Belief in the Geek Gene explains Lack of Diversity in Computing PhD’s

February 6, 2015 at 8:40 am 10 comments

I’ve argued before that there is no reason to believe in the Geek Gene (see post here), and every reason to believe that good teaching can overcome “innate” differences (see post here). Now, a study in Science suggests that that belief in “innate gift or talent” can explain why some fields have more diversity and others do not.

Sparked by sharing anecdotes about their personal experiences in fields with very different gender ratios, a team of authors, led by Andrei Cimpian, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie of Princeton University, surveyed graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty members at nine major U.S. research institutions. Participants rated the importance of having “an innate gift or talent” or “a special aptitude that just can’t be taught” to succeed in their field versus the value of “motivation and sustained effort.” The study, published online today in Science, looked across 30 disciplines in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields, the social sciences, and the humanities.

The authors found that fields in which inborn ability is prized over hard work produced relatively fewer female Ph.D.s. This trend, based on 2011 data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, also helps explain why gender ratios don’t follow the simplified STEM/non-STEM divide in some fields, including philosophy and biology, they conclude.

via Belief that some fields require ‘brilliance’ may keep women out | Science/AAAS | News.

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Could our CS enrollment boom and bust cycle be the result of inability to manage the boom? Putting the Computer Science in Computing Education Research

10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  February 6, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    I think this is conflating different ideas to the detriment of all.

    First, there are too many absolutes expressed as dichotomies. Let’s start with a still simple, but much better model than the “geek gene” idea.

    Let us posit for the purposes of this comment, that:

    “Ability” is a combination of “Talent”, “Skill”, and “Will”.

    (There could be more ingredients, but let’s stick to these three, and let’s also posit for now that “talent” means “born with”.)

    So a given ability — for example, learning to play a Bach Fugue, could be reached by different combinations of the three processes in different people.

    Anecdotally (but also backed up by many studies of musicians), I have seen many different combinations of these, and most able musicians are quite aware of them.

    In developed music — especially “art music” — some practice is needed even by the most talented. However, the differences can be very large. Taking part of the mystery out of this, consider

    (a) that “biology means diversity”, so it would be truly astounding if everyone were born with the same amount of innate abilities for something (democracy is “equal rights” *not* “equal talents”), and

    (b) that quite a lot of “ability” — especially for learning — in highly developed fields, depends on one’s ease of remembering (or not), and remembering in a single person is not at all uniform over different kinds of things to remember — a person can from birth have a terrific memory for ideas but require incredible amounts of practice to acquire physical abilities, and vice versa.

    Finally, “will” helps to acquire skill. And to some extent — talent — given that Biological development has quite a bit of “use it of lose it” baked in.

    But if we take talent to be more or less the same over most lives, and the main variable factors are skill and will, and that many people can learn to play a Bach fugue, etc., then what we really need to talk about is limits and opportunities.

    If standards are low (and they are for programming) and there are many opportunities, then we’d expect that will and skill will really count. But we need to ask questions about remembering, perhaps poorly designed kludges with lots of gratuitously difficult mechanisms. At some point it is possible that will + skill won’t be able to hack it, even if the domain is pretty dumb, and we’d rather have good designers in there rather than tinkerers.

    In my experience, great people are extremely rare — and very precious — and for many of them all three ingredients are found at max levels. Great people are needed — required — at the fringes of research, and we want to be able to find and help them from the entire population.

    To me this means that we need to have equitable education for all that allows contact with many ideas, many motivations, and includes the ideas of talent, will, and skill.

    I think it’s the case that most people who want to get “rather good” at something they love will be able to via some combination of the three ingredients. I also think (and this is also backed up with real evidence) that there are places in fields where only talent can go (and perhaps only with the addition of lots of skill and will).

    That the top recognitions — like Nobel Prizes — recognize more than one type, and some of them are skill+will types, should be encouraging for all.

    A good set of heuristics for “finding the art you love that you can learn to do” (and to be happy with that art) is one of the most important things one can latch onto. (A hint is often “what is it that you are really good at remembering?)

    Best wishes


    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  February 6, 2015 at 4:39 pm

      I’m not sure how we can ever be sure that talent started “at birth.” We don’t test for talent at birth. We don’t see talent until late in life when experiences and interests have led to personal development. But we can set that aside for right now to address the issues that you’re raising.

      The model that you offer (‘“Ability” is a combination of “Talent”, “Skill”, and “Will”’) is insufficient because it lacks the variable of “Access” to teaching and opportunities to practice. Someone with Will to develop ability, Skill, and Talent (in-born or not) may not develop Ability without a good teacher and the opportunity to practice. How many potential musical geniuses never got access to a high quality instrument, or someone to show them how to play that instrument, or the audience to appreciate and disseminate that music?

      I raise the issue of Access because we have evidence that Access can trump Talent. There are developmental defects which we can correct with appropriate treatments. We don’t know how far effective teaching and well-structured practice can go to overcome a lack of Talent.

      • 3. alanone1  |  February 6, 2015 at 5:55 pm

        As I said above, there are more than 3 — and, sure, access and environment could be added in (I’m happy with that) — but let’s stick to the 3 I mentioned because they are enough to make the argument.

        I also *defined* “talent” as what we get innately, “ability” is the word I use for what one can do as a composite.

        We simply are diverse at birth, yet for many things, including many things in music, we can develop the same abilities. But not all.

        Take a look a again at what I (carefully) put together. The argument still holds.



        • 4. Geoff Davis  |  February 10, 2015 at 5:35 pm

          This paper doesn’t actually state anything about whether talent affects success or not. While they find that belief that talent is important affects the percentage of women in STEM fields, they don’t address the obvious issue of whether talent is actually important or not in those fields. However, there is actually a strong correlation between quantitative GRE scores and the percent of women in STEM fields, as can be seen in this chart:

          • 5. alanone1  |  February 11, 2015 at 9:46 am

            The thing that worries me most about your chart — could you give the context and provenance for this chart? — is where “education” is situated (no surprise, but dismaying).

            For computing — which is probably too large a term, but nonetheless is the one used to worry about women — there’s lots of evidence that the general “employed practitioner” is not very competent in computing. The field needs many more people with a lot more knowledge. I think this is a point that should be hugely emphasized.

            Some of the knowledge is “math” and some “like math” (and that rather “like engineering” and “like the hard sciences”). I.e. a lot of the knowledge has to do with dealing with models that have systems-like and inferential-like qualities. This makes your chart “interesting”, but what actually lies behind it? For example, studies (admittedly long ago) showed girls in the 12 year old range to not just be better than boys of that age in language like things, but also in math like things. We certainly saw this — it was easy to see — anecdotally at Parc in the 70s when we were working with children in this age range.

            On reflection,I think I shouldn’t have used the term “talent” for the properties I was trying to denote — there are already too many different connotations.

            I should have used something like “innate pre-dispositions” (IPDs) which gets at the diversity and amplifying effects of “pre-dispositions” without the specificities that “talent” might connote.

            Being a bit more IPDed helps mostly at the beginning and fluency ends of the spectrum. In the beginning a quicker easier take on something provides motivation — internal and usually external — to keep going. At some point in the middle of a developed area, even the highly IPDed will need to learn how to work — and that brings in will to develop skills.

            I think for most things a large range of people can get to fluency (but the pathways and needs will be rather different for those less IPDed for the area). To me this is the real purpose of pedagogy — to find the kinds of support that “most people” need to get to fluency.

            I think IPD shows up again as a strong factor for “beyond fluency” levels. Where will and skill building on what’s there are not enough. Again, perhaps IPD is a better term because — for example in music — the beyond fluency factors are rather idiosyncratic, yet usually not completely general over all areas for even astounding polymaths.

            • 6. Mark Guzdial  |  February 15, 2015 at 2:24 pm

              I’m happy with using IPD or Talent — I recognize that you’re using both to reference innate differences due to biology. They probably do exist, but they’re pretty irrelevant to me.

              Education is a design science, as Herb Simon and Robert Glaser both pointed out. As a computing education researcher, I am interested in designing interventions that develop student abilities, measuring the efficacy of those interventions, and studying students to understand what interventions might work and why some don’t. I can’t distinguish between student abilities which are influenced by innate differences and those that are influenced by prior experience. Further, I have no reason to believe that there are innate differences that appropriate interventions might overcome.

              Using IPDs to explain differences between student abilities lets me give up. By believing in IPDs like “The Geek Gene” allows us to say that some people aren’t cut out or wired to become computer scientists or computer science PhDs. Notice that the article I’m referencing is making a judgement about whether “brilliance” or IPDs are relevant to success in a field. Since we can’t measure what’s innate from what’s experience, it doesn’t really matter. The article is pointing out that the belief in those innate differences leads to a gender difference in the field.

              Belief in the Geek Gene is a lack of belief in the potential of education to improve student ability. It’s that lack of belief in education that really distinguishes the fields which have gender balance and those that don’t.

              • 7. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  February 15, 2015 at 3:57 pm

                I don’t think that I agree with Mark’s comment “It’s that lack of belief in education that really distinguishes the fields which have gender balance and those that don’t.”

                I think that there are many fields that lack belief in education (novel-writing, example) but have much better gender balances than CS or engineering. I think that engineering has one of the strongest beliefs in the importance of education, despite having one of the worst gender balances.

                I think that achieving gender balance a more difficult sociological problem than just “lack of belief in education”, and that the simplistic fixes that have been tried in CS have not worked because we still have no real idea how to debug the system. Given that the problem is an important one, we may have to continue flailing away at it without any real understanding, in the hopes that we accidentally try something that works.

                This random flailing is reminiscent of the worst student programming techniques, and stems from the same causes—lack of a good model of the system that allows reasoned debugging. (Note: there is no lack of models—it’s just that few of them have lead to interventions that had any lasting effect.)

        • 8. Mark Guzdial  |  February 15, 2015 at 2:13 pm

          I have read your piece several times now, Alan. I’m still struggling with it, I’m sorry to say. Perhaps if you could provide the antecedent to “this” in your initial statement: “I think this is conflating different ideas to the detriment of all.” Is “this” a reference to my introductory remarks about “Geek Genes”? Or is “this” a reference to the story I was commenting on, that belief in innate differences predominates in PhD fields that are male-dominant?

          I have a specific question about your (b) clause: “a person can from birth have a terrific memory for ideas but require incredible amounts of practice to acquire physical abilities, and vice versa.” Isn’t there a difference between practice for practice sake, and practice that is guided? When I hurt my shoulder, I could have just kept working at it, and maybe it would have got better, with enough time and practice. Rather, I went to physical therapy, where they identified the particular problem, and gave me exercises to address that particular problem. Less time and less practice, but guided practice, and my shoulder was better quickly. Isn’t good education like physical therapy? Do we yet know what we can’t correct with good educational therapy?

          I disagree with the statement: “I also think (and this is also backed up with real evidence) that there are places in fields where only talent can go (and perhaps only with the addition of lots of skill and will).” There is evidence that there is a critical period in human development for learning language. I’m not aware of any other skill for which humans have a provable critical period. There may very well be critical periods for many other skills, but even if there are critical periods for skills X and Y, we don’t know the relationship between X and Y and computing. We don’t know the cognitive development process for understanding and designing computing systems. I disagree that we have any evidence suggesting that ability in computer science is dependent on innate talent.

  • 9. alanone1  |  February 15, 2015 at 3:43 pm

    I will try to answer Mark’s last two emails in a fresh reply (just to get wider margins!)

    0. I agree that the *belief* in X is often the problem more than the reality of X. In this case, we are only talking about vocational entry into a not very developed field, with not very high thresholds, so we should make all efforts to emphasize that the skills are likely learnable by most.

    1. The mechanisms of Biology produce diversity of structures at all levels — even in twins — so it would be remarkable if we could find an exception of no diversity between individuals.

    2. For many learnable developed things, some combination of genetics, culture, pedagogy, will-power, etc., can make up the vehicle for an individual to achieve *fluency*. In classical music, this would mean being able to play “the good stuff” with other fluent musicians. There are certainly the equivalents of this *fluency region” in the other arts, the sciences, in computing.

    3. I think we agree that one of the main purposes of pedagogy, teaching, etc. is to provide support for an individual to achieve fluency, and that different individuals need different kinds of support. Practice and guidance can often substitute for innate mechanisms that are not so well matched to the subject. Musicians speak freely about this with each other — music has a lot of different parts, and very few musicians found all equally easy or difficult to learn.

    4. For most highly developed areas there is not a lot of evidence for individuals being able to achieve fluency and beyond without both help and practice.

    5. I think the controversies here have to do with the idea that biological diversity might in some cases make a big difference nonetheless. This is not a popular idea in a democracy with regard to thinking, though it is not at all controversial in sports.

    6. For the purposes of the main topic of this blog (0) above is sufficient. But it’s also worth thinking about what is actually going on. Diversity means that different people will find learning of one kind or another easier or more difficult than others. For a given area, early ease can be very motivating, and vice versa.

    The key here is that most of those who experience some difficulties can still get fluent, but they might not be able to find the motivation and help they need. (I think sports learning is generally better set up for all levels of learners who desire to get fluent than most regular schooling.)

    7. The last idea seems to be most controversial: of there being parts of a subject which require IPDs (plus all the other work) to get to. Biologically, it would be really unusual if this weren’t so, if the subject itself is developed enough. Still, as I mentioned, people don’t like this idea very much except in sports. This is not an “X gene” (that notion misunderstands how genetics works), but is more about a more general felicitous matchup to whatever the subject is. And, you are right, you don’t have to worry about this as a teacher, and people worrying about computing as a vocational field don’t have to worry about this either. It’s just part of the whole picture of learning for fluency and beyond.

    One of a number of examples of such differences might have nothing to do with the subject area per se, but be in combination with other personality traits (such as risk taking, interest or not in novelty, worry or not about other’s opinions, etc.). Many of the roots of such traits stem from biological diversity, and in combination with highly developed fluencies, will produce very different results.



    • 10. Mark Guzdial  |  February 15, 2015 at 4:23 pm

      Thanks for taking the time to explain it at this level, Alan. I get it, and agree. I’m sure that there is genetic diversity, and it likely impacts learning in the ways you describe.

      Kevin, engineering was one of the fields I was thinking about when I made that statement, and you’re right that I should have put a caveat on there about STEM fields. I disagree that “engineering has one of the strongest beliefs in the importance of education, despite having one of the worst gender balances.” My work in engineering education, and all the studies I’ve been part of since then, suggest to me that there are engineering (and computer science educators) who believe in education as a way of developing ability, but the vast majority of engineering (and computer science) educators believe in education as a way of filtering out those with too little talent/IPD and providing apprenticeship-based support to those who do. And it’s exactly that “filtering” notion in STEM that I predict has a causal relationship with the gender imbalance. It certainly can happen that STEM fields can become gender-balanced, e.g., medicine, veterinarian science, and psychotherapy.


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