Letter to the Editor and Official Tory Response: Task Force Syndrome

Letter to the Editor

To the editor:

I’m writing concerning an article in the April  issue of The Princeton Tory, namely, “The Task Force Syndrome: Steering the Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership,” by Chris Goodnow ’14, with which I’d like to address some issues.

The argument that we cannot determine “whether women undergraduates are realizing their academic potential” because we cannot accurately measure the potential of any SINGLE undergraduate is as fundamentally flawed as would be the claim that we cannot measure the average kinetic energy of particles in a gas (a.k.a. the temperature) because we cannot measure the kinetic energy of any ONE.

Also, this argument is flawed because it looks only at individuals and fails to admit the possibility of average trends over a large number of people. In particular, the claim that “any differences, even if they are statistically significant, would be derived from differences in personality and leadership style” is downright laughable. The entire point of statistical significance is to differentiate between individual variation and general trend. Differences in personality and leadership style will emphatically *not* cause statistically significant differences to be found – if such differences *are* found, it means that *despite* the variability there is a general trend differentiating one group from the other, which would be very worrying given that, as the author himself argues, males and females should be (on average/as a group/in general) equivalent.

In fact, the entire argument presented in this article is flawed for this same reason, over and over again. For example, the probability of only 8 (or fewer) out of 41 valedictorians being female if there is indeed an equal chance of a male or a female being chosen each year is 0.000056 (or .0056%) – aka zip. This is, at the very least, a troubling fact. Still, one may say, we should not look at just one thing as the sole measure of realization of academic potential, and I would have to agree – which is *precisely* why a committee was formed to evaluate a *large number of measures/amount of data*, which in turn is why these reports end up being a hundred pages. The complete dismissal of that very committee on such ill-founded grounds, I can describe only as completely ignorant.

A concerned reader,

Michael Thomas

Official Tory Response

Dear Mr. Thomas,

While I believe you raise a few cogent points in your response, on the whole, your analysis represents the very ills that were rife throughout the report produced by the Steering Committee on Undergraduate Women’s Leadership. Let me be specific.

First, your analogy is strikingly simplistic, encapsulating the entirety of a human person into a “particle” so you can make an even more simplistic argument. By and large, scientific statistical analyses of human temperament and thoughts are largely unreliable because they are based in variable and fickle “self-reporting” mechanisms. Furthermore, regardless of how much data we amass, we cannot determine “whether women undergraduates are realizing their academic potential” simply because we cannot define “realizing academic potential.”

Second, you claim that I fail “to admit the possibility of average trends,” a charge that is patently false. I spend much of the article discussing the lack of evidence that the committee had when they made their sweeping statements concerning average trends. The statistical analysis you describe is indeed correct, but that is not what the committee did. Nowhere in the report is there mention of T-Tests, p-values, or statistically significant differences. My article was not an argument against statistics as a discipline, which you so emphatically claim, but an analysis of how these tools were completely ignored.

Third, you allege, “the author himself argues males and females should be on average equivalent.” I never say this anywhere in my article, and I am disappointed that you have tried to mischaracterize my argument. I claim, actually, that women are more academically successful than men at Princeton and at universities all over the country, and that this has nothing to do with gender. I cannot, nor can anyone else, claim that men and women “should be equivalent” because this makes the very erroneous assumption that the only academic differentiating characteristic between men and women is gender. Causation and correlation must be separated in order to come up with accurate conclusions, a fact that both you and the committee have missed.

Finally, while I certainly doubt the statistic you so magically produce without any evidence, we must remember that women represented less than approximately 40% of the student population for the first 20 years of this data, thereby reducing their “chances” of becoming valedictorian. At the end of your letter, you debase your entire argument by writing, “We should not look at just one thing [gender] as the sole measure of realization of academic potential.” This is exactly what I argue, and this is exactly what is missing from the committee’s report—a holistic analysis of people, rather than categories.

Thank you, Mr. Thomas, for affording me the opportunity to clarify and strengthen some of my points, and to hold a substantive debate concerning the issue. I hope future committees will engage in similar discussions to determine whether or not their “task forces” and “steering committees” are actually worth anything at all.


“Completely Ignorant”

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