Deliberately Misleading or Just a Poor Argument?

Today we’re talking about this article, why there should be a cap on the number of women allowed into STEM programs. It’s from breitbart.com in June and came across my Facebook feed today. You might guess that I highly disagree, but I don’t want to discuss my opinion on it, I want to talk about the quality of arguments and supporting material presented. I’ve chosen just a single paragraph at random to illustrate the problems, but almost any paragraph or the whole article (time permitting) would illustrate the same issues. Here’s the paragraph:

To be fair, plenty of boys drop out at that point as well. But while attrition is terrible across STEM subjects — 48 per cent of bachelor’s degree students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009 left — for women the figure is even higher. Ladies, apparently, find the aggressively competitive nature of these subjects too “uninviting,” so they drop out. They also, according to a White House report, say the classes are too hard.

The words “for women” and “even higher” are linked to other sources, but are actually the same source. One of the links goes to a Computer world article just citing the original (The Harvard Business Review article). So what is this “even higher” figure? 52%, a 4% difference. It’s also not apples to apples as the HBR report is focusing on women from 35–40 while the 48% number refers to the entire population immediately after graduation. So women are included in that 48%, and the numbers aren’t comparable because they represent two different time frames in life. The reader is immediately left to wonder what the corresponding drop-out rate of men in the same age range might be. This may just be an oversight, but it should leave the reader further confused as to what exactly the author’s claims are, since it’s core to the argument.

The writer then immediately goes on to make the claim that women can’t handle the competitive nature of the field without providing evidence, or even a simple emotional argument. Yet the very article the writer linked to very clearly states the cause as found by the study:

The most important antigen is the machismo that continues to permeate these work environments. We found that 63% of women in science, engineering and technology have experienced sexual harassment. That’s a really high figure.

The same source the author linked continues to contradict the author’s assertion:

They talk about demeaning and condescending attitudes, lots of off-color jokes, sexual innuendo, arrogance; colleagues, particularly in the tech culture, who genuinely think women don’t have what it takes — who see them as genetically inferior.

This is a strong implication that it’s the environment created by those who currently dominate the industry that drives others out. No evidience is presented by any source the author cites that STEM as a field of study is inherently any more competitive or uninviting than any other field. Since that is the author’s core premise, I’d expect citing sources that supported that view.

Moving on, “…[women]…say the classes are too hard” is linked to a 160 page White House report, without giving a section of what was being cited, leading you to read the whole thing. I did not read the report in it’s entirety, but I read a lot of it looking for the reference, including the section summaries and searched for women, “too hard” and “too difficult”. The report primarily concerns itself with all students and increasing STEM eductation quality. There were only four sentences with mentions of “too diffcult” and three of those four applied to all students, not just women and minorities. The White House report cites an American Association University Women study for it’s remarks on women in STEM, a report who’s summary is:

The summary describes research findings that point to environmental and social barriers — such as stereotypes, gender bias, and the climate of science and engineering departments in colleges and universities — that continue to block women’s participation and progress in STEM

Again, we have a direct contradiction to the author’s core thesis. This study (much more comprehensive than the HBR survey) found that stereotypes, gender bias, and learning climate are the primary factors in reducing the number of women, another rejection of the author’s idea.

So in just a single paragraph we have the following exaggerations, errors, or misleading information:

  • The percentage difference between women and men in the field is not presented accurately.
  • There are no sources given that support the author’s assertion
  • The sources that are given actually contradict the author’s main point.

This is a pattern I see over and over again as I read breitbart every day. Articles with assumptions and premises, displayed as fact, poorly supported or contradicted by the very sources cited in the article. I can certainly find fault with many mainstream outlets as well, but the percentage of exaggerated and poorly argued or supported material on brietbart is much higher by comparison.