Sunday, February 28, 2010

Purim and Don't Ask Don't Tell

Today is Purim, the Jewish holiday which celebrates the events recounted in the Book of Esther in which Esther and Mordechai stop Haman's plans to destroy the Jews. The story of the Book of Esther is one of hidden identity and palace intrigue.

My twin has a piece up at the Huffington Post that looks at the story of Purim in the context of the Don't Ask Don't Tell. Aaron argues that the story of Esther, in which she hides her Jewish identity from the king until she is forced to reveal it to save her people, bears a similarity to the military’s current policy regarding gays. In particular, Esther hid her ethnic/religious identity and the king did not inquire about that identity until events required Esther to disclose the truth. Aaron argues that this ancient tale reflects a basic truth about policies like Don't Ask Don't Tell: they are inherently unstable.

I am not impressed by the piece. The claim that DADT is inherently unstable is not novel: I don't think that anyone, whether they are for or against gays in the military, thought that DADT had any long-term stability. Policies in which an identity is acceptable only as long as it is not blatant are by nature unstable since such policies generally arise when certain groups are discriminated against, but the discrimination is not universally accepted and therefore must be discreet. To continue to use Jews as an example, the quotas on Jewish student admissions to Ivy League schools prior to the 1960s worked in a fashion similar to DADT. Applicants who were obviously Jewish were covered by the quotas. But little effort was made to actively determine the identity of general applicants. (This is to some extent an oversimplification. Dan Oren's excellent book "Joining the Club" discusses this in more detail). This ambivalence was in part due to the fact that Jews were accepted enough that a serious backlash was feared from excessive enforcement of the anti-Jewish quotas. Similarly, DADT in the military came as a compromise when both gay rights groups and anti-gay groups had political power. Such a compromise is inherently unstable.

Aaron also does not address the fact it is not clear from the text why Esther kept her Jewish identity secret from the king. Aaron cites the traditional commentaries which weave elaborate stories of Esther keeping the various classical prohibitions of Judaism such as kashrut and Sabbath observance. Some of the classical commentaries say that Esther kept her Jewish identity hidden because of Persian attitudes towards the Jews. Others invoke other explanations. For example, according to some commentators, Esther kept her identity hidden because of her relation to the line of Saul, the first king of Israel. If it became known that she was of royal blood, her political position would have become much more complicated. Given the ahistorical nature of the story of Esther, it seems to me that the likely reason for her keeping her Jewish identity hidden is primarily to make an interesting story.

My twin correctly notes that there are good reasons to abolish DADT and allow gays to serve openly in the military. However, those reasons exist without any analogies to Biblical texts. We can make the correct decisions without recourse to ancient texts whether we see those texts as religious or literary in nature. DADT is bad policy. We don’t need the story of Esther and Mordechai to tell us that.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Two Quick Notes on Civil Rights

Unfortunately, I'm very busy this week and so haven't had much time to blog. Therefore I would like to quickly bring up two civil rights issues. First, Texas, the state known for executing people who were almost certainly innocent like Cameron Todd Willingham , is now set to execute another innocent man. Hank Skinner is set to be executed. The evidence against Skinner was based primarily on eye-witness testimony from a single witness who has since recanted. There are many other details about the case (such as the government's refusal to let Skinner have a DNA test) that make the situation appalling. Texas is going to execute an innocent man.

In the other news of appalling civil rights issues, we have an amazing act of censorship by Italy. An Italian judge has convicted three Google executives for violating Italian privacy laws. The crime apparently was running Youtube. in 2006, a group of youths uploaded to Youtube a video of them harassing and assaulting an autistic child. That's pretty despicable. And when Youtube received a legal complaint, they took the video down and cooperated with the Italian police in locating the children who made the video. Apparently, that is not enough. Any video which violates Italian privacy laws is now the fault of Google and Google employees can suffer both civil and criminal fines. Google has correctly outlined that this is a serious threat to free speech around the globe. This is all the more a problem because many civilized countries have extradition treaties with Italy. Considering the Italy is the same country which tried to require anyone in Italy uploading videos or writing blogs to register with the government, it seems pretty apparent that this is another example of Berlusconi and his corrupt media cronies trying to do their hardest to screw over media not under their control. Hopefully, either higher-level Italian courts will overrule this decision or the EU will step in.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dick Cheney Undefeated

My twin has a piece up at the Huffington Post arguing that Dick Cheney's recent outspokenness is due in part to Cheney's unique political position as an undefeated Vice-President. Cheney is the first VP in a long time who did not end his political path in an electoral defeat. Aaron argues that this, combined with other historical factors, puts Cheney in a unique position where it is socially acceptable for him to be loudly critical of the current President. The piece is interesting although I think he doesn't address one reason why there is attention given to Cheney: The Republicans have no natural leader at this point and Cheney is one of the few people who potentially could fit in that position. In any event, the piece is worth reading and provides some interesting historic tidbits about prior VPs.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Orthodox Jews, Vaccination, and Mumps

I've discussed anti-science attitudes among Orthodox Jews in previous blog posts. I've also discussed how this has resulted in low vaccination rates among Orthodox, especially charedi, Jews. Now we are seeing the consequences. Over the last three weeks, a mini-epidemic of mumps has broken out in New York among the Orthodox population. The first cases started appearing this summer in Williamsburg, but there are now over 1500 cases and the epidemic has made inroads into the general non-Orthodox population. Apparently while a majority of the Orthodox Jews are vaccinated, the level of vaccination was reduced enough that herd immunity no longer applied. Quoting from the LA Times:

Mumps is marked by a swelling of the salivary glands, giving the victim a characteristic chipmunk-like appearance. Most victims have fever and headache, and a few suffer from hearing loss, meningitis and swollen testicles that can lead to infertility. It was once a common disease in the U.S., with an average of 186,000 cases per year before the mumps vaccine, now included in the mumps-measles-rubella, or MMR, vaccine was introduced in 1967. The mumps part of MMR is thought to be the least effective of the three vaccines, with 73% to 91% of those vaccinated obtaining proteciton after one dose and 79% to 95% after two doses.

Patient zero in the current outbreak was an 11-year-old boy who returned from England on June 17. Mumps has become more common in that country recently because of the substantial number of parents who refuse to let their children receive the MMR under the misguided belief that the vaccine can cause autism. About 7,400 cases of mumps were reported in Britain last year.

Orthodox Jews have accounted for more than 97% of cases, and the majority -- 61% - -are among 7- to 18-years-old. More than three-quarters of the patients are male. Among those for whom vaccination status is known, 88% had received one dose of MMR and 75% had received two doses.

The threat of sterility needs to be especially emphasized. In Orthodox Judaism, there are few things more important than having children. Mumps can induce infertility in both males and females. It is not at all unlikely that children who have gone through this epidemic will have trouble finding marriage prospects. Thus, the failure to vaccinate has produced what may become terrible, long-term problems for many children for the rest of their lives. The Orthodox unwillingness to vaccinate has become a self-inflicted wound. In this case, anti-science attitudes were far from harmless and the results may yet grow to more seriously threaten both the Orthodox population and other people as well. Failure to vaccinate children creates serious risk to your children and the people around your children. Vaccinate. For some of these children, it is already too late. They will bear the physical and social scars of their parents' decisions.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Math Anxiety, Math Education and Gender Expectations

A recent study has shown that young girls in the United States who are taught by teachers with math anxiety are more likely themselves to develop anxiety of about math. The study is by psychologist Sian Beilock et al. at the University of Chicago. Her research looked at second graders’ anxiety levels in mathematics. She found that, with her sample, there was no correlation between gender and attitude towards math at the beginning of the school year. However, by the end of the school year, girls were much more likely to develop math anxiety. Moreover, girls were much more likely to develop such anxiety if their female teachers had math anxiety. Rather than summarize all of the more interesting details in the study, what follows first is a large quote from the study followed by my comments:

If it is simply the case that highly math-anxious teachers are worse math teachers, one would expect to see a relation between teacher anxiety and the math achievement of both boys and girls. Instead, teachers with high math anxiety seem to be specifically affecting girls’ math achievement—and doing so by influencing girls’ gender-related beliefs about who is good at math.

This study explores the relation between female teachers’ math anxieties and their students’ math achievement. Thus, it is an open question as to whether there would be a relation between teacher math anxiety and student math achievement if we had focused on male instead of female teachers. In one sense, the lack of male elementary school teachers in the United States makes this a hard question to answer. Yet, it is an important question, given research suggesting that girls are more socially sensitive than boys in early elementary school (16). Thus, it is possible that even with male teachers, a relation between teacher anxiety and female student achievement might occur. Nevertheless, the literature on math anxiety, gender modeling, and the impact of negative stereotypes on achievement lead us to speculate that any relation between male teacher anxiety and girls’ math achievement would be obtained through a different route than the one proposed here. Moreover, in the current work, the relation between female teachers’ math anxieties and girls’ math achievement was mediated (or accounted for) by girls’ beliefs that boys are better at math. Hence, it seems unlikely that a male teacher’s math anxiety would affect girls’ math achievement by pushing girls to confirm that boys are good at math.

In addition, children do not blindly imitate adults of the same gender. Instead, they model behaviors they believe to be gendertypical and appropriate (9). Thus, it may be that first- and secondgrade girls are more likely to be influenced by their teachers’ anxieties than their male classmates, because most early elementary school teachers are female and the high levels of math anxiety in this teacher population confirm a societal stereotype about girls’ math ability (2). This match between teacher math anxiety and societal norms would not hold for male teachers exhibiting math anxiety. However, if such a correspondence is important in influencing student achievement, we would expect that for school subjects for which girls are stereotyped to excel (e.g., language arts), male teachers’ anxieties would have an impact on male more than female students’ achievement.

It is important to note that the effects reported in the current work, although significant, are small. There are likely many influences on girls’ math achievement and gender ability beliefs overand above their current teachers’ anxieties. For instance, previous teachers, parents, peers, and siblings who either do or do notmodel traditional academic gender roles may play an important part in shaping girls’ gender ability beliefs and their math achievement more generally. Exploring these relationships—in addition to the influence of both male and female teachers—will help to elucidate the full range of social influences on student achievement.

In conclusion, we show that female teachers’ math anxiety has consequences for the math achievement of girls in early elementary school grades. Given that this relation is mediated by girls’ gender ability beliefs, we speculate that female teachers model commonly held gender stereotypes to their female students through their math anxieties. These findings open a window into gender differences in math achievement and attitudes that emerge over the course of schooling.

Interestingly, math anxiety can be reduced through math training and education (17 –19). This suggests that the minimal mathematics requirements for obtaining an elementary education degree at most US universities need to be rethought. If the next generation of teachers—especially elementary school teachers—is going to teach their students effectively, more care needs to be taken to develop both strong math skills and positive math attitudes in these educators.

How should we respond to this study? As with all initial scientific studies, the data is by its nature tentative, but in this case it looks very robust.Consequently I will for the remainder of this post assume that the phenomenon as described in Beilock et al. is accurate.

We currently focus most of our resources aimed at getting young women to be confident in math at the middle school and high school level. Moreover, prominent celebrities who have tried to deal with this problem have focused almost exclusively on this older age cohort. Danica McKellar for example has focused on encouraging mathematical confidence and learning in middle school girls. This new study suggests that much of the damage done to girls’ mathematical confidence occurs at a very young age. Thus, we may need to rethink where resources are being allocated. Unfortunately, this study does not as of yet include any long-term follow-up. So how much of this early math anxiety is correctable later is not clear. Aside from this sort of vague generality about resource allocation, here are four concrete proposals that need discussion.

First, let’s get the most controversial possibility out of the way: We may want to consider more direct encouragement of males to engage in elementary school teaching. Put less politely, we should consider affirmative action and other incentives to encourage males to go into elementary school teaching, at least for math. While this study showed that young girls picked up on the math anxiety of their female teachers, it is clear that young males did not gain math anxiety from female teachers. Moreover, math anxiety is simply less common among males. Thus, male students will be unlikely to pick up math anxiety, and female students will not pick it up from male teachers until they are older. This proposal has a number of problems. Foremost among them is that it assumes that male teachers will not act in an overly sexist fashion, either explicitly or implicitly denigrating female mathematical ability. Unfortunately, it is clear from anecdotal evidence that many teachers of both genders do explicitly disparage young girls’ mathematical ability. See for example this thread at SkepChick . Moreover, the exact impact of male teachers is far from clear: The study looked only at female teachers. Without more data about how students of both genders interact with male teachers both with and without math anxiety, this proposal must by nature be extremely tentative. The argument can be made that this will send a bad message to young children, i.e., that only males can teach or do math. However, that’s erroneous. Currently, around 90% of elementary school teachers are female. If we replace the females with math anxiety with males without math anxiety or even males with mild math anxiety, the fraction of teachers who are male will still be well below half. So this step also helps correct for a pre-existing gender disparity in elementary sc hool teaching.

Second, and almost as controversial as the first proposal, we can encourage teachers, especially females, to not go into elementary school teaching if they have math anxiety or simply aren’t very good at math. Unfortunately, we already suffer serious problems in the United States getting qualified people to teach elementary school. So directly altering who we encourage to become teachers is non-optimal. Similarly, increasing the required level of math background for elementary school teachers is not a good response. Moreover, as Beilock discusses, proper education can remove or reduce math anxiety. This leads directly to the third possible response.

Third, we must take more steps to directly reduce math anxiety in teachers and people planning on becoming teachers. This should likely focus on female teachers or teacher-candidates who have shown to have serious math anxiety issues. We can introduce them to additional areas of math, where the math is easy to understand and fun. Very elementary number theory and graph theory may be relevant areas. More broadly, we can also have them play mathematical games that get them more comfortable with the idea that math can be fun. Zendo for example would be an excellent potential confidence builder.

Fourth, we can take direct steps to expose young females to mathematically confident females. One method of doing so is to have the math sections of elementary education taught by separate teachers who are more mathematically confident. Even in schools with high percentages of teachers with math anxiety, some teachers will still likely be mathematically confident. Having those teachers handle the math teaching for other teachers (or possibly specializing to only teach math) is an option. Also, we can encourage young girls by having them directly interact with female mathematicians. Part of the problem is that mathematically confident females generally go into industry, sciences or upper tiers of academia, not elementary school teaching. So, mathematicians and scientists should visit local elementary schools. If schools can regularly sponsor visits by firefighters, police officers and members of other vocations and professions, there’s no reason that mathematicians and scientists can’t do the same thing. It doesn’t take much to show up and say “Hey! Look! I’m a lady who does math. And I enjoy it!”

Fortunately, resources which are spent encouraging the general public and children of all ages to be more mathematically confident can potentially work in general to help the situation with female students. Thus, work like Steven Strogatz’s new regular column in the New York Times to help make math more accessible to the general audience can be helpful.
No matter what happens we need to look at this data dispassionately at the same time as we try to gather more information about the transmittable nature of math anxiety. As a society we are short-changing many bright young females. Because those students then do not go into math-intensive areas of study,the society suffers. These problems need to be addressed. We are not doing enough now to address them.

Barack Obama, The US Senate, LBJ, and Gratuitous Promotion of Family Members

My twin has a piece up at the Huffington Post arguing that Obama should take a lessons from Lyndon Johnson in how to work with the Senate. The central thesis is that Obama needs to take four lessons from Johnson. I'm not convinced that Aaron is completely correct here. I found his earlier piece arguing that the Democrats should force the Republicans to engage in genuine filibusters to be more persuasive. Both pieces are worth reading. At this point, it seems apparent that many Republican senators have zero interest in actually running a government and are genuinely trying to just be as obstructionist as possible. Richard Shelby's attempt to put a hold on every single Obama nominee seems to be the logical conclusion of the current Republican behavior. Both of Aaron's pieces are worth reading, but at this point, I suspect that Obama's best course of action at this point may be to try to get the public to understand how little cooperation he is getting from both House and Senate Republicans.