Why the Left Relies on Statistical Illiteracy

In September 2022, three researchers published the provocatively titled article, “Do Introductory Courses Disproportionately Drive Minoritized Students Out of STEM Pathways?” That article got loads of social media publicity for its conclusion that unequal withdrawal rates from STEM degree tracks are due to systemic racism.

Co-authors Chad Topaz (“Data scientist/mathematician and activist” and co-founder of the Institute for the Quantitative Study of Inclusion, Diversity and Equity) and Nate Brown (“Math faculty like me can be a major barrier to diversifying STEM fields”) added to their scholarly research an opinion article that provides a guide for “How STEM Faculty Can Fight Institutional Racism and Sexism.”

The scholarly article is bunk. Professor Lee Jussim, a man who has considerable experience in detecting scientific emperors without clothes, eviscerated it on Substack:

• The authors didn’t preregister their study, which means we don’t know whether they went fishing through the data for a hypothesis that would support their argument. (“Preregistration” requires researchers to state their hypothesis beforehand.)

• The authors confused correlation with causation … and compounded this basic error by not searching for alternate hypotheses that might explain their data. Notably, they failed to consider hypotheses that didn’t support the presumption of systemic racism and sexism. Research that does not account for the extraordinary effect that researchers’ methodological decisions impose upon their results cannot be relied upon.

• The study depended on p-values (i.e., probability measurements) that indicated no statistical significance, or on p-values so near the margin of insignificance that they were extremely likely to be fluke false-positive results.

• The authors used unnecessarily broad measurement categories—so broad that Jussim concludes that they “seem to have purposely created measurement error when they did not need to.

No rigorous and fair-minded researcher with any understanding of statistics, experimental design, or the irreproducibility crisis would take this study seriously. Indeed, the fact that it passed peer review is yet more evidence that peer review now functions to credential and accelerate groupthink rather than to deter it.

[Related: “The White Privilege ‘Research’ Racket”]

Such shoddy research is far too common in the sciences and social sciences. This is a grave enough problem in its own right, but it has more serious consequences for America as a whole. We have delegated policymaking authority to professionals who claim expertise in wide swathes of administrative policy, judicial decisionmaking, and legislation. Those experts who claim the mantle of “Science” are foremost among these would-be professional experts. Such men and women far too frequently subordinate the search for truth to the search to impose a preferred policy. Their shoddy research methods are part and parcel of their desire to forward a political agenda—although it should be emphasized that even researchers without a political agenda now use statistical and experimental methods guaranteed to produce a mass of false results.

Conservatives are keenly aware of this problem, because the mass of researchers have tilted to the left for a generation and more. Shoddy research dovetails astonishingly well with radical polemic. But even though conservatives are aware of the problem, they have had limited success in addressing it. Every public policy arena amenable to professional expertise attracts a pile of half-baked research, eagerly cited and repeated until much of public opinion takes it as some sort of proven truth. A healthy skepticism of professional arrogance and self-interest inoculates a portion of the public, and a scattering of professionals such as Lee Jussim can provide critiques of a factitious consensus, but the mass of self-assured, politically-minded, and incompetent professionals have all too great an effect on public policy.

The monolithic politicization of science and social-science professionals, alas, is likely to become worse. A growing minority of these professionals have become committed to addressing the intellectual and institutional failures that have led to the irreproducibility crisis, including politicized groupthink. At the same time, unfortunately, the radical advocates in charge of higher education have significantly tightened the politicization of the sciences and the social sciences. They have even begun to censor access to databases that might provide material for research that could undermine the party line. Most importantly, they are endeavoring to screen out graduate students and professors who do not affirm the Woke catechism. There are few enough science and social-science professionals willing to dissent from the progressive party line; soon, our institutions of higher education may graduate none.

[Related: “The Racialization of a Top Science Journal”]

Academia’s politicization requires a great many reforms. The politicization of science and social-science expertise, however, must be addressed by a series of targeted policy proposals. Some of these are reforms to how science operates and is used by the government, such as requiring preregistration in any research that informs government policy. But politicized public policy particularly requires education reform.

• Public K-12 and undergraduate education should include substantially strengthened requirements in statistical literacy and experimental design. America’s students cannot all be expected to be practicing statisticians and scientists. They should, however, be equipped to recognize when so-called experts ask them to believe shoddy research.

• Conservative institution-building must include new programs in statistics and public policy, independent of the existing higher-education establishment. Conservative policy institutes and elected policymakers have, until now, been able to rely on higher education to train and credential conservative experts. The sharply worsening politicization of academia means that even the supply of a minimal number of conservative experts cannot be guaranteed. Prospective new educational institutions such as the University of Austin must include a statistics and public-policy track. Conservative philanthropists would be well advised to support such institutions with enough money that they do not need to depend on the federal government for student aid or any other form of support. We need the equivalent of the Harvard Government School, but with the financial independence of Hillsdale College.

The claim that “minoritized” students are being driven out of STEM education is bunk. But the Woke surely are working to prevent anyone who might doubt such claims from receiving the education to critique them or the credentials to serve in the policy arena. Conservatives must make the continued education of statistically literate experts an absolute priority.

We know there’s lies, darn lies, and statistics. But we need experts who know this, who can tell a p-value from a Bayesian estimation, and who can communicate with the public. We must make plans now to educate this next generation of experts.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal on November 23, 2022 and is republished here with permission.

Image: Adobe Stock


8 thoughts on “Why the Left Relies on Statistical Illiteracy

  1. “But hey, if you are capable of actually doing STEM research, you publish in a reputable journal. If you can’t, you publish opinion pieces on an education website.”

    That, Patti, is the root of the problem.

    I understand that there might be a Journal of the Tensile Strength of Steel Fibers which may be highly regarded amongst those who research steel alloys, but the average person (a) never reads it and (b) wouldn’t understand it anyway. (My guess is that it is so esoteric that competent engineering professors in other fields likely wouldn’t understand it either.)

    Dr. Wernher von Braun may have been a Nazi and likely was a war criminal, but he understood the necessity of involving the mass media and not just esoteric journals.

    If the people who can publish in respectable journals don’t also publish opinions on education websites (which have far larger audiences) then the only voices that the populace hears will be — well, those who do publish there….

  2. I also have to say — David Randall would be much more credible if his peer-reviwed publication record in scientific journals were available. Is it? Please let us know. Beyond a certain point “the irreproducibilty crisis” loses force.

  3. “Do Introductory Courses Disproportionately Drive Minoritized Students Out of STEM Pathways?” ‘The claim that “minoritized” students are being driven out of STEM education is bunk.’

    I read the paper when it came out, and there are a lot of problems with it, some of them delineated here. Another problem, I believe unremarked here, is that the paper uses high school grades as one of its co-variates. But unfortunately, a student with an A average from a good suburban high school is likely very different from a student with an A average from an inner city minority high school. (It doesn’t really matter if one calls it “minoritized.”)

    But the fact is, the main charge of the paper happens to have a big kernel of truth. Even if one drops the inflammatory language about “being driven out.” The students from underrepresented minorities are doing a lot less well at finding fulfillment in STEM. Especially blacks. (Actually, Hispanics show signs locally of equalling and perhaps even surpassing whites.) There are probably multiple reasons for the problems of blacks. Lower admissions standards in SAT scores, or even dropping the SAT/ACT altogether is one factor. The paper did try to take that into account; there is still a problem. My guess is that the lower meaning of inner city grades is part of it. But demanding better high school grades of blacks and other URM is not likely to be very feasible. Related to this, a lot of the URM, even with good SAT scores, attend schools with lousy science programs (for reasons I won’t get into now). If your high school background in chemistry or math is deficient, you’re going to face a lot of headwind in college in those subjects.

    Unfortunately, this is really sad for the minorities who get discouraged and drop out, and economically damaging if they have taken out student loans, which they are likely to have done. It’s also a bad sign for the future of “our country” when one considers that they are increasing portion of the student populace.

    The wokesters, whom I hate, at least see the problem, and are trying to do something about it, in however hateful and destructive a fashion. I don’t see people on the right stepping up in either dimension. Yeah, OK, charter schools. Perhaps in 50 years that will have made a difference. But as far as constructive ideas for real people in the real colleges today, not much.

    1. I have watched Black college kids play basketball — not athletes but random kids — with utter amazement. Their coordination, balance, ability to have their hands and feet where they want them is truly amazing — I can’t do that!

      This gets into Howard Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences and while we are all unique individuals, it is inherently possible that there might be skill differences amongst racial groups.

      So while we should ensure equality of opportunity (including a quality education) to everyone, we shouldn’t be trying to ensure equality of outcome. After all, we aren’t trying to ensure that 80% of the basketball players are White, are we?

      If we are to respect everyone, we do have to both ask this — and ask what people WANT and if they don’t want to struggle with Calculus and the rest, what right do we have to make them?

      1. Basically you are saying the minority students are too dumb to keep up. And that is a losing posture.

        Suppose you are right. What does that say about the future of the country?

    2. >>The students from underrepresented minorities are doing a lot less well at finding fulfillment in STEM.<<

      "Finding fulfillment" or getting good grades? Those are not the same thing. It is extremely important to know whether they can't cut it, or whether they are succeeding but are nonetheless deciding that they don't like STEM. The appropriate response to the latter case would be very different from the response to the former. I strongly suspect that the case we're usually dealing with is the former.

      It has been established that at most better colleges, many minority students are admitted who would not be admitted with similar qualifications if they were white. This results in minority students being disproportionately at the low end academically at any particular competitive institution. Hence they are more likely to lack the ability to succeed in a vigorous program, and hence they drop out of school, or change to easier majors, at a higher rate. (Comparable white students, denied admission, end up enrolling in a less competitive institution where they are more likely to succeed.) That is, this comes back to affirmative action.

      While one may object that we cannot conclude this from the study, we certainly can't conclude that students are being driven out of majors by racism.

      Separately, I see that Chad Topaz has left Twitter, probably due to displeasure with its new free speech policies.

  4. This all started over a century ago with the Brandeis Brief — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brandeis_brief and that expanded from the courts into public policymaking in general.

    It’s time to say NO MAS!!! — time to reject these studies outright. To not even care what they say. To reject it all out-of-hand as not being worthy of consideration, bad data that merely supports otherwise-unsupportable arguments.

    I’m thinking Andrew Jackson here — he was the first President who was neither from Boston nor Tidewater Virginia, and prior to Jackson, the Federal employees (mostly Post Office and Lighthouse Keepers) had been appointed by people from that culture.

    What Jackson said was “throw all the bums out” — that’s what the “spoils system” was really all about. And I think we need to do the same thing again — a massive purge of all of the administrative bureaucracy and just replace them with new people, preferably new people to the right of Vladimir Lenin, but I’d settle for just new people.

    Our current (ongoing) climate hysteria is a good example of the problem. First it was global cooling and the coming ice age, then global warming and “the planet has a fever”, and now just extreme weather and drought. Boston has a 2-3 foot storm surge on top of a 13′ spring high tide and streets in the now-ritzy “seaport district” flood. Well back when it was the disreputable South Boston and the fishing industry was still there, no one cared — they all wore rubber boots anyway.

    Now it is an empty dumpster floating down Atlantic Avenue — a century ago it would be the trash on Atlantic Avenue being washed into the harbor. Things have changed but it ain’t the moon & planets moving water east and west every 12 hours….

    And I like to remind people that the infamous 1938 hurricane came ashore with an estimated THIRTY foot storm surge — topped with 30′-50′ waves… See: https://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/great-1938-hurricane/ And that was 84 years ago, before all of this CO2 even started. And the Great Portland Gale of 1898 before that, and….

    As to drought, can you say “Dust Bowl”? Drought has happened before — there and elsewhere — and sometimes lasted for a decade. But does anyone remember just 5 years ago when California had so MUCH rain/snow that there was concern about the Lake Oroville Dam? When they were worried about getting rid of water?

    I suppose that both too much and too little rain is caused by evil humans…

    We need to just |/dev/null….

  5. The opinion article by Topaz and Brown is complete nonsense with absolutely nothing to support their wild speculations. So, STEM faculty show bias in grading. Really? Apparently they are completely unaware that many—if not the vast overwhelming majority of—STEM faculty use students to do gradering. They therefore do not grade papers/homework/exams and therefore can’t show bias in grading. (I am a STEM professor. Haven’t graded homework in more that 15 years. My TA does that.)

    Equally absurd was the statement “The students in our model have comparable high school preparation, interest in STEM, and academic performance during their first semester in college”. Where to begin. What does “comparable high school preparation” mean? Inner city public schools are notorious for not even being able to teach kids how to read well. Not sure anybody believes an algebra class taken there is even remotely equivalent to one taken at a private school in the suburbs. Second, interest in STEM doesn’t mean anything. Just because you may be interested in physics doesn’t mean you’ll pass that first year calculus class. Finally, comparable performance during their first semestor is absolutely meaningless if the classes taken differ. For instance, two students could both have a 3.5 GPA that first semester. But one took a womens studies class, an algebra refresher course and guitar while the other took Calculus 101, intro to Chemistry and German 101. Which one is more prepared for a STEM major?

    But hey, if you are capable of actually doing STEM research, you publish in a reputable journal. If you can’t, you publish opinion pieces on an education website.

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