And the Internet Shall Make Us Free, Gender Equity Division

I have a friend in the science writing game (many actually; I’m a wealthy man that way).  This particular friend has built a career out of writing about physics, mostly, along with a bit of math,* all with a truly distinct style, voice, and stance.  The work begins from the true premise: physics and the habits of scientific thinking penetrate (or should) every aspect of experience.  Science ain’t just for the boffins — it’s of value and available to anyone willing to crack a book and wind their brain.

My friend has lots of strengths as a writer, full stop, and as a writer about science.  It’s not just the catchy and earned interplay the work achieves between popular culture and real scientific concepts.  What I love as I read books and articles from my friend is the way each piece is built experientially.  The ideas emerge as the narrative voice lives, does actual stuff (road-trip to Vegas! drop acid! check out the rides at Disneyland!).  This is a writer who wants readers to feel their new knowledge down to the bone.  And to have fun with it while they’re at it.

So my friend put out a book a couple of years ago that showcases all this fine writerly stuff on a topic that doesn’t usually make most folks’ lists of beach reading.  Titled The Calculus Diaries it tells the story of what happens when a fully grown adult — a former English major –sets out to master calculus,  both for the beauty of the math involved and to discover its power as a  guide to just about whatever one may encounter in daily life.

My friend has lots of friends, as it happens, many of whom we share.  One of those was talking to yet a third party a few nights ago, and told that person about the book.  The next day, some of the details had vanished, as they are wont to do.  And so this last person in the chain did what anyone would:  ask the magic Google machine to find that tome about the English major who decided to learn calculus.

Then this happened:

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 5.14.25 PM

Oops.

Or rather, what’s telling is that plenty of folks are pissed off at the Google-bot’s assumption here, but no one, I think, is even remotely surprised.  Ben Lillie — the man behind Story Collider, by the way — is the person who told McManus (whom I don’t know) about The Calculus Diaries, by Jennifer Ouellette, possibly also known to some of you as Jen-Luc Picard, proprietress of Cocktail Party Physics.

La_Leçon_d’astronomie_de_la_duchesse_du_Maine_-_François_de_Troy

Ben wrote up a lovely post for his Tumblr on all this, with at least two motives behind the writing, both of which I share.

One is simply to make sure that our mutual friend Jennifer gets all the credit she deserves for having written a wonderful tale and guide-for-the-math-perplexed that I believe serves as a great gateway drug to really important mathematical ideas.  Also, maybe, this’ll help sell some  books.

The other is to use this bit of search-algorithm-“optimization” to cast the obvious sidelight on the fact of embedded sexism in tech — and really society at large.  That pathology is easy to see when you get dudebros making obvious and public tools of themselves.  But (and of course you see this in the way racism persists) when you set the non-sexist/racist/bigot/asshole bar at the level of not being that guy, not using the c word or the n word, or what have you, the deep social and cultural conditions in which actual racism, sexism, discrimination makes itself felt don’t get touched.  Ben wrote a line I can’t beat on this theme:

One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are.

And so they do.  And what this one little story means as a practical matter is that as long as the assumption that men do math and women don’t runs so far below the surface that even the Google breathes it back at you….then that’s how you know the war on women, like plenty of other battles, ain’t close to over.  La lucha continua, as we used to say.

Discuss — and go buy some books.

*There’s been a recent detour into mind-brain stuff, but we all have our briar patches, don’t we?

Image: François de Troy, Astronomy Lesson of the Duchess du Main, 1702-1704

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64 replies
  1. 1
    Baud says:

    I wish more calculus majors would teach themselves English. #kidding

  2. 2
    kdaug says:

    There’s been a recent detour into mind-brain stuff…

    Do tell.

    (Or, rather, in keeping with the spirit – “OhGodHevenlyMercyNO. Please, whatever sir you may choose to do, please do not tell about said briar patch”.)

    ETA: Forgive. Pre-caffine.

  3. 3
    NJ Dave says:

    Do you mean Jen-Luc Piquant?

  4. 4
    Emma says:

    I went to read the article linked under “dudebros” and made the mistake of reading some of the comments. I am now preparing an industrial-strength bleach solution for my brain. Exhibit one (and two, and three) of the premise of the article. Jesus Christ.

  5. 5
    amk says:

    For those want to RT/Fav the original tweet.

  6. 6
    big ole hound says:

    Who could care. Unreadable gibberish with no purpose.

  7. 7
    jrg says:

    You are, of course, assuming this is bias in the use of gender-specific pronouns, hardcoded somewhere Google’s code, rather than something data-driven, like suggesting this search because it has been used more often in the past.

    Anything to melt into a quivering pile of butthurt, I suppose. Promoters gotta promote.

  8. 8
    Gin & Tonic says:

    @big ole hound: Wow, who pissed in your corn flakes this morning?

  9. 9
    Don Elliott says:

    On the other hand, Tom, most of us have seen our children fall under that invisible hand that reinforces that rubric. It may take yet another generation to make it plain that “girls can do math.” Hell, I’d be happy if we could get even boys to get past “math is hard” stuff.

  10. 10
    Linnaeus says:

    The work begins from the true premise: physics and the habits of scientific thinking penetrate (or should) every aspect of experience. Science ain’t just for the boffins — it’s of value and available to anyone willing to crack a book and wind their brain.

    I agree that this is a useful habit, although this sometimes turns into an annoying scientism.

  11. 11
    Martin schafer says:

    Just tried the search in Google and it doesn’t offer the correction now. No way to know exactly why but I’m betting this flap generated enough data for it to self correct.

  12. 12
    MomSense says:

    @Don Elliott:

    And when we women try to push back we are told we are just too sensitive.

  13. 13

    Tom, heaven knows I am generally offended by the misogyny in our culture, which I’ve seen get more pervasive and sadistic over my life. *Just this once*, I’m not sure this has anything to do with that. I looked up both options, curious about the story and prepared to be mad about the sexism. Instead I found a story of a man teaching himself calculus fairly high up the listings, and no listing at all for the ‘herself’ story. I think this time it’s just that there was such a difference in the amount of searches between ‘himself’ and ‘herself’, the algorithm spat out the popular one as a statistical decision. Maybe the popularity reveals gender issues, but I don’t think the awful-looking autocorrect actually does. I’m entirely willing to be proven wrong here.

  14. 14
    Emma says:

    AAAND… they’re here!

  15. 15

    The Ben Lillie article, on the other hand – Jesus fuck, that’s both horrifying and unfortunately not surprising. Ugh.

  16. 16
    OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MomSense: Lighten up Francis…. ;-) jusjokin

  17. 17
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @jrg:

    From the link:

    Of course, this isn’t the fault of a single person or group. Google’s algorithm is based on cues from what other people are searching for and uses context to try to figure out what an user meant. But algorithms, “are never as neutral as they appear.” So while no one thought “only men would teach themselves calculus,” it’s also true that that’s what the culture as a whole has decided, at least in aggregate. Whether we like it or not, we associate something about that phrase with men more than women. This has happened before, and will likely happen many times again. One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are. In this case that we’re living in a quite deeply sexist culture.

  18. 18
    Citizen_X says:

    @Emma: I ran into a good truism the other day: “Feminism is justified by the comments on any post about feminism.”

  19. 19
    Ben Cisco says:

    @MomSense:

    We know just how you feel.

    Signed, Black America

  20. 20

    @SiubhanDuinne:
    And that part I agree with completely. It is subtle if you’re not on the receiving end, cruel if you are, and pervasive. I just resist the first interpretation I’ve usually heard people make, and which I read as part of the argument here – that in addition to the generalized sexism, it is also baked into Google’s code. That part does not look substantiated by the evidence.

    As you can tell, I hate even being on this side of the argument, but I get really picky about which arguments the evidence justifies and which don’t. On most topics.

  21. 21
    Belafon says:

    One of the wonderful things about relying on computers to help us is that if we’re not careful they’ll tell us who we really are.

    An interesting corollary to the axiom that computers do exactly what you tell them to do.

  22. 22
    Eric U. says:

    I always like, “did you mean x,” with a link for showing the results that you actually searched for. I think they are biased towards what everyone else searches for, so if you specifically try to narrow down the search it actually has the opposite result from what you want.

    My daughter wasn’t in the math track in high school to learn calculus. I don’t know that she really struggled at math, but her study habits are such that she struggles at everything. In college, she took calculus and did pretty well.

    My son, on the other hand, went to a school where they didn’t have a very rigid curriculum. In first grade, he and his friends heard the older kids doing geometry and they badgered their teacher into teaching it to them. So he’s never been afraid of math at all. I don’t think he’s any smarter than my daughter, but he’s teaching his friends calculus and teaching himself advanced math subjects while still in high school. It’s amazing what can happen if you aren’t afraid of a subject

  23. 23
    cat says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: Thanks for posting that. It saves me from trying to use my terrible writing skills to explain that goggles suggestion algo’s reflect society and there is no s/herself/himself.

    There is merely p(x,”taught”, x, “calculus”) and it spit out himself as the most likely not herself based on their analysis of the billions of searches and webpages they’ve seen.

  24. 24
    Joey Giraud says:

    People do a lot of reasoning using metaphors, that’s just the way the brain works.

    Physics and mathematics present a huge library of useful and more complicated metaphors that make for better reasoning about regular life.

  25. 25
    kc says:

    Edited to remove pointless snark.

    Will read later.

  26. 26
    Emma says:

    @Eric U.: Actually, iirc, there has been at least one study that shows teachers almost unconsciously favoring boys in class, especially science and math. Perhaps your daughter’s struggles were reinforced by feeling teachers didn’t expect her to succeed, at least not as “good as the boys.” My own memory of high school (admittedly many, many years ago) match that. I was good at history and literature and got loads of attention. One of my friends was good at science, and barely got called on in class.

  27. 27
    cat says:

    @Emma: This behavior is one of the reasons women leave STEM even though they are just as good or better at it then men based on testing and studies of students in k-12.

  28. 28
    FridayNext says:

    They did a small bit like this on The Daily Show when Jessica Williams typed in “Why do black people…”

    You can play this game with the word “women” too.

    Why do women…

    Google suggests:

    Cheat
    Wear heels
    Say Sorry
    Wear bras

  29. 29
    Mandalay says:

    And what this one little story means as a practical matter is that as long as the assumption that men do math and women don’t runs so far below the surface that even the Google breathes it back at you….then that’s how you know the war on women, like plenty of other battles, ain’t close to over.

    Oh my goodness, Tom. Go to google right now and repeat that “offending” google search [english major who taught herself calculus]. What do you see?

    This is certainly not your finest post.

  30. 30
    Joey Giraud says:

    @cat:

    I would like to see more women in STEM ( I’m an engineer too, ) but I sometimes wonder if the reason more young women don’t go into these difficult and challenging areas isn’t so much discrimination or hostility but simply because they don’t feel the need to.

  31. 31
    ringa says:

    @Ben Cisco:
    I’ll bet you a cookie that, despite my relative lack of melanin, if you and I went car shopping together, the salesperson would talk almost exclusively to you. Furthermore, when I bought you dinner afterwards to celebrate not buying a car, the server would return my card and receipt to you. And if we worked in the same office, and someone had a question about math, science (except biology, which has become the girl science), finances, or computers, they’d automatically ask you. (Well, unless there was a white guy or an Asian guy in the same room as us.)

    There is an entire slew of issues that Black America has to deal with that I don’t and there is intersectionality between the groups as well, but there are still issues that Black men don’t have to deal with that all women do. Cope.

  32. 32
    cat says:

    @Joey Giraud:

    Is that you DougJ?

  33. 33
    Joey Giraud says:

    @cat:

    Nope. Been Joey Giraud online since 2002.

  34. 34
    Mandalay says:

    @FridayNext:

    Google suggests:
    Cheat
    Wear heels
    Say Sorry
    Wear bras

    I just got cheat, talk so much, have periods, wear thongs.

    “Why do men” yields: cheat, rape, pull away, have facial hair.

    Best of all, “Why do politicians” yields:
    why do politicians lie
    why do we need politicians
    why do all politicians lie
    why do politicians lie so much

  35. 35
    Joey Giraud says:

    Not dissing the intelligence of women, just pointing out that motivation matters, and boys in general are more motivated to figure out the physical world.

    Girls in general seem more motivated to figure out the human world.

  36. 36
    carbon dated says:

    My friend has lots of strengths as a writer, full stop, and as a writer about science.

    Maybe “full stop” doesn’t mean what I think it means.

  37. 37
    cat says:

    @ringa:

    Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but I interpreted Ben Cisco’s post as one of solidarity not invalidation.

  38. 38
    cat says:

    @carbon dated: I thought he was trying convey his friend is a good writer regardless of topic in addition to being a good science writer. I think its common when you get a bunch of people who end up specializing in sub-fields a common way to invalidate someone is to say, “Sure they are a good science writer, but can they Write.” Then they make up some impossible standard that nobody can adhere to and is seemingly only applied to a particular sub-group if you know what I mean.

  39. 39
  40. 40
    Emma says:

    @Joey Giraud: bullfeathers. here. And that doesn’t even cover the 20th century.

  41. 41
    cat says:

    @Ruviana: Your link is kinda broken… http://www.scribd.com/doc/2027.....Sears-Case

    How to tell if an argument is bogus… Does it use the word ‘Traditionally’? Probably bogus. Behavior and Values are learned not innate.

  42. 42
  43. 43
    Ruviana says:

    @Joey Giraud: Ah, the Sears argument!

    eta: I think this one will work–I did it again.

  44. 44
    carbon dated says:

    @cat: I think he meant that as well, but the phrase “full stop” looks a bit off in the middle of a sentence, particularly when it’s followed by the conjunction. I’m not saying Tom is misusing the term, full stop, but I would never use it that way.

  45. 45
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @cat: I agree. If the scenario were me and Ben, I’ll wager that I’m the one who would get all the attention, even though Ben was the one looking to buy the car, looking to pick up the check, etc.

    Don’t assume. It makes an ass out of u and me.

  46. 46
    Tom Levenson says:

    @carbon dated: It’s a Britishism, picked up from my very English mother. American English would put it this way: she’s a great writer, period, and not just someone to read for the information. The point of using “period” or “full stop” there is so I don’t have to actually put a full stop in and end the sentence there, picking up the second half of the description in the next sentence.

    You may not like it as a bit of prose, but there’s the thinking behind the choice.

  47. 47
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Ruviana: Not working, I fear.

  48. 48
    Seanly says:

    @Frankensteinbeck:

    That’s kind of my take too. I would love to see many, many more women & minorities in STEM (especially the E part wherein I work). I work for a Fortune 500 engineering firm who has a female CEO which is wonderful. However, my own department’s sole woman isn’t an engineer or scientist. Diverse backgrounds & experiences bring a diversity of thought & approach that strengthen our endeavors. Relying on the ossified opinions of just 37% of the population gets tiresome.

  49. 49
    Anoniminous says:

    Google search responses are not baked in the code but they are baked into the methodology and algorithms. Simplifying, Google uses the keyword and statistics approach to Natural Language Processing proceeding [token and associated occurrence counter] by [token and associated occurrence counter] building-up a simple matrix. This matrix is then examined seeking the most common occurrence of tuples within the search terms, e.g. CALCULUS + LEARNING, finds the intersection of these, replaces the least common term – HERSELF – with the most common – HIMSELF – and presents it as “Did You Mean?” It is immediately obvious Google’s approach lacks anything even remotely approaching search term Semantics. It is less obvious their approach also obliterates the vectored distinctions between Subject, Object, and Copula in the search terms on the computer side which are fundamentally expected on the user side.

  50. 50
    gratuitous says:

    I was worried about posting this comment, that I might appear overly pedantic, but reading through the comments so far, I feel like I’m on much safer ground. The phrase as I heard it in Chiapas at the beginning of the Zapatista march to Mexico City in 2001 was “La lucha sigué”, meaning the struggle continues or goes on. It also sort-of rhymed with its call-and-response counterpart “¡Zapata vive!”

  51. 51
    jrg says:

    @Emma:
    What does that comment even mean?

    This stuff is not subjective. Google is not trying to hurt your feelings.

  52. 52
    Tenar Darell says:

    @jrg:

    But, it is actually subjective. Google has decided to ignore the importance and differences in typing “herself” vs. “himself” on a standard keyboard. On a QWERTY, the most widely distributed keyboard, “him” is all on the right hand side, but “her” actually crosses over to the left hand side. By completely ignoring that, Google and their engineers, have completely ignored one half of humanity. It’s a huge blind spot for a company that prides itself on using science, data and algorithms to find stuff. It’s stupid.

    It’s also sexist; probably unconscious rather than malicious, but blindingly obvious once you realize that no English speaker would make this kind of mistake on a standard keyboard. “herself” is a keyword of the search terms, and Google’s algorithm totally ignores that.

  53. 53
    jrg says:

    @Tenar Darell:
    I honestly cannot tell if you are joking or not.

    Do you have any idea how enormous their problem space is, in terms of sheer magnitude of data? The complexity of natural language alone, whether typed (on any number of devices), or spoken?

    Do you honestly expect these people to take billions and billions of webpages, exabytes of data, and never, ever come up with something that’s going to hurt some poor blogger’s fee-fees? Please.

  54. 54
    Tenar Darell says:

    @jrg:
    Nope, not joking. It is basic English grammar. Something that should have been baked into some of the first algorithm development for the code. Herself is either an intensive of reflexive pronoun, and the initial coding for Google was for the English language based web, undoubtedly using standard QWERTY keyboards. It would be hard to do now, but pretty simple (I am using simple as a relative term) in the beginning. But that’s the point I was trying to make, this is subjective, not objective. It is a design element, and the algorithm could have been better from the very beginning. Humans are not, by default men, yet Google assumes this, in code.

  55. 55
    Tenar Darell says:

    @jrg:
    Nope, not joking. And yes, I am aware how big things have gotten up until now.

    It is basic English grammar. Something that should have been baked into some of the first algorithm development for the code. Herself is either an intensive of reflexive pronoun, and the initial coding for Google was for the English language based web, undoubtedly using standard QWERTY keyboards. It would be hard to do now, but pretty simple (I am using simple as a relative term) in the beginning. But that’s the point I was trying to make, this is subjective, not objective. It is a design element, and the algorithm could have been better from the very beginning. Humans are not, by default men, yet Google assumes this, in code.

  56. 56
    Tenar Darell says:

    @jrg:
    Nope, not joking. And yes, I am aware how big and complex things have gotten up until now.

    It is basic English grammar. Something that should have been baked into some of the first algorithm development for the code. Herself is either an intensive of reflexive pronoun, and the initial coding for Google was for the English language based web, undoubtedly using standard QWERTY keyboards. It would be hard to do now, but pretty simple (I am using simple as a relative term) in the beginning. But that’s the point I was trying to make, this is subjective, not objective. It is a design element, and the algorithm could have been better from the very beginning. Humans are not, by default men, yet Google assumes this, in code.

  57. 57
    Missouri Buckeye says:

    Hmm. I just tried the Google query and did not get the “correction”.

    Maybe the discussion hit the Google-bots and caused the algorithm to change.

  58. 58
    Tenar Darell says:

    Well that triple comment was unintentional. It errored on me all three times. Weird…

  59. 59
    jrg says:

    @Tenar Darell:

    Humans are not, by default men, yet Google assumes this, in code.

    No, it does not. The algorithm was explained above.

  60. 60
    Ann Butlingham says:

    I’ll buy some books and even stock them in my real live bookstore.

    Amazon links make good posts unshareable.

  61. 61
    Joey Giraud says:

    @Ruviana:

    Is that Sears the store or someone’s name? My Google-fu has failed.

    At any rate, I’ll bet calling it an “X argument” is intended to discount it as nothing more then sophistry.

    Hell, it was little more then a supposition and some observation.

    I like girls, I like women, and I especially like the few women I’ve known in high tech. ( who are almost all very very smart. )

    But those women aren’t like most women. Most women seem to be happy not knowing too much about science and math, or cars or manufacturing or home construction or … on and on. And they seem to become more that way about the age when boys and girls diverge.
    Might it be mostly due to factors other then social injustice and male oppression ?

    And trying to shame me into ignoring these observations is feckless.

  62. 62
    carbon dated says:

    @Tom Levenson: Yeah thanks, Tom I know it’s a Britishism. I wouldn’t put “period” in the middle of the sentence either. You’re right, I don’t like it. “Full stop” — the phrase, not the punctuation — means “there’s nothing more to be said.”

  63. 63
    mclaren says:

    Good news, though! Google tells me I can increase my salary by becoming a werewolf. And it keeps offering me tremendous discount prices on strange quarks…

  64. 64
    cat says:

    @Joey Giraud: There are your observations and then there is data compiled by academics. There is statistically significant evidence that shows that this “Science and Math is for boys” is a learned behavior.

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