A Field Test for Identifying Appropriate Sexual Partners in Academia

Last week’s issue of Science included an article on yet another case of sexual harassment in academia — this time in Physical Anthropology. This case involves a research assistant who claims that her supervisor at the American Museum of Natural History, Brian Richmond, sexually assaulted her at a conference in Italy. I won’t go into the details here, but I would encourage you to read the excellent article by Michael Balter.  The good news is that, the response of the institutions involved, and the broader field, seems to have been pretty appropriate, despite the fact that Richmond is a prominent member of the field.

Incidents like this typically happen in the absence of third-party witnesses, and we wind up with nothing to go on but the statements of the accuser and accused. This provides room for rationalization by the morons who reflexively defend anyone in a position of authority. And it leaves the rest of us (trained as we have been by political “journalism”) to assume that the truth must lie somewhere in between. And often — though perhaps not in these most recent cases — that uncertainly provides universities with an excuse for not taking substantive action against prominent (and well funded) faculty.

With that in mind, I think it’s worth looking at Richmond’s side of the story. From Balter’s piece:

Richmond, who was also at the meeting, has vigorously denied the accusations in a statement to Science and in email responses. (He declined to be interviewed in person or by telephone.) The encounter in the hotel room, he wrote, was “consensual and reciprocal,” adding that “I never sexually assaulted anyone.”

The piece also describes a long-term pattern of behavior by Richmond at the Koobi Fora Field School in Kenya, which led to his resignation from his role as an instructor there. Again, Richmond’s side of the story:

Richmond notes in his statement to Science that before the incident in Italy, “there had never been a complaint or report against me throughout my career,” including from students at the field school. He stresses that he “voluntarily resigned my affiliation” with the field school, and explained in an email that he hoped his resignation “would help address the anger Wood reported to me” from those accusing him of inappropriate behavior.

Richmond also says that his relationships with female researchers were consensual. Nevertheless, he says in his statement, “I take full responsibility for exercising poor judgment in the past by mixing my professional and personal lives, including having consensual affairs, and I have changed my thinking and my behavior. I am deeply distressed to learn that I have upset the women involved and colleagues in my field. I regret that I was not sensitive to how my academic position could impact the dynamics of consensual relationships.”

Here’s the thing that I don’t understand. Even if we assume that the truth is exactly Richmond’s version of events, his behavior was wildly inappropriate in a way that should be obvious to anyone who does not have a vested interest in perpetuating a culture of harassment and exploitation in academia.

I mean, it’s great that he now understands that “mixing [his] professional and personal lives” is a bad idea and that his “academic position could impact the dynamics of consensual relationships”. But there is no excuse for his not having understood these things before. It’s just not that complicated.

Here’s the rule: When you have substantial power over someone, don’t hit on them.

If you do, best case scenario, whatever happens between you is tainted by the fact that you can’t be sure if they’re really into you. Worst case scenario, you don’t care if they’re really into you, which puts you somewhere on a scale that runs between “manipulative creep” and “rapist”.

So how do you know if you’ve got substantial power over someone? Well, if you’re Curator of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History, you sure as hell have a lot of power over a research assistant who works for you. When you’re a prominent anthropologist, you sure as hell have a lot of power over young anthropology students attending a field school in Kenya. But what about the rest of us?

The Power of Destruction

Academia is hierarchical, perhaps irrevocably so. Senior academics have power over junior academics, because academic careers depend on connections and recommendations. Moreover, an academic career can easily be derailed by a phone call from the right person. As Paul Muad’Dib says, “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.”

Kyle MacLachlan Dune.jpg

It doesn’t matter that you would never destroy someone’s career just because they spurned your advances. If you could — or if they perceive that you could — the power dynamic is in there. And that academic power structure exists in addition to all of the power structures of society — the ones based on gender and race and age and socioeconomic status and everything else. You have somewhat less “power of destruction” over, say, a white male student whose parents are both professors at your university. You have more over a minority female student whose family lives in poverty in a third-world country, whose English is not great, and whose visa will be revoked if she leaves grad school.

To be clear, you should not sleep with either of those students. But the extent of your ability to threaten, coerce, and manipulate is very different in the two cases. Or rather, there is a big difference in the extent to which any advances on your part can not fail to be perceived as coercive and threatening.

A Field Test for Identifying Appropriate Sexual Partners in Academia

I’m going to assume that I’ve already alienated the remorseless sexual predators, and that if you’re still reading, you’re someone who wants to do the right thing, that you don’t want to exploit your power and reputation. But even with the best of intentions, it can be hard to tell where exactly the line should be.

The problem is that power differentials are often invisible to the people holding the power. To the extent that they do see their power, they feel entitled to it, and probably view themselves as benevolent dictators who would never abuse it. That makes it all too easy to ignore, or rationalize away the hazards of a sexual encounter with a student, employee, or junior colleague.

These issues are always matters of degree, and the right answer may depend on the details of the situation in a way that can be captured only very approximately by rules like “no relationships between a faculty member and a student in their department”.

I’d like to propose a thought experiment that you can deploy when you find yourself asking, “Should I hit on this person?”

Imagine that this junior person in your field — maybe a grad student or a postdoc — made a completely false allegation against you. You’ve never even been alone in a room together, but they accuse you of sexual assault. Maybe they’re just a pathological liar. You’re the victim here, but you feel a moral responsibility to make sure that this person doesn’t wind up in a position where they have authority over other people. Because you’re a hero. If that were to happen, could you stop an unsuspecting department from hiring them?

If you hypothetically could do this, then you have no business getting involved with this person — or anyone else with whom you have a similar relationship.

For fans of the mixed metaphor: If you insist on shitting where you eat, pick on someone your own size.

If we’re talking about a student, postdoc, research assistant, etc., who is under your subordinate, you absolutely have this power of destruction — so write that one off right away.

But what about other students in the department, or at other institutions? This is where the thought experiment is useful, I think. For example, if you’re an untenured assistant professor, you probably don’t have power of destruction over the career of a student who works under the chair of your department. There are a lot of other reasons why a relationship is probably a bad idea, but your power over the student might not be one of them.

On the other hand, if you’re one of the biggest stars in your field — you bring in millions of dollars of grant money, and your name comes up every year around Nobel-Prize time — you probably have power of destruction over not just all of the students in your department, but those at other schools as well. In fact, you would do well to steer clear of relationships with junior faculty in the field.

If you’re applying this to yourself, I think it’s important to use the test as I’ve described it — imagining the scenario where you’re the victim — as it will make it easier to recognize the power you have.

If you’re applying it as a third party, it’s maybe easier. If you can imagine saying to someone, “Don’t alienate Professor Whatsit. That could really mess up your career”, the corollary is that a relationship between that person and Professor Whatsit would also be inappropriate. Or, more concisely:

If Pat can’t afford to screw over Chris, then Chris has no business screwing Pat.

A Final Note on True Love

One of the objections that is always raised in these contexts is this: What about true love? What if your one true soul mate just happens to be a student in your laboratory? I’m skeptical of this argument on its face, given that most people just happen to find their soul mate — the only person they could possibly be with — within the vanishingly small fraction of the population they actually encounter. But, for purposes of argument, let’s entertain it.

If your defense is that each of you can’t possibly live without the other, that’s fantastic, and I wish you all the happiness in the world. The more senior of you just needs to quit your job. You can probably move to a new university, or, depending on the situation, maybe you just need to move to a different department.

What’s that? You say it’s hard to find faculty jobs? Well, you could leave academia! After all, yours is a love for the ages, one for which you would be willing to make any sacrifice, right? That’s what you told the folks in HR, anyway.

No? You couldn’t possibly rob the world of your singular intellect? And isn’t it unfair of the university to punish you for falling in love? Why should you have to sacrifice your career? Hmm, this is starting to sound less like “Star-crossed lovers find redemption in May-October romance” and more like “Entitled asshole deals with mid-life crisis through sexual exploitation of vulnerable subordinate while cynically exploiting naive romanticism to cover it up.”

Moments of Wonder Special

If you’re a fan of Moments of Wonder, there’s some cool news. As part of the BBC’s celebration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, there will be a half-hour special featuring Philomena Cunk, who will tell you everything you need to know. According to the BBC,

Unrivalled wordsmith. Unequalled genius. Scholar of the Human Condition. Philomena Cunk is the ideal candidate to give the BBC Two audience a comprehensive guide to William Shakespeare.

A regular contributor to Charlie Brooker’s Weekly Wipe, Philomena has proven herself a shrewd interviewer, an insightful critic, and a voice of wisdom for our troubled times.

She’ll bring all of these considerable talents to bear as she authors a documentary about the Bard, across 30 factually accurate minutes.

If you haven’t seen Moments of Wonder, here’s episode 1 of the series: Time.

And, for the biologists among you, episode 3 is on Evolution:

Honestly, all television should be this.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty is Nonsense for Faculty Hiring

Good news this week for the Astronomy community! Unlike the previous three cases, the latest instance of high-profile professorial sexual misconduct to hit the press comes out of molecular biology. So, yay?

Jason Lieb resigned from the University of Chicago after he was found to have violated the University’s sexual misconduct policy. According to the report from the New York Times:

The professor, Jason Lieb, 43, made unwelcome sexual advances to several female graduate students at an off-campus retreat of the molecular biosciences division, according to a university investigation letter obtained by The New York Times, and engaged in sexual activity with a student who was “incapacitated due to alcohol and therefore could not consent.”

Notwithstanding the fact that “sexual misconduct” seems to be a pretty euphemistic description of what sounds like criminal sexual assault, this is actually a pretty heartening story in a lot of ways. The University of Chicago seems to have acted quickly, recommending that Lieb be fired. That’s in sharp contrast with (and perhaps in reaction to) the handling of other cases, where it often seems that universities’ first impulse is to protect the faculty (and their research funding), only doing the right thing if and when the public finds out, and the negative press coverage threatens to become too costly.

However, there are still some questions about Chicago’s decision to hire Lieb in the first place. There were apparently rumors about Lieb, and suggestions that inappropriate sexual behavior was the reason for his having left Princeton and, before that, the University of North Carolina. However, accusers were anonymous, universities “could not comment on personnel matters”, and so . . .

At Chicago, the hiring committee struggled, Dr. Gilad said, to balance a desire to protect students with a desire not to convict someone without evidence. He said Dr. Lieb had not been found guilty of any offense at North Carolina. The department of human genetics voted unanimously to hire him.

But at the same time,

Separately, Dr. Gilad acknowledged, during the interviews of Dr. Lieb, he admitted that he had had a monthslong affair with a graduate student in his laboratory at the University of North Carolina.

So Lieb did something completely inappropriate (relationship with student in his lab), which makes the rumors feel a little less unsubsantiated. But the hiring committee fell back on the old “Well, he wasn’t formally found guilty, so our hands were tied.”

This is what always happens, in faculty meetings and comment sections — invocation of “innocent until proven guilty”. While that’s an important standard to uphold in criminal court, it’s not the standard for hiring decisions. And when hiring someone for a faculty job, it is a dangerous and destructive impulse.

A faculty job is different from (most) other jobs because of the structure of academia. Professors have enormous power over the students and postdocs who come through their labs. And there’s not an easy way to fix that power structure, because it is baked in.

If you’re a student or postdoc, your career is profoundly dependent on the good will of your advisor. You need an advisor who is willing to go to bat for you, in letters of recommendation and in person. And sure, that might be somewhat less true if there were some magical way to reduce the role of cronyism in academia, but just a bit. If you’re actually engaged in cutting-edge research, the number of people in the world who can really evaluate your work is small. And the number of people who will actually spend the time to really evaluate it is smaller still — probably mostly your co-authors.

Combine that with the extreme competition for faculty jobs, and you’ve got a system where crossing your advisor is career suicide, even if you’re in the right. People who have blow-outs with their advisors rarely land academic jobs. (Many wind up with jobs of various sorts, but rarely tenure-track positions at research universities.) In my observation, it’s mostly when the blow-out happens early on, and someone else in the department adopts them. And even then, the disruption may set them back months or years.

That puts a much greater burden on the hiring process — or at least it should. Every time you hire a new professor, especially if you’re bringing them in with tenure, you’re putting them in a position of authority over students. And if they abuse that authority, those students will have to choose between tolerating that abuse and risking their careers, no matter how good your grievance process is.

Hiring faculty should be more like hiring a babysitter. You don’t have a moral obligation to hire the skeevy guy with the windowless van just because the jury found insufficient grounds to convict him after his previous two babysitting gigs.

Now, if you were considering Lieb for a position at a research laboratory where he would be working with peers, it would be reasonable to give him a bit more benefit of the doubt. Or at least it might have been reasonable before the whole sexual assault thing.

But if you’re thinking of handing him the keys to a fiefdom where young people are entirely dependent on him, and you ignore red flags, you are absolutely responsible for the damage he causes when he turns out to be exactly what he seems.

Decuplet of Bushes at Darwin Eats Cake

Man, it seems like there are so many Bushes in the world! How can we possibly keep them all straight? How are they organized?

Fortunately, frutexophysicists have developed a theory that uses Lie groups to organize the previously unmanageable zoo of Bushes into simple representations. The latest Darwin Eats Cake presents one of these representations: the decuplet for Bushes with spin –3/2. Note that this theory predicts the existence of an as-yet-unobserved Bush (Omega Bush) with maximum charm and minimum strangeness. The Omega Bush is thought to be stable only at extremely high energies not seen since shortly after the Big Bang.



Actually, Iowa is not quite that smart

Last Thursday, Donald Trump gave a 95-minute speech in Iowa that was variously characterized as “unhinged” (by most people) or “a liberal conspiracy” (by Trump supporters). A significant portion of the speech was devoted to Ben Carson, who had recently overtaken Trump in Iowa polling. As part of his rant, Trump asked, “How stupid are the people of Iowa?”

On Friday, the Washington Post published an informal analysis of the relative intelligence of different states. In answer to Trump’s question:

Well, we can answer that. Not stupid at all. In fact, Iowa is one of the smartest states in America.

This is necessarily hard to figure out, of course, given that “stupid” is inherently contextual and subjective. In order to figure out how smart each state was, we looked at objective measures we had at our disposal.

. . .

The results? Iowa is the eighth-smartest state, behind, in order: Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Kansas and Vermont. Donald Trump’s home state of New York came in 17th. The bottom five states were Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Nevada and, in the 50th spot, Hawaii.

The Washington Post analysis combines four metrics: mean IQ score, mean SAT score, mean ACT score, and percentage of college grads. Each of these was converted to a percentage difference from the national median. They were then combined, with IQ being given twice the weight of the other three metrics.

Now, there are a lot of caveats here, which the Post is aware of, and there are certain tweaks one might make. (For example, I might favor Z-scores over percentage difference from the median. Plus, there’s the conflation of intelligence and education, the confounding of those concepts with social and economic opportunity, etc., etc.) But, most of those probably don’t qualitatively change the conclusions of the analysis, and I’m not going to worry about them here.

However, there is something striking when you look at the metrics themselves. There seems to be a trend where states with positive SAT deviations (average SAT scores above the national median) have negative ACT deviations. For example, Alabama has an ACT deviation of -10.3, but an SAT deviation of +4.3. Maine’s deviations are +13.6 on the ACT and -10.4 on the SAT. Massachusetts has a +14.6 on the ACT, but a -0.1 on the SAT. In fact, the correlation between ACT deviations and SAT deviations across all 50 states is r=-0.31. So what the heck is going on?

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 2.13.11 PM

Well, as it turns out, the variation in mean test score from state to state is determined almost entirely by test participation. The larger the percentage of kids who take a test, the lower the average test score. That’s presumably because, if 10% of the students in your state take the SAT, it’s not a random 10%. It is the most highly motivated students who are trying to beef up their college applications.

Here are the relationships between participation rate and test score in the data used by the Washington Post (found here and here):Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 3.01.13 PM Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 3.01.06 PM

The correlations are r = –0.90 for the SAT and r = –0.81 for the ACT. That means that the vast majority of the variation in test scores from state to state is accounted for by differences in participation.

So, one simple thing to do is to fit a line through each of these distributions. Then, we can use that line to estimate what the mean test score would have been for each state if 100% of the students had taken the test.

First off, after we make this correction, it turns out that the mean ACT and SAT scores in a state are positively correlated (r=0.73). So that makes it seem more plausible that we are looking at two different measures of the same underlying trait (“intelligence” combined with various cultural and economic factors).

Then, using the same formulation as the Post’s original ranking, we get this:

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The “Change” column indicates how many positions up or down a state moves in the rankings after making this adjustment for test participation.

Iowa moves down six spots from #8 to #14, but is still above the average, and still above New York. Other big losers are Oklahoma and New Mexico, both of which also move down six spots.

The biggest winners are North Carolina (+9), Florida (+8), and Hawaii (+7).

So why the shifts? In general, there are SAT states and ACT states. That is, in most states have very high participation in one of the tests and very low participation in the other. North Dakota is an ACT state, with 100% participation in the ACT, but less than 10% in the SAT. Maine is an SAT state, with >90% SAT participation, but only 10% ACT participation. In states like these, the two corrections tend to balance each other out.

The states that move down most dramatically when we make the correction are those that have low participation in one test, but only modest participation in the other. For example, Iowa has <10% SAT participation, but only 67% ACT participation. So, 25-35% of the students in Iowa took neither test. What this analysis suggests is that if they had taken one of the tests, they probably would have brought Iowa’s average scores down.

Conversely, the states that move up are those where a significant fraction of students take both tests. In North Carolina, which jumped from 42nd to 33rd, 100% of students took the ACT, and 60-70% of them also took the SAT.

But note that none of this undermines the central take-home message of the Post’s analysis: Donald Trump is a goddamn moron.

Exactly how many sexual predators is UC Berkeley protecting?

Last week, the internet briefly paid attention to the issue of sexual harassment in academia when Buzzfeed published a story about Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, who had been accused of “inappropriate physical behavior with students, including unwanted massages, kisses, and groping.”

Despite having been found guilty by Berkeley’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD), Marcy received what amounted to a stern talking to. Marcy gave a non-apology apology in the form of an open letter,  and he was put on some sort of double-secret probation, amounting to zero tolerance for future infractions, a set of “consequences” that the university described this way: “We consider this to be a very serious matter and the university has taken strong action.”

And that probably would have been the end of it, had the OPHD’s findings not made their way into the hands of Buzzfeed reporter Azeen Ghorayshi, and subsequently been picked up by others, including Berkeley Professor Michael Eisen and Jezebel.

But the story went viral, 22 of the 30 non-Geoff-Marcy faculty in the Berkeley astronomy department signed a letter calling for Marcy’s resignation, and an online petition started among the broader academic community. Shortly thereafter, Marcy resigned.

Marcy’s resignation was greeted with enthusiasm from most quarters, including Berkeley’s Chancellor and Provost. It is tempting, then, to think of this as a victory, and it absolutely was. But the saga exposes just how pathological and corrupt the system is.

There are a few things to keep in mind here.

  1. The system did NOT work. Some small piece of justice was meted out because a reporter got hold of the results of the OPHD investigation, which were not intended to be made public. If the system had worked as intended, the world at large would never have known about Marcy’s behavior.
  2. This went beyond sexual harassment. The fact that the media is referring to this as “sexual harassment”, rather than “sexual assault”, is disturbing, and seems to misrepresent the details of the allegations (of which Marcy was found guilty).
  3. UC Berkeley never did the right thing. Unless you count accepting Marcy’s resignation letter, or the person who leaked the investigation documents to Buzzfeed.
  4. This went on, and was covered up, for years. There are reports of harassment on the part of Geoff Marcy dating back at least to 1995, and clear evidence that Marcy’s behavior was brought to the attention of both the department and the university at least ten years ago. And, as is so often the case, Marcy’s behavior seems to have been an open secret in the astronomy community.
  5. The astronomy department stepped up, sort of. Although the current chair of the astronomy department signed the letter calling for Marcy’s resignation, his initial response (in an e-mail sent out to the faculty) was to urge the other faculty members to support Marcy in this difficult time. Plus, note that there are eight faculty members in the department who did not sign the letter. Some are adjuncts, and some are dual appointments with other departments, and they may simply not have had the opportunity to sign. But if I were considering becoming a student in that department,  I would certainly want to ask some questions before committing to work for or with any of those eight.
  6. Berkeley’s hands were tied, and that’s not a good thing. Even as the UC Berkeley top brass were celebrating Marcy’s resignation, they were defending their initial inaction, citing the lengthy and expensive process required to actually punish a tenured professor. First of all, “We could have done more, but it was too much work” is a terrible excuse. Second, UC Berkeley, the institution, is responsible for the policies that made actually dealing with Marcy difficult or undesirable.

All of this brings be back to the original question. Exactly how many professors are there at Berkeley (and every other university, for that matter) are being protected by the system? How many engaged, and continue to engage, in abusive, predatory behaviors and were given a light slap on the wrist behind closed doors? How many were not even given that, because the victims were discouraged, implicitly or overtly, from filing a formal complaint?

This one goes in the win column for justice, but not because the system worked. Geoff Marcy is leaving Berkeley because the system was circumvented. And that’s not a solution. The internet can not be responsible for shaming universities into doing the right thing.

And while this Geoff Marcy may be gone (although he may well land on his feet elsewhere), it is important to remember that he represents just the tip of a huge back-rubbing, kissing, groping iceberg of Geoff Marcys — and that if the system had worked as intended, we might never even have known about him.

H & R Block Stans are the Worst

A year and a half ago, I posted a rant about the H & R Block ad claiming that Americans who prepare their own taxes overpay by a billion dollars, and that this is a reason to use H & R Block. To summarize, my complaint was this: That billion dollars amounts to an average of about $21 per return. And, by H & R Block’s own numbers, they charge an average of $77 per return.

So, if you go to H & R Block, you will pay on average $56 more (collectively to H & R Block and the IRS) than if you do your own taxes.

Since then, this has become the most commented-on post on my blog, with the overwhelming majority of comments coming from people who work for H & R Block coming to defend their honor (or something). When these comments first started showing up, I thought it might be an astroturfing campaign my H & R Block, which would be sort of a mark of honor, in a way. However, I think that these are genuine, organic comments, which makes me sort of sad.

I always find slavish jingoism depressing, whether in the context of nationalism, or sports, or college loyalty. But in the context of your employer — an employer that does not actually treat the people who work for it all that well, based on many of the comments — is some serious Stockholm Syndrome shit.

Many of the comments cover the same ground. So, rather than responding in the comment thread, I thought I would address things raised in the comments here. Note that these are not actual comments, but paraphrases of whole classes of comments.

Comment: But tax professionals have to study hard every year to keep up with the changes in the tax code!

Fine, I believe that’s true. I fully believe that you have skills and knowledge that I don’t have. It’s just that if the cost to me of using those skills is $77, and the cost of not using them is $21, that’s not a strong incentive to use them. Plus, as I noted in the original post, part of the reason why you need to study so hard each year is because of lobbying done by H & R Block and others to keep the tax code complicated. So yes, you are a hard-working cog in a well-oiled extortion racket. Who’s a hard-working cog? You are!

Comment: I’m not ripping anyone off. In fact, I only get paid a small fraction of the customer fees.

I am perfectly happy to assume no ill will on the part of any of the tax preparers themselves. It’s an annoying ad campaign is all. So the post was really aimed at the marketing department. Also, based on the numbers getting thrown around in the comments, you should all become freelance tax professionals. You could charge half of what H & R Block does and take home more money.

Comment: What about the time it takes to prepare your return? Isn’t that worth something?

Yes. In fact, I made exactly this point in the original post. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to pay someone to do your taxes. Top of the list is that you don’t enjoy doing it, and would rather spend your time doing something else. A+ on basic economics. C– on reading comprehension.

Comment: Aren’t you actually a rival company trying to take down H & R Block, or an ex-employee with a grudge?

No. I’m just a guy who sat through that damn “Get your billion back, America!” ad one too many times.

Comment: If you underpay your taxes, you’ll have interest and penalties.

This is a good point — in fact the only sensible point that came up in the comments that was not addressed in the original post. It’s not just a question of maximizing your deductions. If you make a mistake and underpay, you could wind up owing a lot more. One could do a similar calculation. If, on average, it costs you an extra $56 to have H & R Block do your return, how does this compare with the average penalty size? I don’t know the answer, but your taxes are at all complicated, it’s something to factor in.

Comment: Actually, we’re tax professionals, not CPAs!

Um, okay. I don’t even know where this is coming from. Maybe the fact that I cited statistics from the National Society of Accountants? Maybe one of the other commenters erroneously referred to the tax preparers working for H & R Block as “accountants” or “CPAs”? In any event, I apologize for any confusion, and for inadvertently overrepresenting the credentials required to work for H & R Block, I guess?

Comment: If you don’t like the price, you don’t have to pay.

This I did not know. It would take a special kind of asshole to come in, let someone work through their taxes and fill out the forms, and then take it home without paying. However, if you are comfortable with this, I guess you should definitely take your taxes to H & R Block!

Comment: Something something averages don’t matter every return is different blah blah.

Yes, some people will come out ahead, when the tax preparer finds a huge deduction they were unaware of. Other people will come out worse than the average. That’s how averages work. If you have good reason to know which group you would be in as a customer, that should inform your decision. If you don’t, then the average is useful.

Note that it still may be worth it to pay someone to do your taxes, as it will reduce your variance. In much the same way, you will, on average, pay more for your insurance than you’ll get back. The reason you buy insurance is to hedge against the big losses. Similarly, if there is a possibility of a big error in your taxes, hedging may be the right thing, even if it costs you more on average. However, if we’re talking numbers in the tens or hundreds of dollars, you’re better off playing to the average — over the course of several years, you might expect things to, you know, average out.

When I wrote the original post, I had no opinion one way or the other on the competence of the people who actually do your taxes at H & R Block. However, the nature of many of these comments does give me pause. If the lack of attention to detail and incoherent innumeracy on display here is typical of the people who work for H & R Block, you might look elsewhere.

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