Interesting research

I’ve encountered some interesting research lately. Rather than discuss any of it at length I’ll just post them with a few comments:

First up: Are Boys Irrational?

Economists have scratched their heads. “The greatest, most astonishing fact that I am aware of in social science right now is that women have been able to hear the labor market screaming out ‘You need more education’ and have been able to respond to that, and men have not,” MIT’s Michael Greenstone told the New York Times. If boys were as rational as their sisters, he implied, they would be staying in school, getting degrees, and going on to buff their Florsheim shoes on weekdays at 7:30 AM. Instead, the rational sex, the proto-homo economicus, is shrugging off school and resigning itself to a life of shelf stocking. Why would that be?

The most interesting aspect of this to me is the various commentary around this article (in fact, a commentary on some commentary on the research). James Taranto, who writes the linked column, is examining commentary by Kay Hymowitz and finding some flawed–even sexist–assumptions at the heart of her analysis. Says Hymowitz (who also wrote the quote above):

Now, though, with teen births down more than 50 percent from their 1991 peak and girls dominating classrooms and graduation ceremonies, boys and men are increasingly the ones under examination. Their high school grades and college attendance rates have remained stalled for decades. Among poor and working-class boys, the chances of climbing out of the low-end labor market–and of becoming reliable husbands and fathers–are looking worse and worse. (Emphasis added)

Taranto (correctly, I believe) calls her on that:

Hymowitz laments that young males are insufficiently interested in “becoming reliable husbands and fathers.” Imagine somebody opening a piece with the converse lament that young females are insufficiently interested in “becoming reliable wives and mothers.” The author would be attacked as a misogynist and a dinosaur. Why, critics would demand, should women set their sights so low?

Well, why should men? Except perhaps in very conservative communities, men with sufficient social skills can find sex and companionship without need of a matrimonial commitment (and for those who lack social skills, a willingness to marry is unlikely to provide much compensation). The culture’s unrelenting message–repeated in Hymowitz’s article–is that women are doing fine on their own. If a woman doesn’t need a man, there’s little reason for him to devote his life to her service…

He goes on to, just as interestingly, call out the flawed assumptions in the analysis of the research being presented. Boys and men are behaving rationally. The error is in assuming that males and females all want the same thing. Read the whole thing.

The next bit of research concerns The Stigma of Racism. New research suggests that people are reticent to mention race, even when it makes logical sense, for fear of being thought racist–even though so-doing increases their chances of being viewed as racist!

Scientists had a group of white adult volunteers play a game of Guess Who? — where players start with a lineup of faces and try to find the correct one by asking yes/no questions — with partners who were either white or black.

The lineup they were given was half-black and half-white, so asking about race was a great way to eliminate a lot of possibilities quickly. And yet 43 percent of the subjects failed to ask when the person answering the questions was white, and 79 percent didn’t ask when the person was black. Perhaps because their discomfort showed, the whites who didn’t ask about race were more likely to be seen as racist by outside observers (who for some reason were all white). Conducting the experiment with children revealed that this fear sets in around age 10.

The article goes on to insist this is largely a good thing, as it shows that the civil rights movement has been largely successful–though they are careful to point out that research indicates that one in twenty-five people still wouldn’t vote for a black for president.

What this suggests to me is that there will always be holdouts–people who will always hate some group or another. Further attempts to stigmatize these people and browbeat them into compliance are not likely to yield fruit. Meanwhile, the remaining 96% are finding that the stigma of being thought a racist is so strong that it actually gets in the way of getting along with others. If the goal is for everyone to see everyone else as exactly the same I don’t think we’re going to ever succeed. But if the goal is to get people to not respond negatively to someone just because of skin color, we may want to be careful not to overshoot the mark. If we’re afraid to even acknowledge the obvious–someone’s skin is a different shade than our own–might we not be replacing one problem with another?

Again, read the article.