Tuesday, 4 August 2015

You're from Harvard and You Can't Add, or You're From MIT and You Can't Read

What Fraction in the MIT Faculty?

A young man was out near Kenmore Square in Cambridge, MA to purchase a few groceries.  Having gathered the lot, he proceeded to the check-out counter.  Being in a hurry, and with long lines at most, he headed to the express counter (10 items or less).
The basket on his arm plainly had too many items, and the person manning the register commented, 'Let me guess.  You're a student at one of the local universities."
"Why, yes I am." the young man replied.  "How did you guess?"
Sighing and pointing to the "10 Items or Less" sign, the cashier dryly commented, "Well; either you're from Harvard and you cannot add, or, you're from MIT and you cannot read."

It's an old joke, but came to mind when I read this item in the news today. Apparently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - arguably the foremost scientific institution of higher learning in the US, has rolled out an initiative to increase "diversity" amongst its students and faculty.  MIT are perhaps falling in line behind tech companies like Google and Facebook, who recently have ligned up to self-flagellate because their work-forces do not "look like America," however one chooses to define that.

The current themes one is seeing - exacerbated by the fracas in the UK around Nobel Laureate Tim Wise and his ill-considered remarks about women in the lab - is that there are just not enough women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths).  The meme became sufficiently pop-culture-friendly that it was the central theme of an episode of the nerd comedy hit "The Big Bang Theory."

The physics department at MIT released on its web-site recently its commitment to attract a more diverse student body with the claim:

Like in many physics departments, white males are over-represented in our student and faculty populations.  There are several reasons to pursue change, seeking to increase the number of women and under-represented minorities in our community.

The goal of increasing the talent pool is, of course, a laudatory one.  Certainly MIT, the US, and the world more generally would likely benefit if more minds inclined to the hard sciences were attracted into STEM fields rather than, say, creating exotic "debt products" on Wall Street.  If there are women with science gifts who are systematically being overlooked or worse, excluded, from top-tier institutions like MIT, then eliminating barriers is an excellent step.

But the premise is at best flawed in its assumptions.

The idea that "white males are over-represented" in the MIT student body is supported by....what, exactly?  A quick look at data from MIT's provost reveals that, in the current enrolled classes at that university, 36.5% of students are white (not segregated by field of concentration).  Similarly, 54% of MIT's students are male.  

How many white males are in MIT?  

There are 4,512 undergrads at MIT, and thus, 2,075 are women.  MIT counts amongst it's undergrads, 1,648 white students.

If one presumes that none of the women is white, then at most, 37% of MIT's students are white males.  If 25% of the white students are female (half the over-all rate of women in the school), then white males constitute 27% of the student body.

Is that "over-representation?"  Compared to what?

The data for the graduate student body are even a bit more skewed, with white students constituting 31% (2100 of 6800) of the graduate population.

Left out of the discussion entirely is the fact that more than 10% of the undergraduate (and 42% of the graduate) student populations are international students.  No breakdown of the background of these students is given,

(As an aside, the famed linguist Noam Chomsky is on the MIT faculty; I would ask him if the use of "white males" in the same commentary as the "increase the number of women" (emphasis added) is entirely incidental?  Does the use of "white male" versus "women" is sub-consciously meant to somehoe diminish the former?)

Like Silicon Valley, there is, numerically, a diversity problem at MIT.  I think that the physics department - wilfully, perhaps - is ignoring what the actual problem is.  

Personally, I have no quarrel with MIT how it chooses its students (and faculty).  I suspect if they went more strictly on the academic merits of their applicants (like Cal Tech does), the numbers would look more skewed than they do.  

Schools like MIT and Cal Tech have their own missions, and each suggests that identifying and training the brightest scientific minds - irrespective of their racial phenotypes or countries of origin.  That may result in a student body that is disproportionately, if not overwhelmingly, students from India and China.  So be it.

But to look at these numbers and to put in an official statement that "white males are over-represented" when the data are so obviously pointing in a different direction is to play the blind man's zoo game.  

Hint: that long, thin object is the trunk of an elephant and not a snake.

It's fine for a publication like CNET to draw such myopic conclusions.  It's quite another for an ostensibly science-oriented research institute like MIT to do so.

Thank goodness this mathematical illiteracy is from the physics and not the maths department.

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