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The Sunday Review section of this Sunday's New York Times carried a report headlined "Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius?" Yes, but what about my daughter? A subhead dealt with that question: "Parents wonder far more often if their boys are gifted than if their girls are."
The article was written by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, identified as a writer who "recently received a PhD in economics at Harvard." Presumably, he knows his way around numbers.
His editors apparently were too intimidated by his presumed mastery of statistics and what they tell us to question any conclusion he came to. "My study of anonymous, aggregate data from Google searches suggests that contemporary American parents are far more likely to want their boys smart and their girls skinny . . ." he wrote. "Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask 'Is my son gifted?' than 'Is my daughter gifted?' . . . Parents were more likely to ask about sons rather than daughters on every matter that I tested related to intelligence, including its absence."
To Stephens-Davidowitz, this was a clear-cut case of sexual bias. "For every ten U.S. Google queries about girls being gifted," his report told us, "there are 25 about boys." Yet the reality is that "at young ages, when parents most often search about possible giftedness, girls have consistently been shown to have larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences. In American schools, girls are 11 percent more likely than boys to be in gifted programs. Despite all this, parents looking around the dinner table appear to see more gifted boys than girls."
Here's a thought: people often ask questions because they don't know the answers. Parents whose daughters know more words than their brothers, speak in in more complex sentences, and are studying in gifted programs their brothers didn't qualify for might not worry if their daughters are smart. About their sons, they are full of doubts. So they ask Google, praying to hear about tell-tale signs of latent intelligence that will put their minds at rest.
Could this possibility have skewed the results? I think that's about as safe as any assumption in the world. That it never seems to have occurred to Stephens-Davidowitz (or his editors) makes his report on what parents want to know about their children silly and obtuse. Next time Stephens-Davidowitz finds truth in numbers he should ask Google to tell him what he's overlooked.