On micro-inequities, grooming for elite talent and whether Gladwell was out to lunch

Female Science Professor's recent post on the detrimental effects of a constant drip of micro-inequities as been receiving a great deal of appreciation. As well it should. It is brilliant because it jumps straight into the throat of the "you are just oversensitive" and "wah, wah, Political Correctness, wah" and "you are calling me an -ist over nothing" nonsense that is the battle cry of the NiceGuy who does not enjoy examining his privilege*.
What really drew my eye, however was this comment:

Among many points in Gladwell's book is that the number of small advantages given to Canadian boys with certain birthdays in the hockey league leads to a professional hockey roster almost exclusively made up of men who have birthdays in certain months. He points this phenomenon out over and over again, in many different contexts - consistent small advantages, over time, lead to great advantages, perhaps even to great people, or "outliers". Why, then, would the same not be true for any discriminated against group, in any field? I don't understand why people are not open to this line of thinking, and are not open to asking themselves what they can do to try to help remedy these situations when they arise.


I've read Gladwell's book Outliers and found it to be interesting. A bit frustrating for a scientist because the reader gets the distinct impression that he did a bit of cherry picking to make the strongest case for his several theses. I understand that this is the nature of this sort of a book...we might think of it as laying out the strongest hypothesis with a touch of preliminary data before we get down to the long slog of providing deep proof.
Nevertheless, as the anonymous commenter at FSP's blog pointed out, this is a good conceptual framework to ....examine things. To think about causes of observed inequities or violations of expected null hypotheses such as, "birthdate is irrelevant to athletic performance" or "women and men are equally capable of making fascinating and useful discoveries in biomedical science".
Gladwell's book, I should point out, is focused on the intersections of presumed native talent, task-specific training and the accidents of timing that result in the extreme individual elites that we often ascribe primarily to the presumed native talent. The hockey example backtracks from an observation that those players born in the first three months of the year are considerably overrepresented at the top (mid teens) of the purely amateur hockey arc in Canada. Gladwell reasons that those kids who bigger, stronger and more-developed within age-graded leagues, because of the first-of-the-year birthday cutoff, are then further advantaged by the micro-inequities of coaching. The idea is that all along the course from about 5yrs of age up, the coaches are going to (statistically) give a little more attention, ice time, travel team opportunity, line-mates, etc to the kids born in the first quarter of the year.
For those of you who haven't run across this analysis, it has a sort of truthiness, does it not?
The question is whether this maps onto science careers? Do little micro-inequities matter? Heck yeah. Burgeoning science talents go through coach selection and grooming all the time. Who gets selected to work in the lab as an undergraduate? Who gets that magical "fit" with a PI when applying to grad school or doing graduate student rotations. Which trainee does the PI work "best" with and provide that little extra bit of training, that extra bit of introduction and promoting at conferences? Who gets put on the sexiest project? Who is successful in arguing up their authorship position with the PI? The list goes on....
I don't think any of this is news to my audience but it does give you another analogy to possibly get a point through to someone who is resistant to the idea of privilege. It also might, as with any new way of looking at things, provide anyone with new insights and perspectives that they find useful in their own thinking. So I thought I'd bring it up.
Getting back to my discomfort with the lack of completeness in the vignettes provided by Gladwell, the comment thread at FSP's blog points to the fact that Gladwell might have been wrong, slightly. This comment points to a hockey blog that objects to the Gladwell implications. Specifically:

If we only look at former Canadian junior players who were in the top sixth in NHL scoring, which was anyone with 42 points or more last year, the ratio of early-to-late birthday players over the last decade is about 1.20:1..... It turns out that the group where players with early birthdays are most over-represented is the league leaders in penalty minutes per game, and I can't see anyone getting up in arms about whether some kid's December birthday kept him from becoming the next Ogie Ogilthorpe.

My first thought is that it does not necessarily falsify the general point. If this analysis is true (and there are complications having to do with age cohorts, definitions of good performance, etc) it may simply point to the fact that NHL players are the outliers of the outliers of the outliers. And perhaps once you get into very small numbers at the extreme tails of any distribution you may need to readjust your factor weightings, so to speak. Perhaps native talent re-emerges as a primary issue or perhaps the hockey blog is right that a perception of youthful brilliance and an extra year of career excellence rights the imbalance.
The real question to ponder, however, is which analogy fits your biggest concerns with science careers. Are you only concerned about the elite prize winners? About GlamourMag laboratories? Or are you concerned merely with who will be able to land a job that lets them secure a R01 or two and labor away as a small town grocer type of scientist? Is our area of concern the equivalent of the top sixth of NHL scorers? Or is it those amateur hockey players who get a chance at the first ranks of professional hockey where they can make some cash just for being in the profession?
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*it is worth pointing out that "examining your privilege" is not equal to "Yes, I totally and completely agree with all aspects of the most extreme analyses of inequity". People seem to miss this for some reason. On both sides.

16 responses so far

  • jc says:

    speaking of micro-inequities, THE woman in the grocer PI "comic" is a rising star.
    Translation: she's nobody's bitch. Fear her, because you boys sure as shit can't ride her... star.
    It's an exciting ride alright, straight outta academia for her, more room for the boys to bask in their privilege.

  • Eyeballs says:

    Control Freak is totally a woman in that toon. Psycho, I'd put at 80/20 a woman and Slave Driver might be, maybe 30/70 or so.
    ScienceWonk looks Asian which might possibly be an offensive stereotype (in a cartoon? no wai!) but where the hell are the African American and Latino American cartoon PIs???? String up the Cartoonist!!!!!

  • the ratio of early-to-late birthday players over the last decade is about 1.20:1

    I am gobsmacked that the dude thinks this goes against Gladwell's hypothesis. That is a *massive* skew.

    Burgeoning science talents go through coach selection and grooming all the time. Who gets selected to work in the lab as an undergraduate?

    It starts even earlier than that. If I hadn't been race and class privileged enough to attend a high-school where my refusal to do assigned work was tolerated and my autodidacty was embraced, I would have been kicked to the curb before even attending college.

  • CP^2 says:

    CP - And wouldn't the world have been better for it? (Surely the blogosphere would have been.)

  • CP - And wouldn't the world have been better for it? (Surely the blogosphere would have been.)

    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!!!!

  • msphd says:

    The question is whether this maps onto science careers? Do little micro-inequities matter?
    I think you have a typo. 6th paragraph, 2nd line. I think you meant to write, HECK YEAH!!
    Or maybe that's just me.

  • CP^2 says:

    Dude, me getting my own blog wouldn't stop you from being such a schoolhouse bully (witness the link you provided, which makes my case for me - I guarantee you would say no such things to my face, nor to most of the people you "interact" with online). But man, if I was the one who made you go put that together, it makes me proud, because your style (not your views, btw...well, maybe sometimes, but that's not really relevant) has been rubbing me the wrong way for quite a while - it adds not a damn thing to "discussions" on the blogosphere and really just detracts from anyone actually getting anything out of it. Being right ALL THE TIME and cursing at anyone who might not agree is tedious, and is the stuff (oh here we go again) of schoolyard social dynamics. Maybe you should seek out some real life outlets for your aggression. I recommend a gym membership. Oh, and one other thing: it's odd you'd make an issue of "anonymous" comments. Care to tell us who you REALLY are, CPP? No? Then - as you might say - STFU.

  • it's odd you'd make an issue of "anonymous" comments.

    When have I ever made an issue of "anonymous" comments, dipwad?

  • DuWayne says:

    Dude, me getting my own blog wouldn't stop you from being such a schoolhouse bully (witness the link you provided, which makes my case for me - I guarantee you would say no such things to my face, nor to most of the people you "interact" with online).
    No, but it would totally give you an outlet to rant about what a big blue meanie CPP is. Meanwhile, those of us who don't care what a BBM CPP is on his bloody coblog, don't have to see it. Please try to remember, you are not required to read blogs that make you feel alienated and upset.
    The world is full of BBM's. Hell, I'm one of them. There are many ways to react to it. You can certainly whine about them, in their own territory, in which case - gasp! - they are likely to be mean to you. You can whine about it in your own territory. You can give some back. Or you can even just avoid them. And if they invade your space, you can make them get the hell out.

  • CP^2 says:

    Bud, I didn't tell you to shut up or claim you should be "censored". You're misfiring left and right. I insulted you on probably a seventh grade level (which is still considerably above your usual level of interaction), and you responded not to the insult but by directing me to your nice new blog claiming that the only thing to do if I don't like your style is get my own blog where I can - to paraphrase DuWayne of your (inexplicable - maybe they're your students and postdocs and you require this) cheerleading contingent - smear my own feces on the walls and throw piss at anyone who comes too close. That's what the drugmonkey blog is becoming, unfortunately. (Forget your own blog, which has long been a contentless mess.) Hey, if that's what you want to do with the internet, not only can't I stop you, but I don't want to. I'm just making the point that you make a lot of noise while adding absolutely NOTHING to the larger discourse. You probably know that and love it and I say party on. It's cheaper than therapy, right (though you might want to have that paranoia investigated - you seem to be confusing me with someone other than a disinterested observer)? I've said my piece and am moving on....

  • DuWayne says:

    (inexplicable - maybe they're your students and postdocs and you require this)
    AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!1!
    Seriously though, I am quite hopeful that as my education progresses and I get to being a grad student, that I will have a mentor of CPP's caliber. I am not his student and never could be, as I am going into neuropsych and linguistics, in a land far from his. But nonetheless, CPP has been kind enough to respond every time I have emailed him and asked him advice about academia - as have many science bloggers - even our fellow BBM's. The one thing that I have noted from CPP on numerous occasions, is that he is the type of mentor that a dedicated student would want on their side. He isn't perfect, but I have seen a great deal of evidence to indicate that he is not only passionate about science, but that he is passionate about his students as well. At the same time, he is unlikely to play stupid games with students who obviously aren't making it, because he is afraid of hurting them.
    One could do a lot worse than an instructor and/or mentor who cares enough to back you up and cares enough to be honest with you.
    Cheerleader? No. But I am glad to call him my friend.
    I can entirely understand not liking people who aren't particularly nice. I can also understand choosing to avoid them because of it. But you came in and responded to a very innocuous and Gasp! profanity free comment from CPP with a rather childish attack. And you're surprised that it was responded to with not a little irritation? If you don't like it - go away. Some of us are more than happy to look past the profane and note that beyond the profane, is often a great deal of substance.
    Happens all the time at my own blog.

  • Isabel says:

    "to paraphrase DuWayne of your (inexplicable - maybe they're your students and postdocs and you require this) cheerleading contingent"
    the word you're looking for is henchbloggers
    🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    Bud, I didn't tell you to shut up or claim you should be "censored". You're misfiring left and right. I insulted you on probably a seventh grade level (which is still considerably above your usual level of interaction), and you responded not to the insult but by directing me to your nice new blog claiming that the only thing to do if I don't like your style is get my own blog where I can - to paraphrase DuWayne of your (inexplicable - maybe they're your students and postdocs and you require this) cheerleading contingent - smear my own feces on the walls and throw piss at anyone who comes too close. That's what the drugmonkey blog is becoming, unfortunately. (Forget your own blog, which has long been a contentless mess.) Hey, if that's what you want to do with the internet, not only can't I stop you, but I don't want to. I'm just making the point that you make a lot of noise while adding absolutely NOTHING to the larger discourse. You probably know that and love it and I say party on. It's cheaper than therapy, right (though you might want to have that paranoia investigated - you seem to be confusing me with someone other than a disinterested observer)? I've said my piece and am moving on....

    LOON ALERT LEVEL INFINITY BAJILLION!!!!11!.

  • Liisa says:

    I wonder about one thing. There are innate characteristics, or things one cannot really influence. They may bring some advantage, like, say, I inherited the looks of my father's side of the family so I'm tall, athletic without really doing much for it, blonde, with excellent hair. Now, this quite conforms to the beauty standard of the culture I live in. So it may bring advantages compared to those who don't have pretty faces, go bald in their 20's and are small and pudgy.
    Now, I have an advantage, or a privilege, however one may want to call that. It seems to me that I'm pressed to feel guilty because of this as if it was some sort of my own faulty doing that, say, I have long legs or an ability to learn languages easily.
    My question is, what am I to do? Sometimes I get a feeling that I should bang my head against the wall as long as needed to be stupid.

  • My question is, what am I to do? Sometimes I get a feeling that I should bang my head against the wall as long as needed to be stupid.

    (1) Acknowledge your privilege.
    (2) Don't bash other people in the face with it.
    (3) Use it to try to level the playing field when possible.
    (4) When it comes to "blonde, thin, tall" privilege, it is somewhat different than male, white, or class privilege in that entire social systems of oppression have not been constructed atop it.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Here is a simple one. The age at which one starts school depends on your birthday. Let us say the dividing line is January 1. Anyone born in December would start a year earlier than one born in January.
    To whose advantage is that. There clearly will be an effect. For the sake of argument, for the brightest kids, the ones who are going on to PhDs, it would make a full years difference. OTOH, for those who are not, the extra years physical and intellectual growth might be invaluable.

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