Mansplain Monday: Men Mansplain Statistics to Me

Welcome to the first post of our new series Mansplain Monday wherein we post and discuss some of our “favorite” examples of mansplaining that we have come across during the week.

For the first Mansplain Monday I want to get a little bit personal. For those of you who are regular Skepchick readers, you know that I post a lot of very technical articles that are often math and statistics heavy. Statistics and economics are part of my expertise, so it makes sense that many of my posts will focus on those topics. However, I’ve noticed that almost any time I discuss something quantitative on Skepchick some dude crawls out of the woodwork to mansplain to me why I’m wrong about everything.

My most recent stats-related post was on why the supposedly “scarily accurate” model that predicted a 98% chance that Trump will win the presidency was not actually very accurate. I explained what models were and why the one they were using in this case wasn’t very good along with explaining why the supposed “accuracy” of the model was incredibly misleading. I got mostly positive feedback on that post, but as usual it didn’t take long for some dude to jump in on the Skepchick Facebook page and mansplain statistics to me:

Text from facebook comment: "So, you don't use the words data mining to point out that they're data mining. LOL. I'm starting to think you've never taken a science course.

So, you don’t use the words data mining to point out that they’re data mining. LOL. I’m starting to think you’ve never taken a science course.

There are so many ways in which this guy is totally wrong. First of all, just because a person doesn’t use a particular word obviously doesn’t mean they don’t know what they are talking about. Even if the word in question is a more accurate or descriptive word than the words the writer actually used, it still wouldn’t mean her entire article is wrong due to the lack of that particular word.

Secondly, in the case of the model I was writing about, “data mining” would actually be a misleading word to use. “Data mining” is a layman’s term for when statisticians or data scientists comb through huge amounts of data looking for hidden patterns or correlations. However, in the post I wrote the model I was discussing was run on only 26 observations. Not 26 million. 26. Although “data mining” isn’t a very specific term and it doesn’t have a cut-off for what is considered “big data,” I think we can safely say that 26 is probably too low to be able to accurately call what that model is doing “data mining.” It wouldn’t necessarily be wrong for someone to use that term in this context if they chose to, but I personally don’t think it is a good fit to describe that particular model and might even be misleading by giving the idea that the model involved much more data than it did. In general I actually find the term “data mining” misleading in almost any context since it has such an unclear definition, so I generally stay away from it. 

If you’re keeping score at home, this dude decided to come in and criticize my post for not using a word that happens to be totally inappropriate to use in this context and from that he decided I clearly didn’t know what I was talking about and “never took a science course.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had men completely dismiss me by proclaiming that I clearly have no background in statistics. It’s strange that they would ever get this idea. Many of the posts I write are extremely technical such as this post where I discuss how p-hacking works using an evo-psych study that likely got their results via p-hacking or this post where I explain what instrumental variables are in the context of a study about the effects on teen pregnancy from the MTV show 16 and Pregnant. I don’t know how I would even understand p-hacking or instrumental variables well enough to discuss it in a blog post if I didn’t have a stats background, so it’s odd that this is the assumption that so many men reading my posts make.

I generally assume that I don’t need to attach my resume to every post I write for it to be clear that I have a pretty good idea of what I’m writing about. I’m discussing complex and technical topics in an intelligent manner, so it would make sense for the reader to assume I probably have expertise in that subject. However, it doesn’t stop men from accusing me of speaking outside my area of expertise or being “just a blogger” who doesn’t know anything about statistics or has never taken a science class. Once during a panel at SkepchickCON where I had just spent an hour discussing the economics of various dystopian futures such as one where robots have taken over most of the jobs, I actually had a man during the Q&A flat-out accuse me in front of my fellow panelists and the entire audience of having no academic training in economics. When I told him that I actually had a master’s degree, he demanded to know where from. When I replied with “University of Chicago” he then accused me of lying. Apparently it really is impossible for some men to believe that any woman might actually know what she is talking about or even have background in a subject that outshines their own.

I don’t generally like to drop information about my academic or work background in order to lend myself cachet as I believe my writing should speak for itself, but apparently there are men that will dismiss anything I say until they have perused my resume and declared me qualified enough to speak, so let me be clear that I do have a background in statistics and economics. I have a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago which included extensive advanced statistics, economics and game theory courses. I spent a year working on digital analytics in the Obama Campaign headquarters and now work for a large retail company as a data scientist. I spend my work days combing through incredibly large amounts of data, writing code in various programming languages, analyzing complex datasets, and building predictive models of human behavior. This is what I do. This is my area of expertise.   I’m goddam tired of having to deal with men like “Willis” accusing me of “never taking a science course” when it’s really damn likely that I’ve had way more “science courses” than he will ever take in his entire lifetime. I’m tired of being flat out accused of lying about my academic background at a conference for which I was an invited guest. I’m sick of being inundated by tweets from men calling me “just a blogger” in order to dismiss all my actual qualifications. Regardless of how much my writing should speak for itself, these men and men like them are always going to assume that they know more than I do because they are men and I’m a woman. This is mansplaining at its finest.

Jamie Bernstein

Jamie Bernstein is a data, stats, policy and economics nerd who sometimes pretends she is a photographer. She is @uajamie on Twitter and Instagram. If you like my work here at Skepchick & Mad Art Lab, consider sending me a little sumthin' in my TipJar: @uajamie

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  1. I feel you. I’ve had a guy mansplain infectious diseases to me (my area of expertise) by citing an article–which he didn’t realize was written by me.

    1. I had someone interrupt a presentation proposal to suggest that I ‘go and look’ how something is done in a protocol I was the principal designer of ten years earlier. I told him that I hadn’t looked at it since I wrote the 1.0 document and asked what had changed since that he felt so important.

      It is certainly a guy thing but they don’t just do it to guys.

      Another thing that they do is to call out authorities that they don’t actually understand. As you know, one of the things we discovered from the Snowden documents is that the NSA pays someone to go to standards meetings and disrupt them. The chap I strongly suspect to be the (or one of) the moles has a habit of shutting down proposals by telling people that some authority would object to it when said authority is often just in the next room and does nothing of the sort.

  2. I’m really sorry this was done to you; there’s no excuse for it. You say you don’t like to bring out your resume; I suggest you go for it, brag the living f**k out of your resume. List your degrees, your experiences, and links to your proudest essays in all the appropriate places.

    You may not be able to get these manboys to STFU, but you can bury them in your awesome so they’re less likely to question you in the future. You’re right that you shouldn’t have to do it, but if you need to push back, there’s nothing wrong with being fully armed, intellectually speaking. I wish my best to you.

    1. Thanks! It really helps to hear this. I honestly went back and forth all weekend over whether I was going to post this or not because I didn’t want it to come off as braggy or somehow imply that I’m better than other people who may not know about this particular topic as well as I do. As a woman, I’ve been socialized to undervalue my own achievements (part of why mansplaining exists) so it’s actually incredibly difficult for me to boast a little bit. Studies show that men in job interviews will overemphasize their achievements while women will underemphasize, likely leading to at least of portion of the wage gap. I’m trying to overcome some of that socialization and this post was part of that.

  3. It really sucks that you have to even say all this. How many men are expected to lead off every article with their CV? You do a fantastic job of communicating complex topics.

    I just can’t quite wrap my head around how some men can think so little of women, especially when it comes to educated women.

  4. I always learn something from your blog posts. Sometimes I learn a lot (the ones about Baysian statistics and instrument variables stand out). Even when I don’t learn a lot because I am already familiar with the concepts you are covering, I like how accessible you make it. If had to explain a complex statistical concept to less mathematically inclined people, the first thing I would do is go to your blogs and look for anything you had written anything on the subject.

    You are my favorite blogger because not many people blog about the sorts of things you do*, you explain concepts so well, you always bring up what I feel is important to bring up, you always add to my understanding and you explain it so much better than I can.

    *And none of the others I know that do it as well as you.

  5. Don’t assume that these people don’t behave the same when they are talking to men. Gender is certainly connected though, I don’t recall seeing a woman trying that tactic.

    What I see a heck of a lot on the Internet is conversations in which someone makes an observation that is clearly within their field of expertise and someone then attempts to trump them by saying they ‘obviously’ don’t understand the field.

    I originally found this blog after finding a YouTube video where someone was objecting to Rebecca Watson’s ‘unqualified’ takedown of evo psych as unqualified. So I responded that all you need is a scientific argument, qualifications aren’t really necessary. Which of course had him attacking me as ‘unqualified’ as well. And after I pointed out that a doctorate in science is actually the only ‘qualification’ that is relevant and I have one and according to Google he doesn’t, he starts complaining that I am ‘waving my credentials around’.

    So according to his logic, it is totally OK for him to dismiss other people’s views as being ‘unqualified’ despite not having any qualifications himself but anyone pointing out that (1) he is wrong and (2) unlike him, they are qualified is showing off!

    What I think is going on here is that these people have learned that if they act as if they are an expert in the field and bully people, most people will assume they know what they are talking about and defer. So when they come across people who aren’t intimidated, they lash out regardless of logic.

    I saw the paper in question BTW and it is a classical example of bad science. The model was only written six elections ago so it has only been able to predict six outcomes at most. What he has done is to work back and fit the model to the data. And the effort is obviously bogus because none of the economic or polling data being collected today is 98% consistent with the same data being collected 30 years ago.

    Given that one of the past six elections was essentially a dead heat and four were regarded as foregone conclusions (1992, 1996, 2008, 2012). Being able to predict them doesn’t really say very much about the predictor. The only election that was remotely in doubt was 2004 and the only question then was whether Bush’s poll ratings would completely collapse before or after the election.

  6. Not all men are like that, but too many are. But also, many aren’t just that way toward women. I’m not sure what makes some people act this way, but I think that in at least a few cases, they have an inferiority complex, and they over-compensate in response to intellectual discourse.

    There’s an anti-intellectual movement that does not only include men. Anti-intellectual women seem to me to be less often confrontational, perhaps because of adaptation to societal factors, including vestiges of centuries of systemic oppression in a world politically controlled by males.

    I came across skepchick in Facebook, so I’ve now registered, because I want to see what I can learn from your quantitative posts.

  7. As a man who has a lot of expertise in a very narrow subject, I have been exposed to a lot of total dumbassery from people who don’t know how much they don’t know about the subject at hand.

    I used to get upset and try to explain why the person was wrong. But that got too tiring. Now, when exposed to such behavior, I just keep quiet and feel a bit better about my relative place in the pecking order. As I am fond of telling my students, the easiest way to look like an idiot is to talk too much about something you don’t understand. I really dislike looking like an idiot, but apparently, many other people are perfectly comfortable doing so.

    Point being, the world is full of jackasses. You can’t too worked up when you interact with one, because the only end result is that you will be worked up a lot. Doing the on-line equivalent of smiling, nodding and going “uh-huh” is a much better response.

  8. I’ve noticed What no one seems is addressing here is that fact that internet trolls often post these outrageous comments just to get a rise out of people. All the negative attention is fun for them. Its can be particularly fun for uneducated people to harass educated people. They feel empowered when all the bright people “get to fighting.”

    Not to take away the fact that mansplaining does indeed exist. I’m so old that when I was young women couldn’t go to Harvard for instance. Men have mansplained to me all my life.

    But some of the harassing comments you get here may well be some moron with absolutely no intention of a serious argument simply getting his jollies off by insulting you in an attempt to make you upset — for instance “Willis.”
    Dr. Lili Pintea-Reed, PhD.

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