Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Hiring Practices

Sometimes I really have to disabuse myself of this notion that I'm a "reasonably intelligent person." I say this because I usually have something cogent and illuminating to add to any philosophical/political discussion . . . about an hour after it's finished.

Yesterday during our monthly "research ethics" course, we were talking about hiring practices. It was commonly accepted around the table that a physics department was more than justified in passing over the most qualified applicants for a position in order to hire a woman. After all, she brings benefits that you don't find on the resume, and it helps to have women there to help other women keep from getting lost in the milieu.

First things first, I don't find that diversity, in and of itself, has any inherent value. At least, not from a scientific perspective. If they're trying to hire someone, they should hire the person who brings the most to the department, and this should be regardless of what the applicants have dangling (or not) between their legs.

Ah, but the counter-argument is that "diverse " people bring other benefits to the table. Benefits you can't put on a resume. Benefits that only they can provide, with their gender/skin color. Benefits that students of the same gender/skin color require to succeed in this field.

I've never heard these benefits explained or defined. I think it's important to answer this question: To what extent to these "benefits of diversity" match or exceed the gap between the standard credentials on a resume? Normal resume differences can be quantified in a situation such as this: Length of experience, number of publications, number of high profile publications, research grant money, etc. How does a department quantify that? How many research grants are two X chromosomes worth? How many Nature or Science papers is being black worth?

Finally, it's always gets back, for me, to the "What would happen if this went the other direction?" argument. By hiring a "diverse" candidate simply for their "diversity," that physics department is saying, "We only hired you because you're a woman, and we need more women around here." The corollary to this is that they're telling the most qualified applicant, "We're not hiring you because you're a man. Sorry, we don't need any more men around here."

Now imagine how this might work in the opposite direction. "Sorry, we've decided to hire someone else. Yes, you're the most qualified, but you're black, and we don't need any more black people around here." Good lord, can you imagine the lawsuits? I find it worth pointing out that people have sued for similar situations (that is, white male applicants passed over for "diverse" candidates) and won.

If you disagree, do try to articulate your opposition in a meaningful sense; the problem I have with these arguments is that I've never heard them explained in a cogent sense. Now if only I could do the same in a timely manner. I really hate that, by sitting at the discussion and not objecting, people think that I'm okay with such discrimination.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Smarter Diplomacy

I've held off writing about my various misgivings about President Obama and his team of super-competent staffers and cabinet members for many reasons, but I've been considering his "outreach" efforts to the rest of the world and I'm finding myself embarrassed. Remember during the campaign how, it was argued, Obama would restore our place in the world, healing the rifts made between us and our closest allies? All it seems, lately, is that Obama is better at alienating them than anything else.

He's been in office two months, and let's look at the record:

1. First, there's Hilary Clinton's gag gift which she gave to the Russian Foreign Minister. It was a "reset button" in a box, to indicate that we wanted to "reset" our relationship with Russia (As an aside, can these people spend five minutes not criticizing the previous administration?). Considering how symbolic a gift this was supposed to be, you'd think that someone in her department would have at least been able to get the Russian translation of "reset" correct.

2. Obama scheduled a meeting with the Brazilian president on St. Patrick's Day, then rescheduled the meeting because he somehow forgot that he already had plans with the Irish Prime Minister. Oops. What happened afterwards is icing on the cake, so to speak.

3. The Japanese Prime Minister was the first foreign dignitary to visit President Obama after his election, and apparently couldn't be bothered to even let him stay in the White House guest house, much less treat it like it was an important visit. What kind of diplomacy is it to make the Japanese PM rent a room at the Best Western?

4. The biggie, the one you probably already know about: Britain's Prime Minister comes to visit, and he comes bearing gifts of great significance. How does Obama relate to our oldest ally? Not only does he treat the visit with the same lack of pomp and circumstance as he did with the Japanese PM's visit, but he gives PM Brown a rather insulting gift: A DVD box set! Twenty-five classic American films . . . what a delight. On top of all that, the DVDs are region-specific, and don't even work in British DVD players!

If someone wants to say, "Hey, inexperienced politicians have growing pains," fine. Not that there weren't ample arguments about how inexperienced and unprepared this guy was when he started running for office, but whatever. Still, this guy was supposed to be the one who healed our relationships with the rest of the world, and this is how he treats the people who like us?

Gracious, are there any adults in charge in the White House?

Geez man, if you can't even play nice with the French, who can you play nice with?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Scientific Meanderings

Grad school has swallowed me whole, lately. I've had a lot of interesting observations and musings I've wanted to jot down here, but I keep forgetting or putting it off. Let's get a few of these out there:
  • So, what do you do for a living?
In one of my classes, we learned of a study where researchers wanted to see whether or not gonorrhea undergoes selective mutations during an infection. How did they test this? They infected volunteers with the freaking thing and sequenced the bug at various times during the infection.

I'm not sure I can put a dollar value on what it would take to willingly get infected with an STD, regardless of whether antibiotics will treat it. I'm having enough trouble getting a date these days without something like that mucking it all up.
  • The Pertussis Scare
Today we talked a lot about bordetella pertussis, the bacteria behind whooping cough. The disease is typically included in a cocktail vaccine, including diptheria and tetanus as well. I found it interesting that, for a period of time starting a few decades ago, Europe ceased to include pertussis in the mix due to some fears of deaths that may have been related to the vaccine. It turned out that they weren't, but there was enough public fear and bad PR floating around that it was only recently that Europe began vaccinating for pertussis again. As you would expect, there's been a lot of whooping cough in Europe in the meantime.

Given everything I hear about Europe's reactions to new vaccines, drugs, and genetically modified crops (especially GM crops), this doesn't really surprise me. It makes me wonder: We hear so much about how the US is so scientifically illiterate, how we're these religious nuts who want to drag scientific progress back to the dark ages and revert medicine to the time when leeches were considered the hot new thing. Why is it, then, that our more "enlightened" cousins across the pond always seem to be so eager to break out the pitchforks and torches when a new drug weighs the same as a duck?
  • Where's it all coming from?
In a related anecdote, while talking about pertussis it was shown that pertussis infections have been ticking upward for the last 20-30 years, with a noticeable spike during the 90s. There is apparently some debate over whether this is an actual increase in cases or just better reporting of cases. The argument being that, with vastly improved technologies for diagnosis, we're just finding the infections more readily than in the past.

We didn't discuss it in class, but I can't help but wonder if it isn't related to illegal immigration. It's not news to anyone who's been paying attention that a lot of the people coming here illegally don't get vaccinated from anything themselves, resulting in upticks in diseases only rarely seen in the US. Several of the studies cited to us about the spread of the disease were centered in California, which isn't exactly a model of immigration law enforcement.

I really don't have much to add to that. Curiosity, but not much else.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Health care not a right

I saw this post over at National Review's The Corner, and it rang true with me, largely because I've had this argument dozens of times before.

The idea that we have a right to health care is quite dangerous. All rights we've enshrined heretofore were things that could only be taken away from you; life, liberty, etc. Health care, like any other good or service, is something that can only be given.

If we enshrine a right to something that must be given to us, it creates an ever-dreaded slippery slope. At what point do the rights stop? and who gets to decide?