It’s amazing. This is the universal comic, it applies to everything right now.
Except spiders and cephalopods, that is. They’re looking better and better.
I told you that He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who had been carrying out gene editing on human subjects, was doing bad science and violating lots of ethical restrictions. I was right, obviously, because he was immediately repudiated and arrested by the Chinese government. You might be wondering what happens if you break the rules of bioethics — isn’t it all just an agreement between peers not to meddle in experiments that might cause trouble for each other? Well, now we know: He Jiankui has been tried and sentenced. He’s being fined over $400,000, and is going to prison for three years. Two of his colleagues are also going to jail. They’re also going to get a lifelong ban on doing scientific research with human subjects.
This isn’t just Chinese totalitarianism at work, either. It’s the same in most places.
Robin Lovell-Badge at the Francis Crick Institute in London told the UK Science Media Centre that a prison sentence and fine would also have been the likely penalties if someone had conducted similar work in the UK.
Maybe not everywhere, though. The people who carried out the Tuskegee syphilis study were not punished; the doctors who were paid to tell the public that smoking was safe were not punished; Andrew Wakefield is still roaming free, and is even making movies to spread disinformation; you can lie all you want about climate change. Jiankui seems to have picked the wrong victims, or lacked the corporate backing, to make his violations of human rights ignorable.
P.S. I think a hefty fine and a few years in prison would be the minimal punishment for Wakefield, who is responsible for the deaths of who knows how many children.
I have really good memories of the first Star Wars, back in 1977, and the latest installment made me rethink them. What genuinely thrilled me in the first movie was that it was like nothing else out there — it was strange, it was original, it was an odd mashup of a fantasy novel and a space opera, it was…creative. It was also epic and heroic and all those good things.
But here’s the problem with that: you can’t get that enthralling sense of newness and surprise if you keep going back to the same material again and again. At the same time, the corporations running the game don’t want to gamble, they want to milk the same cow ten thousand times. You can walk into this new Star Wars movie and enjoy yourself because it is comfortable and familiar and rehashes the old tropes yet again, and that’s fine — it’s just like that new Scorsese movie, The Irishman, because it is like every other gangster movie that’s been released in the last 40 years. Great, if that’s what you want.
If what drew you to Star Wars in the first place was the novelty and creativity, though, it’s not here. This movie has the Hero-Discovers-They-Had-Royal-Blood-All-Along. It has the Villain-Who-Is-Redeemed. It has the Overwhelming-Evil-Force-With-One-Itty-Bitty-Weak-Spot. It has the Battle-In-The-Throne-Room, while Space-Battle-Seems-To-Be-Doomed going on at the same time. It has Porgs…and Ewoks! It is McDonalds and KFC and Burger King, the old reliables that produce the same thing everywhere and everytime, but will never ever astonish you. It’s been commoditized.
I was actually getting pissed off and disappointed during this movie, because it totally lacks any creativity or unexpected shocks. It’s as if JJ Abrams went through all the old entries in the Star Wars universe, picked out all the memorable themes, dumped them into a blender, and poured the resultant slurry out on a tray and served it up to the audience confident that they’d recognize the scraps of the old flavor and love it. And he’s right. People will eat it up and make the corporation lots of money. I shouldn’t be disappointed, because this movie wasn’t made for me. Sometimes people want formulaic nostalgia, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Except…there is reason to be worried. The dominant forces in science fiction entertainment are Star Wars, Star Trek, and Marvel Superhero movies, pure comfort food that provide little intellectual stimulation. We have to hope the flood of money pouring in for the predictable and familiar encourages them to take an occasional gamble on some weird one-off like Annihilation or Arrival or Watchmen.
We also have to hope the good ones don’t get coopted into long-running mega-franchises, because all that can happen with that is that they’ll be run into the ground and turn into deep furrows that limit originality. In art, death is good, opening the doors of change and inspiring new ideas, so let these series die. I fear, though, that now that the Evil Empire of Disney has seized control, Zombie Star Wars is going to be revived and walk the earth forevermore.
I got a letter from the Minnesota Science Teachers Association. It seems there is some skullduggery going on to undermine our state science standards, from the Minnesota Rural Education Association. Well, cool: I’m an educator in rural Minnesota, but I know nothing about the MREA. I’m sympathetic to the idea of an organization that opposes/complements those elitist tyrants of the Twin Cities <shakes fist eastwards>. So what does the MREA want?
Minnesota Science Teachers and Citizens:
Science education in Minnesota is at a crossroads. As the Science Standards Revision Committee works to produce a new set of state science standards, the Minnesota Rural Education Association (MREA) is going to the state legislature this session in an attempt to reword statute 120B.023 thereby diluting the quantity, quality and rigor of the state science graduation requirements. Their proposed wording to the statute would still require biology and either chemistry or physics, but would reduce the current third science credit to a set of electives that does not require that “all academic standards in science” be met. This essentially removes earth and space science standards as part of the graduation requirements already in state statute 120B.024 (4) (ii.) and would allow districts to choose what science standards they will or will not teach.
If we, as science educators and citizens, want our students to receive a balanced, comprehensive background in all science disciplines, i.e., be scientifically literate, it is essential that you act now.
Below are samples of letters/emails that can be reworded or used as is and sent to your state representative and state senator. (These letters are also attached as a Word doc to this message.) Your voice must be heard or our new state science standards will be reduced in rigor and merit. Hand-picking which benchmarks will be taught in our schools harms science education for all students. A strong response from science teachers and citizens will tell the Legislature that our students deserve the best science education possible.
Go to https://www.leg.state.mn.us/ to find the names and e-mail addresses for your state representative and senator.
Please e-mail your state representative and senator as soon as possible. Be sure to include “Don’t Cut Science Education Standards” in the subject line. Thank you for your continuing efforts to provide our students with a quality, comprehensive science education.
Shorter version: they want to change the standards to allow high school students to focus narrowly in meeting their science requirements, and also want to open school districts to allow them to decide what science to teach. The first part I’m already disinclined to support because public school educations are already general enough — I’d rather they get a solid overview of multiple disciplines, because I care more about a broad background than that students get to ignore geology or chemistry if they want. As for the second part…I don’t trust rural school districts that much. State standards are there to make it harder for schools to compromise.
But OK, let’s be fair. What does the MREA say about their own plan?
MREA Executive Director Fred Nolan encouraged the state to amend the benchmarks statute 120B.023 that states, “Schools must offer and students must achieve all benchmarks for an academic standard to satisfactorily complete that state standard” by adding that high school students must meet the benchmarks in biology, physics or chemistry, and one elective set of benchmarks from the following: physical sciences, life sciences, earth and space sciences or engineering, or technology and the applications of science. Schools must offer at least two of these elective sets of benchmarks.
So currently, high school students should take biology, physics, and chemistry, and one of a defined set of electives. The MREA would like to change that to an or, and let the schools decide what the additional science elective ought to be. Why? They don’t do a good job of justifying the change.
Minnesota faces a well-documented skilled-worker shortage and Minnesota Academic Standards currently hold high schools back from providing the education and training needed to effectively prepare students for their future jobs. Today’s system operates on a one-size fits all approach for students no matter their plans after graduation.
Ugh. Education as a purely vocational enterprise. No, thank you. I have a lot of respect for good vocational training, but that’s not what public school should be about — it should be about giving citizens a broad, basic background knowledge so that they’re better informed, and know better what they want to do with their life after schooling. No matter their plans after graduation, students should have at least a rudimentary understanding of science (and art, and history, and language, etc.) Focusing on JOBS is counterproductive.
I also find it weird that they say they’re concerned about a skilled worker shortage, and their solution is … to teach less science? Strange. I think there must be other motives they aren’t talking about.
The MnSTA provides some sample letters for Minnesotans to use if you want to write to your rep. I’ll include them below the fold.
I should start by saying: unlikely my previous posts, this isn’t properly a book review. The major ideas in the discussion spring out of Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: The Logic of Mysogyny. I do give a general review of the book over on Goodreads; TL;DR: The book is excellent, timely, and thoughtful; people should read it. Manne illustrates a particular problem that I think is worth raising on this blog, given the discussions of ethical positions around humanism, feminism, Atheism+, etc.
Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” is one of the most widely cited phrases in public ethics and social justice, but it is often egregiously misused. Somewhat famously, Chelsea Clinton cited it in discussion of a man casually committing a horrific act of violence; political scientist Corey Robin was quick to point out that this is not the way Arendt was using the phrase. Documentarian Ada Ushpiz has similarly pointed this out in criticizing Eva Illouz. To gloss over these longer responses there, the dialectic goes like this.
Many folks think that “the banality of evil” refers to the attitude of indifference towards humans by the person causing harm; the idea that evil can be regarded as banal by the person committing the evil act because they have dehumanized the victim. This is the wikipedia gloss on Arendt’s view, butthe focus on dehumanization actually gets the point entirely (and dangerously) wrong.
Manne points out, as Arendt did as well, that many callous and casual acts of violence are not the result of dehumanization of the person against whom one directs the violence, but rather the result of paranoid or vindictiveness. The effort to dehumanize Jews holds far less prominence in Nazi thought than the thought that Jews were manipulating the political state of affairs, exploiting gentile Germans, and the like. It was not regarding them as inhuman, though there are tropes that track dehumanization, but rather the paranoia around “the Jewish Question.”
Daniel Dennett’s From Bacteria to Bach and Back is a lengthy and winding journey. It is characterized (including by its publisher) as a general explanation of the evolution of minds and various peculiar mental functions, consciousness and language being the two most hotly discussed by philosophers, but there’s a better way to read it. As its best, the book is a tour of Dennett’s personal philosophical repertoire, illustrating how ideas from his books and papers fit together.
Dennett’s general theory of the development of genetics stems from his broad theory of memes, where a meme is any informational entity that can be transmitted and replicated. The rough idea is that minds are meme-machines in the way that organisms are gene-machines (in Dawkins’ analogy of the gene’s-eye-view). This is a fruitful analogy, in some respects, though I think it can and should draw some skepticism from readers. I’ll return to those worries later.
The basic building blocks of Dennett’s view are indicated by gestures and short explanations, which is a challenge since he’s spent so much time discussing and arguing for them elsewhere in his work. In any case, there are really two that it is important to understand.
Here’s the deal: I am paid to teach, which means I have a professional relationship with my students, and it’s an ongoing relationship that typically extends over four years. My job is to educate them in those domains of biology I specialize in. The administrators here have an expectation that I will show up, be prepared, behave professionally, and engage with students at a level beyond lecturing at them: I advise them on professional opportunities, I write recommendations, I try to help with small crises that might derail their progress.
I do not have sex with them or beat them up. This should be obvious, right? Those kinds of behaviors would be antithetical to my university’s mission and my obligations.
This seems to be a poorly understood concept at the University of Sussex. Dr Lee Salter was a lecturer there. He was convicted of viciously beating his girlfriend (warning: graphic photos of a battered, bloody woman at that link), a woman he met as a student.
This is where it gets into some difficult boundaries. She was a former student, she is an adult, and this was a consensual relationship. That part, you can’t prohibit…but it’s a bit skeevy, and says that you should be keeping an eye on the guy to make sure he is not preying on students.
The part where he batters her bloody was not consensual. That part immediately moves the relationship from slightly creepy (but maybe it was “true love”!) into flagrant criminality. That’s where you’ve revealed that this wasn’t a healthy relationship between two adults, but an abusive relationship with a man who thinks he’s the boss.
Gail Gray, chief executive of RISE, Brighton and Hove’s specialist domestic abuse service, said: “This is not a romantic ‘Educating Rita’ scenario. This is about a man who has abused and exploited his position of power and authority to perpetrate domestic abuse.”
So far, so tawdry. But what is appalling is that the administrators at this university were completely aware of his behavior, and continued to allow him to teach students, despite the clear violation of university policies.
During the 10 month period between his arrest and conviction, Salter continued to teach, the university has admitted, while Ms Smith said she remained so traumatised she was afraid to leave the house.
This is despite regulations laid out on the university’s own website which say “staff and students are subject to disciplinary procedures that, amongst other things, proscribe violent behaviour”.
The policy reads: “The University will take disciplinary action in accordance with its procedures against anyone who behaves in a violent manner including, should it be necessary, the immediate exclusion of the perpetrator from the campus.”
“The University may also seek injunctions to exclude the perpetrators of violence form University premises in order to protect staff and students from further violent incidents.”
These problems will continue to arise as long as the awareness that domestic violence is unacceptable fails to be understood at all levels. Too often, having something written in a policy handbook is a cover-your-ass move to forestall actually doing something about it.
What should have happened is that the university administration should have said, “You’re going on a trial for beating up a former student? You’re not going into a classroom until this is resolved, and are on academic leave.”
His colleagues should have said, “Nope, we’re not working with you until this is cleared up.”
And the students at the university should have been made aware of the charges, so that they wouldn’t sign up for a course and then discover it’s being taught by an accused violent abuser. There’s an element of coercion there — students must take certain courses at certain times to graduate on schedule, so the entire university has to take responsibility for the professoriate, for their safety.
We also discover that this wasn’t unusual for Salter.
Described by Ms Smith as a manipulative and cruel man”, Salter alluded to her of having previous relationships with former students. She said he attended his court sentencing accompanied by another young student from the University of Brighton.
The court heard that Salter’s relationship with that student would be “closely monitored” as part of his sentencing.
Jebus. This is a guy with a thing for young students. He’s a predator. He should not be employed by any educational institution, because he brings disrepute to the entire profession.
Yet the University of Sussex kept him on the job until only recently? I didn’t know that lecturers in media and film were such a rare commodity that they had to be retained at all cost (I know science professors aren’t; if I were tossed out for good cause there’d be a long line of applicants ready to step right into my shoes.)
Or maybe it’s just that the situation is so obvious. This past weekend, I gave a talk in Minneapolis about how messed up higher education in general was becoming, and specifically about the problems facing science education. And then this morning I run across an article from a couple of years ago that basically says many of the same things. I should have just phoned in How Higher Education in the US Was Destroyed in 5 Basic Steps and spared myself all that thinking and planning and preparing stuff.
Here are the 5 steps in the article:
Step I: Defund public higher education.
Step II: Deprofessionalize and impoverish the professors (and continue to create a surplus of underemployed and unemployed Ph.D.s).
Step III: Move in a managerial/administrative class that takes over governance of the university.
Step IV: Move in corporate culture and corporate money.
Step V: Destroy the students.
Dang. I talked about all of those things. Now you can just read the article to get the gist of my discussion.
There are reports that Prince has died.
It’s true, he’s dead. Now I’m going to have to put Raspberry Beret on repeat on the iPod.
It’s a shame that his life was poisoned by bad religion, but man, he had so much talent that it all came shining through anyway. Watch this video to the end; there’s a bunch of nobodies making some noodling noises for a while, but then Prince steps in with a guitar solo and humbles the universe.
It’s brilliant, and solves a host of problems at American universities. Why Not Adjunct Administrators Instead of Adjunct Instructors? It Makes Far More Sense. I agree. With the proliferation of administrators and increasing teaching loads on us faculty, it makes far more sense to make all those administrator positions into temp jobs.
Most of the growth of university costs comes from administrative bloat. Non-faculty staff has grown at more than twice the rate of instructors – you know, the people who are the ostensible reason a university exists. As tenured professors retire, administrators kill those tenure lines and replace them permanently with part timers. Administrators do this so they can gorge on a higher salary while demanding more from the refugee ration-packet salary of academics. Think I am not being generous? Some administrators earn $300,000 a year to fundraise for new football stadium skyboxes. Vice Presidents at the University of Maryland saw their salaries increase by 50 percent between 1998 and 2003, as faculty positions were slashed. All the while adjuncts try to get by with the help of Medicaid or food stamps.
There’s only one catch. The idea comes from Glenn Reynolds, Republican toady and right-wing shill, so it makes me suspect that I’ve missed something. It makes me pretty certain, actually.