Sunday, 12 February 2012

An iterative algorithm is implemented to make this say what we all know to be true. According to the always reliable John J. Miller, “[a] study says that black students take easier courses than white students at Duke University.” He offers the following as his pull-quote: Although black and white students enter college with similar academic interests, 68 percent of black students eventually chose to study humanities and social sciences. According to the study, this is because “natural science, engineering, and economics courses are more difficult, associated with higher study times, and are more harshly graded than their humanities and social science counterparts.” The pull-quote is fairly incendiary, I admit, but not nearly as offensive as Miller’s summary of the study with its implication of genteel agreement. Miller’s sentence suggests that this study informs his audience of what it already knows, i.e. that their prejudices are informed by science. But the real problem with Miller’s post is right there in the citation from the study: “natural science, engineering, and economics courses are more difficult … than their humanities and social science counterparts.” I know what you’re thinking: “But Scott, isn’t economics a social science?” It is. But it occupies its own special space next to the hard sciences because it does. Two of the study’s authors (Peter Arcidiacono and Esteban Aucejo) are economists, but the other (Ken Spenner) is a sociologist. Which means that if the special dispensation of economics is revoked, all three of the authors of this study are as dumb as black students. Such is the logic of Miller’s implied argument. But that’s not the logic he intended to use. He wanted to wink at Charles Murray and nudge his fellow-travelers. Miller certainly didn’t want people reading the actual study, either, which indicates that there’s another group of students just as dumb as the black ones: Legacies at Duke start out behind their white non-legacy counterparts (though not as far back as blacks) with 65% of the gap removed by the end of the senior year. Similar major-switching patterns occur for legacies as well, with large shifts away from the natural sciences, engineering, and economics towards humanities and social sciences. The divergent grading standards across courses legacies and blacks take, coupled with the tighter variances on the grade distributions of upper year courses, accounts for their catch up to their white non-legacy counterparts. I wonder why Miller didn’t include that in his pithy remark about black students? It’s almost as if the claim “a study says that black students and most of my colleagues at the National Review take easier courses than white students at Duke University” wouldn’t have been well-received at the National Review.

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