Creepiness Is Contagious

It’s always kind of distressing to find something you agree with being said by people who also espouse views you find nutty, repulsive, or reprehensible. It doesn’t make them any less right, but it makes it a little more difficult to be associated with those views.

So, for instance, there’s this broadside against ineffective math education, via Arts & Letters Daily. It’s got some decent points about the failings of modern math education, which lead to many of our entering students being unable to do algebra. But along the way, you get frothiness like the following:

The educational trends that led to the NCTM’s approach to math have a long pedigree. During the 1970s and 1980s, educators in reading, English, and history argued that the traditional curriculum needed to be more “engaging” and “relevant” to an increasingly alienated and unmotivated–or so it was claimed–student body. Some influential educators sought to dismiss the traditional curriculum altogether, viewing it as a white, Christian, heterosexual-male product that unjustly valorized rational, abstract, and categorical thinking over the associative, experience-based, and emotion-laden thinking supposedly more congenial to females and certain minorities.

This veers a little too much in the direction of “we must protect our precious bodily fluids!,” and really undercuts the effectiveness of the rest of the argument. This is not to say that there weren’t nutty things said by people on the other side of the math-education argument, but any time you start to sound like Jack D. Ripper, you’re headed to a Bad Place.

Of course, that’s only the lowest-order effect of nuttiness. The next highest order contribution comes when people are able to use the reprehensible views of your associates to construct seemingly devastating counterattacks, such as Malcom Gladwell’s response to Steven Pinker (who wrote a fairly devastating review of Gladwell in the New York Times), which consists mostly of pointing out that Pinker’s comments about NFL quarterbacks are based on arguments from a creepy racist. Which is superficially very effective– after all, who wants to be associated with a creepy racist, even twice removed?– but doesn’t really address the substance of the critique. It also neatly dodges the whole “igon value” issue (namely, that Gladwell misuses technical terms in a way that suggests he has no idea what he’s talking about), which I’m sure Gladwell is more than happy to pretend never happened, but which is much more central to Pinker’s argument than the NFL business.

So, not only do nutty views end up making it difficult for people who generally agree with you to, well, agree with you, but they also provide aid and comfort to those who disagree with you, by giving them an easy rhetorical dodge past people who use your arguments. The moral here is clear: people with creepy political views need to stop agreeing with me about stuff.

Comments

  1. #1 Don
    November 18, 2009

    “which consists mostly of pointing out that Pinker’s comments about NFL quarterbacks are based on arguments from a creepy racist.” I was inclined to accept your argument until I read Gladwell’s response, then checked his sources. Actually, Gladwell does address the substance of Pinker’s critique. Would you please give the substance of Gladwell’s response?

  2. #2 Van Rijn
    November 18, 2009

    This veers a little too much in the direction of “we must protect our precious bodily fluids!,”

    Not really. The “heterosexual” bit was one word too many, but your reaction is just as odd and creepy to someone not in *your* ideological sphere. I have friends that used to work in public ed at the time, and that *was* a common attitude- that the “old way” was a product of some oppressive WASP pantheon of rules and thought, and that there must (MUST!) be a better way.

    Does anyone even use “WASP” anymore. Am I dating myself? ;-)

    The moral here is clear: people with creepy political views need to stop agreeing with me about stuff.

    No, people need to be less shallow and argue the intellectual points and not engage in ad hom tactics. Sorry, but most people are going to fail to meet your ideological purity tests.

  3. #3 Eric Lund
    November 18, 2009

    I have friends that used to work in public ed at the time, and that *was* a common attitude

    Although Poe’s Law was formulated about fundamentalist religion, I suspect a similar rule applies to situations like this. Chad and I are too young to have been through those debates when they actually happened, and from 20 years remove that summary of the viewpoint, even if it was accurate, sounds very much like a parody.

    Does anyone even use “WASP” anymore. Am I dating myself?

    A few years back I was debating a young whippersnapper (about 15 years younger than I) who insisted that the acronym was WHASP, where the H stood for “heterosexual”. I also learned it as WASP, back in my high school days; perhaps we took the “heterosexual” part for granted. But come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen either version of that acronym since then, until you mentioned it.

  4. #4 Sam C
    November 18, 2009

    Don is correct: Gladwell’s response to Pinker was not the hysterical rant that your presentation suggests it is.

    And what is “frothy” about the comments you quote about the genesis of the altered approaches to teaching various subjects? It points up the fact that education practices are not simply a case of asking and answering the question “how do we get this info and these skills into our students’ heads?” but involve much wider social, cultural and political issues. And the substance of the comment is quite widely (not necessarily universally, but widely) accepted.

    Your characterisation of this as “protect our bodily fluids” is a malicious misreading of the article.

    Frankly, it’s you that’s looking nutty here, looking for moral fault in people trying honestly to present a reasonable analysis and their views.

    But I suppose I agree with your final point, that being nutty makes it difficult to convince people of your sane views – I’m certainly going to treat anything you write with more skepticism from now! Can’t trust Orzel’s analysis with cross-checking the sources…

  5. #5 matthew
    November 18, 2009

    Actually Don is not correct. The Gladwell response addressed one specific criticism and did so in a dismissive way. He did not represent all the assorted correlations Sailer has identified. He did what he usually does which is to cherry pick some data and dismiss or accept it as suits his beliefs.

    Curiously enough Gladwell’s response further demonstrates what was actually the core of Pinker’s criticism. Which was not some specific example but Gladwell’s general approach to constructing arguments which are usually based on a combination of straw men, cherry picked data, and anecdotes.

    Also Chad didn’t actually say the Gladwell response was hysterical. He said that it appeared at first persuasive but upon reflection is not substantial.

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    November 18, 2009

    For the benefit of people like Sam and Don who had a bit of trouble with reading comprehension, here is the first thing in Gladwell’s blog post that could be construed as a rebuttal of Pinker’s criticism:

    Sailer [one of Pinker's sources], for the uninitiated, is a California blogger with a marketing background who is best known for his belief that black people are intellectually inferior to white people.

    This is the tactic Chad is complaining about. After reading that sentence I know exactly as much about Sailer’s football expertise (or lack thereof) as I did before. All that I have learned is that he is definitely not somebody I would want to have a beer with.

    The substantive parts of the rebuttal are lower down in the post, and several commenters to the post argue that Gladwell’s rebuttal is not convincing. One obvious flaw in the methodology Gladwell promotes is that the first ten picks in the NFL draft go to losing teams, so those quarterbacks often (1) see immediate play (2) under conditions that will lower their per play productivity. For quarterbacks drafted in later rounds, the per play metric runs into survivor bias–in general, only the best of these quarterbacks ever play a regular season down.

  7. #7 CCPhysicist
    November 18, 2009

    You are quite right about that article concerning math ed (I have not followed what Gladwell writes outside of The New Yorker). By mixing the critique of math ed with comments about the Culture Wars on the lit side, they obscure the real issues. Broadening the curriculum to include black history and more contemporary literature (we were reading sci fi in high school classes 40 years ago) was a good thing. You learn to write by reading, so getting kids to read is the first step. Adding applications to math is also a good idea. Not actually teaching math is a bad idea. You can’t apply it if you can’t do it.

    I take issue with the implication that it was also a bad idea to have a goal to make mathematics “accessible” to low-achieving students ….” Implying that this is pointless, by agreeing with those who think the only way to do this is to dumb-down the curriculum, is nonsense. Professors at our CC prove them wrong every day.

    The problem is that the math ed professors and, more importantly, the textbook developers and marketers, have never NEVER actually taught low-achieving students in a classroom for a year and shown that their pedagogy works, let alone that it works in the hands of a typical teacher.

    The article states:
    “The primary role of math teachers, constructivists say in turn, shouldn’t be to explain or otherwise try to “transfer” their mathematical knowledge to students; that would be ineffective.”

    The main reason it would be ineffective is that the typical elementary school teacher has minimal knowledge of mathematics and little interest in doing or teaching it. I have an entire blog series that I have yet to write that documents some of this with university data in the middle of that shift, as talented women went into science and business and law and medicine in the 1970s. This will not change until our society gives persons teaching K-8 the same status as lawyers.

    Constructivism is more problematic. I think the errors there result from studying people like me (I learned algebra on my own in 4th grade) rather than people like the young woman who never took any math after 6th grade because “women didn’t need to know that” and came to our CC twenty years later. She needed to know which end of the hammer to hold before she could construct anything.

  8. #8 Sherri
    November 18, 2009

    I’m with CCPhysicist, after having spent time over a seven year period observing math in my daughter’s elementary schools – elementary teachers don’t know much about math, and don’t like what they do know. I used to pay attention to the math wars, but then I realized that they were pointless; curriculum matters much less than teachers, and no matter which curriculum won, the teachers still weren’t going to like math.

    At the elementary level, though, I’m not sure we can blame it on the increased opportunities available to mathematically oriented women. Had I been twenty years older, I probably would have been a math teacher, like my aunt was, but I doubt I would have been an elementary teacher. My perception as a student back then was that most of my elementary teachers didn’t like math, either, and that teachers who did like math went to the secondary schools.

  9. #9 M Stein
    November 18, 2009

    “Pinker’s comments about NFL quarterbacks are based on arguments from a creepy racist.”

    The comment that Sailer is known for his view “that black people are intellectually inferior to white people” is a pathetic misrepresentation.

    People vary in their abilities based in part on genetic differences. These differences at the individual level sometimes add up to differences in average ability between people of one race and people of another.

    We know that genes influence many abilities. We also know that some of these genes vary considerably in prevalence between ethnic groups. One example is the RR variant of ACTN3, a gene that affects fast generation of muscular force and correlates with excellence at speed and power sports. The opposite variant of the gene is called XX. Tests indicate that the ratio of people with RR to people with XX is 1 to 1 among Asians, 2 to 1 among European whites, and more than 4 to 1 among African-Americans.

    To acknowledge this is not the same as saying one group is inferior.

    If two groups differed by, say, 10 points in average IQ (2/3 of a standard deviation), the respective distributions would overlap quite a bit (more in-group than between-group variation), but the fraction of people with IQ above some threshold (e.g., >140) would be radically different.

    That is the case with Ashkenazi Jews, psychologists and educational researchers have pegged their average IQ at 107.5 to 115.

    That’s only modestly higher than the overall European average of 100, but the gap is large enough to produce a huge difference in the proportion of geniuses. When a group’s average IQ is 100, the percentage of people above 140 is 0.4%; when the average is 110, the rate is 2.3%.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16867211

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