Magic Words

A study is being widely shared online that putting different sets of words on a math syllabus (more touchy-feely instead of stricter stuff) improves the performance of female students from average to almost genius-level. Not only is the idea of students reading the syllabus quite ludicrous, this belief in “magic words” is wrongheaded and dangerous. You can’t change reality by doing magic incantations.

9 thoughts on “Magic Words

  1. I totally suck at math and I find this insulting, the idea that women can only do math if it’s touchy-feely crap. Even with touchy-feely feeling crap I would still suck at math because I hated it and hated doing the work.

    I’m actually proud that I got a C in my Intro to Physics class since it was the last class I needed to fulfill my math requirements, the teacher was an old guy from India and he was on top of us with the work. I had a lot of respect for him since he was tough on everyone, he didn’t want to hear that women couldn’t do higher math


  2. The people circulating this study are apparently either unaware of or just unconcerned about the fact that nearly the entire literature on “priming” effects in psychology has been shown to be unreproducible garbage.


    1. Plus there’s what statistician Andrew Gelman calls the “piranha problem.” Suppose all of these studies on priming, microaggressions, etc. are totally true. All of the alleged stimuli are so small and common that they should cancel out in practice. You put some positive language in the syllabus, but you also stumble and say something about “ability” or whatever verboten word during a lecture. A student wakes up in the morning and sees an uplifting news article that inspires confidence, then hears a song that traffics in stereotypes, then takes their midterm in a room where the color of the carpeting produces whatever mood. And there’s a word on the midterm that allegedly has very strongly positive effects, and another that has very strongly negative effects. And so forth.

      How are we going to determine which of those umpteen “priming” effects or whatever should manifest in this case?


  3. As someone who has always excelled at math and now works as a prof in a math-heavy field, I say these studies are insulting garbage. There are women who have talent for math and those who don’t; shockingly, just like men. Yes, you can teach a lot of people some math, but not to an arbitrarily high level. Everyone can be taught fractions and simple statistics. Not everyone can be taught algebraic topology and differential geometry.

    Now there’s a different question what makes women major in math and pick math-heavy careers. For example, if I had grown up here in the US, I might not have taken the path I had, because over here a) everyone is still so shocked, SHOCKED I TELL YOU, by girls interested in math/physics and can’t stop picking the phenomenon apart like some sort of otherworldly occurrence and b) the US focus on “you can only be one thing and it defines you” means that male nerds are not pushed to develop social skills and personalities (as they are where I grew up; being smart was no excuse for not bathing or acting like a creep) and become well-rounded people who can behave normally around women, so taking classes surrounded by a bunch of young male nerds can be a profoundly uncomfortable experience and I can totally see myself as a young woman saying “Fuck it” and going to do something else, like biochemistry or premed.

    Btw, I teach classes with 10-15% women TOPS. The women are routinely among the best students. The worst women perform at the level of class average. I know that’s because women self-select out of these fields, or rather because underperforming men don’t self-select out of these fields enough.


    1. I also notice that women are very rarely as weak as the men in my classes. Whenever I say that we need to persuade kids who are weak at math to major in something else, colleagues inevitably accuse me of wanting to filter out women. Yes, yes, if we search hard enough we can find some women who are doing terribly and should change major. We can find far more men.

      The conversation inevitably goes something like this:

      Me: “This kid Richie Whiteman did terribly in class last week. Third year of college as a physics major and he’s still weak with logarithms! I wish he’d change majors.”

      Cow-orker: “That sort of talk will drive women away.”

      Me: “Richie Whiteman uses he-him pronouns.”

      Cow-orker: “Well, what about the fact that people of color often struggle with impostor syndrome?”

      Me: “Richie Whiteman once got a sunburn on a cloudy day.”

      Cow-orker: “We need to be more sensitive to the needs of economically disadvantaged students.”

      Me: “For fuck’s sake, his name is Richie Whiteman! He’s from a fancy suburb! Now can we please hand him a change-of-major form?”

      Liked by 2 people

    2. You can tell me I’m a mathematical genius all day every day and I’ll still struggle even with the basic arithmetic. My brain is just not made for it. Exactly like my legs aren’t made for competitive basketball and my voice isn’t made for La Scala.

      Great points on male nerds and self-selection.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. “male nerds are not pushed to develop social skills and personalities ”

      I think this image of nerds in the US was created in the 1970s…. (first on Saturday Night Live?) and then became it’s own thing. It’s not something I think I grew up with (there were some nerdier kids and some outcasts but… they didn’t necessarily go together.

      On the other hand, it was the late 1970s when the culture began to split up and those so inclined could immerse themselves in emerging nerd underground…

      Now I’m wondering which came first… the underground culture or the creation of the nerd….

      Liked by 1 person

  4. They considered the verbal art of prestidigitation
    In order to produce more skillful computation
    Magically uttering words clever and lithe
    So that they’d understand new math and how to derive
    But Tom Lehrer did this for an entire nation!

    Liked by 1 person

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