The Fox Effect

What a curious phenomenon: this is a video of the notorious Fox Effect, in which an actor pretended to be an expert and babbled fluff and nonsense at an audience of psychiatrists, and they sat and swallowed it and came away with an impression that the speaker was competent. I knew the content was going to be garbage, but I have to wonder if my prior knowledge colored my perception, because listening to it now, it all sounded immensely vacuous — I kept trying to catch a cogent or useful point, and he never delivered any.

I wonder if this could be pulled off in front of an audience that deals with more concrete data than psychiatrists — could an actor speak in the language of gels and in situs and sequences and fool an audience of molecular biologists? I don’t think so; it’s too specialized and specific. But I could be wrong, somebody ought to test it.

The video makes a point that this effect could be important in teaching — it strongly affects student evaluations. All you have to do is go to the “Rate My Professor” site and discover that one of the categories for evaluation there is whether the professor is “hot” — and, dammit, I think I’ve failed on that parameter for my entire life (I haven’t actually looked, though: I shudder at the prospect of seeing those weird reviews full of disgruntled students who didn’t pass one of my courses).

(Also on FtB)

William Crenshaw and Erskine College

I think I like this guy.

Science is the litmus test on the validity of the educational enterprise. If a school teaches real science, it’s a pretty safe bet that all other departments are sound. If it teaches bogus science, everything else is suspect…. I want a real college, not one that rejects facts, knowledge, and understanding because they conflict with a narrow religious belief. Any college that lets theology trump fact is not a college; it is an institution of indoctrination. It teaches lies. Colleges do not teach lies. Period.

That’s from William Crenshaw, who was an English professor at Erskine College. “Was”…no more. He’s been fired.

It turns out Erskine College is the Institution of Indoctrination for some fringe sect called the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, which I find hilarious. It’s some dinky, smug, pretentious religious group that thinks their peculiar dogma dictates the laws of the universe. One of their big issues is that Crenshaw doesn’t think science ought to bow down before biblical literalism.

The conservative element has apparently been lobbying to give him the boot for years, and they’re celebrating now.

The ARP Talk blog called Crenshaw’s comments on science evidence that he is “functionally an atheist who, in his rabid, secular fundamentalism, preaches his views with as much vigor and determination as an old-time Methodist revivalist of 100 years ago.” The blog added that Crenshaw was “an evangelist of infidelity” and said that he encourages students to question faith with “his secular brain-dribble.”

I like him even more.

The school and the troglodyte alumni wanted him out because they claim he was “disloyal” and “discouraged potential students from enrolling at Erskine.” The ironic thing is that the actions of the college to muzzle faculty are a better reason to discourage students from attending Erskine.

Not that it’ll matter much, because I suspect most of their enrollment comes from Mommy and Daddy DumbThugChristian telling their kids that they have to go to Erskine, but I’ll chime in: you’re nuts if you go to Erskine. Pick a better school. If you’re already at Erskine College, TRANSFER. It’s not too late to get a degree with a name on it that won’t be quite so embarrassing.

(Also on FtB)

A goal to strive for

The American education system is a mess — thanks to the right wing cranks, we keep trying to apply free market principles to a process to which they don’t apply. Watching America deal with education is a lot like watching the old USSR trying to cope with competitive economies — that there’s a place for everything does not imply that one strategy is the solution for all problems.

What we ought to do is look at other countries around the world that have successful educational systems, and emulate them (isn’t that a good capitalist value? Steal the ideas that work?). I have a suggestion: Let’s steal Finland’s educational system.

The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were that good.”

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on compe­tition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

There’s a brief summary of how they did it. I think the first and most important step was making a decision that education was important.

In 1963, the Finnish Parlia-ment made the bold decision to choose public education as its best shot at economic recovery. “I call this the Big Dream of Finnish education,” said Sahlberg, whose upcoming book, Finnish Lessons, is scheduled for release in October. “It was simply the idea that every child would have a very good public school. If we want to be competitive, we need to educate everybody. It all came out of a need to survive.”

Practically speaking–and Finns are nothing if not practical–the decision meant that goal would not be allowed to dissipate into rhetoric. Lawmakers landed on a deceptively simple plan that formed the foundation for everything to come. Public schools would be organized into one system of comprehensive schools, or peruskoulu, for ages 7 through 16. Teachers from all over the nation contributed to a national curriculum that provided guidelines, not prescriptions. Besides Finnish and Swedish (the country’s second official language), children would learn a third language (English is a favorite) usually beginning at age 9. Resources were distributed equally. As the comprehensive schools improved, so did the upper secondary schools (grades 10 through 12). The second critical decision came in 1979, when reformers required that every teacher earn a fifth-year master’s degree in theory and practice at one of eight state universities–at state expense. From then on, teachers were effectively granted equal status with doctors and lawyers. Applicants began flooding teaching programs, not because the salaries were so high but because autonomy and respect made the job attractive. In 2010, some 6,600 applicants vied for 660 primary school training slots, according to Sahlberg. By the mid-1980s, a final set of initiatives shook the classrooms free from the last vestiges of top-down regulation. Control over policies shifted to town councils. The national curriculum was distilled into broad guidelines. National math goals for grades one through nine, for example, were reduced to a neat ten pages. Sifting and sorting children into so-called ability groupings was eliminated. All children–clever or less so–were to be taught in the same classrooms, with lots of special teacher help available to make sure no child really would be left behind. The inspectorate closed its doors in the early ’90s, turning accountability and inspection over to teachers and principals. “We have our own motivation to succeed because we love the work,” said Louhivuori. “Our incentives come from inside.”

They put good teachers in charge of deciding how students should be taught? How radical.

(Also on FtB)

The wellspring of grade inflation

I hate to discourage teachers (we need them!), but there’s a problem in teacher education.

Well, guess which students earn the highest grades? It’s future teachers. According to a new study by Cory Koedel published by the American Enterprise Institute:

Students who take education classes at universities receive significantly higher grades than students who take classes in every other academic discipline. The higher grades cannot be explained by observable differences in student quality between education majors and other students, nor can they be explained by the fact that education classes are typically smaller than classes in other academic departments.

This is despite the fact that education majors have the lowest high school grades and standardized test scores of all college students.

(Also on FtB)

The fish rots from the head, the tail, and every place in between

Here’s an educational opportunity for everyone!

The Community College of Rhode Island [CCRI] has proudly announced that this fall, a “reiki master” will be holding a seminar on “crystal and mineral healing” at the college. This, we’re told, is

…a type of alternative therapy that involves laying crystals or gemstones on the body. Each student will experience a crystal therapy session and get a really good idea about how it changes your energy and rebalances you.

This instructor at CCRI also does “Cranio Sacral Therapy,” and uses such advanced quackery as “Bio Magnets,” “Light Life Tools,” “Dowsing,” and “Pendulums” She assures students that she is also a teacher and practitioner of many other alternative healing methods, and says that crystals have their own “intrinsic energy,” and will “interact with points on the body’s energy field, known as chakras, to promote balance and well-being.” “Each crystal has its own properties and attributes when laid on the body with a specific chakra,” she says. This collection of talents puts her well up in the tree with the top woo-woos, but she’s teaching at CCRI.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Colleges all over the place are peddling this nonense, and you can tell how administrators are thinking: it’s not about providing a good education, it’s all about what the students will pay for…and if they’ll pay for cheap, meaningless crap, so much the better for short-term profitability. Oh, and long-term damage to the school’s reputation? Let the next chancellor or president or board worry about that.

So someone wrote to the Community College of Rhode Island, and Richard H. Coren, Director of Marketing, Communications and Publications replied.

Let that sink in. A complaint was made about the garbage content of courses at the college, and the Director of Marketing wrote back. Marketing. Damme. Let me tell you, when the academic revolution comes, it’s the marketing drones who have the temerity to pontificate on curriculum and content who are going to get shoveled into the “B” Ark first.

Anyway, so Mr Coren, snake-buggering Director of Marketing to Morons, replies:

Students told us they wanted to further their knowledge of alternative healing methods, and the course was designed to introduce students to the practice of crystal and mineral healing. By offering the class, the college and its noncredit arm, CWCE, do not endorse the practice as science; we are simply responding to demand in the community for personal development courses such as this.

It’s not alternative “healing”. It’s not “personal development”. It’s lies and bullshit. And seriously, there’s a point beyond which what students want doesn’t matter. My students wish there wasn’t a calculus and statistics requirement for a degree in biology; tough. Some students might want a credit for watching a five-minute video on youtube; no way. We’re supposed to have standards, and an education is supposed to mean something.

But no, we’ve got marketing directors who see a fast buck in selling out academic integrity.

Let’s not blame only short-sighted bean-counters at the college level, though. Here’s what we have to look forward to: pernicious effects of NCLB, a program which neglects science and encourages mindless teaching-to-the-test, has devastated science education.

It is time to acknowledge that there has been an unprecedented and precipitous decline in science teaching and learning as a consequence of the focus and implementation of No Child Left Behind. We do not need any more commissions or studies to tell us what is strikingly evident — children of the NCLB era, who entered Kindergarten in 2003 and had little or no science education for the next seven years, are not going to do well in science in middle school or beyond. We are losing an entire generation to science illiteracy.

We’re already beginning to see the consequences.

In 2009, PISA found that 15-year-old U.S. students ranked 17th of 34 developed countries in science and 25th of 34 in math. The same study revealed that the U.S. has among the most unequal performance in the world, with achievement levels highly dependent on socio-economic status. Low-income and minority communities are especially hard-hit by lack of access to high-quality science resources. The results from the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress drive home the severity of the problem – only 18 percent of New York City’s 4th graders and 13 percent of 8th graders performed at or above the proficient level in science.

Over the next six years, as “Generation NCLB” goes through high school, we can expect banner headlines about further drops in science learning and fewer students taking advanced level courses in biology, chemistry, and physics. That will be a precursor to the hue-and-cry from colleges, four years later, about the need for more remedial science and the falling number of American students majoring in sciences of all types, and then a renewed clamor from employers who need appropriately educated workers but cannot find them.

Maybe Mr Coren and my university’s Center for Spirituality and Healing are being foresighted and wise. They’re cultivating the perfect curriculum for a generation of students who lack critical thinking skills, who know nothing about science, and just want to be pandered to with pseudoscience for the gullible.

(Also on FtB)

Into the maelstrom

Today is the day I get together with all of my new advisees and tell them how to survive the next four years.

Tomorrow, the new semester begins — once again, I’ve got an 8am course to teach on developmental neurobiology.

The madness begins.

But at least this year I’ve got a new tie!


(Also on FtB)

Foobaww first!

A former Texas public school teacher has sent me some stories from their career there. It’s not pretty. The situation is what I also recollect from my long-ago days in a Yankee high school, though, so I don’t know that we can just blame Texas, but it’s true — the system is often set up to give athletes (including cheerleaders) academic privileges that other students don’t get. Student athletes were expected to always pass their classes to maintain eligibility, no matter how poorly they did, and teachers were chastised if they compromised athletic eligibility.

Here’s a letter that was sent out to all teachers at a Texas high school, gently reminding them of what they must do — either pass students or give them an incomplete — so that the football team doesn’t suffer.

Teachers, please remember that we have over 1500 students involved in extracurricular activities who work very hard to have academic success as well as compete or stay connected to the school through their commitment to their organization or team. These students strive to do the right things and have adult coaches or sponsors who support you by working with any student who is not meeting your standards for conduct or academic success. The eligibility status of these students is very important to them, their parents, and to this campus. Please review six weeks grades of 68 and 69 to ensure that those grades accurately reflect student effort, test/assignment reliability and accuracy, and objectivity that can be explained. Please also remember that any student who you are going to allow to make up work or do additional work should be given an “I” instead of an assigned numerical grade.

From the UIL Side By Side

Q: Can a student’s grade be changed for eligibility?

After a failing grade has been recorded, the situations in which a student’s grade may be changed to passing and eligibility status restored are only as follows:
(a) an examination of course graded issued by a classroom teacher is final and may not be changed unless the grade is arbitrary, erroneous, or not consistent with school district grading policy as determined by the board of trustees. The board’s decision may not be appealed. (This is also known as teacher or calculation error.)
(b) Extra credit work or work (including re-test) turned in after the grading period or evaluation has ended may not be considered when determining a student’s eligibility for extracurricular activities except in the case of an “incomplete” grade.

Thank you for your support.

Why are they telling the teachers that they have students active in sports? We all know this. We shouldn’t care. The job of a teacher is to make sure the students understand the material, and if their afternoon head-butting practice interferes with learning, students shouldn’t expect special exemptions. Why are they telling the teachers to make sure that “grades accurately reflect student effort, test/assignment reliability and accuracy”? We all do that, too, and not just for the student athletes. An accurate assessment of a student who doesn’t do the classwork should be FAIL.

I love how the administration blithely informs teachers that they should give incompletes to students so they can make up the work they should have done during the term later. That is not right. That is expecting teachers to put in extra work beyond the grading period, to help out the boneheads with extra time and instruction…but I suspect there is no talk of extra pay for teachers who do that.

Hey, I have this brilliant, amazing, completely non-intuitive idea: how about if our schools emphasized academics, not sports, and that extra-curricular activities were regarded as an optional side-issue, completely orthogonal to the goals of the school?

(Also on FtB)

Paul Knoepfler has a blog

Hey, this is good news: Nature included a short opinion piece from a stem cell biologist on his experiences blogging, writing the Knoepfler Lab Stem Cell Blog — I’ll have to start following it. He has some good general advice for scientists starting to blog, although I have some reservations about the first bit.

Here are some tips for beginners. Start slowly; wait a day after writing and reread your draft before posting. Try to avoid discussing your own institution, and critique papers or theories in the field in a constructive manner. It is important that you include your own opinions, but do not use your blog to broadcast your opinions about issues that are unrelated to science.

Update your blog regularly, because readers will not visit blogs that they perceive as boring or ‘old news’. Read and comment on other blogs, which will lead people to yours. Get a Twitter account to promote it and dabble with search-engine optimization. And do tell your colleagues about your blog.

Savvy scientists must increasingly engage with blogs and social media. A new generation of young researchers has grown up with an ever-present Internet. Publishers have been quicker than academics to react to this new world, but scientists must catch up. Even if you choose not to blog, you can certainly expect that your papers and ideas will increasingly be blogged about. So there it is — blog or be blogged.

I have to disagree with the suggestion that you avoid discussing anything but the science (obviously!) If you want to engage readers, you’ve got to go beyond the narrow domain of your field — you don’t have to embrace controversy, like some of us do, but blogs are a personal medium, and if you aren’t expressing yourself freely you’re not going to get a wide readership.

Knoepfler implicitly admits this: he has a low traffic site with a niche audience (and there’s nothing at all wrong with that; it’s a model for how most scientists would want to operate their lab blogs, I think).

In an entire year of blogging I have had to censor just six inflammatory or defamatory comments. Despite my blog taking on the anti-stem-cell community in the United States and the misinformation its members peddle, such as the meme that adult stem cells are a panacea that make embryonic stem cells redundant, I have received remarkably few personal attacks from them. I am grateful for that, if puzzled.

This is certainly not because my blog goes unnoticed. True, I started with just five readers a day, but one year later, traffic has increased more than 30-fold and continues to rise. The blog averages 150 visitors a day and sometimes up to 500 a day, made up of a veritable Who’s Who in stem-cell science, and beyond. How do I know? Senior figures in the field tell me in confidence that they read and enjoy the blog, although none has publicly contributed on it — perhaps a sign that there is still a way to go before scientists stop being nervous about blogs.

He shouldn’t be puzzled. I’m not trying to be disparaging, but 150 visitors a day is very low, and what it means is that he’s seeing a very small and specialized slice of the world — he’s got a quality audience, not a snapshot of the general public, and that’s why he’s not getting much pushback. The mention in Nature will get him more visitors, but largely of the kind that won’t disagree much with him; the mention here on Pharyngula will get him a broader audience, but without red meat for argument most of them probably won’t stay.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think there is a qualitative difference between a blog aimed at a specialized audience, and one aimed at wider public engagement.

Do Iowa State football players need to be converted to the Christian faith?

Athletics are a fine part of the college tradition — students come to our universities, and some of them want to participate in sports, others like to watch, and others like to enjoy a non-academic social event. I think some support for our students’ extracurricular interests is a good idea. What I detest, though, is the overpaid coaches and the tendency to set the small group of college athletes apart as something special, deserving of special consideration. Even at my small university, there is a constellation of special programs to serve the college athletes, and it gets rather annoying that this one group with no unique academic ability is granted privileges other groups do not receive.

UMM isn’t too bad in this regard, but then we’re small and everything is on a tight budget. Larger universities are more prone to excesses and waste and the promotion of a separate tier of students (I attended the University of Washington; the football team members were treated as small gods there). Now look at our neighbor to the south, though: Iowa State University hired a Baptist chaplain to minister to the football team. This was opposed by 130 of the faculty, who signed a petition asking that sectarian counseling not be given this privileged access to students, but the coach seemed to take it for granted that he could add another lackey to his retinue.

Much like we have offered our student-athletes access to drug and alcohol counselors, sports psychologists, nutritionists, hypnotists, physical therapists, learning specialists, chiropractors, physicians, etc., we are now going to also provide access to a spiritual advisor.

Well, the chaplain would fit right in with the hypnotists and chiropractors. But I read that litany and wonder why the football team gets such special treatment over other, apparently less important students.

But that’s a different question. The issue here is whether it is appropriate to bring on a Baptist minister as a full-time chaplain to the team. It looks like there are two tiers of privilege: if you’re on the football team, you are a big man on campus, but if you’re a Protestant ball player, you are exalted beyond that. It’s also not exactly clear what this person would do: pray for victory? Lead the team in prayers? Reassure everyone that god really loved Iowa State? It’s a pretty damned useless sinecure.

Except we know one thing this chaplain would do: as a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, his job was to “use the powerful medium of athletics to impact the world for Jesus Christ”. He was a professional proselytizer brought on to evangelize a narrow faith to the football team. The coach basically hired a local shaman to convert a subset of ISU students to his faith.

This chaplain has revealed all in a talk to the FCA titled “Overcoming Adversity”. What adversity, you might ask? His. The entire half hour talk is about he was so oppressed because so many people, including that wicked atheist Hector Avalos, opposed granting him this ride on the gravy train.

Notice that one of his mechanisms to “overcome adversity” was to simply lie about his motivations and purpose in the job.

Kevin Lykins is no longer employed at ISU, but he set a precedent and there is now an empty slot for a chaplain to the football team, and there is push to fill it with yet another useless bozo. I hope ISU alumni will write in and protest — this is an entirely inappropriate attempt to couple an extracurricular activity to sectarian religious belief.

Oh, look. One of the local radio stations has a poll on the issue.

Are You in Favor of College Football Teams Having a Life Skills Assistant/Chaplain?

60.53 %
39.47 %

The video has been abruptly yanked — I wonder why? — but it has been captured and if you really, really want to watch it, you can download it here. I don’t recommend it. It’s incredibly boring, consisting of nothing but self-righteous evangelical babble, but if you really want to see what kind of tedious tool Kevin Lykins is, you can.