Open thread

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Behold, the Hühnermensch!

I had no idea how deeply Eugene McCarthy had descended into absurdity. He’s arguing that humans have hybridized with…chickens.

Also with dogs, apes, goats, cows, and turtles.

His ‘evidence’ consists of mythological accounts (satyrs are evidence of goat-human hybrids, for instance), and terrible stories of women who had grossly deformed stillborn babies with peculiarly warped features that, if you impose your biases on them, can be seen to vaguely resemble other animals. These are always severe teratological defects, but McCarthy always interprets them as hybrids. The Hühnermensch, or chicken-baby, drawn above is an example. That’s not a comb growing out of its head, but its brain — this is a condition called exencephaly. It often occurs as a precursor to anencephaly, because usually that bubble of extruded brain matter will degenerate. His ape-human ‘hybrids’ are all photos of anencephalic stillbirths.

It’s a rather disgusting section of McCarthy’s work, not just because the pages have lots of images of tragic and almost always lethal birth defects, but because he misinterprets them as evidence that the mother, who has already suffered enough with the loss of a baby, must have also become pregnant by having sex with an animal.

He’s just an ignorant and terrible person.

If only we could all find the doorway in our hearts

I’m about to depart for the airport to pick up my best beloved and bring her back home after a week long absence, which means I’m going to be tied up with driving for the next six hours (it’s OK, it’s worth it). I’m going to recommend some reading for you while I’m occupied.

I was blown away by Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. It’s a genuinely original fantasy story that steals from a lot of familiar fantasy tropes. You know there are all these stories about kids who are magically transported to a strange and unfamiliar world, like Narnia or Oz or Wonderland? What if this was a relatively common occurrence, with many strange worlds that are much weirder or scarier than the familiar fantasy lands? And most importantly, what happens to the children who have been shaped in their formative years by alien places with inhuman residents?

That’s the focus of the story: these children would be really different, with a different sense of self and different yearnings and different behaviors, and they’ve returned to our culture, which can’t even deal with something as mundane and normal as gay kids. What you find is that most of the parents of these children can’t cope and want to somehow reshape and indoctrinate the children to be more ‘conventional’, causing all sorts of misery for everyone involved. The lucky ones find themselves at a school in this story, run by a woman who had stumbled through a portal to a fantasy land and returned, who now runs her home as a refuge for these strange children.

So the main character, Nancy, is ace, and this is a minor metaphor for her true strangeness, which is that she lived in a world of ghosts who disliked the business of the living, so she has learned to retreat into statue-like stillness. The character I identified with most was Jack, who was trained on a world of mad scientists and horrible experimentation. Jack, by the way, is a girl — try not to impose your gender expectations on any of the people in the book, because you’ll probably get them wrong, or at best will be focusing on irrelevancies.

Also don’t think that a school that favors tolerance and openness will be free of tension and conflict. The whole story is about the way all these different people, different to a degree much greater than anything we experience in everyday life, have to struggle to resolve those differences, and how unhappiness can find a home anywhere you let it.

It’s fabulously well-written and thoughtful — it’s not really escapist fare. It’s also the first in a series which I’m looking forward to. Also, this is not your usual fantasy story that inevitably gets drawn out into an overlong trilogy of ten books or whatever. The main characters in this one achieve resolution of their various conflicts, for good or ill (no spoilers, but for some there are no happy endings, and for others, what they consider a happy ending might not make you happy at all), and I think the next book will focus on different kids or different sides of the story. I don’t know! Isn’t that wonderful when you find a book that doesn’t always trundle down familiar tracks?

Wait, what? Who is welcoming exemption from ethical review?

This will not end well. Social scientists are happy to see human studies rules relaxed.

If you took Psychology 101 in college, you probably had to enroll in an experiment to fulfill a course requirement or to get extra credit. Students are the usual subjects in social science research — made to play games, fill out questionnaires, look at pictures and otherwise provide data points for their professors’ investigations into human behavior, cognition and perception.

But who gets to decide whether the experimental protocol — what subjects are asked to do and disclose — is appropriate and ethical? That question has been roiling the academic community since the Department of Health and Human Services’s Office for Human Research Protections revised its rules in January.

The revision exempts from oversight studies involving “benign behavioral interventions.” This was welcome news to economists, psychologists and sociologists who have long complained that they need not receive as much scrutiny as, say, a medical researcher.

I would have expected social scientists to be even more acutely aware of the bias of self-interest than us clueless nerds over in the other sciences. If there’s anything we should have learned from the history of scientific experimentation it’s that scientists do not provide good ethical oversight of their own research. Some do seem to know that.

“Researchers tend to underestimate the risk of activities that they are very comfortable with,” particularly when conducting experiments and publishing the results is critical to the advancement of their careers, said Tracy Arwood, assistant vice president for research compliance at Clemson University.

Yes. Onerous and annoying as they are, we have human research review committees to specifically provide input from outside the blinkered perspective of the researcher. That’s necessary. Not everyone sees it that way.

A vocal proponent of diminishing the role of institutional review boards is Richard Nisbett, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and co-author of the opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Social science researchers are perfectly capable of making their own determinations about the potential harm of their research protocols, he said. A behavioral intervention is benign, he said, if it’s the sort of thing that goes on in everyday life.

“I can ask you how much money you make or about your sex life, and you can tell me or not tell me. So, too, can a sociologist or psychologist ask you those questions,” Dr. Nisbett said.

He’s a psychology professor, and he thinks that in a study in which a professor is asking personal questions of a student, there are no social pressures on the student, and they are completely free to ignore the question? Jesus. I guess I wouldn’t trust any papers published by that guy, then.

If those questions are really benign, then shouldn’t the study proposal fly through the institutional review board process without a hitch?

I mean, I could propose a whole bunch of experiments that involve having students drink lots of vodka before undergoing various cognitive tests, and drinking to excess is the sort of thing students do in everyday life, so it must be benign, and why should I get an IRB to rubber stamp something that the students are doing anyway, am I right?

You don’t want to know what I could argue biology experimenters ought to be able to do without outside assessment because students are already doing it anyway.

Where is the money going?

If you read these tales of the horrifying reality of the academic job market, you will learn that adjunct professors are paid a pittance, and often have to do piece work, teaching multiple classes at multiple colleges to make ends meet. They’re getting paid next to nothing for what ought to be the central work of the university. So the money isn’t going into their pockets.

And then you learn that many universities are relying almost entirely on adjuncts to do their teaching.

It is insane to see that my department has only 3 FULL TIME PROFESSORS and 20 ADJUNCTS!!!

So the cash must all be flowing into the pockets of those 3 professors? Nope. Most tenured professors are making a comfortable middle class income, but aren’t getting rich. Tenure means stability, not wealth. If you’re looking for a profession that will give you opportunities to rake in fabulous sums of money, don’t look to the professoriate.

The students must be laughing themselves to the bank with all of their cheap educations, right? No, you know that’s wrong: skyrocketing tuition costs have been the order of the day, and students are graduating with legendary debts, debts that would have been unheard of for my generation. Money is pouring in, but it’s not going to the educators.

It’s going to academic parasites like Elsevier. It’s going to academic bureaucracies that have lost sight of what their institution is for: we have big advertising goals that are not necessarily in alignment with making the best damn university we can. We sink cash into college athletics, without assessing whether it actually benefits our mission. The highest paid state employee in most states is the college football or basketball coach, which is utterly nuts.

If you look at the methodology behind college rankings, it’s all stuff like graduation rates (here comes the pressure for grade inflation) and class sizes (hiring lots of cheap adjuncts actually benefits your rankings) and peer evaluation (them that has a good reputation gets a good reputation). It would be really interesting if US News & World Report announced that they were going to multiply colleges’ final score by the full-time/part-time faculty ratio; a lot of schools’ much sought after rankings would tumble down rapidly.

But there are many vested interests that are working hard to avoid having anyone gaze at the teacher-student interactions that ought to be the center of any evaluation of a university’s quality.