Diversity interlude

April 24, 2017

I don’t know if I am yet done with the topic of diversity. The discussions about diversity are currently rather intense, and I feel I still have to say quite a bit about it. In general, I have noticed that my position is that diversity is based for at least a considerable part in biology, while those who are on the side of social engineering are of the opinion that it is all culturally determined. In that respect, I discovered a fascinating series of documentaries by the Norse comedian and sociologist Harald Eia, called “Hjernevask“. I haven’t yet completed watching them, but up to now I am pretty surprised about some of his discoveries. The two things that stand out to me are: (1) the role of biology in determining differences between genders and races is much bigger than I had previously assumed, and (2) evidently in “enlightened” western countries such as Norway the thought that differences can be the result of biology is actively shunned even by people whose job it is to know better. Heartily recommended.

Diversity III: Diverse equalities

April 8, 2017

This post is a follow-up to my post on the wage gap, and my post on the glass ceiling. In these posts I showed that there is no reason to assume that gender discrimination is at work in determining the salaries or promotion chances of women.

In The Netherlands, “equality” is generally seen as an ultimate good. Which is why underrepresentation of women and minorities in professions and organizations is often seen as inherently wrong. Certain political movements have made fighting inequality into a main feature of their program. For instance, minister Jet Bussemaker is quite miffed about the fact that only 18% of full professors in The Netherlands are female, and she therefore forces universities to appoint more women to such positions. For 100 new female full professors she makes extra money available for the next five years, and on top of that she also wants universities to put women on 200 chairs that are currently held by men.

Basically, this means that Bussemaker wants to change the top selection criterion for appointing someone to the position of full professor from “we want the best person for the job” to “we want someone who has no Y-chromosome.”

For me, a major question is why she (and with her many others, such as professor Derks) believes that the underrepresentation of women in this area is the result of “inequality.” The straightforward line of thinking that is commonly held, is that 50% of society consists of women, and thus, if women were treated equal to men, 50% of full professors would be women. Naturally, such a thought process is too simplistic. It is a silly notion to divide Dutch citizens according to particular criteria such as gender, immigration status, age, sexual orientation, or physical attributes, and then expect that the percentages you end up with are reflected by a certain profession. As I showed in the previous two posts, if you take into account unequal participation in the job market, the 18% female full professors that we have now are close to what you may expect if men and women have equal opportunities (assuming that in academics the statistics for job participation are about average for The Netherlands).

The point is that what minister Bussemaker and others like her want to see are not equal opportunities, but equal outcomes. What they fail to acknowledge is that if you confront 100 men and 100 women who already hold a good job with the prospect of another job with more status, offset by a greater workload and higher responsibility, 80 of the 100 men will accept that job, while 80 of the 100 women will walk away. In our society where people are given a lot of freedom of choice, women tend to make different choices than men, and thus equal opportunities do not lead to equal outcomes.

Assuming that minister Bussemaker does not want to take away freedom of choice, there are only two ways open to get a higher percentage of female professors: either making men less ambitious, or lowering the requirements for women (and only for women) to get the job. I have no idea how you would accomplish the first, so I am not surprised that she chose the latter.

Yes, I know that there are female associate professors who are ready to become full professors. But there are far more male associate professors with the same ambition. In an equal-opportunities environment, which we have now, you end up with more men being appointed than women, because with the same quality there are more men than women available for the job. When I say that Bussemaker lowers the requirements for women to become professors, I am not saying that that puts universities in a position where they are forced to promote female associate professors who are not ready to become full professors — I am only saying that these women no longer have to compete on a level playing field with men. It is possible for them to do a worse job than some men would do, and still be chosen for promotion over those men.

Professor Derks states that women do not want to adapt to the standards set by men. I assume that she means that many women want to be full professors in a part-time job with a nice balance between their work and home life. This sounds a lot like having your cake and eating it too. In practice, as with most high-demand jobs, being a full professor entails sacrificing much of your home life for your work. It is really a tough job. Maybe that is a standard set by men, but it means that if, as a woman, in an equal-opportunities environment you want to compete with men, you have to meet that standard. By replacing the equal-opportunities environment with an equal-outcomes environment, women can get away with doing a worse job than men.

In sports, women usually do not compete with men, as men tend to be physically stronger and faster. Consequently, female sports are seen as inferior to male sports. By creating a special academic division for women to compete in, where standards are lowered, you create a situation in which female academic achievements are seen as inferior to male academic achievements. If I were a female professor today, who clearly got the job because she competed successfully on a level playing field with men, I would not be happy about that.

The 100 extra positions that Bussemaker creates are filled by women only, which leads to a situation where some top-quality men see full professorships going to women who, even if they do a good job, do a worse job than these men would do. And if the rest of Bussemaker’s plans get executed, they know that their chances to ever be promoted are diminishing rapidly, as they have to compete for a decreasing number of positions. If I was a young man who was contemplating a career in academics today, considering the unequal treatment of men and women and the lowered career prospects, I would probably choose a job outside the academic world, regardless of how much I love scientific research. All in all, the policies of Bussemaker may do serious harm to the quality of Dutch academics.

In conclusion, the belief that forcing universities to appoint more female professors will resolve some sort of societal injustice is misguided. In fact, it creates a societal injustice by lowering the standards that women need to meet to become full professors, while increasing them for men.

I wish to point out that there is another solution for the problem that certain female associate professors are not getting promoted, even though they are ready for it. That solution is to make the promotion to full professor an automated process when you meet certain criteria. This is the case in many countries outside The Netherlands, such as the UK. If you do the work, you get the position. I am in high favor of that.

Making the promotion to full professor based on individual accomplishments rather than the academic structure with only a limited number of available chairs, has the added benefit that there will be more full professorships in The Netherlands, and thus the requirements for the job may be slightly lowered for men as well as women.

Diversity II: Diverse choices

April 6, 2017

This post continues my previous post on the topic of diversity, in which I discussed the first part of the sentence “Women still earn less and are slower to be promoted” (lifted from an article in De Volkskrant). In the present post, I delve into the second part. Is it true that women are slower to be promoted, and if so, is that (as is often suggested) the result of gender discrimination?

What I assume the author is referring to with the second part of their statement is the fact that the representation of women in higher positions in companies and organizations is considerably less than the representation of men. In the academic world in the Netherlands, for instance, only 18% of full professorships are held by women.

There is no debate about the fact that women are underrepresented in higher positions. What is up for debate is whether this is the result of gender discrimination. Despite the often-expressed but seldom-substantiated notion of some sort of “glass ceiling” that keeps women down, I would argue that the state of affairs is mostly the result of personal choices.

In The Netherlands, almost every job can be done part-time. In practice, we find that men usually take full-time jobs, while women predominantly choose to work part-time. According to the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics (CBS), in The Netherlands in 2017, only 33% of working men held a part-time job, compared to 78% of working women. The ministry of OCW (Education, Culture, and Science) reports that, on average, women have a work-week of 25 hours, while men have a work-week of 36 hours, i.e., on average women work 1.5 days less per week than men. It also reports that only 71% of women between 20 and 65 years of age have a job, as opposed to over 82% of men.

Referring to statements of professor Derks in the interview I mentioned above, working part-time has a big influence on career opportunities — thus, if you are interested in having a career, you should realize that working full-time is more or less a necessity. The detrimental effects of working part-time are two-fold:

First, when working part-time you simply accomplish less in your career in the same number of years than someone with the same abilities who works full-time. This leads to a lower status among peers, and a less impressive CV.

Second, professing the desire to work part-time shows a lack of ambition and motivation, which consequently leads to a reduced willingness of an employer to hand out a promotion.

The second effect is in line with differences between the average man and the average woman in how they view work (see, for instance, the report from Monsterboard). Typically, men are more driven by status than women: men far more than women seek a higher salary, possibilities for personal growth and development, independence, and responsibility; women far more than men seek possibilities to work part-time, possibilities to work from home, and a nice balance between work and home life. You may translate that as “on average, women are less invested in their work than men.” That cannot help in having a career. The employer who says: “What I really want from my personnel is that they focus on their home life” has not been born yet.

Note that by no means I am saying that all women lack the motivational drive, the capacity, the experience, and the willingness to have a career. Obviously a considerable number possess these attributes, which is why we see such women in higher positions. They made the choice to invest in their work rather than their personal life, just like many men do.

It is a great benefit of our society that one can actually choose how to balance work and home life. But when someone chooses to be less invested in work, he or she should expect having a hard time getting into higher positions. That holds for women as well as for men. Since, in general, women tend to be much less invested in work than men, it is not surprising that in higher positions, the number of women dwindles. Whether or not the prevalence of women in part-time jobs fully explains the low number of women in higher positions is unknown. Saying that it is the result of gender discrimination, however, is unwarranted.

The only extensive scientific research on the topic that I could find is an article by Williams and Ceci of Cornell University in PNAS, who found that for tenured assistant-professor positions in biology, engineering, economics, and psychology in the US, if you compare female candidates with male candidates of equal quality and matching lifestyles, the chance for female candidates to be hired is twice as high as the chance for male candidates. The conclusion is that gender discrimination is at work here, but it is to the considerable advantage of women.

I wish to finalize this discussion with a simple calculation. Knowing that 82% of men have a job against 71% of women, and that 67% of working men have a full-time job against 22% of women, if we assume that there are about the same number of men and women between the ages of 20 and 65, that means that 78% of the people who work full-time are men, against only 22% women. If we compare that 22% with the 18% of women with full professorships in The Netherlands, it strikes me that these numbers are pretty close. So, while 18% sounds low, it is actually close to what you can expect if you take into account the generally accepted assumption that working full-time is a requirement for getting a high-end job.

In summary, there is no reason to assume that the underrepresentation of women in higher positions in companies and organizations is the result of gender discrimination. Still, there are political forces at work that try to enforce placing more women in higher positions. These forces are particularly strong in the academic world, where universities are ordered by ruling politicians to appoint more women as full professors. What I think about those forces I will discuss in a follow-up post.

Diversity I: Diverse wages

April 1, 2017

The term “diversity” refers to the uniqueness of individuals. In policy making, the theme of “diversity” refers to the inclusion of underrepresented groups of people in particular functions or domains.

In recent years, the theme of “diversity” has infiltrated many aspects of society, and now has serious impact on policies in governmental matters and professional life. I am quite wary about the effects of the diversity discussions. It is such a complex theme, however, that it is hard to formulate statements on it, without running serious risks of finding oneself under a bombardment of accusations of being some kind of –ist or –phobe, which then puts an end to any chance of getting into a civil parlay.

I think that the discussions around this theme, now they are widely politicalized, will only intensify in the coming years. As a scientist, I have the responsibility to deal with these matters as objectively as possible. As I am increasingly involved in policy making and providing advice in matters of policy, it is important to me to be able to express opinions in this domain that are as close as possible to the truth, without letting emotions and political pressure get in the way.

Today’s ranting is instigated by an interview in the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant with Belle Derks, professor of Social and Organizational Psychology at Utrecht University, specialized in “gender equality.” I had many thoughts while reading this interview, and I might get back to it in the coming days. For now, I want to zoom in to the second sentence of the main text of the article, which is “Vrouwen verdienen nog altijd minder en klimmen minder snel op naar hogere functies” (“Women still earn less [than men] and are slower to be promoted”). For clarity, I wish to point out that this is not a statement of professor Derks as far as I can see, but part of the introduction of the journalists.

The quoted sentence is factually correct, but it suggests something that is factually wrong, namely that women get discriminated as far as their wages and promotion opportunities are concerned. With respect to wages, one only needs to read the report of the CBS (the Dutch Central Bureau for Statistics, a governmental organization that prepares reports on all aspects of Dutch social and economic life) on this matter, which is available from their website. This report investigates specifically gender differences in salaries in The Netherlands, and is updated up to the year 2014. In this report one can read the following:

For jobs in companies, the hourly salary of women is about 20% less than that for men. For government jobs, the difference is 10%. However, these numbers are not corrected for differences in actual work, i.e., it just averages the hourly wages of all women that have a job, and all men that have a job, regardless of position, education, or responsibilities. If you correct the differences for about 20 factors, which include age, experience, and position, then the percentages drop to 7% and 5%, respectively.

Does that mean that gender is the explanation for the remaining salary differences? The CBS report states that there is no reason to suppose that gender discrimination is at work here, as there are quite a few factors that can explain the remaining differences, which they were unable to take into account for lack of detailed information. These are, among others, motivation, job level, and secondary employment conditions such as exchanging salary for extra vacation days. As the report states that women are far more likely than men to work part-time, one might expect that in particular women would take the opportunity to sacrifice some salary for extra spare time, though the report does not delve into that.

As there are plenty factors available that may explain the remaining small differences in average wages between men and women, the CBS found no indication that gender discrimination is an explanation for these wage differences. I think that settles the matter.

What I found particularly interesting is that the report also made clear that up to 36 years of age, women actually earn a higher salary than men for doing the same work. However, again this has nothing to do with gender, but with the fact that among younger people, women have, on average, a higher education than men. Between 36 and 45 years of age, there are no significant differences in salaries between men and women. Over 45 years of age, men tend to earn more than women, for which an easy explanation is that in those age groups, men tend to have a higher education and more job experience than women.

How these trends will be extrapolated to the future is hard to say. If many women between 30 and 40 years of age are losing interest in work and accept lower salaries for, for instance, a more extensive home life, the picture might remain as it is now. If women keep focusing just as much as men on their careers and earnings, clearly in about 30 years, women will on average earn more than men in all age groups.

The discussion above has contextualized the first part of the sentence “Women still earn less and are slower to be promoted,” and refutes the suggestion that women earn less than men because of gender discrimination. The second part needs another discussion, which I will get to later.

For now, the conclusion is that in The Netherlands a small gender wage gap exists, but that there is no reason to think that the explanation for it has to do with gender discrimination.

Religieuze beperkingen

July 26, 2016

In de Volkskrant van 25 juli 2016 schrijft Reinout Wibier, hoogleraar Privaatrecht aan dezelfde universiteit als waar ik werk, een opiniestuk getiteld “Atheïsten zijn beperkte mensen.” In dit artikel dicht hij religie een charitatieve, inspirerende en troostende rol toe, die (domme) atheïsten niet wensen te zien. Bovendien beweert hij dat atheïsten niet begrijpen dat alle argumenten die je tegen religie kunt aanvoeren net zo goed gebruikt kunnen worden tegen de door atheïsten zo verheerlijkte wetenschap.

Wat mij behoorlijk tegen de haren instrijkt wat betreft de inhoud van dit artikel, is dat het atheïsten argumenten in de mond legt die ikzelf nooit zou gebruiken om mijn atheïstische overtuiging te verdedigen. Het artikel begint als volgt:

“In sommige kringen is het een teken van beschaving en ontwikkeling om praktiserend atheïst te zijn. Religie is een achterhaald concept en de bron van onnodig geweld en leed, zo is de gedachte.”

Al bij de tweede zin slaat de heer Wibier de plank mis. Men is geen atheïst omdat religie zoveel kwaad in de wereld plaatst. Wie zich afkeert van georganiseerde religie vanwege het kwaad dat verricht wordt, kan nog steeds een niet-religieus gelovige zijn. Een atheïst gelooft niet in god enkel en alleen omdat er geen objectieve reden is om aan te nemen dat er een god bestaat.

Dat religie vaak gebruikt wordt om kwaad te verrichten, wat de heer Wibier ruimhartig toegeeft, doet niet ter zake. Evenmin is het voor het betoog van belang dat er ook goede daden verricht worden in de naam van religie, noch dat wetenschap voor goed en kwaad kan worden ingezet. Niks van dit alles heeft te maken met of men wel of niet in een god gelooft.

Feitelijk kan ik hier met mijn weerwoord tegen Wibiers artikel stoppen, want het grootste deel ervan gaat om het illustreren van deze tweede zin en vervolgens het deels ontkrachten ervan. Over atheïsme zegt dat echter niks. Maar omdat tussen de regels door Wibier suggereert dat religie meer bijdraagt dan dat het wegneemt, en dat atheïsme, of liever gezegd de wetenschap die hij op een hoop wenst te gooien met atheïsme, het niet beter doet dan religie, wil ik toch nog iets dieper op zijn argumenten ingaan.

Dat atheïsten soms meewarig neerkijken op “domme gelovigen” die blind een religieus leider volgen zal ik niet ontkennen. Als Wibiers betoog meer gericht is op de zelfingenomenheid van sommige mensen die zich atheïst noemen en die daarvoor gebrekkige argumenten in de strijd werpen, dan geef ik hem geen ongelijk, hoewel ik zijn eigen verhaal dan tegen hem moet keren en erop wijzen dat dit soort arrogantie juist bij religieuzen de norm is, zelfs al prediken ze nederigheid.

Ik ontken ook niet dat geloof mensen van steun kan zijn in moeilijke omstandigheden — doch ik wil vraagtekens stellen bij het idee dat dat een terrein is waar religie een soort alleenrecht heeft. Een nog groter vraagteken zet ik bij Wibiers opmerkingen omtrent religieus geïnspireerde goede doelen — alsof religie een noodzakelijk gegeven is om mensen “goed” te laten doen.

Net als Wibier heb ik in principe geen probleem met het al dan niet gelovig zijn van mensen. Geloof is een subjectieve keuze, en zolang het dat blijft, behoort het wat mij betreft tot de onaantastbare individuele vrijheden die een mens heeft.

Ik heb persoonlijk wel moeite met mensen die “goed doen” puur en alleen omdat hun religie dat voorschrijft. Dan ligt mijn sympathie veeleer bij de humanist, die zijn idee over hoe hij moet omgaan met zijn medemensen laat afhangen van zijn eigen moreel besef. Mensen die hun morele inzichten laten bepalen door een religie, meestal vertegenwoordigd door een religieus leider, zouden kennelijk net zo lief kwaad doen als hun religie dat opdraagt. Immers, religie vertegenwoordigt een “waarheid” die niet in twijfel getrokken kan of mag worden.

De essentie van wetenschap is dat er geen ultieme waarheid is, en dat alle stellingen, alle theorieën en alle bevindingen door iedereen betwijfeld kunnen, mogen, en moeten worden. Bij alles wat gesteld wordt, is men geacht te vragen “Is dat wel zo? Hoe weet je dat? Hoe is het getest? Welke voorspellingen kun je ermee doen die, als ze niet uitkomen, het gestelde ontkrachten?” Daaraan dankt de wetenschap haar kracht, en daardoor heeft de wetenschap geleid tot een technologische, geestelijke, maatschappelijke, en ethische vooruitgang waarbij de duizenden jaren stilstand in de tijd dat de religie het voor het zeggen had maar schril afsteken.

Georganiseerde religie kan het goede in mensen naar boven halen, maar ook het kwade. Of het nu een imam is die oproept tot vrede of tot het plegen van aanslagen, of de paus die naastenliefde of homohaat predikt, of een politicus die oproept om vrijwilligerswerk te doen of om immigranten een lesje te leren: eenieder die doet wat een al dan niet religieus leider opdraagt puur en alleen omdat die leider het zegt, is een gevaarlijk en verwerpelijk mens. Het kwalijke van religieuze instellingen is dat dit soort blinde mensen gezien wordt als de meest waardevolle leden van de gemeenschap, terwijl de wetenschap juist de vrijdenkers omarmt.

Wibier besluit met te zeggen:

“Maar wie religie categorisch afwijst als achterhaald of slecht is net zo oppervlakkig, beperkt, en misschien zelfs wel onverdraagzaam als diegenen die wetenschap afdoen als de bron van alle kwaad.”

Welnu, collega Wibier: ik wijs religie categorisch af — althans in de vorm dat het van mensen eist dat zij hun denken en moreel besef overdragen aan een instantie, waarvan de leiders uitmaken hoe de mensen moeten handelen. Dat religie een hoop mooie en goede dingen heeft opgeleverd weegt niet op tegen het inherente verlangen van alle religieuze instanties om mensen te bombarderen tot willoze schapen die gedachtenloos de herder volgen. Niet voor niks wordt in de RK Kerk constant gerefereerd aan “de kudde” als men het over de gelovigen heeft.

Ik denk echter dat het “blind achter een leider aanlopen” gelukkig iets is wat niet veel mensen in deze karikaturale vorm doen — althans niet in onze Westerse maatschappij — of ze nu gelovig zijn of niet. Of, met een iets meer cynische blik: ik denk dat blinde volgers van gevaarlijke leiders net zo vaak gevonden worden in de religieuze als in de niet-religieuze hoek.

De verlichte vorm van religie, waarin gelovigen het eigenlijk ook niet allemaal zeker weten, en waarbij ze enigszins lacherig doen over het idee dat er een onfeilbare religieuze leider is die namens god spreekt, is een onschuldige vorm van vermaak die een steunende rol kan vervullen voor hen die er, wellicht wat naïef, gevoelig voor zijn. Maar mijn respect leg ik toch sneller bij bewuste atheïsten, die de argumenten voor het bestaan van god gewogen en te licht bevonden hebben, en die dus met geen mogelijkheid uitkomen onder het nemen van eigen verantwoordelijkheid voor hun daden.

Hoe dit in enig opzicht gezien kan worden als een reden om atheïsten ervan te betichten beperkte mensen te zijn, gaat mijn pet te boven.

The digital overlords are here

May 6, 2016

I read a very nice statement of prof. Pedro Domingos of the University of Washington in the Dutch newspaper NRC of May 4, 2016. In answer to the question “What do you tell people who are afraid that self-learning computers are getting so smart that they will take over the world?” he said: “Computers are stupid and they already took over the world. It would be better if they would be smarter.” That’s going to be my stock answer to this question from now on.

21st century skills

May 2, 2016

Computational technology causes the world to change rapidly.

Almost 30 years ago I got my first job as a computer programmer. At the time, only larger companies with a big administrative overload used computers. Or rather, “a computer”, because it was rare for a company to have more than one. There were no personal computers, no Internet, no mobile phones. People still used typewriters.

In those 30 years, the way people work and live has undergone huge changes. That is exceptionally clear when looking at the kind of work that people do. Mailmen, for instance, delivered the mail twice per day when I was a kid — now they deliver mail twice per week, which means that the contingent of professional mailmen has been decimated. Bank offices are closed because banking can be done much easier online. Information desks can be manned by digital avatars or be replaced by online information systems. Large department stores go out of business because people make their purchases online, leading to an enormous decline in the need for having salespeople. And though this has currently caused a small increase in the demand for people who work in transportation, we can see self-driving cars on the horizon, replacing the need to have any chauffeurs at all.

These are all “low profile” jobs, but “high profile” jobs aren’t safe either. I have taught programming to professional journalists, who told me that computers are taking over large parts of their jobs, writing basic articles and doing automated background research — they wanted to take my courses because they realized that without skills in digital technology, they would be out of a job in a few years time. Programs have been developed that take over a menial but oh-so time consuming part of lawyers’ jobs, namely researching case histories. Computers can write music, produce paintings, and even sculpt — why would you have someone hammer away at a block of granite for six months when a 3D-printer can produce a sculpture with a few hours of work? Even designing and running scientific experiments has been offloaded to computers in some research domains.

In the 30 years in which I have been a professional worker, I have seen the job market change from hardly incorporating computers at all, to a situation in which the need for human employees has been reduced considerably — regardless the job. And that change has not come to an end yet.

This does not mean that there is no place for humans in the job market. It does mean, however, that only humans who can make contributions that a computer has a hard time making on its own, can be assured of a job. In the near future, employability will be invariably linked to the ability to integrate the power of humans and computers in a way that enhances both of them.

The problem is that to be able to use computers to improve the quality of one’s work, it does not suffice to be able to use a word processor or spreadsheet. One should actually be able to expand the capabilities of computers from the perspective of one’s chosen profession. For example, a journalist who can only run a fact-finding computer program that someone else wrote, is not needed. However, a journalist who is able to expand a fact-finding program so that it can come up with facts from new sources, is an asset.

To be able to employ computers in such a way, one needs the skills to think and solve problems like a computer programmer. Having taught students computer programming for many years, I know that this does not come naturally to most. To acquire the necessary skills, students need to spend several intensive courses on the topic.

Considering the fact that universities and colleges are supposed to prepare students for the job market in which they have to function for 40 or more years, and considering the fact that in the very near future (if not right now already) the ability to incorporate the power of computers in any job is a necessity to being a valued worker, one would expect that “computer programming” is one of the basic courses that any student needs to take. Unfortunately, it is not. Typically, basic required courses are “scientific writing”, “philosophy of science”, and “statistics”, but “computer programming” is still seen, by most education programs, as an optional skill. It is not.

In my view, any course program that does not make “computer programming” a required course, is doing its students a disservice, as it is not preparing them for the job market. Actually, I would prefer it if secondary, or even primary schools would incorporate such courses, as programming skills tend to be easier to learn at a younger age. The reason is that they need a particular way of creative thinking, which is harder to acquire when one is already used to solving problems in the reproductive ways that are normally taught at schools.

All students, regardless of their chosen topic, need to learn how to program. Not because we should raise a generation of computer programmers — professional programming is a specialization that only a few people need to be able to do. But the ability to create programs provides students with the skills to think and solve problems like a computer programmer, to gain insight in the possibilities and limitations of computers, and to leverage the power of computers in a particular domain in a uniquely human way.

Obnoxious charity

April 14, 2015

There is a poster hanging in the elevator at work, of which the first line reads: “Like this to give a thirsty child in Africa a new pair of shoes.”

Isn’t it kind of insensitive to offer shoes to someone who is asking for water? And how is me liking a poster going to help?

Low standards

February 2, 2014

In the train, there were two girls in their late teens sitting next to me. One of them showed the other one a photo on her cell phone, and asked: “Is this Facebook-worthy?”

Well I thought it was funny…

Forced Open-Access publishing

November 16, 2013

The Dutch Secretary of State for Education Sander Dekker proposes to make it mandatory for Dutch scientists to only publish in Open Access journals (i.e., free to read) by 2016. If the proposal is really formulated like that, it is one of the most damaging, costly, and unnecessary proposals I have ever seen in science.

First of all: the quality of a scientist is, in general, measured by the citations he gets and the impact of the journals in which he publishes. The highest-impact journals which lead to the most citations are, at present, not Open Access and will not be Open Access by 2016. If Dutch scientists are no longer allowed to publish in journals which are not Open Access, their standing in the scientific world will suffer.

This is coupled with the fact that most Open Access journals require the contributors to pay for publishing in them. The reason that many scientists avoid Open Access journals is that they have no budget to pay for publication. Forcing scientists to publish in Open Access journals leads to two consequences: (1) a considerable part of the science budget will be spent on just paying a third-party to put publications online; and (2) many Open Access journals are low-quality because they are only interested in money, so they accept (almost) everything from anyone who pays — meaning that the scientific quality of Dutch publications will probably decrease.

And finally, here is why it is unnecessary: almost all journals leave the rights for re-publication with the original authors, meaning that you can simply put your publications on a University website. In my field, computer science, this is actually so common that I seldom need to browse through journals anymore: everything I need is found on the web. This is exactly what the Secretary of State wants: all publications being publicly available for free.

Therefore, the only thing the Secretary of State needs to make mandatory is universities putting publications up on their websites. And therefore, not publishing in the few journals that do not allow you to do that. In practice, this is already what happens in many scientific fields — we just need to bring those which exclusively stick to paper into the modern age of digital distribution.