Neither brilliant nor stupid


News is trickling out about the Aurora murderer. The first wave of misinformation was gosh-wow gullible stuff in which reporters were gushing over how he was some super-genius in a top-flight neuroscience program. I have to disillusion everyone right there: getting into graduate school is a minor accomplishment, sure, but it’s not the major mark of distinction they think it is. By all accounts so far, he was an average student early in his academic career. Most revealing is the suggestion that he was also washing out of that career.

Holmes had difficulty with a June 7 preliminary exam, given orally by three university faculty members. It is designed to evaluate students’ knowledge at the end of the first year. Three days later, Holmes dropped out.

Basic fact about grad school, at least in the sciences: you are admitted provisionally. You’re essentially given research tasks at first to test your ability, and then the big event is your preliminary exam. It is extremely stressful, just ask Jen. If you pass it, you advance to candidacy for a Ph.D. and are expected to buckle down and get to work. If you fail it…you’re done. Pack your bags, go home. You probably aren’t going to get accepted into any other grad program, either.

At every school I’ve been at, most students pass their prelims — their importance is highly emphasized, and everyone knows to work their asses off. But there are always some who don’t make the cut. And that sounds like Holmes’ case. I kind of suspected, from the timing, that he was a grad student who’d just failed his prelims.

You can’t blame his shooting rampage on that, though. I suspect that one reason he failed is that he spent the last several months, when he should have been frantically studying, stockpiling Batman paraphernalia in his apartment, instead. He was on a trajectory towards failure long before he stepped into that last examining room.

via Neuroscientists debunk idea Colorado suspect was supersmart – USATODAY.com.

Comments

  1. Andy Groves says

    There have been reports in the last day or so that Holmes was on an NIH training grant. I can’t wait for the first story that gubmint money paid for the massacre. Or has one come out already?

    (For those not familiar with the NIH, these grants are awarded to graduate programs, usually to allow first or second year students to take classes and perform laboratory work before taking their qualifying exams. US students or permanent residents can be given a position on these grants, and graduate programs typically admit sufficient students to fill the number of slots they have on the grant. The fact that Holmes was funded by the grant does not make him a super-scientist either)

  2. Beatrice says

    I guess this is another way in which people are trying to distance themselves from this kind of criminal. It doesn’t matter if he’s made to be a crazed genius or a bumbling fool, just as long as he’s not an ordinary person most of us could identify with in some way.

  3. says

    You’re essentially given research tasks at first to test your ability, and then the big event is your preliminary exam.

    That’s very different from the UK. While PhD students have to produce a Transfer Report (i.e. a report summarizing what they’ve done) at the end of the first year, this is generally regarded as a routine procedure, and not a cause for great concern. It’s mainly there as a coup de grace for those who are manifestly out of their depth.

    The prime challenge is producing a PhD thesis which is deemed by both an internal and an external examiner to be of sufficient quality. Even the Viva (or the Defense, as it’s called in the US) is a secondary challenge. It mainly exists to verify that the student is the author, and that they understand what they’ve written.

    When PhD students fail, it’s usually a slow fizzing out, rather than a dramatic end. Even having a thesis outright rejected is fairly rare, as a competent supervisor would tell a student with a sub-par thesis that they needed to do more work on it.

  4. Gen, Uppity Ingrate. says

    I guess this is another way in which people are trying to distance themselves from this kind of criminal. It doesn’t matter if he’s made to be a crazed genius or a bumbling fool, just as long as he’s not an ordinary person most of us could identify with in some way.

    Exactly.

    There’s this huge disconnect, where people seem to think “No one I know could ever be capable of this, never me, never the people I love or care about (as I’m sure Holmes’ parents believed until last weekend too!), never my friends or the people I know or the people I work with or anyone like that! Only monsters! With horns (or dyed hair)! Who can be spotted a mile away and shunnnnnnnnned by ‘decent’ society!”

    Sorry to say, that is pure, unmitigated bullshit. We don’t even know our own children well enough to say with certainty that they could never commit such a heinous act, much as we’d like to believe or pretend otherwise – something which really hit home for me when I saw that picture with the news vans in front of Holmes’ parents’ house and I realized – they found out about what their son could do the very same way the rest of us did.

    People are people, the same as you and me. No matter what they do, no matter what monstrous violence they unleash, they are still people like you and me. Just one week ago, Holmes was just another flunking grad student. Just two years ago, Anders Breivik was just another asshole raging on the internet, assumed to be harmless, with friends who would never believe you if you tell them what he’d turn out to do.

    Humanity, as glorious as it is, is also deeply, deeply scary.

    Yet that still doesn’t change the fact that these are people, people who were thought to be ‘normal’ up until the very moment they started killing, people just like you and me, and pretending otherwise, while it may be comforting in a certain way, does no one any favours.

    (Yeah, I had a bad week. Can you tell?)

  5. Usernames are smart says

    When I was in my last year of Undergrad, we had a rash (is 2-4 a rash?) of Graduate student suicides in the Sciences.

    I wonder if he wasn’t cracking up before and decided to Suicide-by-Cop and/or was suffering from clinical depression? Not as an excuse for what he did, but if there were signs that were ignored (as in Virginia Tech-read the last paragraph), that’s the real tragedy: none of this had to happen if he’d gotten help.

  6. eric says

    hyperdeath:

    That’s very different from the UK. While PhD students have to produce a Transfer Report (i.e. a report summarizing what they’ve done) at the end of the first year, this is generally regarded as a routine procedure, and not a cause for great concern.

    I had friends who got physically ill in the run-up to their pre-lims. Definitely a big deal for most young US scientists. Though the school I went to was slightly different from the “classic” example PZ provides; our pre-lim failure rate was about 30%, but getting a second chance 2-3 months later was pretty typical. You were booted if you failed the second chance.

    I asked my professor about why the system put such strong emphasis on the pre-lim (when other countries put it all on the thesis). In fairness to the US system, the answer was IMO pretty reasonable: the school doesn’t want to waste their time or yours keeping you in a program if you’re going to fail. Better to determine that within the first year or two. That way, you can get on with your life. Grad school is not exactly a great job. The pay, hours, and benefits are all crappy. So if you’re not going to get a Ph.D. out of it, its best for both the school and the student to end it pretty quickly.

  7. yoav says

    Andy #1 said

    I can’t wait for the first story that gubmint money paid for the massacre. Or has one come out already?

    Of course it already happened, I can’t remember who exactly it was but I heard some moron on TV already come up with the extremely stupid, we need to check whether any of this money was used to buy the guns used in the massacre, line. Anything to distract people from the fact that you can’t buy cold medicine without showing an ID to make sure you don’t stockpiling it but you can just go online and buy 6000 bullets, no questions asked.

  8. machintelligence says

    Gen @5:

    We don’t even know our own children well enough to say with certainty that they could never commit such a heinous act, much as we’d like to believe or pretend otherwise –

    This is an excellent reason to lock people like this away for life. If neuroscience advances sufficiently we can study them to find what makes them different from those who never run amok.
    Colorado does have a death penalty, although it has been 20 years since anyone was executed. The prosecutors in this case will doubtless seek to have it invoked, because if it doesn’t apply to a case like this, where could it apply? Also, the DA is known to be a “tough on crime” sort.

  9. ChasCPeterson says

    yep.
    You read it

    here

    first.

    or not.

    We had both a written qual exam after one year and then the orals after you had a proposal put together. These were stressful events indeed.

  10. says

    The first wave of misinformation was gosh-wow gullible stuff in which reporters were gushing over how he was some super-genius in a top-flight neuroscience program.

    I wonder if they’d have done that if Holmes hadn’t been white?

    BTW, from Twitter:

    Reminder that cops peacefully took down James Holmes after he slaughtered a dozen people, and Manuel Diaz got shot running from the police.

    (Of course, the mainstream media coverage of the resulting protests in Anaheim is downplaying the police brutality.)

  11. David Marjanović says

    That’s very different from the UK.

    It’s very different from many countries. In Austria and France, having successfully graduated with a Master’s degree gives you the right to begin a doctorate.

    (Not any particular one, though. You still need to find a topic and a supervisor and have them approved by the university. And in France, you must also prove you have financing, AFAIK.)

    In Austria, there’s not even such a thing as a graduate school, it’s just the university itself, and so on and so forth. University systems are very, very diverse.

  12. garnetstar says

    eric @7, you are spot-on right.

    In my department, it is emphasized that entering the grad program is not by any means admission to the Ph.D. program. You’ve got to pass your orals for that.

    And, though we want to admit only students can complete the degree, we absolutely do not want to waste anyone’s time. You go six years down the road, working 80 hours a week, get paid a barely-living wage, then find out that no, you’re not getting anything out of it? Seems like that would drive more people to mass murder than being dismissed would.

    If you fail your orals, some students get another shot at them, but most are told that they’re leaving the program with a master’s degree, since in the first two years they’ve completed the requirements for that. You can get a pretty good job in chemistry with a master’s, and you can try for a Ph.D. again, after you’ve perhaps become more qualifed.

    And orals are rough, rough, rough. You’ve got to pass the oral exam on knowledge, you’ve got to write up the research you’ve done and defend it as adequate, and you’ve got to produce an original research proposal in an area outside your field. You’d better be working hard and not be wasting your time amassing weapons and explosives or sitting around whining and fretting.

  13. Beatrice says

    Gen, Uppity Ingrate,

    You are absolutely right and said it better than I could.

    I’m sorry about the bad week.

  14. says

    Although common variety paranoid schizophrenia is the more likely armchair diagnosis, I can’t help but wonder whether they should get this guy a CAT scan to check for a tumor or other organic brain damage.

    People don’t usually wash out of grad school and go on a shooting rampage, nor spend weeks prior to their orals stockpiling ammo.

    His affect in photos I’ve seen also indicate someone who just isn’t quite “there”. I can’t help but wonder why.

    /evidence-free speculation

  15. says

    i wouldn’t dismiss holmes’ academic achievements out of hand. sure, when compared to his academic peers, his record may be middling or even a washout, but compared to his criminal peers, the guy’s a total einstein, so he’s still an outlier on that score. not many homicidal maniacs manage to suppress their urges well into higher academia. usually they land in jail for something before they get out of high school and in jail there is no higher academia other than the criminal and basic survival kind. homicidal maniacs tend to not finish school, so grad-school-level maniacs are pretty hard to find.

  16. says

    i should add that until we find his manifesto or he starts talking, none of us know anything about this guy and this is all just unfettered speculation.

  17. says

    @ Gen #5:
    That can’t be entirely correct, as the vast majority of people, even those under all manner of major stresses, do not in fact go on shooting rampages. Prior to his shooting rampage, Breivik was just another asshole on the internet expressing his violent fantasies, but most people do not spend all their time on the net talking about their fantasies of violence, and when someone does, that’s a cue that you should maybe keep a bit more of an eye on them vs someone who doesn’t. In every mass shooting case that I’m aware of, there have been signs previously that the shooter was starting to lose their grip on mental stability, which were ignored/dealt poorly with. In other words, even if people don’t know beforehand who’s a risk to do something like this at present, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be known/predicted, and possibly prevented by getting them some help before they snap.

  18. madphd says

    In most PhD programs in the the biomedical sciences, students straight from BS to PhD. Few programs offer a terminal Masters Degree, and the Masters Degree is offered as a consolation prize to those how don’t make it. Generally, the first two years in this type of PhD program are spent in classes while getting your feet wet in the lab. These classes, though, are what many Masters students would have gotten.

    My understanding of the UK system, is that by the end of Uni, you have attained what we would consider a Masters level education in your degree (They don’t mess around with all the additional electives US students have to take). Thus, when starting PhD programs, UK students need no additional classes and immediately begin research.

    The qualifying exams we take ensure that we really are ready for PhD level work.

    As for the Aurora shooter… I wonder whether he had a death wish… he was fully covered in bullet proof armor. Did he just want to cause as much mayhem as possible before being taken down? Or did he not want to die? If this is the case what did he expect to happen once taken into custody? I know we won’t know much of this for a while, but it’s one of those things that makes me go “Huh?”.

  19. madphd says

    #19

    …rather, in most biomedical PhD programs in the US, students go straight from BS to PhD.

  20. Snake says

    That’s very different from the UK. While PhD students have to produce a Transfer Report (i.e. a report summarizing what they’ve done) at the end of the first year, this is generally regarded as a routine procedure, and not a cause for great concern. It’s mainly there as a coup de grace for those who are manifestly out of their depth.

    This is very dependent on institution. The place I did my PhD was like this, but the place where I’m now a prof fails 5-10% at the transfer report stage. It’s not unknown for students to progress to the final viva and fail too, although I wouldn’t describe it as common.

    I have two transfer exams to do in the next couple of weeks.
    (evil laugh) BWAAAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHAHAAH

  21. microraptor says

    Although common variety paranoid schizophrenia is the more likely armchair diagnosis, I can’t help but wonder whether they should get this guy a CAT scan to check for a tumor or other organic brain damage.

    I’ve occasionally wondered if that should actually be standard procedure for first-time violent offenders.

    Of course, we’d never get a law like that passed: among other things, the notion of “free will” is still too strongly ingrained in the public’s consciousness.

  22. eric says

    Garnetstar @13:

    And orals are rough, rough, rough. You’ve got to pass the oral exam on knowledge, you’ve got to write up the research you’ve done and defend it as adequate, and you’ve got to produce an original research proposal in an area outside your field.

    I suspect that second criteria was the reason my institution gave grad students a second shot. 1.5 years is really not that long in science, its relatively easy to pick a topic that doesn’t pay off in terms of results in that amount of time. Sure, its the advisor’s job to help the student select a good area for study, but this is science – no hypothesis is guaranteed to pan out, no experiment is guaranteed to run smoothly. :) I think the school figured: better to let most kids retest than lose a good candidate that had a bit of bad luck in picking their topic or their early research.

  23. nickcharles says

    Apparently god whipped up some “prevenient grace” and “saved” the life of one of the victims by “creating” her with some sort of magic brain straw that allowed some buckshot to pass through her brain without totally destroying it. Of course god forgot to create convenient holes and tubes for the other 70 people who got shot, or even spare them the horror, shock and trauma of the shooting in the first damn place.

  24. kc9oq says

    He strikes me as the sort of smart but lazy student who can coast along on sheer intelligence … until he encounters a program that requires real WORK.

    “The bitterest person in the world: The grad-school dropout.” — Matt Groening

  25. The twelfth vote says

    As a product of a doctoral program of the University of Colorado myself, it irks me that this killer is continually referred to as a “Doctoral Candidate” by the media. Reaching candidacy is a big deal for every student, since it means not only that you get a bump in pay, but also that only one real major hurdle is left–the thesis defense (the dissertation itself is not that big of a deal). To get to candidacy (in my field, Computer Science) you have to pass three preliminary exams and also pass an oral research proposal defense before your full committee, the latter of which is the most daunting. It took me three years of 12-18 hour days and no small amount of anxiety and self doubt to reach candidacy.

    This guy never even got as far as passing his first prelim.

    As PZ pointed out, all he managed to do was to get into grad school. That is so far from being a “doctoral candidate” as to be laughable.

  26. DLC says

    This information fits in with speculation I’ve seen elsewhere that this Holmes may be someone who “peaked at 17″. Supposedly his HS grades and work were characterized as outstanding, but he planed out in College and appears to have completed his sinking by grad school. It may turn out to be entirely wrong, but it sounds plausible to me.

    On the government money angle — the wingnut conspiracy theorists are already out in full force, blaming everything from “MKUltra” to “False Flag Operation” to “He’s a patsy, Black Ops troops did the real killing! ” . It’s so fucking stupid.

  27. Doug Hudson says

    I know this sounds weird, but I always feel a touch of, I dunno, pity?, for the shooters in these types of situations.

    Whatever the actual reason for the shooting, whether mental illness, or misogyny, or racism, or politics, or just plain twisted, the fact that these people saw violence as the best option means that our society failed them. Whatever these people needed to make them NOT see violence as a option, was not provided. Whether that was medical care, therapy, better role models, whatever, our society failed to give the shooters the training and insight needed to resolve problems without violence.

    This is not to excuse the shooters. They made the choice to commit violence, and must bear the consequences. But the fact that the shooters even saw a mass shooting as an option–that is a failure of society, and I regret it.

    It reminds me of my favorite line from the Lord of the Rings, “Many who live deserve to die, and many who die deserve to live. Can you give it to them?”

  28. macrophage says

    [Sorry, haven’t read the other comments yet]

    I’ve been wondering about this ever since I heard it was the end of his first year and he dropped out. In my current dept almost everyone passes prelims. The faculty make it super tough and we sweat it out, but we make it through. Not so in a friend’s department. Over there everyone fails the first time. By design. Then they sit for a second, equally tough exam. Some drop out then. Some change to MS status.

    There’s also the issue most first years around here face: matching with a lab. We do research rotations and try to match with a lab at the end of the first year. I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t match at all. I notice that his program required admission via a different department, then selecting a faculty member who was part of the interdisciplinary neuroscience program.

    I was also on an NIH training grant for awhile. The pay isn’t that good, especially if you have to pay rent, etc. I keep wondering if he also took out student loans. Because all that stuff is super expensive.

    But another thing keeps bugging me. It took MONTHS for that stuff to accumulate. Some reports say 4 months. That’s well before June. And he must have been doing research, most likely online, into all the things he was building. Doesn’t that ping on any watch list or something?

    At any rate, something like this doesn’t happen simply because a person fails in one program. Something’s been building in his brain for some time. He may have shown no outward signs and may not have even known what was going on himself. Or maybe he did. I don’t know. We can wonder why all we want, but the real answer may be even more terrifying in that there was nothing we could have done to prevent it.

  29. leonpeyre says

    I kind of suspected, from the timing, that he was a grad student who’d just failed his prelims.

    You can’t blame his shooting rampage on that, though.

    You got that right! I went through what might have been equivalent–I failed the exam to earn my Master’s and progress into the PhD unit (my department had some goofy rules and ways of doing things). I had the chance to retake the exam, and I spent several days thinking over my options. One option I strongly considered was dropping out altogether because grad school just wasn’t working out (this was largely because my department was truly awful in how it approached the field), but I never once considered killing anybody.

    Just in case it needed to be said that his circumstances in no way mitigate what he did.

  30. jakc says

    As Sheldon Cooper says “You know, it’s amazing how many supervillians have advanced degrees. Graduate schools really should do a better job at screening those people out.”

  31. What a Maroon, el papa ateo says

    (from the link in @24):

    In Christianity we call it prevenient grace: God working ahead of time for a particular event in the future. It’s just like the God I follow to plan the route of a bullet through a brain long before Batman ever rises. Twenty-two years before.

    So this god creature knew at least 22 year in advance that this would happen. And instead of taking the precaution of having the guns jam from the beginning, or having the dude’s arms fall off, or giving a sign to a neighbor to denounce the dude to the police, or a million other actions that could have saved twelve lives, it puts a channel in one woman’s brain (who of course it knew ahead of time would grow up to be a devout Catholic, and therefore worth saving), thereby saving her life? And fuck the other 12 who died?

    Jesus fucking christ on a pogo stick, but you have to be an immoral bloody minded ghoul to worship such a creature.

  32. marilove says

    He entered grad school at a time when for a lot of people, mental illness starts to show itself, right? All reports indicate that sometimes he seemed just normal if a little quiet, while other times he was pretty off.

    He could also be a sociopath, but I read an article recently where it was stated that his history just doesn’t indicate that at all.

  33. triamacleod says

    I will fully admit I am out of my depth here which is why I’m asking for input.

    If he planned this 2-4 months in advance, got weapons, ammo, body armor, etc. Then booby trapped his apartment including a timer that set off loud techo/industrial music after he left for the theater and had the forethought to leave the door unlocked in the hopes that someone would walk in to ask him to turn it down thereby setting off the bombs.

    And he managed to get in the emergency exit of the theater (I thought they could only be opened from the inside to stop people from sneaking in without paying), used a flashbang device to make it easier to confuse and delay people so he’d have more targets. Had himself covered in protective body armor and didn’t try for suicide by cop.

    Maybe it is just me but he doesn’t sound ‘crazy’. He sounds very thorough and detailed oriented. And with a background in neuroscience would that give him enough information to ‘act’ crazy enough to prevent himself from getting a death sentence?

    I guess I’m just trying to make sense of things but the “he’s crazy” label doesn’t seem to fit him. Yet what person in their right mind would do something like this?

  34. microraptor says

    John Hinckley Jr, the man who tried to assassinate President Reagan, was found not guilty by reason of insanity due to his obsession with the movie Taxi Driver and the actress Jodie Foster, which served as the imputes for his actions. Even though he was a very irrational individual, he was still able to plan how he was going to assassinate the president and then carry out that plan.

    Insanity does not render a person incapable of long-term planning or executing complex actions.