“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Smoking Buddha: Another Ghost Story for Adults (and Young Adults too)


            My nephew and three of the kids from the old neighborhood were telling raunchy jokes around the steel mesh fire pit the night of my brother and soon-to-be sister-in-law’s Halloween party. All night, I kept shaking my head in disbelief at the fact that they were all almost old enough to get their driver’s licenses. I used to babysit my nephew during the summers back when I was in college. Let’s just say at the time all these kids had a ways to go before they were teenagers.

            What they were laughing at now were some jokes at the expense of an overweight girl they all knew from school. I had a feeling they were playing up the viciousness because they thought it would make them seem more grownup in my eyes. The jokes were so mean I was sitting there wondering how best to get through to them that I didn’t really care for this brand of humor (though I admit I struggled not to laugh at a couple points, restricting myself to a wry smirk).

            “You guys are being pretty ruthless,” I said finally. “Do you think she deserves all that? I mean, you assume it’s okay because she’ll never hear what you’re saying. But I’d bet real money she would be able to recite back to you quite a few of the really good jokes you think she’s never heard.”

            This suggestion received a surprising and not altogether heartening response, the gist of which was that this poor girl did in fact deserve to be made the butt of their cruel jokes. After all, she did choose to eat too much, they pointed out. She also chose to sit around being lazy instead of exercising. They even suggested that their heckling could possibly give her some added incentive to change her ways.

            “Uh-ho!” I erupted in incredulous laughter. “I get it—you guys aren’t picking on her because her flaws make you feel better about your own. No, you’re picking on her because you want to help her.” They fell momentarily silent. “You guys are such humanitarians.”

            Before long, the mood leavened once again, and I began to wonder if I’d been too harsh, my efforts to temper my moralizing with sarcasm notwithstanding. But not two minutes later the snide, and now defiant, references to the overweight girl began to sneak back into their banter. I decided my best bet was to leave them to it, and so I got up from the log I’d been sitting on uncomfortably and went into the house to get a beer and see what the old people (some of whom are younger than me) were doing.

            As I stood in the kitchen alongside the table where several people in costumes were playing a trivia game (which I’m no longer allowed to play with them), I considered bringing up the issue of the mean jokes about the obese girl to my brother. The thought had barely entered my mind before I dismissed it though; the only thing worse than a moralizer is a rat. Plus, I wasn’t exactly one to be pointing the finger, I realized, as I had just that morning been cursing my neighbor, who lives in the carriage house behind my apartment, because she’s always sitting on her porch smoking, coughing loudly at predictable intervals, often blaring music through an open window, shouting into her phone to her mother and her lone friend, completely oblivious to how many people in the vicinity can hear her every word, and, well, just being an all-around irksome presence. I also must confess my own impulse is to look at her with some revulsion. Because she’s terribly obese.

*******

            I returned to the backyard and found the boys still at the fire, laughing at each other’s failed attempts at telling a passable ghost story. It wasn’t long before they started reminding me of all the times back in the days when I babysat them that I either read ghost stories to them, or else spun some ridiculously elaborate ones of my own. They pleaded with me to tell them a good one. “We know you know some,” they pressed. “Tell us the best one you can think of.”

            “It just so happens I know a story about some stuff that actually happened pretty recently,” I said. They all turned toward me with eager grins. “This guy I know named Zach lives in an apartment in an old house downtown, a lot like the place I live in, and one night he brings a woman home with him from a bar. Now this is really good news for Zach because he’s been down on his luck lately. He used to live in a ginormous yuppie mansion up closer to this part of town. But then like a year ago the recession caught up to his company and he got laid off. He’d bought the house and a lot of other stuff on credit, so right away he was in trouble. And, on top of losing his house, his fiancé had just up and left him for another guy. So Zach moves into to this cheap one-bedroom apartment in West Central. As you can imagine, he’s not feeling too good about himself.

            “After a while he manages to get a part-time job. Before getting laid off he used to work as a big shot sales guy for a tech company, so one of the hardest parts about finding another job was having to accept working in a less prestigious position. The part-time gig he got was only temporary—he was helping put together contracts for a bank or something—but he was hoping to get a foothold and turn it into something that would get his career back on track.

            “So one night he brings this woman home—and it’s only like the second person he’s dated since his fiancé left him. Things are going well, you know. They start off talking on the couch, lots of eye-contact, the reach-over-and-brush-aside-the-hair deal, hand on her shoulder, cups the back of her neck, pulls her in for the kiss. I’m sure you guys know all about how that stuff works. So they’re kissing for a while, and then she says, ‘Maybe you should show me your bedroom.’ Well, he’s actually embarrassed about his whole tiny and rickety apartment, so he’d rather leave the lights off and not show her anything. But of course he’s about to get laid so it doesn’t take him very long to get over it.

            “They get up from the couch and he leads her by the hand through his embarrassingly dirty kitchen and into his bedroom. Once inside the door, he decides not to bother with the light switch. He just wraps his arms around her and they start making out again. They make their way over to the bed, and, you know, now things are getting hot-and-heavy. Her shirt comes off, then her bra. Zach’s having himself a really good time because, if you can believe what he says, the girl’s got really nice… well, you guys can use your imaginations. Then he’s sitting back on his knees starting to take his own shirt off when he hears a sound. It’s this kind of squeaky ‘ehuh-ehuhm.’

            “Zach knows exactly what it is. He stops in the middle of taking off his shirt to close his eyes and shake his head as he’s heaving this big sigh. Of course, the woman is like, ‘Are you okay? What’s the matter?’ He tries to brush it off and keep things moving along. So he gets his shirt off and starts kissing her again, and, you know, other stuff. Then he sits back and starts unbuckling her belt, and that’s when he hears it again: ‘ehuh-ehuhm.’ This time she hears it too, which is kind of a disaster. ‘What is that?’ she says. So Zach’s like, ‘Oh, it’s nothing. Don’t worry.’ He goes back to unbuckling her belt, unbuttons her pants, zipper comes down, and she starts doing that little wiggle with her hips to help him get her jeans off. But before he gets them down, they hear the sound again: ‘Ehuh-ehuhm.’

            “This time he just flips. He jumps out of bed, like, ‘Goddamnit!’ He goes over to the window that looks down on the little yard behind the house and the carriage house apartment behind it. And there she is. Cheryl, his neighbor, sitting at the little table she’s set up on her porch with its neat little patterned table cloth lit up by the single orange bulb in the lamp next to her front door, smoking her cigarette, and looking so completely vacant he’s sure he could run up to her, smack her in the face, and be halfway back to the front door of the house before she even got around to saying, ‘Hey, what was that for?’ Cheryl, who emerged from the carriage house to smoke every twenty-five minutes like clockwork. Cheryl, whose neck and face were so fat she may as well have been holding her head in place with a big pillow. And, as Zach is glaring at her through his upstairs window, she makes the sound again, ‘ehuh-ehuhm,’ the cough that comes at such regular intervals, each repetition sounding so perfectly identical to the all the others, that he imagines it coming from a synthesizer set on a timer.

            “He’s getting ready to lift open his window so he can yell down to her to show some fucking courtesy—it’s after midnight!—when the woman in his bed starts saying, ‘You know, it’s getting really late,’ and all those things women say when the natural progression has been interrupted and they’ve had too much time to think about what they’re doing. So Zach tries to be cool and hands her her bra and walks her out to her car, saying he’ll call her and all that. But he knows the moment is past and his chances are shot. He climbs the stairs, feeling totally defeated, and goes back to his room, where he stands at the window again, just glowering down at Cheryl as she sits smoking in the orange light of her porch, mindlessly lifting her cigarette to her lips.”

            “Let me guess—he kills her.”

            “Shut up and let him tell the story.”

            “Well, he definitely wanted to kill her. You should have heard the way he talked about this woman. I mean he loathed her. He called her the Smoking Buddha because of the totally blank look she always had on her big doughy face. I guess one of the other things she did to annoy him was talk on her phone while she was on the porch smoking. Apparently, she was so loud he could hear just about every word even when his windows were shut. Anyway, one time he overheard her talking to like three different people about how she’d had some kind of panic attack and gone to the emergency room because she thought she was dying. And he was like, ‘You know who pays for it when people like that go to the emergency room? We do. She probably just got winded from lifting her fat ass out of her recliner and freaked out.’

            “Now Zach used to be one of those political guys who think everyone who can’t pay their own bills is just lazy and looking for a handout. Since losing his job, he’s calmed down a bit, but somehow his neighbor managed to get him talking about parasites and worthless slugs and drains on society and all that again. He said over half the phone conversations she broadcasted over the neighborhood were about her health problems. So he’s like, ‘Get off your fat ass and stop eating so much pizza and I bet you feel a lot better—and stop costing us so much in your fucking healthcare bills.’

            “The other thing that pissed him off was that he’d actually tried to get the carriage house a while back. The rent was like thirty bucks less than he was paying for his upstairs apartment, but the place was really cool. He’d gone in to check it out when the girls who lived there before Cheryl were moving out. When he called the landlord, though, he found out that Cheryl had set up a special deal. She and her mom were going to redo all the landscaping in the backyard and get a bit taken off the rent. Of course, the only person Zach ever saw doing any actual work in the yard over the next couple months was the mom. Cheryl just sat there at the little table on her porch, smoking and complaining about all her medical problems.

            “Now, I’ve checked out the backyard Cheryl’s mom worked on for the first half of the summer. The weeds and brush have been cleared away from the hedges. She lined the edges of the grass with stones and put mulch all around the trees. It looks really nice. There’s a sidewalk that goes from the front of the house back to the carriage house and around to an alley behind it. To the left of the sidewalk as you’re walking to the alley, there’s about ten feet of mulch before the hedge. The weird thing is, Cheryl’s mom, who is completely normal by the way, judging from the few times I saw her back there working, she made what I think is a flowerbed right in the middle of the mulch. It’s rectangular and its sides are made up of what look like these tiny headstones. They each poke out of the ground, grayish-white, their tops angled at the corners but curved up in half circles in the middle. There are seven of them on the sides parallel to the sidewalk, and four on the perpendicular sides. So it’s like there’s a six by two and a half foot rectangle of fresh black dirt in the middle of the mulch. The one and only time I ever talked to Cheryl’s mom I jokingly asked her if there wasn’t a body buried in that flowerbed. She jokingly refused to reassure me.

            “Even more, um, interesting, is the statue she has stationed at the back corner of the flowerbed. You can only see its back and some of its profile from Zach’s upstairs window, but coming from the alley you see it’s a cement satyr—they teach you ignorant wretches any mythology in school?—standing with one hand limp at his side, and the other raised to stroke his beard. I think it’s supposed to look relaxed and playful, but maybe because it’s like two and half feet tall—you know, the dimensions are all wrong—its breeziness comes across as mischievous, even a bit sinister. It’s still there. I’ll have to have you guys over to my apartment sometime so we can walk over and I’ll show it to you. You’ll see that it looks like it’s been out in the weather for decades, with mossy blotches and patches of gray. She must have moved it from some other yard.

            “Anyway, there’s an even smaller statue of an angel cupping her hands in front of her beside Cheryl’s front door. There’s nothing scary about that one—just a kind of yard ornament you don’t see very often anymore. Oh, and there’s also this tiny maple tree, maybe four or five feet tall, a little off to one side from Cheryl’s neat little porch arrangement. I just remember that tree because come late September and all through October, its leaves have been this shocking, bright red—almost glowing. It’s actually pretty cool looking.

            “Back to Zach’s story, though. So it’s about the middle of the summer now and he goes to work one day and tries to talk to some of the management figures about the possibility of going full-time and getting a raise. Unfortunately, they tell him instead that once the projects he’s working on now are done, sometime around Christmas, they won’t have any more work for him. Zach tries to take this in stride and starts planning in his mind how he’s going to devote all his free time to looking for another job, a better one. But of course he’s really worried that he’s going to end up working at a gas station or something—and even those types of jobs aren’t guaranteed anymore. To make matters worse, when his work’s done for the day, he goes out to the parking lot, gets in his car, and it won’t start.

            “Now the stress is almost too much, but he just closes his eyes and tries to take some deep breaths. The building he works in is downtown, so it’s like a twenty-five minute walk to his apartment. The whole way he’s trying psych himself out, telling himself all that self-help, bootstrappy crap about how every setback is actually an opportunity, every challenge a chance to develop character and perseverance. They probably give you guys a lot of the same crap at school. I’ll just say Zach was realizing for the first time that perseverance and determination—they only go so far. At some point, no matter how hard you work, the luck factor takes over.

             “This is what he’s thinking about when he’s walking past the carriage house behind his apartment, coming from the alley, and hears dishes crashing inside. He walks around to the front to peek in the window, and there’s Cheryl on the floor in the kitchen, both hands on her throat like she’s choking. Zach steps away. His first thought is that he has to hurry up and call an ambulance. Then he figures that will take too long—he needs to run inside and give her the Heimlich. But he finds himself just standing there doing nothing. He can’t imagine anything worse than having to wrap his arms around that sweaty woman. He says to himself his arms probably aren’t long enough anyway. And he actually laughs. So this woman is inside choking to death and he’s standing there chuckling at a lame fat joke.

            “Finally, as soon as his mind returns to the internet job-searching tasks he’s got lined up in his mind, which he’s been telling himself he’d jump right on the second he got home, he manages to convince himself that he probably didn’t really see anything too out of the ordinary. She probably just tripped or something. He figured he ought to mind his own business and forget whatever he happened to see through her window anyway. And that’s just what he does. He turns around, walks to the door to his apartment, goes upstairs, gets on his computer, and spends the next several hours online looking through job listings.

            “The crazy thing is he actually forgot all about having seen Cheryl on the floor—at least until that night. He’d been asleep for a long time, so he had no idea what time it was. But there was the sound, the ‘ehuh-ehuhm,’ the cough. He remembered it because even though it woke him up in the middle of the night he was still sort of relieved to hear it. Zach’s not a horrible person, you know. He was mostly just having a horrible day. Anyway, he didn’t want to have to think that the poor woman had died because he’d just walked away.

            “He gets out of bed and goes to the window. Sure enough, Cheryl is sitting at her little table and smoke is hanging in the air all around her. The orange light from the lamp behind her is making the big blob of her outline glow, but everything else is in shadow. For several moments, he can’t resist filling in the shadows with the imagined features of a giant orange toad. Then, as he’s standing there, he shivers and feels chills spreading over his back. He can’t tell, but it looks like Cheryl is looking right back up at him—something he’s never seen her do before. She’s always seemed so oblivious to all her neighbors. The more convinced he becomes that she is in fact staring at him, glaring at him even, not even moving enough to take another drag off the cigarette in her hand, the farther he finds himself backing away from the window in tiny shuffling steps.

            “It freaks him out so much it takes him forever to fall back to sleep. But eventually he does, and the morning comes. Of course, he has to walk to work in the morning because his car is still dead in the parking lot. He’s a little uneasy as he’s walking along the sidewalk, around the carriage house toward the alley, trying to keep his eyes forward and not notice anything that might be going on through the windows. But then he turns the corner into the alley and there’s a fucking ambulance parked right outside the carriage house. Zach thinks Cheryl must have choked to death after all, but then he remembers he saw her outside smoking in the middle of the night. He ends up just putting his head down and walking past, rushing to work.”

            “Ooh, creepy. Did this really happen?”

            “Just let him tell it.”

            “When he gets off work later that day, he calls his landlord Tom to see if he’s heard anything. Sure enough, the ambulance was there for Cheryl—who’d choked to death the day before. Now Zach is so freaked out he doesn’t want to walk back home because he doesn’t want to go anywhere near that carriage house again. And this is when all sorts of weird stuff started happening to him. I didn’t hear about it until just a few days ago because I stopped hearing from him at all for a long time. But that day he walked home trying to tell himself that either she hadn’t been choking when he saw her but had choked later, or that he’d dreamt the whole thing about seeing her outside looking up at him. When he gets to the alley, he decides to walk the little extra distance to the road so he can get to the house from the front.

            “As you can imagine, he goes on to have a few sleepless nights. But then, maybe three or four days later, he was distracted enough by his work and his fruitless job searching to wander into the alley again on his way home. Naturally, he tenses up when he realizes he’s passing the carriage house, and he can’t help staring at the place as he’s going around it. He’s staring at it so intently by the time he’s in the backyard where the table is still situated between two chairs on the porch, with its neat little table cloth topped with an overfull ashtray, he doesn’t notice that he’s not alone. When he finally turns his head back to the sidewalk, he’s almost nose-to-nose with an older woman. Jumping backward, he ends up tripping over one of the tiny headstones edging the still empty flowerbed and falls right on his ass in the middle of the rectangle. The woman walks over to look down at him, and he sees it’s Cheryl’s mom. But she doesn’t say anything to him. She just stands there beside the statue of the satyr, muttering something he can’t make out. And Zach’s so startled he just lies there braced up on his elbows in the dirt. Now, this is where it gets really freaky—as she’s standing over him, sort of talking under her breath, he swears the sun, which has been out all day, suddenly got blocked by a cloud. So everything gets darker and then these huge gusts of wind start blowing in the trees and scattering leaves all around.

            “Now, when I saw this woman, she looked completely normal. A bit overweight, like most middle-aged people you see around here. Nothing like her daughter. And I usually saw her in jeans and sweatshirts. She had long hair, somewhat gray. She’s actually hard to describe just because you see so many women just like her every day. But right then she was scaring the hell out Zach. After a few minutes of being in a sort of trance, he says he started to stand up while she just turned and walked away toward the front door of the carriage house, still not saying a word to him.”

            “Oh man, is this guy still alive?”

            “He just said he talked him a few days ago, moron.”

            “Maybe he talked to his ghost—ooOOoo.”

            “Seriously, I want to hear what happened after that. How long ago was this?”

            “It was in the middle of September. But you guys are going to have to wait a couple minutes to hear the rest because I have to piss and get another beer. All this yammering is making me parched.”

            “Ha ha, Yammering!”

*******

            After the intermission, we were all back on our logs and lawn chairs, and a few more people were milling around. When one of the boys explained I’d been telling a ghost story, there was a brief discussion about whether or not someone should go over the highlights of the story so far. But then my brother chimed in, assuring everyone, “If it’s any good, he’ll write the whole thing up for his blog tomorrow.” So most of the newcomers wandered away or only listened with one ear from a distance.

             “So let me guess,” one of the boys said, “the Smoking Buddha comes up out of the flowerbed grave and belly flops on him.”

            “No, Zach never saw the Smoking Buddha again—though I think I might’ve. But you’re going to have to wait for that part. What happened first was that Zach was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, or he had a growth on his thyroid, or something like that. So he needs surgery but the insurance program he signed up for after he lost the insurance he got through his last job won’t pay enough of the bill for him to be able to afford it. Now Zach never said anything about this in connection with Cheryl choking to death. But hypothyroidism causes your metabolism to slow down. It can lead to depression and—wait for it—severe weight gain. So of course when I hear about it all I can think is: dude was mean to woman because she’s fat, woman dies, mom cast some kind of fucking revenge curse on dude, and now Zach has some medical condition he can’t afford to get treated—which will probably make him gain weight. Sure enough, in like a month he’s put on about twenty pounds.

            “I know that may just sound like a coincidence, and it probably is. One of the other things that happened was that Zach’s landlord Tom called him and asked if he still wanted to move into the carriage house. Of course, Zach’s not quite as eager anymore, but it’s broad daylight when he gets the call, so he kind of stubbornly insists to himself that there’s no reason he can’t live there. He tells Tom he wants to move, but no sooner does he get off the phone than he starts panicking and hyperventilating. When he described the dread he felt then to me later, he said he’d never felt anything like it before. He was sweating all over and couldn’t catch his breath. He started to dial Tom back like four times but kept telling himself he wanted to wait until he could calm down before trying to talk to anyone.

            “But apparently his stubbornness ultimately won out. I helped move him into the carriage house near the beginning of this month. Now something else happened that, looking back afterward, is really strange. While he was online looking for work, he found a couple of guys he used to hang out with back in college through some networking site. It turns out they’re both big partiers, and Zach used go barhopping with them all the time. They both happen to live pretty close to Zach, so for the past month Zach has been meeting up with these two guys like four or more times a week at Henry’s, the bar that’s maybe four or five blocks from his apartment, which is good because his car is still sitting dead in the parking lot where he works.

            “The first thing that’s weird about him hanging out with these guys is that they get him smoking again—and I hadn’t known Zach was ever a smoker to begin with. It turns out he started back in high school and quit right after graduating from college. Now, hanging out at a bar with his old friends, both of whom go outside all the time to smoke, and doing a bunch of drinking—you know, it’s only a matter of time before he starts up again. When I asked him about it, he said it’s no big deal; it’s just to help him with the stress; he’ll quit again once he gets his job situation sorted out. The second thing that’s weird is that he starts thinking someone’s following him all the time when he walks back and forth from the bar. And of course that’s the part that really freaks him out.

            “One night there’s a guy walking behind him as he’s on his way home. Now Zach is pretty drunk so he tries to play it cool. There’s no law against someone walking around downtown at night, and it’s no big deal they both just happen to be heading in the same direction. But, after the guy makes a few of the same turns as Zach, he starts getting a bit scared. He keeps doing these quick glances over his shoulder to see if the guy’s still back there, because for some reason he doesn’t want to look right at him. It’s like he’s afraid once the guy realizes Zach knows he’s following him he’ll give up the pretense and just run him down to do to him whatever it is he’s planning to do.

            “Now here’s where it gets really freaky. When Zach rounds the corner into the alley that goes to the carriage house, he’s thinking the guy will stop following him for sure. But then after a while he hears footsteps behind him—and there’s something strange about the way the footsteps sound. So Zach does another of those quick glances over his shoulder, and he’s glad for a second because it looks like the guy is quite some distance away from him still. But with his eyes forward he thinks the footsteps sound like they’re coming from much closer. Even before he has a chance to really think out what this means, he’s bolting down the alley as fast as he can, fumbling with his keys in the door, rushing inside and slamming the door behind him. What he realized was that whatever it was following him—it could have only been about two and half feet tall.”

            “What the hell? Is this all true?”

            “What was it? Like some kind of little demon?”

            “He was probably just drunk and freaking himself out.”

            “Will you guys just listen? So he locks the door and just stands there panicking for a while. But eventually he starts trying to peak out the windows to see if anyone—or anything—is still out there. He doesn’t see a damn thing. Now this goes on and on. Not every time he goes out, but often enough that after a while he doesn’t want to go outside after dark anymore. And he never manages to get a good look. It’s always just on the edge of his vision, or in the shadows. Plus, he’s always drunk and too terrified to look directly at it. So like six times in the past month the poor guy has gotten scared shitless in the middle of his walk home from Henry’s and had to sprint home.

            “But the worst was the night he came home from the bar drunk, passed out, and then woke up because he thought someone was in the apartment with him. He opened his eyes thinking he’d heard little running footsteps in the room. When he sat up in his bed though, whatever it was was gone. So he just sits there in his bed for a minute, listening and getting scared, trying to tell himself that it had only been a dream. Then he hears the sound again. Now Zach is completely terrified at this point, but he works up the courage to go out into the living room and kitchen area to check it out. He doesn’t notice anything at first, but as he’s passing the front door he sees that it’s not even pulled all the way shut. So he rushes over and pulls on the knob to close it, but as he’s doing it he looks out through the window and ends up standing there completely frozen.

            “Zach’s standing at the door, looking out into the yard that's lit up by the orange lamp—and he realizes that the satyr statue that stands at the corner of the flowerbed edged with all the little headstones—well, it’s not there. And as he’s standing there petrified he hears the sound of the tiny footsteps behind him again. After an eternity not being able to move, he decides to run to the bathroom as fast as he can, turn on the lights, and lock himself in there. And that’s what he does. He ended up sleeping on the floor in the bathroom all night. When he woke up the next morning, he crept up to the window again, and sure enough the satyr statue was right back where it was supposed to be."

            "Hell no."

            “Yeah, this was just a couple weeks ago. Since all this stuff started, you guys wouldn’t believe how much Zach has changed. I mean, I barely even recognize the dude. He says he’s freaked out all the time, he can’t sleep; I know he’s drinking like a fish even though he can’t afford it. He’s putting on weight—he’s stuffing his face with something every time I see him lately. And he’s smoking again. In fact, the last time I saw him, just a few days ago, he sat there chain-smoking the whole time. He has two chairs sitting on his porch, and I saw him sitting out there when I walked by, so I stopped to sit and chat. He told me it’s all still going on—the guy following him home, the sounds in the house—and he’s basically at wit's end.

            “It was dusk when I stopped by, and the whole time we’re talking I’m looking at that little maple tree with the blazing red leaves blowing in the breeze in front of me. And that’s when I started getting really creeped out myself—because there wasn’t any fucking breeze. I kind of wanted to get up and leave right then, but before I could say anything Zach’s phone starts ringing. He holds up a finger to me as he answers it. But after about ten seconds it’s like he’s completely forgotten I’m even there. It turns out it’s his mom on the phone, and he just starts unloading all these complaints on her, loud enough that anyone on the block could listen in. He tells her about all the weird shit that’s happening and how he’s always waking up in the middle of the night in a panic. Then he starts in on how he can’t find any decent work. Then it’s his insurance. He tells her how he’s trying to get on Medicaid, but there’s no way he can get benefits in time to pay for his procedure. He goes on and on, so finally I stand up and just kind of gesture a goodbye to him.

            “As I’m walking up the sidewalk that runs through the yard and alongside the house up to the street, I look at the satyr statue and feel chills going down my back. And that’s when I hear it, this squeaky ‘ehuh-ehuhm’ coughing sound behind me. I turn back to see Zach, just as the dark triggers the sensor on the lamp beside the door  and the orange light comes on. He’s sitting there in his chair, hunched, in a cloud of cigarette smoke, still talking on the phone, obliviously loud, the orange light showing his rounded outline and casting his face in shadow. As I stood there looking at him in disbelief, I couldn’t help but fill in the shadowed features with those of a toad. I turned around and got the hell out of there. Haven’t heard from him since.

            “Now, speaking of being overweight, which one of you little punks is going to find me some Twizzlers?”

Finis


Also read the first Bedtime Ghost Story for Adults


Friday, October 12, 2012

Projecting Power, Competing for Life, & Supply Side Math


Some issues I feel are being skirted in the debates:
1. How the Toughest Guy Projects his Power
The Republican position on national security is that the best way to achieve peace is by “projecting power,” and they are fond of saying that Democrats invite aggression by “projecting weakness.” The idea is that no one will start a fight he knows he won’t win, nor will he threaten to start a fight with someone he knows will call his bluff. This is why Republican presidents often suffer from Cowboy Syndrome.
In certain individual relationships, this type of dynamic actually does establish itself—or rather the dominant individual establishes this type of dynamic. But in the realm of national security we aren’t dealing with individuals. With national security, we’re basically broadcasting to the world the level of respect we have for them. If a George Bush or a Mitt Romney swaggers around projecting his strength by making threats and trying to push around intergovernmental organizations, some people will naturally be intimidated and back down. But those probably weren’t the people we needed to worry about in the first place.
The idea that shouting out to the world that the US is the toughest country around and we’re ready to prove it is somehow going to deter Al Qaeda militants and others like them is dangerously naïve. We can’t hope for all the nations of the world to fall into some analog of Battered Wife Syndrome. Think about it this way, everyone knows that the heavyweight champion MMA guy is the toughest fighter in the world. If you want to project power, there’s no better way to do it than by winning that belt. Now we have to ask ourselves: Do fewer people want to fight the champion? We might also ask: Does a country like Canada get attacked more because of its lame military?
The very reason organizations like Al Qaeda ever came into existence was that America was projecting its power too much. The strategy of projecting power may as well have been devised by teenage boys—and it continues to appeal to people with that mindset.


2. Supplying more Health and Demanding not to Die

Paul Ryan knows that his voucher system for Medicare is going to run into the problem that increasing healthcare costs will quickly surpass whatever amount is allotted to individuals in the vouchers—that’s the source of the savings the program achieves. But it’s not that he wants to shortchange seniors. Rather, he’s applying a principle from his economic ideology, the one that says the best way to control costs is to make providers compete. If people can shop around, the reasoning goes, they’ll flock toward the provider with the lowest prices—the same way we all do with consumer products. Over time, all the providers have to find ways to become more efficient so they can cut costs and stay in business.
Sounds good, right? But the problem is that healthcare services aren’t anything like consumer goods. Supply and demand doesn’t work in the realm of life and death. Maybe, before deciding which insurance company should get our voucher, we’ll do some research. But how do you know what types of services you’re going to need before you sign up? You’re not going to find out that your plan doesn’t cover the service you need until you need the service. And at that point the last thing you’re going to want to do is start shopping around again. Think about it, people shop around for private insurance now--are insurance companies paragons of efficiency? 
Another problem is that you can’t shop around to find better services once industry standards have set in. For example—if you don’t like how impersonal your cell phone service is, can you just drop your current provider and go to another? If you do, you’re just going to run into the same problem again. What’s the lowest price you can pay for cable or internet services? The reason Comcast and Dish Network keep going back and forth with their commercials about whose service is better is that there is fundamentally very little difference.
Finally, insurance is so complicated that only people who can afford accountants or financial advisors, only people who are educated and have the time to research their options, basically only people with resources are going to be able to make prudent decisions. This is why the voucher system, over time, is just going to lead to further disadvantages for the poor and uneducated, bring about increased inequality, and exacerbate all the side effects of inequality, like increased violent crime.


3. Demand Side Never Shows up for the Debate

Tax Cuts Don't Lead to Economic Growth
The reason Romney and Ryan aren’t specifying how they’re going to pay for their tax cuts, while at the same time increasing the budget for the military, while at the same time decreasing the deficit, is that they believe, again based on their economic ideology, that the tax cuts will automatically lead to economic growth. The reasoning is that if people have more money after taxes, they’ll be more likely to spend it. This includes business owners who will put the money toward expanding their businesses, which of course entails hiring new workers. All this cycles around to more money for everyone, more people paying that smaller percentage but on larger incomes, so more revenue comes in, and now we can sit back and watch the deficit go down. This is classic supply side economics.
Sounds good, right? The problem is that businesses only invest in expansion when there’s increasing demand for their products or services, and the tax cuts for lower earners won’t be enough to significantly increase that demand. If there's no demand, rich people don't invest and hire; they buy bigger houses and such. The supply side theory has been around for a long time—and it simply doesn’t work. The only reliable outcome of supply side policies is increasing wealth inequality.
What works is increasing demand—that’s demand side economics. You do this by investing in education, public resources, and infrastructure. Those construction workers building roads and bridges and maintaining parks and monuments get jobs when their companies are hired by the government—meaning they get paid with our tax money. Of course, they get taxed on it, thus helping to support more projects. Meanwhile, unemployment goes down by however many people are hired. These people have more income, and thus create more demand. The business owners expand their businesses—hire more people. As the economy grows, the government can scale back its investment.
Demand side economics can also focus on human capital - including healthcare because it's hard to work when you're sick or dying and you're not going to be creating any demand when you're bankrupt from hospital and insurance payments. Government can also help the economy by investing in people's education, because educated people tend to get better jobs, make more money, and—wait for it, create more demand. (Not to mention innovation.) Job training can work the same way.
Supply side versus demand side is at the heart of most policy debates. The supply side ideology has all kinds of popular advocates, from Ayn Rand to Rush Limbaugh. The demand siders seem more mum, but that might just be because I live in Indiana. In any case, the demand siders have much better evidence supporting their ideas, even though they lose in terms of rhetoric as the knee jerk response to their ideas is to (stupidly, inaccurately) label them socialist. As Bill Clinton pointed out and the fact checkers corroborated, Democrats do a better job creating jobs. 

4. Climate Change?

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The STEM Fempire Strikes Back: Feminists’ Desperate Search for Smoking Guns

Sean Carroll, Your Disdain for Your
Own Readers is Showing
            Bad news: lots of research points to the inescapable conclusion that you, Dear Reader, whether you’re a man or a woman, are a sexist. You may be inclined to reject this label. You may even try to insist that you don’t in fact believe that one sex is inferior to the other. But it doesn’t matter, because the research suggests that what you claim to believe about the relative statuses of the genders doesn’t align with how quickly you attach positive or negative labels to pictures of women and men in a task called the Implicit Association Test. Your sexism is “subtle,” “implicit,” “unconscious.” If this charge irks you or if you feel it’s completely unfair, that probably means you’re even more of a sexist than we might have originally assumed. You can try to find fault with the research that demonstrates you’re a sexist, or offer alternative interpretations of the findings, but why would you do that unless you’re a sexist and trying to cover it up—unless, that is, you’re secretly harboring and seeking to rationalize hostile feelings toward women? Sexism is like original sin. It’s in us whether we like it or not, so we must work hard to avoid succumbing to it. We must abase ourselves before the altar of gender equality.
At least, this is what the feminists involved in the controversy over women’s underrepresentation in STEM fields—the STEM fems—would have us believe. Responding to the initial fifty-eight comments to his blog post “Scientists, Your Gender Bias is Showing,” in which he discusses a new study that found significant bias in ratings of competence and hireability depending on the sex of unseen applicants to a lab manager’s position, physicist Sean Carroll ungraciously—you might even say unbecomingly—writes, “At least the trolls have moved on from ‘there is no discrimination’ to ‘discrimination is rationally justified.’ Progress!”
By Carroll’s accounting, I am a troll (by mine, he’s a toady) because I happen to believe gender-based discrimination accounts for a very modest portion of career segregation and pay differentials in industrialized societies—and it may not account for any. And, this latest study notwithstanding, nearly all the available evidence suggests the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields is based on the fact that men and women, on average, prefer to pursue different types of careers. Indeed, the study Carroll so self-righteously trumpets, which didn’t track any actual hirings but only asked participants to treat application materials hypothetically, may have produced the findings it did because its one hundred and twenty-seven participants were well aware of these different preferences.
Dennis Junk
The underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields is taken by feminists as self-evident proof of discrimination. Since most people who work or teach in these areas understand that sexism is wrong—or at least recognize that it’s thought to be wrong by an influential if possibly misguided majority—not many of them openly admit to deliberately discriminating against women. Yet the underrepresentation continues, ergo the discrimination still exists. That’s why in the past decade there’s been so much discussion of unacknowledged or unconscious bias. Anyone who points out that there is another possible explanation—women and men are essentially (in the statistical sense) different—is accused of being a biological determinist, being a misogynist, having a reactionary political agenda, or some combination of the three.
Now, “essentially different” isn’t all that far from “naturally different,” which is of course part of the formula for sexism, since the belief that one sex is inferior assumes they are somehow inherently different. (I’m excluding genders besides male and female not as a statement but for simplicity’s sake.) But the idea that the sexes tend to be different need not imply either is inferior. Historically, women were considered less intelligent by most men (fewer records exist of what women thought of men), but most educated people today realize this isn’t the case. The important differences are in what men and women tend to find interesting and in what types of careers they tend to prefer (note the word “tend”).
So we have two rival theories. The STEM fems explain career segregation and pay gaps with the theory of latent sexism and rampant discrimination. My fellow trolls and I explain them with the theory that women disproportionately prefer careers focusing on people as opposed to objects and abstractions, while also prioritizing time with family over the achievement of higher rank and higher pay. The fems believe that gender roles, including those associated with career trajectories, are a bad thing, that they limit freedom, and that they are imposed on people, sometimes violently, by a patriarchal society. We preference theory folk, on the other hand, believe that gender begins with individuals, that it is expressed and enacted freely, and that the structure of advanced civilizations, including career segregation and a somewhat regular division of labor with regard to family roles, emerges from the choices and preferences of these individuals.
The best case that can be made for the feminist theory is historical. In the past, women were forbidden to work in certain careers. They were kept out of higher education. They were tethered with iron bonds to their children and their husbands’ homes. Men, meanwhile, had to live with the same type of rigid gender definitions, but at least they had some freedom to choose their careers, could count on their wives tending to the children, and enjoyed the highest position of authority in their families. So we can assume, the reasoning goes, that when we look at society today and find income inequality and segregation what we’re seeing is a holdover from this patriarchal system of the past. From this perspective, the idea that the different outcomes for each gender could possibly emerge from choices freely made is anathema because it seems similar to the rationalizations for the rigid roles of yore. Women naturally want to be mothers and homemakers? Anyone who dares make such a claim belongs in the 1950s, right?  
Though this take on history is a bit of a caricature (class differences were much more significant than gender ones), it has been easy, until recently, to take as self-evident the notion that gender roles erode in lockstep with the advance of civilization toward ever greater individual freedom for ever greater numbers.  Still, tying modern preference theory to policies of the past is nothing but evil rhetoric (almost as evil as accusations of unconscious thought crimes). No one wants to bring back educational and professional barriers to women. The question is whether in the absence of those barriers career segregation and differences in income between the genders will disappear altogether or if women will continue to disproportionally occupy certain professions and continue to spend more time on average with their families than men.
Catherine Hakim
Catherine Hakim, a former Senior Research Fellow at the London School of Economics, and the mind behind preference theory, posits that economic sex differences emerge from what she calls work-life preferences. She has devised three categories that can be used to describe individuals: work-centered people prioritize their careers, adaptive people try to strike some kind of balance between employment and family work, and home- or family-centered people prefer to give priority to private or family life after they get married. In all the western democracies that have been surveyed, most men but only a small minority of women fit into the work-centered category, while the number of women who are home-centered drastically exceeds the number of men. This same pattern emerges in the US even in samples restricted to elite math and science students. In 2001, David Lubinsky and his colleagues reported that in their surveys of high-achieving students 31% of females said that working part-time for some limited period in their careers was either important or extremely important, compared to only 9% of males. Nineteen percent of the females said the same about a permanent part-time career, compared to 9% for males.
Careers in science and math are notoriously demanding. You have to be a high achiever and a fierce competitor to even be considered for a position, so the fact that men disproportionately demonstrate work-centered priorities goes some way toward explaining the underrepresentation of women. Another major factor that researchers have identified is that women and men tend to be interested in different types of careers, with women preferring jobs that focus on people and men preferring those that focus on things. A 2009 meta-analysis carried out by Rong Su, James Rounds, and Patrick Ian Armstrong compiled data from over 500,000 surveys of vocational interests and found that gender differences on the Things-People dimension produce an effect size that is probably larger than any other in research on gender and personality. Once differences in work-life preferences and vocational interests are taken into consideration, there is probably very little left to explain.
Corine Moss-Racusin
Feminism is a social movement that has many admirable goals, most of which I share. But it is also an ideology that has a fitful relationship with science. Unfortunately, the growing body of evidence that gender segregation and pay gaps emerge from choices freely made by individuals based on preferences that fit reliable patterns in societies all over the world hasn’t done much to end the furor over discrimination. The study on that front that Sean Carroll insists is so damning, “Science Faculty’s Subtle Gender Biases Favor Male Students,” by Corinne A. Moss-Racusin, John F. Dovidio, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman, is the most substantial bit of actual evidence the STEM fems have been able to marshal in support of their cause in some time. Covering the study in her Scientific American blog, Ilana Yurkiewicz writes,
Whenever the subject of women in science comes up, there are people fiercely committed to the idea that sexism does not exist. They will point to everything and anything else to explain differences while becoming angry and condescending if you even suggest that discrimination could be a factor. But these people are wrong. This data shows they are wrong. And if you encounter them, you can now use this study to inform them they’re wrong. You can say that a study found that absolutely all other factors held equal, females are discriminated against in science. Sexism exists. It’s real. Certainly, you cannot and should not argue it’s everything. But no longer can you argue it’s nothing.
What this rigorous endorsement reveals is that prior to Moss-Racusin et al.’s study there was only weak evidence backing up the STEM fems conviction that sexism was rampant in science departments all over the country and the world. You can also see that Yurkiewicz takes this debate very personally. It’s really important to her that women who complain about discrimination be vindicated. I suppose that makes sense, but I wonder if she realizes that the point she’s so desperately trying to prove is intrinsically insulting to her male colleagues—to all male scientists. I also wonder if in any other scientific debate she would be so quick to declare the matter settled based on a single study that only sampled 127 individuals. 
The preference theorists have some really good reasons to be skeptical of the far-reaching implications many are claiming for the study. Most importantly, the authors’ conclusions contradict the findings of a much larger study that measured the key variables more directly. In 2010, the National Academies Press published the findings of a task force that was
asked by Congress to ‘conduct a study to assess gender differences in the careers of science, engineering, and mathematics (SEM) faculty, focusing on four-year institutions of higher education that award bachelor’s and graduate degrees. The study will build on the National Academies’ previous work and examine issues such as faculty hiring, promotion, tenure, and allocation of institutional resources including (but not limited to) laboratory space. (VII)
The report, Gender Differences at Critical Transitions in the Careers of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Faculty, surprised nearly everyone because it revealed no evidence of gender-based discrimination. After reviewing records for 500 academic departments and conducting surveys with 1,800 faculty members (a larger sample than Moss-Racusin et al.’s study by more than an order of magnitude), the National Academies committee concluded,
For the most part, male and female faculty in science, engineering, and mathematics have enjoyed comparable opportunities within the university, and gender does not appear to have been a factor in a number of important career transitions and outcomes. (Bolded in original, 153)
But the two studies were by no means identical, so it’s important to compare the specific findings of one to the other.
            Moss-Racusin and her colleagues sent application materials to experienced members of science faculties at research-intensive institutions. Sixty-three of the packets showed the name John and listed the sex as male; 64 had the name Jennifer and sex female. The study authors gave the participants the cover story that they were going to use their answers to several items on a questionnaire about their responses to the applications in the development of a mentoring program to help undergraduate science students. The questions focused on the applicant’s competence, hireability, likeability, how likely the rater would be to mentor the applicant, and how much the rater would offer to pay the applicant. The participants rating applications from females tended to give them better scores for likeability, but lower ones for competence and hireability. The participants, whether male or female themselves, also showed less willingness to mentor females, and indicated they would offer females lower salaries. So there you have it: the participants didn’t dislike the female applicants—they weren’t hostile or “old-fashioned” sexists. But you can see how women forced to deal with this type of bias might be discouraged. To me, the lower salary offers are the most striking. But a difference in medians between $30,200 and $26,500 doesn't seem that big when you consider the overall spread was between $45,000 and $15,000, there was no attempt to control for differences in average salary between universities, and the sample size is really small.

            Moss-Racusin et al. also had the participants complete the Modern Sexism Scale, which was designed as an indirect measure of gender attitudes. On the supporting information page for the study, the authors describe the scale,
Items included: On average, people in our society treat husbands and wives equally; Discrimination against women is no longer a problem in the United States; and Over the past few years, the government and new media have been showing more concern about the treatment of women than is warranted by women’s actual experiences (α = 0.92). Items were averaged to form the gender attitudes scale, with higher numbers indicating more negative attitudes toward women.
Aside from the fact that it defines a lack of support for feminism as sexism (and the middle item, which bears directly on the third, is precisely the matter the study is attempting to treat empirically), this so-called sexism scale introduces the second of two possible confounds. The first is that the cover story may have encouraged many of the participants to answer even direct questions about their own responses as if they were answering questions about how they believed most other people in their position would answer them. And the second problem is that for obvious reasons it’s important that the participants not know the true purpose of the study, which the authors insist was “double-blind.” But we must wonder what conclusions the participants might have drawn about the researchers’ goals when they came across the “Modern Sexism Scale,” a really odd set of questions about the responders’ own views in a survey of their thoughts about an applicant.

           We also need to distinguish sexism—the belief that one sex is inferior—from biased behavior. Bias can be based on several factors besides sexism—but the feminists fail to acknowledge this. The authors of the study explain the (modest) difference in ratings for wholly imaginary applicants as the result of arbitrary, sexist stereotypes that have crept into people’s minds. (They of course ignore the sexist belief that men are less likeable—rightly so because the methods don't allow them to identify that belief.) The alternative explanation is that the bias is based on actual experiences with real people: the evaluators may have actually known more men who wanted lab management positions, more men who had successfully worked in that role, and/or more females who didn't work out in it. The conflating of sexism (or racism) with bias is akin to saying anyone who doesn't forget everything they’ve experienced with different types of people when making hiring decisions is guilty of perpetrating some injustice.
Jo Handelsman
            In a live chat hosted on Science’s webpage, one of the study authors, Jo Handelsman, writes, “We know from a lot of research that people apply more bias in decision making when they have less information, so I think this type of quick review is the most prone to ‘gut level’ decisions, which are colored by bias.” Implicit or gut-level reactions are notoriously sensitive to things like the way questions are framed, the order in which information is presented, and seemingly irrelevant or inconsequential cues. This sensitivity makes complex results from studies of implicit associations extremely difficult to interpret. Handelsman and her colleagues tried to control for extraneous factors by holding the conditions of their study constant for all participants, with the sole difference being the name and sex on the forms. But if I’m a scientist who’s agreed to assess an application in a hypothetical hiring situation for the purpose of helping to design a mentoring program, I would very likely be primed to provide information that I believe might give the students who are the beneficiaries of the research some useful guidance. I might, for instance, want to give female scientists a heads-up about some of the obstacles they might encounter—especially if in the course of the survey I’m reminded of the oppression of wives by husbands, discrimination in society at large, and the fact that some people are so callous as to not even want to hear about how bad women have it.
Another possibility is that the omnipresent and inescapable insistence of STEM fems that sexism is rampant is actually creating some of the bias the studies by STEM fems then turn around and measure. Since Moss-Racusin et al. report that high scores on the so-called Modern Sexism Scale correlated with lower ratings for females’ competence and hireability, we have to ask if the study participants might have been worried about women primed to make excuses for themselves, or if they might have been reluctant to hire someone with an ideologically inspired chip on her shoulder who would be ready to cry gender discrimination at the first whiff of rough treatment. Such alternative interpretations may seem like special pleading. But the discrepancy between the findings of this study and those of the National Academies committee, which, again, were based on a sample that was more than ten times larger and measured the variables directly, calls out for an explanation.
Perhaps the most troubling implication of the study is that women applicants to scientific positions will be less likely to make to the interview stage of the hiring process, so all the implicit stereotypes about women being less competent will never be overridden with more information. However, the National Academies committee found that in actuality, The percentage of women who were interviewed for tenure-track or tenured positions was higher than the percentage of women who applied” (157). Unless we assume males tend to be worse candidates for some reason—sexism against men?—this finding rules out the possibility that women are discriminated against for interviews. Are the women who make it to the interview stage thought to be less competent and hireable than their male counterparts? According to the committee report, “For all disciplines the percentage of tenure-track women who received the first job offer was greater than the percentage in the interview pool.” This finding suggests that for some reason women are thought to be better, not worse, candidates for academic positions. If there’s any discrimination, it’s against men.
It could still be argued that the Moss-Racusin et al. study suggests that the reason fewer women apply for positions in science and math fields is that they get less encouragement to do so because participants said they were less likely to mentor female applicants for a hypothetical position. But how do we square this finding with that of the National Academies finding that “Female tenure-track and tenured faculty reported that they were more likely to have mentors than male faculty. In the case of tenure-track faculty, 57 percent of women had mentors compared to 49 percent of men” (159). Well, even if women are more successful at finding mentors, it could still be argued that they would be discouraged by offers of lower starting salaries. But how would they know, unless they read the study, that they can expect lower offers? And is it even true that women in science positions are paid less than men. In its review of the records of 500 academic departments, the National Academies study determined that “Men and women seem to have been treated equally when they were hired. The overall size of start-up packages and the specific resources of reduced initial teaching load, travel funds, and summer salary did not differ between male and female faculty” (158).
Real world outcomes seem to be completely at odds with the implications of the new study, and at odds too with STEM fems insistence that discrimination accounts for a major portion of women’s underrepresentation in math and science careers. The National Academies study did however offer some strong support for preference theory. It turns out that women are more likely to turn down job offers, and the reason they cite is telling.
In 95 percent of the tenure-track and 100 percent of the tenured positions where a man was the first choice for a position, a man was ultimately hired. In contrast, in cases where a woman was the first choice, a woman was ultimately hired in only 70 percent of the tenure-track and 77 percent of the tenured positions. When faculty were asked what factors they considered when selecting their current position, the effect of gender was statistically significant for only one factor—“family-related reasons.”

Stephen Ceci
The Moss-Racusin et al. study was probably conceived of as a response to another article published in the same journal, The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, in February of 2011. In “Understanding Current Causes of Women’s Underrepresentation in Science,” authors Stephen Ceci and Wendy Williams examine evidence from a vast array of research and write, “We find the evidence for recent sex discrimination–when it exists–is aberrant, of small magnitude, and is superseded by larger, more sophisticated analyses showing no bias, or occasionally, bias in favor of women” (1-2). That Moss-Racusin et al.’s study will likewise be superseded seems quite likely—in fact, it already has been superseded by the NAS study. Ceci and Williams' main conclusion from their review is a good summary of preference theory:
Wendy Williams
Despite frequent assertions that women’s current underrepresentation in math-intensive fields is caused by sex discrimination by grant agencies, journal reviewers, and search committees, the evidence shows women fare as well as men in hiring, funding, and publishing (given comparable resources). That women tend to occupy positions offering fewer resources is not due to women being bypassed in interviewing and hiring or being denied grants and journal publications because of their sex. It is due primarily to factors surrounding family formation and childrearing, gendered expectations, lifestyle choices, and career preferences—some originating before or during adolescence. (5)
Moss-Racusin et al.’s study should not be summarily dismissed—that’s not what I’m arguing. It is suggestive, and the proverbial further studies should be conducted. But let’s not claim it’s more important than it really is just because it produced the results the STEM fems were hoping for. And let’s quit acting like every study that produces evidence of gender discrimination is a victory for the good guys. Far too many people assume that feminism can only be good for women and good for science. But if discrimination really doesn’t play that big a role for women in science—which everyone should acknowledge the current weight of evidence suggests is the case—the infusion of gender politics has the potential to cause real harm. The standing accusation of sexism may not in the end lead to better treatment of women—it may lead to resentment. And the suggestion that every male scientist is the beneficiary of unfair hiring practices will as likely as not lead to angry defiance and increasing tension.

           To succeed in the most elite fields, you have to be cut-throat. It would be surprising if science and math careers turned out to be peopled with the nicest, most accommodating individuals. Will the young woman scientist who has a run-in with a jerk frame the encounter as just that—a run-in with an individual who happens to be a jerk—or will she see it as a manifestation of patriarchal oppression? It seems to me the latter response embodies the same type of prejudice the STEM fems claim to be trying to end.

Read Catherine Hakim's Feminists Myths and Magic Medicine

And my series of posts on "Why I Am Not a Feminist"