The Corner

Education

Asians at Harvard and the Manipulation of Statistics

A student and parent pass Widener Library’s banners before Harvard University’s Class Day Exercises in Cambridge, Mass., May 27, 2015. (Dominick Reuter/Reuters )

As Jason Richwine noted yesterday, Harvard is being sued for discriminating against Asian applicants, and it’s defending itself by claiming that Asian applicants score lower on non-academic measures — measures that Harvard is almost forced to use because so many applicants have perfect scores. As Richwine explains, while many applicants do have perfect math scores or perfect verbal scores or perfect GPAs, it’s unlikely very many have perfect scores across all the different measures. Harvard is using non-academic criteria by choice, which of course is not illegal but raises the question of whether the criteria themselves are being selected with the goal of engineering a certain racial balance.

Another aspect of the case I find fascinating, though, is a battle royale between the economists David Card (handling data analysis for Harvard) and Peter Arcidiacono (for the plaintiffs). Both have submitted reports in the case (here and here) as well as responses to each other’s reports (here and here) analyzing whether, all else equal, Asians are less likely to be admitted than whites. It’s a pretty striking illustration of how researchers can make statistical results appear and disappear by subtly changing the way they crunch the numbers.

To me, in terms of simple facts, the most damning evidence against Harvard actually comes from Card’s own report. Asian applicants outperform whites academically and in terms of extracurriculars; where they actually fall behind is in athletics and an amorphous “personal” category that the plaintiffs say is biased in itself. (As the New York Times puts it, this measures “traits like ‘positive personality,’ likability, courage, kindness and being ‘widely respected,’” and Asians tend to get lower ratings.)

Card claims his statistical model accurately predicts Harvard’s admissions decisions and produces no evidence of bias; he alleges Arcidiacono’s model leaves out crucial control variables. Arcidiacono says that, actually, it’s Card’s model that isn’t set up correctly — e.g., it includes applicants who were shoo-ins on the basis of donor parents and athletics or sure rejections because they fell far short of Harvard material, fails to account for “interactions” between racial and economic preferences, and includes that controversial “personal” category.

This is par for the course in terms of academic debates. It’s just that a lawsuit hangs in the balance this time.

Most Popular

Immigration

The Party’s Over — No More Guest(worker)s

Last month's Presidential Proclamation temporarily suspending a tiny sliver of permanent immigration in response to Great Depression 2.0 also called for a review of the alphabet soup of foreign-worker programs. The relevant cabinet departments were instructed to offer recommendations "to stimulate the United ... Read More
Immigration

The Party’s Over — No More Guest(worker)s

Last month's Presidential Proclamation temporarily suspending a tiny sliver of permanent immigration in response to Great Depression 2.0 also called for a review of the alphabet soup of foreign-worker programs. The relevant cabinet departments were instructed to offer recommendations "to stimulate the United ... Read More

The Makings of Modern Madness

The paradigm of mind–brain dualism, like the story of syphilis, is by no means virgin territory. However, Allan Ropper and Brian Burrell’s How The Brain Lost Its Mind: Sex, Hysteria, and the Riddle of Mental Illness puts both the legacy of dualism and the story of syphilis under the microscope, and offers a ... Read More

The Makings of Modern Madness

The paradigm of mind–brain dualism, like the story of syphilis, is by no means virgin territory. However, Allan Ropper and Brian Burrell’s How The Brain Lost Its Mind: Sex, Hysteria, and the Riddle of Mental Illness puts both the legacy of dualism and the story of syphilis under the microscope, and offers a ... Read More
U.S.

Unsustainable America

Americans are having fewer babies than ever, or at least than since the government began tracking the general fertility rate in 1909. The total fertility rate ticked down to 1.7 in 2019, meaning that the average number of babies an American woman would have over her lifetime is well below replacement ... Read More
U.S.

Unsustainable America

Americans are having fewer babies than ever, or at least than since the government began tracking the general fertility rate in 1909. The total fertility rate ticked down to 1.7 in 2019, meaning that the average number of babies an American woman would have over her lifetime is well below replacement ... Read More
World

‘Professor Lockdown’ Modeler Resigns in Disgrace

Neil Ferguson is the British academic who created the infamous Imperial College model that warned Boris Johnson that, without an immediate lockdown, the coronavirus would cause 500,000 deaths and swamp the National Health Service. Johnson’s government promptly abandoned its Sweden-like “social ... Read More
World

‘Professor Lockdown’ Modeler Resigns in Disgrace

Neil Ferguson is the British academic who created the infamous Imperial College model that warned Boris Johnson that, without an immediate lockdown, the coronavirus would cause 500,000 deaths and swamp the National Health Service. Johnson’s government promptly abandoned its Sweden-like “social ... Read More

John Wayne: The Hero We Need Now

America fits into John Wayne's filmography, and this does not make America small. It makes John Wayne huge. The coronavirus has brought us back to the Wild West. Lonely lives, deserted streets, looks of distrust, and whiskey for throat disinfection; the scientific community has not made an official statement as ... Read More

John Wayne: The Hero We Need Now

America fits into John Wayne's filmography, and this does not make America small. It makes John Wayne huge. The coronavirus has brought us back to the Wild West. Lonely lives, deserted streets, looks of distrust, and whiskey for throat disinfection; the scientific community has not made an official statement as ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Biden’s Progressive Gamble

A few hours after this column appears on the Internet, more than 30 liberal activists will meet online to plan your future. The gathering is called the “Friday Morning Group.” It comprises, according to the New York Times, “influential figures at labor unions, think tanks and other progressive ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Biden’s Progressive Gamble

A few hours after this column appears on the Internet, more than 30 liberal activists will meet online to plan your future. The gathering is called the “Friday Morning Group.” It comprises, according to the New York Times, “influential figures at labor unions, think tanks and other progressive ... Read More