Allow me to complain some more about SETs

You might also like reading about the reification of student evaluations. I’ve witnessed this so many times — another thing I detest is the sacred mean, which must climb ever higher, or you’re a bad teacher. It doesn’t seem to matter that students are diverse and there cannot be a single professors who personifies the ideal for every single person. One of the terrible things about is that it assumes our student bodies have the consistency of mashed potatoes, and we just have to find the strategy to teach the mass. How can you even contemplate reducing a complex task like teaching to a single representative number?

Student Evaluations of Teaching don’t

I love student evaluations. I hate student evaluations.

Every semester, at the end, I’m required to go through this rigamarole where we give students an opportunity to evaluate our teaching, by handing out a standardized form with a Likert scale for telling us how wonderful or awful we are. It’s useless. They get to color in little dots that put us on a scale of quality, and most students don’t seem to enjoy it, and I’ve also noticed that the way they score the teacher is more reflective of how well they’re doing in the class than how well they were taught. I could easily boost my score by giving out more A grades.

And, unfortunately, they’re taken way too seriously by our review committees. I’ve seen committees split hairs over a hundredth of a point, or compare faculty on the basis of sample sizes of less than 10 students. Worst of all, I’ve been in meetings where faculty seriously insist that every instructor ought to be getting above average scores on student evaluations. And you can’t speak out against them, because then they’ll get revenge by carefully scrutinizing your scores.

In their defense, though, people have argued for years that student evaluation scores are positively correlated with academic effectiveness. Only that turns out to be not necessarily true.

A new study suggests that past analyses linking student achievement to high student teaching evaluation ratings are flawed, a mere “artifact of small sample sized studies and publication bias.”

“Whereas the small sample sized studies showed large and moderate correlation, the large sample sized studies showed no or only minimal correlation between [student evaluations of teaching, or SET] ratings and learning,” reads the study, in press with Studies in Educational Evaluation. “Our up-to-date meta-analysis of all multisection studies revealed no significant correlations between [evaluation] ratings and learning.”

These findings “suggest that institutions focused on student learning and career success may want to abandon SET ratings as a measure of faculty’s teaching effectiveness,” the study says.

Oh, please, yes, make it so. Kill these things. Not only would it stop wasting our time, but it would end pointlessly innumerate conversations in faculty meetings.

But wait, I also said I love student evaluations. I do! But not the numbers. Our forms also have an open space for free-form student comments, and those are often very useful. They’re also abused (one year a group of students colluded to write the same thing on every form: “This class taught me to love Jesus even more”, because of my reputation as an atheist. I hadn’t mentioned anything, pro or con, about Christianity in the course — it was a cell biology class, but I had brought up evolution quite a bit), but they also tell me what students found memorable or problematic. That’s good to know, and I try to reduce the problems and use the memorable strategies more in subsequent classes.

Also, believe it or not, grades aren’t just a way of punishing and rewarding students. I have goals for my courses, and they also tell me if I’m getting essential concepts across. So, for instance, the first exam in my cell bio course this term was intended to evaluate whether students had a good grasp of basic general chemistry; if they didn’t, I would have to go over redox reactions yet again before I plunged into oxidative phosphorylation. There’s no point in pushing on into more complex topics if they don’t have a good grip on the basics. (I’m relieved to say they did surprisingly well on the first exam, so our general chemistry course has clearly prepared them well.)

There are better ways of assessing whether a course is accomplishing its goals than handing students who don’t see the big picture a Likert scale and asking them to state whether the course and teacher are good or not. And do I need to even go into the superficial biases that color SETs? It matters whether you are good-looking or not, and students are nests of gender biases. I know that a benefit from being male — I’m not judged on appearance as much — but suffer a bit from being older and less attractive. But those are things that shouldn’t matter at all in judging teaching effectiveness.

The Democrats are doing it again

I’ve made a few small donations to the Democratic party, and you know what that means: I now receive a flock of email — almost hourly — begging for more donations. And I’ve noticed something ugly about that email. It’s all about fear.

We’ve rightly berated the media for plumping up Trump’s prominence, but the Democrats are doing it, too. Nearly every email is moaning about the polls. The latest is telling me how terrified we should be, because Nate Silver says Trump has a 2 in 5 chance of winning the election. In fact, nearly every email from them is all about the growing power of this ogre who is crushing the opposition and growing in popularity every day, so give us more money.

Just stop it. Of course Trump has a chance; there are a lot of stupid, bigoted people in this country. But I don’t want to hear doom and gloom from his opposition, because it sounds like you’re already giving up. Tell me why the Democratic party is better, what you’ll do if we give you our vote, and how your policies are superior to those of the corrupt orange toad. And most of all, don’t give a good goddamn about the polls. I’m not going to vote for someone because they’re ahead or behind in some poll — that doesn’t influence me in the least, although apparently the Democrats want that to be the major factor in my decision about who I should support, because it’s all they talk about.

Also, I’m more than a little tired of anything to do with Nate Silver, who is the political equivalent of a horse racing tout. Don’t care. Shut up about polls, tell me more about policy.

Terry Gross forces me to question my marriage

It’s a brutal question. Suddenly, my whole life has become a lie because Terry Gross asked a penetrating question of a gay soccer player, Abby Wambach.

So I want to ask you more about like comprehending your sexuality, your sexual orientation. You’d had a boyfriend in high school. You went to the prom together. You were considered, like, the jock couple of Rochester, New York. Was it helpful on Long Island to have had a boyfriend, to have had sex with a boy, so that you could know with more certainty, “no, I love women?”

Dang, Ms Gross, you made me realize…I went through all of high school (and my life since high school) not even dating any boys, let alone having sex with them. With that huge lack of experience, how can I possibly know whether I’m sexually attracted to women, especially my wife? I’m supposed to be all about prioritizing empirical research, and apparently desire has to be evaluated like a taste test, and I have to sample all the varieties before I can truly love someone.

WTF, New Scientist? WTF?

I guess New Scientist is feeling some heat over their disgraceful advocacy of Canavero’s ludicrous head transplant scheme. They just posted a rather defensive follow-up, and they’re still getting it all wrong.

It is one thing to find the science risibly weak, but on the bigger issue of head transplants – or more accurately, full-body transplants – nobody is laughing. The surgery seems macabre but is scientifically feasible and could offer real benefits to some people.

No. That’s the whole point. It is not feasible, no one is even close to being able to do it, and risibly weak is a ridiculous understatement. You can’t claim it’s feasible while also admitting that the science is weak. This makes no sense at all, especially considering how they close the thing.

Even if head transplants prove impossible or unacceptable, full spinal cord repair would be a breakthrough of huge importance. It’s time to get serious, lest this opportunity is lost.

It’s simultaneously feasible, but may also prove impossible? Who is writing this drivel?

No one is arguing about whether spinal cord repair would be a fantastically important advance. It would be. The point is, if you want to get serious about accomplishing that, you’re not going to get there by promoting an irresponsible hack like Canavero, or by touting nonexistent advances and bad papers as breakthroughs of huge importance.

My hero

Elizabeth Warren is completely on point in grilling the Wells Fargo CEO, John Stumpf, who profited from fraud and still has his job, as do all of his cronies. This is a beautiful examination.

Unfortunately, whoever uploaded this video claims she DESTROYS him. No, she doesn’t. He has gone home to his mansion, will continue to rake in the cash from his corrupt bank, and will probably get together with his obscenely wealthy pals at the country club to cuss out ‘Pocahantas’, because that’s the way the system works.

If there were justice, he wouldn’t be destroyed. He’d be going to jail, his money would be seized, and Wells Fargo would be broken up.

At least Canavero isn’t comparing himself to Galileo yet

Just Frankenstein. Reader blf tracked down some information about Surgical Neurology International, where Canavero and his pals are having a grand time publishing shoddy science about head transplants. The journal has a complicated, messy history, with a mix of credible scientific papers and far-right-wing fringe conspiracy theories. That ought to make you question the source right there.

By the way, Canavero has a new paper there: HEAVEN: The Frankenstein effect.

The HEAVEN head transplant initiative needs human data concerning the acute restoration of motor transmission after application of fusogens to the severed cord in man. Data from two centuries ago prove that a fresh cadaver, after hanging or decapitation, can be mobilized by electrical stimulation for up to 3 hours. By administering spinal cord stimulation by applied paddles to the cord or transcranial magnetic stimulation to M1 and recording motor evoked potentials, it should be possible to test fusogens in fresh cadavers. Delayed neuronal death might be the neuropathological reason.

He sounds like he’d be fun at parties, doesn’t he?

I don’t get the point of this experiment. The question isn’t whether you can get an electrical current to jump the gap, crossing a lesion in the spinal cord; that’s trivial. The question is whether his fusogens promote active, specific regrowth of nerve fibers across the lesion, and you won’t get that by shocking corpses. It might have been an interesting observation 250 years ago when Luigi Galvani was shocking dead frogs, but it’s not something that needs to be tested now.

It’s also a rather pointless paper. He hasn’t done any of these experiments, but is just arguing that we should do them. Save that for the IRB. It shouldn’t count as a publication.

Your latest head transplant news

I’m sure you’re all wondering what’s happening with Sergio Canavero and his dangerous and unethical plan to transplant whole heads. Three new papers have been published claiming to have achieved partial regeneration of function of severed spinal cords in mice and rats and dogs.

Credible scientists do not believe it.

However, papers published today detailing the spinal cord repair technique applied to the dog have prompted other scientists to express concerns over the work. “These papers do not support moving forward in humans,” says Jerry Silver, a neuroscientist at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

Jerry Silver is so nice. I’m more likely to say that these are cases of scientific fraud and that they are so shoddily done that they shouldn’t have been published. Of course, the way that they got published is that Canavero was the editor of all three who allowed them into the journal.

The “breakthrough” that they’re promoting is that after severing the cords, they tried some additional experimental treatments that were supposed to promote regrowth: they injected the site with polyethylene glycol (PEG) and with graphene ribbons. I’ve used PEG to make hybridomas — it’s basically a membrane solvent that allows adjacent cells to fuse with one another. The graphene ribbons act as electrical conductors to allow current to flow across the lesion.

I gawp in astonishment that anyone would think this would work, and that any ethical review board would allow them to continue. I should belatedly warn you that the New Scientist link includes a video of dogs and mice intentionally crippled and struggling to move.

Here’s the problem restated in cruder terms. This is a fancy cable with multiple insulated strands running through it — of course, it’s nowhere near as complicated as the human spinal cord.

It’s cut.


Now a friendly electrician tells you he can fix it easily. He’s not going to splice each wire together to restore the proper connections, instead, he has an easier solution: he’s going to inject acid into the cable to dissolve insulation and encourage the copper wires to fuse, and he’s going to fill the cable with an electrically conductive goop that will allow signals to cross the broken end.

Does this sound like it will work to you? These are generic treatments that completely ignore the specificity of the necessary connections. He’s just claiming that anything to promote fusion will work, and that the cables will somehow sort themselves out.

Would you let him reassemble your home theater system with this technique? He’s happy to show you videos of his work, with a television flickering and fading and speakers sputtering and wowing, all for verisimilitude’s sake, but he’s not actually able to show you that these botched repair jobs used these techniques.

You might ask for some quantitative measures of the success of his technique, and he tells you that it works maybe half the time, and that all of the controls, in which he just cut cables and plugged them together, burst into flames and exploded. (of his experimental mice, 5/8 showed some degree of improvement, 3/8 died, and all of his controls died, which is really suspicious right there).

In another experiment with rats, all but one of the experimental animals was accidentally killed in a flood, but that one showed great improvement. One. This is nothing but a dubious anecdote. How could it get published at all?

Somehow, though, this shabby work is getting funded, is passing review boards, and is getting published. And Canavero is planning to try it on a human subject.

Apparently, if you put on a white coat and have a medical degree, you can get away with torturing small animals before planning the torture-murder of a human being.