Most of you will have heard the maxim “correlation does not imply causation.” Just because two variables have a statistical relationship with each other does not mean that one is responsible for the other. For instance, ice cream sales and forest fires are correlated because both occur more often in the summer heat. But there is no causation; you don’t light a patch of the Montana brush on fire when you buy a pint of Haagen-Dazs. ~ Nate Silver
I was asked to expound on a line I wrote last week about outcome gaps being used as evidence of systemic injustice rather than as a starting point for investigation (Three Ways to Be a Better Parent). Today, via a great example noted in The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, I’ll do just that.
Title IX is a well-intended program that encourages colleges and universities to provide equal educational opportunities to men and women. In 1979, the Carter administration applied Title IX to collegiate sports which, as noted in the book ( p. 224) meant:
Scholarships had to be offered on a proportional basis to the number of male and female participants in the institution’s athletic program.
Athletic interests and abilities of male and female students were to be equally accommodated.
There isn’t much controversy here since this interpretation fell in line with Title IX’s original mission of prohibiting colleges that accept federal dollars from discriminating against women with respect to opportunity.
In 1996 however, things took a different turn when the Clinton administration pressured schools to achieve equal outcomes (regardless of inputs) by encouraging a school athletic program to reflect the gender balance of their university. In other words, if 56 percent of the students on campus are female (the current average in the U.S. according to The Atlantic) the expectation now was that 56 percent of the students in the athletic program should also be female.
A New York Times article cited in the book effectively describes how colleges responded to this change. A few of my favorite proof points:
At the University of South Florida, more than half of the 71 women on the cross-country roster failed to run a race in 2009. Asked about it, a few laughed and said they did not know they were on the team.
At Cornell, only when the 34 fencers on the women’s team take off their protective masks at practice does it become clear that 15 of them are men.
Last year, an investigation by the Office for Civil Rights concluded that Irvine was not complying with Title IX because its indoor track team was essentially a ruse. It competed in just one meet per year and several women on the roster “vigorously stated” that they were not on the team.
The problem, of course, is that universities cannot achieve the equal-outcome target encouraged by the Clinton administration by “equally accommodating” male and female students because, as noted by Lukianoff and Haidt (emphasis my own):
The available research suggests that girls and women are often as interested as boys and men in getting physical exercise, but not in playing team sports.
As such, to achieve equal outcomes in the face of unequal inputs, while disappointing, it’s not surprising that so many colleges cheat.
Clearly there are plenty of cases when injustice is, in fact, the cause of unequal outcomes, however, my point is, to assume such a causal relationship without doing a proper investigation and analysis is to forget that correlation does not imply causation. And further, that outcome gaps are
On that note, before I head out for the week, here is Jenny Lewis with her song “Just one of the Guys.” I’ll be sure to add to our Spotify playlist!
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