Archive for the ‘professoriat follies’ category

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong: Reading Papers Is Hard edition.

February 16, 2011

(BTW: Apologies in advance for the length of this screed.  You can always think Playboy and/or wherever it was my junior senator offered his cheesecake and “read” it for the pix. 😉

I know that Megan McArdle is a bagatelle in the supermarket of awful opened by the current (and hopefully temporary) right wing ascendancy.  But even if there’s nothing she does that rises to the consequence of our recent theme, for example, in which the forced-birth, pro-rape party continues to advance its claims, she still finds her own ways to damage the Republic.  So please excuse yet another detour into the eternal sunshine of the McArdle mind.

DougJ has already written about her latest — how to describe it? — special attempt to bolster the long standing conservative attack alleging bias against conservatives in the academy.*

I’m completely down with his take on the matter, unsurprisingly, but here I want to add the dimension of McArdle’s continuing failure to attain minimal standards of journalistic competence.  (I’ve got some unfinished business on this btw, given her recent squib of rage at being called out on errors in kitchen history.  If boredom with the company of McArdle’s prose and the day job don’t overwhelm me, I’ll post on that in a couple of days.)  Here, I’m want to pound on the way McArdle misleads her readers on what is clearly a more consequential subject.


That would be her use of citations to scholarly literature that, if read, would reveal profound differences between what she says the research reveals and what in fact you find should you read the stuff yourself.

So, consider this from McArdle:

One of the things the legacy of racism has taught us is just how good dominant groups are at constructing narratives that justify their dominance.  Somehow, the problem is never them.  It’s always the out group.  Maybe the out group has some special characteristic that makes them not want to be admitted to the circle–blacks are happy-go-lucky and don’t want the responsibility of management, women wouldn’t deign to sully themselves in commerce, Jews are too interested in money to want to attend Harvard or go into public service.  These explanations always oddly ignore the fact that many members of the out-group are complaining about being excluded.
More troubling is that these volitional arguments are almost always combined with denigration: the out group is stupid, greedy, mean, violent, overemotional, corrupt . . . whatever. As indeed these arguments are when they’re deployed against conservatives in my comment threads.  In fact, it seems clear to me that many commenters have taken the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia as vindication of their beliefs–if conservatives can’t make it in academia, that proves that conservatives are not smart, and liberal ideas must be better.  This is possible, of course.  It’s also possible that academics are validating their own bias by systematically excluding those who disagree with them.
So while in theory, it’s true that you can’t simply reason from disparity to bias, I have to say that when you’ve identified a statistical disparity, and the members of the in-group immediately rush to assure you that this isn’t because of bias, but because the people they’ve excluded are all a bunch of raging assholes with lukewarm IQ’s . . . well, I confess, discrimination starts sounding pretty plausible.
When that group of people is assuring you that the reason conservatives can’t be in charge is that they do not have open minds . . . when the speed and sloppiness of their argument make it quite clear that they rejected the very possibility of discrimination without giving it even a second’s serious thought . . . well, I confess, it starts sounding very plausible.  More plausible than I, who had previously leaned heavily on things like affinity bias to explain the skew, would have thought.
Moreover, what evidence we have does not particularly support many of the alternative theories. For example, the liberal skew is strongest at elite universities.  This is not consistent with the notion that education is turning all the conservatives into liberals, or that they’re not interested in becoming professors.  I’d say it’s more consistent with the possibility that they’re disproportionately having a hard time getting hired, or retained.

I quote at length to avoid McArdle’s common dodge when caught in hackery that crucial context has been omitted that would reveal her ultimate wisdom.

So, here’s how I gloss the above, trying to ignore the “I never (emotionally) escaped seventh grade” affect of the passage.

She is saying that the dominance of liberals over conservatives in the academy is a fact.  Liberal academics and their defenders assert that mere numerical disparities do not require an explanation of bias or discrimination, but those who discriminate always say that.  Thus, because her commenters have told her that conservatives are excluded because they are stupid, this serves to confirm that liberal academics are simply educated versions of common or garden-variety bigots.  And because, in McArdle’s version her critics only make the worst arguments, this in turn makes the charge of active discrimination “very plausible.”

I leave to the commenters a full dissection of the problems of “research” and interpretation based on the ways in which McArdle presents her critics’ perspectives.  I’ll just say here one of the fundamental lessons we try to teach in our journalism segments of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing is that when presenting views in dispute, the writer has the obligation to present opposing arguments in their strongest possible light.  This does not seem to be a part of the journalistic toolkit with which McArdle is familiar.

But all that aside, look to that last paragraph:  “what evidence we have does not particularly support many of the alternative theories (to bias).”

The “evidence” at that link is a study by two social scientists, Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, titled “The Social and Political Views of American Professors,” distributed in 2007.  A reasonable person would, I think, interpret McArdle’s cite of this paper as claiming that Gross and Simmons’ research supports her statement that the most plausible explanation for the ratio of liberals to conservatives in the academy is bias.

I’m guessing folks know what’s coming next:

What happens when some unruly types (as they have done before) actually read the research in question — in this case a 70 page, 25,000 word article?

I’ve now read the whole damn piece.  I won’t burden you with every last quote I pulled (I stopped at about 2,500 words of excerpts) but it’s there if anyone wants to call me on it.  Here, I’ll try to keep  it down to a dull roar of passages that should have given McArdle pause.

So:  does the paper McArdle relies on for her claims of bias state that the academy is clearly overwhelmingly liberal?

No:

Where other recent studies have characterized the American college and university faculty as not simply extremely liberal, but nearly uniformly so (Klein and Stern 2004-5; Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte 2005; Tobin and Weinberg 2006), we show that while conservatives, Republicans, and Republican voters are rare within the faculty ranks, on many issues there are as many professors who hold center/center-left views as there are those who cleave to more liberal positions, while the age distribution indicates that, in terms of their overall political orientation, professors are becoming more moderate over time, and less radical. [page 3]

What does academic faculty actually look like?:

Collapsing the data accordingly to a three point scale, we find that 44.1 percent of respondents can be classified as liberals, 46.6 percent as moderates, and 9.2 percent as conservatives.  Such a recoding thus reveals a moderate bloc that – while consisting of more liberal- than conservative-leaning moderates – is nevertheless equal in size to the liberal bloc. [p. 27]

Well, maybe that just reflects an aging, embattled cohort of moderation losing ground to ivy-covered radicals.  Or maybe not:

Table 4 shows that the youngest age cohort – those professors aged 26-35 – contains the highest percentage of moderates, and the lowest percentage of liberals.  Self-described liberals are most common within the ranks of those professors aged 50-64, who were teenagers or young adults in the 1960s, while the largest number of conservatives is to be found among professors aged 65 and older (though the age differences in terms of the number of conservatives are small, problematizing Alan Wolfe’s [1994:290] assertion that “the cultural war in the universities is a generational war.”)  These findings with regard to age provide further support for the idea that in recent years the trend has been toward increasing moderatism. [p. 29]

Is there nonetheless a monolithic culture of opinion in the classroom or on tenure review boards?

What overall conclusion can be drawn from our analysis of the attitudes items? What we wish to emphasize is simply that there is more attitudinal complexity and heterogeneity in the professorial population than second wave researchers have attended to.  It seems to us unlikely that a simplistic notion like “groupthink” – more of a political slur than a robust social-scientific concept – can do very much to help explain the specific configurations and distributions of attitudes our survey reveals. [p. 61]

Finally, is bias really the one best explanation social scientists see to explain the political landscape of American universities?    As discussed in Neil Gross’s paper with Ethan Fosse “Why Are Professors Liberal” (2010 — link at Gross’s webpage), the answer is again (guess!)…No:

For example, Woessner and Kelly-Woessner (2009) find that twice as many liberal as conservative college students aspire to complete a doctorate.  In interviews, Binder (2009) finds that conservative students at a major public university regard faculty members disparagingly and do not seek to emulate them in any way. Ecklund (forthcoming), studying the religiosity of academic scientists at elite schools, finds that high levels of religious skepticism result not from professional socialization, but from the greater tendency of religious skeptics to become scientists, a finding that echoes Finkelstein’s (1984) earlier review of the evidence. Gross and Simmons (2006), analyzing public opinion data, find that conservatism, Republican Party affiliation, and evangelical identity are associated with less confidence in higher education and diminished evaluations of the occupational prestige of professors. [p. 50]

There’s lots more, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now.  But I think y’all get the idea:

There is,  contra McArdle, plenty of research out there on academic political attitudes.  That which she invokes, does not conform to the myth she wishes to advance here.  The specific paper she cites explicitly contradicts the thrust of her argument.

In other words, McArdle has chosen to deceive her readers.

That is, the issue here is not that she got simple, quanta of “fact” wrong.**  She advances few in this particular post, preferring instead to remain safely behind the deniability afforded by putting words in the mouths of anonymous interlocutors.  Here it is a matter of false reporting, claiming that research with which she asserts personally familiarity supports her case when, by any reasonable reading, it does not.

Such intellectual dishonesty has to be named and shamed. First and most important, of  course, because McArdle here advanced an attack whose aim is to discredit what academics have to say.  The existence of an even marginal voice independent of the right wing consensus is both a threat and emotionally intolerable.

Thus, I’d guess, McArdle’s “mean-girl” slashes against critics of her original post on this subject.  If it is liberals who are the racist scum here, no need to listen to any actual evidence they might advance on this or any matter.  And as for McArdle, so for the broader right-wing attack on independent expertise and the exercise of reason.

This is, of course, disastrous for a working democracy.

And its not good for The Atlantic either.  I suppose I shouldn’t care, but I do.  In the great scheme of things, the fate of that masthead may not matter much, but each time McArdle  misleads her readers to advance her cause it cuts away at the foundation of trust a reader may have in anything published there.

And when you get flurries of reports of bad journalism — think the latest Friedersdorf craptacular — it gets harder and harder to avoid the thought that the operation as a whole is losing its way.  There are great people who work there — I’ve named some of my favorites before, and I’m not going to keep calling out folks who are trying to produce good work in what must be an often difficult situation.

But the bottom line doesn’t change:  obvious, overt bad craft costs any publication something.  It may take a while for the rot to show, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t griping away at the foundation.  And while it’s none of my business, really, The Atlantic has given me enormous pleasure and food for thought over many years.  I’d hate to see it go the way of The New Republic.

*Here’s my recent take on what launched this latest salvo.  There is a deep history to all this, of course, with one possible start date coming with McCarthy, and another with the Nixon-Agnew attack on knowldege.  But this latest round is an offshoot of the culture wars, and in “scholarly” — sic — form dates back  a couple of decades, and has been pushed by the usual suspects, as reported in the study much referenced above:

It was in this context that a new wave of faculty studies appeared.  Where earlier studies had been thoughtful social scientific investigations, the new studies were closer to thinly disguised works of political advocacy intended to back up the charge of “liberal bias” in academe.  The first to appear and grab headlines – columnist John Tierney devoted an entire New York Times piece to it (Tierney 2004) – involved two interrelated inquiries led by economist Daniel Klein that were initially published in Academic Questions, the journal of the conservative National Association of Scholars.

**Well, she does, a bit.  According to the Gross and Simmons paper, elite universities are slightly less the hotbeds of liberalism that four year liberal arts colleges are, contra her assertion following her cite of this paper.  But the numbers are pretty close, and that claim is published elsewhere, so I’m not going to bang that drum this time.

[Cross posted at Balloon Juice]

Images:  Margret Hofheinz-Döring/Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen, Women Talking in the Rain, 1963.

Pierre-August Renoir, Madame Monet Reading Le Figaro, 1872.

Paul Gaugin, Eve–Bretonne. (An alternate version of this scene is titled Eve–Don’t Listen to the Liar), 1889

Now That’s a Class I Might Just Not Want To Teach…

October 20, 2009

My post of what Lovable Liberal called “bullet porn” has attracted some curious readers to this blog.  One of them emailed me today, with a line I truly never expected to read within the academic cocoon.

It read:

“I’m not  ready to trust my TA with a rifle.”

Now that’s a what I call a tough university.

Image:  Lorna Doone – Jan Ridd learns to fire a gun – from The Project Gutenberg EBook of Lorna Doone, by R. D. Blackmore

Friday Science and Religion Kaffeeklatch: Albert Einstein edition

June 6, 2008

Cross posted at Cosmic Variance — which allows me to repeat my thanks to that erudite and friendly community, and to the generous host who invited me in, Sean Carroll.

I’m a bit late to this particular party, but I hear that there was a bit of a media and blog hullabaloo about a letter by Albert Einstein that was auctioned last month for 170,000 pounds. That doubles the previous record for an Einstein letter, and at least part of the reason for its record price seems to have been its content — what seemed to some a startlingly blunt assessment of religion in general. He wrote:

“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

To get down to cases close to home:

“For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.”

To be sure, he acknowledged, he was happy to identify himself as one of “the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity…” But clearly belonging to a community did not make him blind, deaf or dumb.

The reason I ignored this at first is that after fifteen years in the Einstein game I’m pretty tired of WWED appeals to authority, all that pouring through the great man’s quotations to find something to support whatever view one may have had in the first place.

The reason I’m picking it up now is that the letter raises a question that allows us with only a little leap of the imagination to begin to gather the intense pressure of the experience of being Jewish in Europe in the first few decades of the last century – especially if you were smart, prominent, public.

Just to get it out of the way: there is nothing surprising about this letter. Just five years earlier Einstein wrote that, when he was young he had experienced a bout of real piety, until:

“Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true. The consequence was a positively fanatic orgy of freethinking, coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.”

That revelation remained with him throughout his life, and he never made a secret of it. He refused to claim a religious affiliation in the papers he filed with the Austro-Hungarian government to take up a professorship in Prague. Told he had to claim something, he declared he was of the “Mosaic” faith – a construction that conveyed his disdain for the whole notion pretty well, IMHO.

And so it went. In 1915, he told one correspondent that, “I see with great dismay that God punishes so many of His children for their ample folly, for which obviously only He himself can be held responsible,” …. “Only His nonexistence can excuse him.”

Those who followed this malign, non-existent deity were fools. When he visited Palestine in 1921, Einstein was much impressed by the sight of Jews constructing cities and a way of life out of raw dirt and effort. But the sight of traditional Jews praying at the Wailing Wall seemed to him the “dull-witted clansmen of our tribe.” They made such spectacles of themselves, “praying aloud, their faces turned to the wall, their bodies swaying to and fro,” that to Einstein, it was “a pathetic sight of men with a past but without a present.”

That’s enough: the point is that Einstein made it clear in public, and even more so in private communications that have been in the public record for decades now, that revealed religion in general and orthodox Judaism in particular had no hold on him at all. When he used the term God, it was mostly just an off-hand short-hand: “God does not play dice” was another way of saying, as he did in the EPR paper, that “no reasonable definition of reality could be expected to permit” the excesses of modern quantum theory.

But all this begs the question why Einstein bothered to claim Jewishness, if Judaism itself as a practice and a body of belief had no hold on him.

Einstein himself gave two answers. The first was he saw in Judaism a framework and a fair amount of thought about how to live ethically with others. His take on the tradition pulled out of Judaism “the democratic ideal of social justice, coupled with the ideal of mutual aid and tolerance among all men” and a passion for “every form of intellectual aspiration and spiritual effort.” This is religion as heuristic – and specifically, Judaism as a sustained body of inquiry into certain problems that interested him.

The second, of course, was that he had no choice. Whatever he may have believed, others defined him: “When I came to Germany,” he wrote some years later as part of an explanation for his conversion to Zionism, “I discovered for the first time that I was a Jew, and I owe this discovery more to Gentiles than to Jews.”

It was more than the casual anti-Semitism that he experienced or perceived, dating back to his failure to get an academic job after finishing his college degree. Rather, Einstein’s strong identification not just as a person of Jewish background, but as a highly public member of both the Berlin Jewish community and the nationalist Zionist movement, is one measure of just how rapidly the nature of German anti-Semitism changed in the immediate aftermath of defeat in World War I.

I go into this at some length in this tome – from which most of the above comes, in one form or another. See chapter ten if you’re interested. In this venue, I want to make just two points abstracted out of that much longer story.

First: as I suggested at the beginning of the post, any Captain Reynault response to this latest “revelation” of Einstein’s disdain for traditional faith is misplaced. Rather, it is just one more demonstration of the foolishness of the argument from authority for pretty much anything.

Second: the fact of Einstein’s Jewishness in the context of his blunt rejection of traditional Judaism offers one more reminder of contingency of the practice of science.

You can see that in this last anecdote:

On August 24, 1920 the Arbeitgemeinshaft deutcher Naturforsher zur Erhaltung reiner Wissenshaft — the Working Group of German Scientists for the Preservation of Pure Science — held a public meeting to denounce Einstein’s new physics. Nobel laureate Philip Lenard soon made the reason for such doubt explicitly, denouncing of “the alien spirit…which is so clearly seen in anything that relates to the ‘relativity theory.’”

Lenard could not make good on the (barely) implied threat then, but he (and others) did in 1933. Of course, nothing then or later could alter the significance of relativity; but German science suffered enormously, even if that abstraction “science” did not.

I don’t think, of course, that any such bald “it makes me feel bad so this science must be wrong” claims could have much pull these days.

Except of course, they do.

I began by chiding the What Would Einstein Do cult that invokes the great man in lieu of argument. But that doesn’t mean you can’t look at what Einstein did.

His resolute self-identification as Jew emerged out of his reaction to the anti-Semitism he witnessed directly. The expression of that viciousness included a direct demand to reject reason: physics could be rendered invalid by the origins of its discoverer. Einstein would therefore discover in Jewish tradition a defense of reason, and in his Jewishness he laid claim to a complementary style of thought to that of the fundamental physics he investigated.

Despite the snark above about contemporary battles, matters are different now. For me, the real value of the letter sold for such a ridiculous sum is that it reminds me of both the malevolent nearness in historical time, and (I hope, as well as think) the genuine distance we have moved from the time and place in which a public meeting could convene to denounce the religion/ethnicity of a few pages of mathematical physics.

That is: It’s not the God stuff in that letter that should catch your eye, that is, but the history to be plumbed in that little phrase, “with whose mentality I have a deep affinity.”

With that – I’m out of here.

Again, my thanks to all who read this here and at Cosmic Variance, even more to those who commented, and most of all to Sean Carroll physicist and public intellectual extraordinaire.

Image: Portrait of Einstein painted by Harm Kamerlingh Onnes, (nephew of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes), Wiki. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging: “On the Shoulders of Giants” or, Revenge is a Dish Best Eaten Cold Edition.

March 7, 2008

On March 3, 1703, a very short giant died, and a greater one of average height may well have laughed to hear the news.

Robert Hooke has had the historical misfortune to have produced an extraordinary career that has been obscured over time — and in his own day too — by the still greater accomplishment of Isaac Newton. He compounded that ill luck by being something of an ass. His fate was sealed, at least in the intellectual politics of late 17th century London, by having chosen perhaps the worst person possible to annoy. Newton took offense easily, and nurtured his grievances indefinitely.

Hooke certainly offended; he seemed to have a gift for irritating Newton (and others, on occasion). Most famously, Hooke got himself written out of Principia. In his draft of what would become Book III (his “System of the World”), Newton had originally written that Hooke was one of those “more recent philosophers” whose work bore on the problem.

But then Hooke went public with his claim that he had given Newton the idea that gravity follows an inverse square law, though he admitted that Newton had done the mathematics to derive the curves that would result from an interaction between two objects obeying such a law. According to Edmond Halley, who was shepherding the book through publication, Hooke accordingly wanted an acknowledgment in Newton’s preface.

Newton went ape. (Sorry for the Darwinian anachroninsm. I just like the image.)

What made matters worse is that Hooke had in fact caught Newton out in a relatively minor error several years earlier in a calculation that involved the motion of an object under the influence of gravity. But Hooke was wrong in the larger case; Newton had all the priority he could wish for, in work that had its start more than a decade before that exchange — and more to the point, Newton had understood the implications and the mathematics of the inverse square relationship, and Hooke never had.

That Hooke had seemed to say that he had originated the idea, and Newton merely done the sums seems to have galled the great man the most: “Now is this not very fine? Mathematicians that find out, settl & do all the business must content themselves with being nothing but dry calcuaotres & drudges & anoher that oes nothing but pretend & grasp at all things must carry away all the invention…”

Halley was desperately afraid that his correspondent would grow skittish about publishing Principia at all — but by the time the dispute came to a head, the significance and power of the work had Newton in its grasp.

Instead, he took a more subtle form of sticking his shiv in the guts of his enemy. He scratched Hooke’s name out of the text — and then did his best to make sure Hooke would not be able to follow the crucial argument, the passages in the book where he treated celestial motion and the movement of the Earth’s tides.

Newton told his readers that he had originally written those parts of the book for a popular audience. But in the end, he said, he recast it “into the form of Propositions (in the mathematical way).” Why? Because, as Newton later wrote to a friend, he wanted “to avoid being baited by little Smatterers in Mathematicks.”

Little smatterers: Robert Hooke, short, pesky, and not a good enough mathematician to follow Newton’s lead.

This wasn’t the first time the two men had tangled, nor that Newton had insulted Hooke’s stature. They had first sparred over optical experiments, with Hooke criticizing the younger man’s first submissions to the Royal Society in the early 1670s. In his last letter to Hooke on the various issues involved, written in February 1676, Newton grandly acknowledged that Hooke had “added much in several ways,” to the science of light. And as for himself, “If I have seen futher iti s by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.”

How sweet — but for that in that famously touchy age, the fact of Hooke’s modest height gave the conventional phrase a nasty edge both men could have recognized.

In those days, Newton was still a relative unknown. The publication of Principia in 1687 brought him almost immediately to the very top of English philosophical life. Hooke complained increasingly angrily about the alleged theft of ideas within Principia that had gained Newton such rewards, but no one listened. He was reduced to confiding to his diary that “Interest has noe conscience.”

The saddest part of this story, as this article describes, Hooke too was a genuinely great man, Hooke had accomplishments enough for any number of lives — he has been dubbed England’s Leonardo — and that’s only a little hyperbolic. But Newton’s were the greater, and by tying his hopes of lasting fame to the outcome of the battle he lost over Principia, Hooke made sure he died bitter.

And Newton? His revenge unfolded exquisitely, viciously.

Within months of Hooke’s death, he started assembling the manuscript for his second great book, Opticks, which contained, among much else, the fully worked out results of the experiments and their interpretations that he and Hooke had first argued about thirty years before. Newton had refused to publish those results as long as the man who had insulted the original effort remained above ground. As soon as Hooke was gone…out they poured.

That’s playing a long game.

Quotations taken from Richard Westfall, Subtle is the Lord, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Images: Flammarion Woodcut, Artist unknown. First published 1888. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Robert Hooke’s image of a flea from Micrographia, 1664. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Well Dressed Professor…

February 13, 2008

…has an agenda.

Foolishness abounds here. Brad DeLong takes down one Professor Erik Jensen’s suggestion that as a matter of community mores and taboos,

“faculty members shall, when on college grounds or on college business, dress in a way that would not embarrass their mothers, unless their mothers are under age 50 and are therefore likely to be immune to embarrassment from scruffy dressing, in which case faculty members shall dress in a way that would not embarrass my mother.”

DeLong gives this claptrap the sustained ridicule it deserves, while citing Cosma Shalizi — one writer whose scorn I would not wish to brave — as his inspiration.

I got two reactions. Hearing such nonesense, my mother, born in 1927, would have had its feckless author’s innards rendered into inferior violin strings.

Mum knew from proper dress, being as she was the daughter of the Colonel and niece of the Bishop of Birmingham (strange, for a nice Jewish girl, but there it was). Growing up, her set was rich in those who knew when morning suits gave way to the appropriate dress for dinner, and the circumstances in which decorations should or should not be worn.

And she got out as early as she could, a journey that took her into the American professoriat by way of marriage. xShe developed enormous gratitude for an institutional culture that rewarded, however imperfectly, accomplishment over appearance and the inbred knowledge of the correct fork and the four-in-hand. She certainly would know a pseud when she heard one.

And now I, happily resident at MIT, feel satisfaction that mine is an ecumenical institution. The brass wear their glad rags, but the rest of us do as we choose.

And most of us choose functional approaches, as defined by our particular interests — you can see my approach here, if you care. A lot of folks around campus do stuff, you know, and ties neither improve blood flow to the brain during a calculation, nor have we forgotten the hazards of dangling clothing around heavy machinery.

And in any event, I don’t need no stinking badge to remind me or my students that I profess. Nor do I need any help from Mr. Jensen, either, whose attempted light touch does little to obscure the deeper pathology involved here.

It’s not just the usual conservative faux nostalgia for a better, more golden age. This is an attempt to defend a particular vision of academic privilege from hoi polloi — and not just any polloi at that. If you read the dreary passages of his essay one thing becomes clear pretty quickly. The professoriat that needs to dress well shares a certain property — their Y chromosome.

To be sure, Jensen has noticed the presence of the odd strangely Y-less person who has somehow gained access to the Faculty Club. But those few misgendered anomalies are not, in his peculiar vision, required to dress well.

Rather, they must dress to emphasize their desexed condition, the better to preserve the fantasy of the way things ought to be. Jensen commands the rare woman brave enough to enter his strange world to attire herself thusly:

1. Avoid poufy sleeves.
2. Dress frumpily.
3. Act like an old fart.

All good advice, and about all you need to know.

To be fair to Jensen — actually, to hell with fairness — to tar Jensen with a gross generalization and the infamy of association, this seems to me to be part of a broader pathology, one that may have something to do with the dawning realization that the next president of the United States may very likely be either a charismatic African American or formidably efficient woman, two collections of attributes that folks in certain quarters still think are better seen and not heard.

Consider the nonsense John Cole ridiculed yesterday, (gruesomely illustrated just below on this blog). And then there is the roiling, can’t-keep-it-in racialism (that’s the nice word, and it is truly a euphemism in this case) of the National Review that Roy Edoroso mocks over at Alicublog.

The connection between all this and the science-public-square beat of this blog is the same one I’ve hit before: one of the things thinking about science even a little does for you is to enforce some rigor on your arguments.

By contrast, these guys aren’t thinking. They’re feeling, and they’re feeling kind of bad right now. Such painful experiences must be someone’s fault (that’s my seven year old’s interpretation, at least) and so we get demands like Mr. Jensen’s. He’d be happy if only we all wore patched tween and narrow ties, and if we don’t, his misery is our fault.

Alas.

Image: Fashion plate, caption: “1912. Costumes Parisiens. 2. Habit de soiree. Gilet de pique blanc. Chaussettes de soie blanche.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.