Men Dominate Scrabble Tournaments. So What?: Faye Flam

An attendee plays a game of Scrabble against an Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) Intelligent Vision System companion robot during the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Are men really “inherently different” from women in some critical intellectual capacity? Does that explain the continued male majority in the physics and computer science departments of U.S. universities? This debate refuses to die, long after the Harvard president Larry Summers infamously floated the idea back in 2005. It came up again last month in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece: “Sorry, Feminists, Men Are Better at Scrabble.”

The author, Heather Mac Donald, points out that men have won all the world Scrabble competitions since these started in 1991, and that this doesn’t appear to be the result of any overt discrimination. Therefore, she argued, it’s possible that men are just plain better at other things, too, such as science. (Men do outnumber women in physics and computer science, while women slightly outnumber men in biology and social science.)

But what does Scrabble have to do with science? As it turns out the two pursuits are inherently different. This is something I came to appreciate after reading “The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success,” by physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. I started reading the book while researching a previous column on success in the art world, but it occurred to me that the book’s central concept could upend these endless sex difference arguments. It would apply to underrepresented minorities as well.

The crucial difference is that in sports and games, performance is measurable. The best tennis or golf or Scrabble player is essentially the one who wins the most matches or games and bests all top rivals. Performance is what most people associate with success – a combination of inborn talent and well-directed effort that lead to competence. But in science and art, performance isn’t measurable enough to distinguish between highly competent people. There’s something else that’s also necessary for success.

It’s not that science is totally subjective, said Barabasi, when I called him to make sure I understood the messages of the book. If one experiment is right and the other wrong, the right one will eventually be recognized. But there’s something beyond performance that determines who gets hired into high-profile research groups, and whose papers get into prestigious journals.

What distinguishes the stars in both science and art, he says, is connections in your social networks. It’s who you know, and who the people you know know, and who they know. Awards committees tend to award those who have already gotten lots of awards. Success breeds more success.

“It never happens that you put your paper on the table and people say ‘You’re a genius!’,” he said.

It certainly didn’t happen that way for biologist Douglas Prasher. He was the first to isolate and clone a biological compound called green fluorescent protein, back in the 1990s. Three other scientists later got the Nobel Prize for building on Prasher’s foundation. Prasher was not included because he’d fallen off the map. After losing his biology job for lack of funding, he took several other kinds of scientific jobs, including one with NASA, before finally getting laid off in 2006 and making ends meet by working as a driver of a Toyota courtesy van. (Later, one of the Nobel winners hired him to come back and work in his lab.)

A story on Prasher’s saga in the journal Science refers to scientific research as a “tournament market.” It’s a winner-take-all economy in which many qualified people compete for a few slots. As the article said: “Besides heaping immense accolades on a small number of champions, tournament markets share another feature. They constantly discard huge amounts of very high-quality talent, training, and skill.”

In the sexism debate, there’s often an assumption that the discarded people must be less talented. But if it’s really not talent that’s the deciding factor but networking, there’s still a big space for bias to creep in.

The best way to determine bias is, of course, scientific studies. There have been some good ones, including a 2012 study out of Yale University in which people were shown identical resumes with either male or female names attached. People gave higher marks to those assumed to be from male applicants.

In the arts, the Boston Symphony Orchestra started to hire many more women for coveted spots after “blinding” the selection process, allowing judges to hear but not see the auditioners. Later it became clear that this worked best with carpets, so judges also could not hear the different sounds of men’s versus women’s dress shoes. Bias often finds a way in.

On the Scrabble question, male dominance in tournaments could be explained by a preponderance of men wanting to compete at a high level. Or Mac Donald could be correct. But until someone does a study on a statistically meaningful sample of the general population, we won’t really know whether men are better at Scrabble. We just know the long history of similar claims crumbling under scrutiny.