January Recommended Reading

At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you.


What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism – Nicole Chung

“Every Asian American has fielded some variation on “all look the same.” As racial microaggressions go, it’s common as dirt. I know I should be able to come up with an answer, something brisk and witty, and bury this moment in the same place where I keep all such awkward memories. But for some reason, my brain just won’t cooperate. My face is burning, my heart pounding too loudly, and it’s painful to even consider making eye contact with anyone at the table.

I know I embarrass too easily. But I assumed I was safe here among family and friends, which makes it all the more unpleasant and jarring to be reminded of my difference as this woman perceives it. I’m upset with her for shattering my comfortable, happy holiday feelings; for bringing my race to the forefront when I had assumed it was irrelevant on this night, in this company. I’m upset with her for forcing my relatives and my spouse and my kids to witness this, even if they have not all registered my humiliation. Her slight was likely unintentional, not a deliberate means of putting me in my place — but she’s a stranger to me, so I can’t know for sure. Maybe I’ve unwittingly offended her, and some part of her wants to take me down a notch or two.”


Why Female Professors Get Lower Ratings – Anya Kamenetz

“Is it bias? Or were the male instructors, maybe, actually, on average, better teachers? (It’s science; we have to ask the uncomfortable questions.) Well, turns out that, at this university, all students across all sections of a course take the same, anonymously graded final exam, regardless of which instructor they have. This offers the chance to look at one dimension of actual instructor quality: Presumably better section leaders would help students get better grades on the same exam. In fact, they found, the students of male instructors on average did slightly worse on the final. Overall, there was no correlation between students rating their instructors more highly and those students actually learning more.

The American case was a little bit different. Here, the authors performed a new analysis of a clever experiment published in 2014. Students were taking a single online class with either a male or female instructor. In half the cases, the instructors agreed to dress in virtual drag: The men used the women’s names and vice versa. Here, it was the female students, not the males, who rated the instructors they believed to be male more highly across the board. That’s right: The same instructor, with all the same comments, all the same interactions with the class, received higher ratings if he was called Paul than if she was called Paula.”

When Teamwork Doesn’t Work for Women – Justin Wolfers

“Economics remains a stubbornly male-dominated profession, a fact that members of the profession have struggled to understand. After all, if the marketplace of ideas is meant to ensure that the best ideas thrive, then this imbalance should arise only if men have better ideas than women. That implication infuriates many female economists. Now new evidence suggests that the underrepresentation of women reflects a systemic bias in that marketplace: a failure to give women full credit for collaborative work done with men.

At least that is the conclusion of research by Heather Sarsons, a brilliant young economist currently completing her dissertation at Harvard. And it is a pattern that may explain why women struggle to get ahead in other professions involving teamwork.”

Civil Liberties:

Female Detainees Allege Unlawful Strip Searches By Immigration Center Officials – Esther Yu-Hsi Lee

“One detainee said that she went through five strip searches in two months, then again every time she came back from immigration court. Another detainee said that she had to undergo ten strip searches in seven months at the facility. And women who menstruated were not provided with special provisions either, having to remove their period pad in their underwear during inspections. A 67-year-old woman also endured multiple strip searches at the jail, despite suffering a hip dislocation and pain. Even asylum seekers who survive sexual assault and rape were subjected to strip searches. Gloria Hernandez, a lesbian and a sexual assault survivor from Honduras, said that she has been strip-searched seven or eight times, which resulted in her suicide attempt at the jail.”

The new way police are surveilling you: Calculating your threat ‘score’ – Justin Jouvenal

“As officers respond to calls, Beware automatically runs the address. The searches return the names of residents and scans them against a range of publicly available data to generate a color-coded threat level for each person or address: green, yellow or red. Exactly how Beware calculates threat scores is something that its maker, Intrado, considers a trade secret, so it is unclear how much weight is given to a misdemeanor, felony or threatening comment on Facebook. However, the program flags issues and provides a report to the user.

Rob Nabarro, a Fresno civil rights lawyer, said he is particularly concerned about Beware. He said outsourcing decisions about the threat posed by an individual to software is a problem waiting to happen.Nabarro said the fact that only Intrado — not the police or the public — knows how Beware tallies its scores is disconcerting. He also worries that the system might mistakenly increase someone’s threat level by misinterpreting innocuous activity on social media, like criticizing the police, and trigger a heavier response by officers.”


Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Imagination: What is doable and what is morally correct are not always the same things – Ta-Nehisi Coates

“Here is the great challenge of liberal policy in America: We now know that for every dollar of wealth white families have, black families have a nickel. We know that being middle class does not immunize black families from exploitation in the way that it immunizes white families. We know that black families making $100,000 a year tend to live in the same kind of neighborhoods as white families making $30,000 a year. We know that in a city like Chicago, the wealthiest black neighborhood has an incarceration rate many times worse than the poorest white neighborhood. This is not a class divide, but a racist divide. Mainstream liberal policy proposes to address this divide without actually targeting it, to solve a problem through category error. That a mainstream Democrat like Hillary Clinton embraces mainstream liberal policy is unsurprising. Clinton has no interest in expanding the Overton window. She simply hopes to slide through it. But I thought #FeelTheBern meant something more than this.”


It’s practically impossible to define “GMOs” – Nathanael Johnson

“Like porn, GMOs defy strict definition because, like porn, GMOs are a cultural construct with borders that shift with the times. Perhaps the most accurate definition of GMO is social and contextual: Organisms breed in a way that people find threatening. Before GMOs, people objected to cross-pollinating flowers, on the grounds that gardeners were playing God. If that were a concern today we’d surely consider these engineered flowers GMOs. This cultural definition doesn’t make for firm borders, but there is a fuzzy collection of attributes — a gestalt — that we can all comprehend.”


The problem with science journalism: we’ve forgotten that reality matters most – Brooke Borel

“Science journalists may write about science, but it’s also our job to look beyond wonders, hypotheses and data. It is to look at the people doing the science and whether they have conflicts of interest, or trace where their money is coming from. It is to look at power structures, to see who is included in the work and who is excluded or marginalized, whether because of gender or race or any other identity. All these factors matter because they influence who has access to the production of science, and who has influence over its production.”

Eyewitness identification can give us valuable information—but only if done right – Veronique Greenwood

“The difference between the two methods is statistically very slight, however, notes Gary Wells, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University who studies eyewitness memory. “The more important part of this article is that witness confidence did a good job of helping sort between accurate and mistaken witnesses (regardless of whether it is simultaneous or sequential),” he wrote in an email. It does not matter so much which procedure a police department uses—what matters more is that they ensure the lineup is administered by someone who does not know who the suspect is and thus cannot influence the witness one way or another, and that they take the measure of the witness’s confidence on the spot.”

How to read a scientific paper – Adam Ruben

“I remember my first experience with these ultracongested and aggressively bland manuscripts so dense that scientists are sometimes caught eating them to stay regular. I was in college, taking a seminar course in which we had to read and discuss a new paper each week. And something just wasn’t working for me.

Every week I would sit with the article, read every single sentence, and then discover that I hadn’t learned a single thing. I’d attend class armed with exactly one piece of knowledge: I knew I had read the paper. The instructor would ask a question; I’d have no idea what she was asking. She’d ask a simpler question; still no idea. But I’d read the damn paper!”

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