Math study distortion: So what's the media's excuse? Laziness? An agenda? Both?

[, July 28, 2008]

This is too funny. When Larry Summers was forced out as president of Harvard for observing that when it came to math, men were more likely than women to be really, really bad or really, really good, our brilliant, discerning national press boiled this down to, "Harvard Prez Says Women Can't Add."

So last week, a new study of more than 7.2 million students from second grade to 11th grade came out. It found that taken overall, the math talents of girls and boys were equal. But if you looked far enough into the study, you would find that, yes, just as Summers said, there were considerably more males with exceptional math ability and considerably more who were abject dolts. Alex Tabarrok lays all this out on the great
Marginal Revolution blog.

But the study's authors buried this finding, perhaps intentionally. The result was our brilliant, discerning national press -- which couldn't be bothered to actually read the study -- completely blowing the story. Tabarrok cites this example from the L.A. Times:

The study also undermined the assumption -- infamously espoused by former Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers in 2005 -- that boys are more likely than girls to be math geniuses. Girls scored in the top 5% almost as often as boys, the data showed.

But not in the top one half of 1 percent. Which was Summers' point.

Someone who scores at the 95th percentile in a math standardized test is hardly a math genius. A Math SAT of 710 is very impressive, but it doesn't connote genius.

I don't know if this rotten reporting reflects laziness or an agenda or both.

It appears only one -- one! -- education beat reporter actually read the report from start to finish, Keith J. Winstein of the Wall Street Journal. Contrast what he wrote with the LAT propaganda:

The researchers, from the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Berkeley, didn't find a significant overall difference between girls' and boys' scores. But the study also found that boys' scores were more variable than those of girls. More boys scored extremely well -- or extremely poorly -- than girls, who were more likely to earn scores closer to the average for all students.
One measure of a top score is achieving the "99th percentile" -- scoring in the top 1% of all students. Boys were significantly more likely to hit this goal than girls.

In Minnesota, for example, 1.85% of white boys in the 11th grade hit the 99th percentile, compared with 0.9% of girls -- meaning there were more than twice as many boys among the top scorers than girls.

Winstein actually had the nerve to do some genuine follow-up journalsim and to actually talk to one of the study authors to get some context.

The study found that boys are consistently more variable than girls, in every grade and in every state studied. That difference has "been a concern over the years," said Marcia C. Linn, a Berkeley education professor and one of the study's authors. "People didn't pay attention to it at first when there was a big difference" in average scores, she said. But now that girls and boys score similarly on average, researchers are taking notice, she said.

I, of course, have no hope that all readers will appreciate this nuance. I expect to get the usual nasty e-mails from feminists that I got the last time I defended Larry Summers for pointing out an inconvenient but widely documented truth.

Chris Reed