram them. This is in the hands of Elon Musk and his competitors. Rather than calling for some kind of ban, they should do their jobs properly. And while I think they are trying to do a proper job, their call for a ban sounds like them trying to place the responsibility for misuse of their technology in the hands of others.

Any technology can be misused, and usually is. That is no reason not to develop beneficial technology. The benefits of autonomous artificial intelligence can be great. The dangers of it are lurking in the autonomy — technology which allows machines to operate autonomously, taking autonomous decisions on how to act, should be surrounded by stringent safeguards against the machines taking harmful decisions. But probably the biggest danger is not in the artificially intelligent machines themselves, but in the humans who place unwarranted trust in them to take autonomous decisions.

I applaud the fact that many influential people consider the dangers of artificial intelligence research seriously. The call for a ban, however, sounds like an after-the-fact plea.


Diversity interlude 2

August 24, 2017

Fired up by the publishing of Forbes’ list of actor salaries, the yearly wailing about top male movie actors earning more than top female movie actors is up again. It must be the patriarchy at work.

The complainers are focusing on the wrong issue, however. What they should be wondering is why top movie actors (male and female) earn yearly salaries which are tens to hundreds of times higher than the salaries of us working Joes. Actresses like Jennifer Lawrence, Charlize Theron, and Natalie Portman, who every year get tens of millions of dollars in their accounts, come over as childish whiners when they complain that “it is not enough.”

The answer to why top actors earn a lot of money is, of course, that movies make a lot of money because they are in them. Actors are not paid because their profession is “movie actor,” but according to what they are worth. This means that if a movie tends to bring in much more money if Mark Wahlberg is on the credits than if Emma Stone is on the credits (which they do), then Wahlberg is worth a lot more than Stone, and thus Wahlberg’s agent can sell him for more money than Stone’s agent can sell her.

The simple truth is that actors who are worth more for their movies are earning more than actors who are worth less. That the actors who are worth more tend to be male is incidental. Have you ever wondered why top male football players earn more than top female football players? That is because male football matches bring in much more advertising money than female football matches. And it is not always in favor of males, by the way. Female porn actors earn six-figure salaries which are five to ten times higher than the salaries of top male porn actors. That’s not because they are female, but because that is in accordance to what their presence brings in.

An actor who feels that they earn less than they are worth, should get an agent who is able to sell them for more. And if they cannot find such an agent, then they are probably mistaken in what they are worth.