Math is boring-not hard?

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U-M study helps define why fewer women choose math-based careers, the reason? Women have different priorities than men. This sort of data has been floating out there-I remember reading about a study where they tracked very mathematically precocious early teens and found that the boys were far more likely to enter Ph.D. programs that emphasized math. The girls on the other hand (a minority of the original sample to begin with) focused on medicine, law and other high-powered professions that would earn them more money than becoming an engineering professor.

On a related note, I was talking to a friend recently about how relationship discussions with guys and girls are so different. If I tell a male friend that he should break-up with his g/f because she’s not right for him, he will respond with brevity, “OK, sure,” or “Dude, shut-up.” On the other hand my female friends tend to ask detailed questions about why, when I formed this opinion, what my motivations might be, and so forth. In contrast, when I suggest that a friend needs a wireless card for their laptop, girls will be “OK,” or “Can’t afford it,” but a guy will start to ask in detail what the context is, the various standards, what the ramifications are in terms of the utility of lugging around a desktop replacement, will that entail the purchase of a router, etc.

My point? We’re different. As individuals. As genders. As groups. Is that so wrong? Each individual makes decisions and excessive focus on aggregates can get you lost in the forest when the trees are really what’s important. The flip-side is that we can’t ignore the aggregate if we’re looking at social policy. As a libertarian, I tend to favor less public social policy, and more private acts and civil society, but since I have to engage with people on the Right and Left that believe in the utility, the necessity, of government intervention and evaluating groups, I do speak in the language of aggregates.

Backdate from Jason S
A while ago, John Quiggin had an interesting take on the paucity of women economists which uses a math-preference related argument. GNXPers might not necessarily agree with his nurturist perspective but the rest of it re what’s required in Undergrad vs Postgrad Econ holds true:

In undergraduate economics classes, students with the ability to write a coherent and grammatical sentence are rare enough that it’s possible to do quite well without the kinds of formal reasoning skills that are most naturally acquired from doing maths.

But the further you go the less true this is. At the graduate level, lousy prose will be forgiven but inadequately formalised arguments will not (at least, not until you’ve established your credentials with enough of the formal stuff that you can get away with leaving out the details). So the forces of comparative advantage encourage bright women to leave economics and move to fields where their skills are better rewarded.

5 Comments

  1. I agree, math is boring. :) And I’m getting a 4.0 in my Calculus for Business and Economics class.

  2. the way they teach msth in Econ really sucks the life out of math which is a pity b/c it becomes a handy tool in more advanced degrees.

  3. I reckon they should teach math in Econ by looking at actual important proofs of various propositions in economics. The best econ textbook I ever used was Hal Varian’s Intermediate Micrecon which was pared down to algebraic proofs.

  4. BTW John Quiggin has a good take on the paucity of women economists which is math-related (though GNXpers won’t agree with his take on genes vs culture:
    http://mentalspace.ranters.net/quiggin/archives/000991.html

    Kieran Healy and Brian Weatherson, among others, have been discussing the absence of women at the top levels of economics and analytic philosophy. For example, all the winners of the JB Clark Medal and the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences have been men.

    Kieran is mainly concerned to dismiss the idea that this reflects some fundamental difference between men and women. He takes the hypothesis of discrimination within the occupational groups as the alternative, more or less by default.

    I’d argue that the bulk of the explanation can be found in high school or earlier. Girls do relatively well in language and boys in mathematics. Although I have no data, the disproportion seems to be higher the further up the performance scale you go, so that the very best students (the future PhDs) are highly gender-segregated. Given the incredible power of social pressures in high school, I think it’s reasonable to assume that this outcome is generated by social stereotypes rather than by differences in genes.

    The difference in high school outcomes has an immediate effect in terms of the fields of study chosen by undergraduates, but there are more subtle effects that emerge only later. In undergraduate economics classes, students with the ability to write a coherent and grammatical sentence are rare enough that it’s possible to do quite well without the kinds of formal reasoning skills that are most naturally acquired from doing maths.

    But the further you go the less true this is. At the graduate level, lousy prose will be forgiven but inadequately formalised arguments will not (at least, not until you’ve established your credentials with enough of the formal stuff that you can get away with leaving out the details). So the forces of comparative advantage encourage bright women to leave economics and move to fields where their skills are better rewarded.

  5. Perhaps women would do much better in economics if they focused more on human action in the style of a mises than in an empiricist fashion similar to vernon smith? In fact I think the world would be much better off, and feminists could rightly credit women with saving it.

    The single greatest problem today is the mental masturbation of economists who preach about numbers in regard to an impending public policy decision, when the real issue is one of individual liberty and freedom. It is amazing to me, how those that fully understand the ramifications of statism fail to mention its ill-effects at every opportunity.

    The world does not need many undergraduates that can understand the convoluted world of the Federal Reserve system. What it needs are millions upon millions of people studied in human action, human motivation and the benefits of a non-interventionist state.

    Undergraduate and graduate economic professors teach empirical economics only for their own benefit and not for the benefit of their students or mankind. Moreover, I believe most modern economists are far removed from the emotions that guide ordinary humans and thus must teach empirical economics and not praxeology because the latter is a discipline beyond their understanding.

    Justin

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