Changing notions of death-4: Implications for animals

(See part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.)

If asked, any one of us would say that we value life, that we consider it precious and not to be taken lightly. While the specific phrase “valuing the culture of life” seems to have been co-opted by those who are specifically opposed to abortion, the general idea that it encapsulates, that life should not be taken casually or at all, is one that all of us would subscribe to.

But of course there are contradictions. People who say they value life often see no problem with supporting the death penalty. Another hypocrisy is with those who support killing in wars, even of civilians, and even in large numbers. We try to rationalize this by saying that civilians are killed inadvertently, but that is a false argument. Civilians are inevitably killed in wars, often deliberately, and we often do nothing to condemn it when it is done by ‘our side.’ To support wars is to support killing and absolve killers, however much we try to sugar coat this unpleasant fact. As Voltaire said, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”

In his lecture, Peter Singer pointed out that killing and eating animals, while opposing the withdrawal of life support of those in a persistent vegetative state, poses an ethical problem for people who say that they value a “culture of life.”

He gave as an example the fact that while the 3,000 or so victims of September 11, 2001 were deeply mourned, no one mourned the fact that millions of chickens were killed on that same day and every day before and since. But we do not mourn them the same way. Why not?

If we define death as heart dead or brain dead, then the chickens are as alive as any of us. Even when we lower the bar to thinking of someone in a persistent vegetative state as being ‘effectively dead’, that still does not get us off the hook since, as Singer argued, chickens and other animals have higher levels of consciousness than people in a persistent vegetative state. Free range chickens seem to show signs of happiness, curiosity, anxiety, fear, and the sense of self-awareness that, if present in humans, would definitely bar us from killing them. If that is the case, then if we oppose the withdrawal of life support systems even from those in a persistent vegetative state, then how can we justify killing chickens, or any other animal for that matter?

He posed the question of why the killing of human beings is deplored but that of chickens is not. He said that appealing to species chauvinism (“We are human, and so are justified in valuing human life over non-human animal life.”) was not really an ethically justifiable defense, though many people used it.

After all, if we allowed that particular chauvinist line of defense, where do we draw the line? What if I say that because I am male, I am justified in thinking that the lives of women are worth less than that of men? We would reject that line of argument as rank sexism. What if I say that because I am brown skinned, I am justified in treating non-brown people as inferior? We would reject that argument as rank racism. So why should we think that the argument “I am human so I am justified in valuing human life over animal life?” is acceptable?

Singer’s point was that as soon as we shift our definition of death from that defined by the complete lack of heart or brain function, and to judgments about the nature or level of the consciousness involved, we have gone into ethically tricky territory for those non-vegetarians who argue that because of belief in a “culture of life,” human beings must be kept alive at all costs. Because you cannot argue that people in a persistent vegetative state should be kept on life support while arguing that perfectly healthy animals can be killed.

People of certain religious traditions (like Christians, Jews, and Muslims) perhaps can find justification for this discrepant behavior by appealing to their religious beliefs that include species chauvinism as part of their doctrines. In the view of these religions, humans are specially favored by god and thus fundamentally different from, and superior to, other animals so valuing human life and disregarding non-human animal life is allowable. It is noteworthy that Buddhism and Hinduism do not assert such a species chauvinistic attitude. They seem to treat human and non-human animals on an equal footing and vegetarianism is advocated by both religions.

But if we leave out religious sanction and argue on strictly ethical grounds, it becomes hard to justify opposing the withdrawal of life support systems to people who are in a persistent vegetative state on the grounds that such people are still ‘alive’, and square it with the killing of healthy animals for food, as we routinely do.

Singer made a cogent argument that none of us can really ethically justify the killing of animals for food, when it is not necessary for survival. Singer himself is a vegetarian.

I am not sure if Singer was able to resolve some of the ethical issues of what constitutes death by the end of his talk, after I had left. But his ideas were very thought provoking.


Good jugglers are amazing. For a fine example of this art, go here and then click on “Watch Chris Bliss.”

Internet sleuthing

I am a firm believer in cooperative learning. The combined efforts of many people can produce results that would be impossible for a single person. And the internet is a wonderful mechanism for enabling collective action.

What follows is a modern-day detective story that illustrates what is possible when the collective strength of people working together, sharing information and ideas, and building on each others’ ideas, combined with the speed of communication and resources available on the internet.

Howard Kaloogian is a Republican candidate in San Diego’s special congressional election to replace disgraced Republican Duke Cunningham, who pleaded guilty to bribery, resigned his seat, and is now in jail. In his campaign, Kaloogian tried to propagate the White House meme that things are just peachy in Iraq and that the media is deliberately sabotaging the war effort, painting a dark picture by reporting only the daily bombings, beheadings, kidnappings, extortions, etc.
[Read more…]

Changing notions of death-3: Doctors versus guardians

In part 1 and part 2 of this series of posts, we saw how the idea of when someone had died had shifted to the point where people in a persistent vegetative state could have their life support systems removed because they are considered to be ‘effectively’ dead. But even if the family is agreed on what action should be taken with a family member in a persistent vegetative state, there are already moves under way to shift the bar even lower. The question now being raised is as to what should be done if the doctors determine that further treatment is futile but the family does not want to remove life support.

In a recent case in England, doctors had recommended that an 18-month old infant (identified as just MB) who suffers from the severest form of spinal muscular atrophy – an incurable and progressively worsening condition leading to complete paralysis – be allowed to die. The parents objected and the matter went to trial.

On March 15, 2006, the judge ruled in the parents’ favor, refusing to declare that it would be lawful to withdraw life-sustaining ventilation.

A momentary look of wistfulness passed over the face of MB’s mother as the judge listed five possible options, one of which was to allow the child to die peacefully in his parents’ arms – the one favoured by the paediatricians. The parents have fought long and hard against the received medical wisdom of the case, even though, as the judge said, they may be deluding themselves that their son has a future.

At long last, Mr Justice Holman gave his ruling that the boy shall live, if not perhaps for long.

In that case, the judge in England did not shift the goal posts on what constitutes death or the conditions under which people are ‘allowed to die.’

But people might be surprised to know that a similar situation had occurred in the US and that doctors and hospitals were allowed to override the family’s will. Remarkably, this little noticed event took place on March 15, 2006 during the high point of the events surrounding Terri Schiavo.

While Americans were riveted by dramatic events unfolding in Pinellas Park, Fla., a five-month-old Houston baby took his last breath after a hospital let him die despite his mother’s objections.

Sun Hudson was born Sept. 25 with thanatophoric dysplasia, an incurable and fatal form of dwarfism. Doctors said his tiny lungs would never fully grow and that he would never breathe on his own.

Hudson’s mother, Wanda, put up a fight when doctors advised removing Sun from a respirator. She said she did not believe in sickness or death. (my italics)

This was the first time that life support was removed over the objections of the legal guardian and without any advance directives from the patient, such as a living will. Perhaps the ultimate irony, if not outright hypocrisy, was that this Texas law was signed in 1999 by then Governor George W. Bush. The baby Sun Hudson was allowed to die in Texas against the wishes of his mother because of a state law then-Governor Bush signed, on the very same day that now-President Bush dramatically cut short his vacation and flew back to Washington to sign the federal law that supported the parents’ right to keep life support continuing for Terri Schiavo.

The doctors were able to override the mother’s wishes on March 15, 2005 because the case took place in Texas and that state has a law that authorizes doctors and hospitals to override the wishes of the patient’s families. The hospital took this action under the The Texas Advance Directives Act (1999), also known as the Texas Futile Care Law, which according to Wikipedia, “describes certain provisions that are now Chapter 166 of the Texas Health & Safety Code. Controversy over these provisions mainly centers on Section 166.046, Subsection (e), which allows a health care facility to discontinue life-sustaining treatment against the wishes of the patient or guardian ten days after giving written notice.”

As with the case of shifting the definition of death from heart dead to brain dead, serious ethical issues are raised by this act. There are concerns that this law was passed because hospitals did not want to shoulder the cost of maintaining life support for patients who cannot pay for it. Although the law (as I read it) does not explicitly say that the inability to pay for life support can be a reason for termination of services, it is easy to see that financial considerations are going to come into play.

It is unlikely that patients who have rich families who can pay the bills are going to have their wishes overridden and life support removed. But one can see why hospitals, which have become businesses, would not like the prospect of indefinitely providing expensive life support care if they have no hope of being reimbursed. What adds further suspicion to the view that commercial concerns are significant is that if another hospital is willing to accept the patient, then the patient can be shifted there. But it is unlikely that another hospital is going to accept a new patient who requires extensive life support when that patient is unable to pay.

This blatant hypocrisy and contradiction between Bush’s behavior as governor of Texas and as President later did not go completely unnoticed, though it did not get the attention it warranted. In an editorial on March 22, 2005, the Concord Monitor voiced concern over the implications of the Texas law:

On the same day President Bush interrupted his vacation and rushed to Washington to sign the Schiavo bill, a Texas hospital removed the breathing tube keeping 6-month-old Sun Hudson alive. According to The Houston Chronicle, the hospital’s action, the first of its kind, was made possible by a 1999 bill signed into law by Bush, then Texas’s governor.

That law allows hospitals to discontinue life-sustaining care even when doing so runs counter to the wishes of the patient’s guardians. Before ending the patient’s life under the law Bush signed, however, two conditions must be met. Doctors must deem that there is no chance for recovery and the patient must be unable to pay the hospital bill for continuing care. (my italics)

Added John Paris, a medical ethicist at Boston College, told Newsday “The Texas statute that Bush signed authorized the ending of the life, even over the parents’ protest. And what he’s doing here is saying, ‘The parents are protesting. You shouldn’t stop [treatment]'”

Apart from this being another example of Bush subordinating principle to political expediency, it also clearly shows that society is steadily lowering the bar on death, first making it a judgment of whether someone is ‘effectively dead’ and who gets to make that decision, and now coming down to the question of whether someone is worth keeping alive and putting that decision (at least in Texas) in the hands of doctors and hospitals and not parents and guardians. While the judgment that further treatment is futile may be a medical and scientific judgment, the decision to withdraw life support will undoubtedly be also driven by financial considerations as to whether the patients and their families can pay the cost of continued treatment.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Canned bird hunts

When not shooting old friends in the face, ‘Deadeye Dick’ Cheney kills birds for fun, and has killed up to 70 pheasants in just one shooting session. What is more, the birds he shot were bred in captivity to make them easy targets and one wonders what kind of fascination he finds in personally slaughtering such a large number of tame birds.

The comic strip Doonesbury suggests one reason, and Nate Corddry from The Daily Show tries to find out what the thrill is by going on one such canned quail hunt and bringing back a report.

Changing notions of death-2: Persistent vegetative state

The next stage in the evolution of when death occurs (see part 1 on this topic) came with the tragic case of Nancy Cruzan.

In 1983, 25-year old Nancy Cruzan careened off the road, flipped over and was thrown from her car into a ditch. Nancy hadn’t breathed for at least 15 minutes before paramedics found and revived her – a triumph of modern medicine launching her family’s seven-year crusade to free Nancy from a persistent vegetative state.

Nancy Cruzan’s sad fate launched a fresh examination of death, centering around whether a person in a particular kind of coma, known as a persistent vegetative state, could be considered to be ‘effectively dead’ even if they did not meet the legal conditions of being heart dead or brain dead.

A persistent vegetative state is related to a coma in the following way:

A coma is a profound or deep state of unconsciousness. The affected individual is alive but is not able to react or respond to life around him/her. Coma may occur as an expected progression or complication of an underlying illness, or as a result of an event such as head trauma.

A persistent vegetative state, which sometimes follows a coma, refers to a condition in which individuals have lost cognitive neurological function and awareness of the environment but retain noncognitive function and a perserved [sic] sleep-wake cycle.

It is sometimes described as when a person is technically alive, but his/her brain is dead. However, that description is not completely accurate. In persistent vegetative state the individual loses the higher cerebral powers of the brain, but the functions of the brainstem, such as respiration (breathing) and circulation, remain relatively intact. Spontaneous movements may occur and the eyes may open in response to external stimuli, but the patient does not speak or obey commands. Patients in a vegetative state may appear somewhat normal. They may occasionally grimace, cry, or laugh. (my italics)

So a person in a persistent vegetative state does not meet the legal definition of being brain dead. Nancy Cruzan’s parents were faced with the difficult question of what to do.

After her accident, they worked tirelessly to help bring her back to consciousness, without success. After five years, the family finally accepted that Nancy’s condition would never improve. Already worn out from losing the fight to bring Nancy back to life, the Cruzans began a painful, and very public, legal battle to have the state hospital remove her feeding tube and let her die.

But their attempts at removal were opposed at that time by the state of Missouri, which argued that life support should not be removed since Nancy Cruzan was not legally dead. It was only in 1990, after even losing in the US Supreme Court, that the family won in state court and was allowed to remove her life support systems. She then became legally dead.

Singer argued that this was another significant shift in our understanding of death, because Cruzan was neither brain dead nor heart dead. What she had lost was the sense of personhood, a sense of awareness of herself and of her past and her possible future, her ‘higher cerebral powers of the brain.’ In other words, she had ceased to exist as the person whom her family and friends had known, and had become instead just a living organism, one which was neither brain dead nor heart dead. Her tombstone marker says: “Born July 20, 1957 / Departed January 11, 1983/ At Peace December 26, 1990” suggesting the idea that she ceased to exist as a person in 1983, although she continued to exist as an organism until 1990.

Singer points out that the idea that someone like Cruzan who is in a persistent vegetative state could be ‘allowed to die’ by withdrawing life support systems raises serious ethical questions, because it lowers the bar on what we consider to be death, and puts us in the realm of making judgments about whether someone should live or die based on whether or not they have higher cognitive functions such as an awareness of self. In other words, we have to make a decision as to whether someone has died as a ‘person’ even though they may be legally alive. This raises the question of who is competent to make such a decision in such situations and it seems like society has decided that it should be the family and their doctors.

But even that did not end the question, as the recent case of Terry Schiavo illustrates. She was in a persistent vegetative state but different members of the family had different wishes as to whether life support should be removed, and this resulted in the legal and media and political circus as to who had the right to make that decision. The courts had to finally step in and rule that the husband had the legal rights of guardianship and could make the decision, and life support was removed. A new poll this week finds that 64% of Americans support that decision to remove the feeding tube, with 27% dissenting.

Interestingly, Singer argues that he does not see much of a major ethical distinction between withdrawing life support and actively causing death by, say, giving a lethal injection. He thinks that the argument that when we remove life support we are ‘letting nature take its course’ is a way of rationalizing our actions to make it palatable to us, but does not resolve the ethical dilemma. He said that hospitals and intensive care units are designed precisely to prevent nature taking its course, and to withdraw that service from some people is no different from euthanasia.

So it seems as if society, not legally but in an indirect way, has shifted the definition of death so that people in a persistent vegetative state are already considered to be effectively dead, at least as ‘persons’, and thus withdrawing life support so that they become legally dead, is acceptable.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Religious beliefs and torture

In a series of earlier posts (see part 1, part 2, and part 3), I argued for the complete ban on torture. A new survey finds that secular people are more likely than Christians to oppose the use of torture. Among Christians, Catholics are the most likely to support torture.

Changing notions of death-1: Brain death

There is nothing more bracing than starting a new week with the cheery topic of death. I have been thinking about it since listening to noted ethicist Peter Singer’s excellent talk on The ethics of life and death on March 21. He pointed out that the answer to the question “When is someone dead?” is not simple.

Most of us know, by listening to the abortion debate in the US, how hard it is to get agreement on when life begins. Singer’s talk highlighted the other problem, one that does not get nearly as much attention, and that is the question of how we decide that someone is dead.

(Caveat: I could only stay for the first 45 minutes of his talk and did not take notes, so my use of the ideas in his talk is based on my memory. Peter Singer is not to be blamed for any views that I may inadvertently ascribe to him. But his ideas were so provocative that I had to share and build on them. I can see why he is regarded as one of the premier ethical thinkers.)

It used to be that the definition of death was when the heart stopped beating and blood stopped flowing. But that definition was changed so that people whose hearts were still beating but whose brains had no activity were also deemed to be dead.

This change was implemented in 1980 by the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which was supported by the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research. This act asserts that: “An individual, who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brainstem, is dead. A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.”

Why did this change come about? Singer says that the background to this change raises some serious ethical questions. Thinking about changes in the definition of death was triggered by the first heart transplant operation done in 1967 by Dr. Christian Barnard in South Africa. Suddenly, the possibility of harvesting human hearts and other organs of dead people for use by others became much more realistic and feasible. But if you waited for the heart to stop beating to determine death, then that left you very little time to get a useful organ (because organs decay rapidly once blood stops flowing), whereas if people were merely ‘brain dead’ than you could get organs while they were still fresh and warm, since the circulatory system was still functioning at the time of removal.

Thus the first heart transplant in 1967 was the main impetus for the formation in 1968 of an ad hoc committee on brain death at Harvard Medical School, which laid the foundation for the shift in the definition of death that occurred in 1980 which provided criteria that described determination of a condition known as “irreversible coma,” “cerebral death,” or brain death.

Note that the change in the definition of death was not due to purely better scientific knowledge of when people died. All that science could say was that from past experience, a person who was ‘brain dead’ had never ever come back to a functioning state. It seems like the decision to change the definition of death was (at least partly) inspired by somewhat more practical considerations involving the need of organs for transplants.

But while the circumstances behind the change in the definition of death raises serious ethical questions, the idea that someone who was ‘brain dead’ was truly dead was a defensible proposition, whatever the reasons for its adoption.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Quick! Get back in the closet!

Some time ago, I expressed surprise that some atheists felt uneasy about ‘coming out of the closet.’ But a new University of Minnesota study suggests that there may be good reason for their hesitancy.

From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.” Atheists are also the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry
. . .
Many of the study’s respondents associated atheism with an array of moral indiscretions ranging from criminal behavior to rampant materialism and cultural elitism.

These results are quite amazing. Of course, such negative stereotypes usually arise from ignorance so maybe if people encountered more atheists and saw how ordinary they are, this view could be dispelled. But it is interesting how so many people feel that god is so integral to their “vision of American society.” America seems to be a theocracy, in fact, if not legally.

Grade inflation-3: How do we independently measure learning?

Recall (see here and here for previous postings) that to argue that grade inflation has occurred, it is not sufficient to simply show that grades have risen. It must be shown grades have risen without a corresponding increase in learning and student achievement. And that is difficult to do because there are really no good independent measures of student learning, apart from grades.

Some have argued that the SAT scores of matriculating classes could be used as a measure of student ‘ability’ and could thus be used to see if universities are getting ‘better’ students, thus justifying the rise in grades.

But the use of SAT scores as a measure of student quality or abilities has always been deeply problematic, so it is not even clear that any rise in SAT scores of incoming students means anything. One reason is that the students who take the SAT tests are a self-selected group and not a random sample, so one cannot infer much from changes in SAT scores. Second, SAT scores have not been shown to be predictive of anything really useful. There is a mild correlation of SAT scores with first year college grades but that is about it.

Even at Case, not all matriculating students have taken the SAT’s. Also the average total SAT scores from 1985-1992 was 1271, while the average from 1993-2005 was 1321. This rise in SAT scores of incoming students at Case would be affected by two factors, the first being the re-centering of SAT scores that occurred in 1995. It is not known whether the pre-1995 scores we have at Case are the original ones or have been raised to adjust for re-centering. This lack of knowledge makes it hard to draw conclusions about how much, if at all, SAT scores have risen at Case.

Alfie Kohn cites “Trends in College Admissions” reports that say that the average verbal-SAT score of students enrolled in all private colleges rose from 543 in 1985 to 558 in 1999. It is also the fact that it was around 1991 that Case instituted merit scholarships based on SAT scores and started aggressively marketing it as a recruiting tool. So it is tempting to argue that there has been a genuine rise in SAT scores for students at Case.

Another local factor at Case that would influence GPAs is the practice of “freshman forgiveness” that began in 1987. Under this program, students in their first year would be “forgiven” any F grades they received and this F would not be counted towards their GPA. This is bound to have the effect of increasing the overall GPA, although a very rough estimate suggests only a 1-2% increase. This practice was terminated in 2005.

The Rosovsky-Hartley monograph points to the fact that many more students in colleges are now enrolled in remedial courses than was the case in the past, arguing that this implies that students are actually worse now. But again, that inference is not clear. Over the recent past there has been a definite shift in emphasis in colleges of now wanting to retain the students they recruit. The old model of colleges recruiting more students than they needed and then ‘weeding’ them out using certain courses in their first year, is no longer in vogue, assuming that there was substance to that belief and it is not just folklore.

Now universities go to great lengths to provide assistance to their students, beefing up their advising, tutoring, and other programs to help student stay in school. So the increased enrollment of students in remedial courses may simply be the consequence of universities taking a much more proactive attitude to helping students, rather than a sign of declining student quality. All these measures are aimed at improving student performance and are another possible benign explanation for any rise in grades. In fact, all these remedial and assistance programs could be used to argue that a rise in grades could be due to actual improved student performance.

Alfie Kohn argues that taking all these things into account, there is no evidence for grade inflation, that this is an issue that has been blown way out of proportion by those who have a very narrow concept of the role of grades in learning. Kohn says there are many reasons why grades could rise:

Maybe students are turning in better assignments. Maybe instructors used to be too stingy with their marks and have become more reasonable. Maybe the concept of assessment itself has evolved, so that today it is more a means for allowing students to demonstrate what they know rather than for sorting them or “catching them out.” (The real question, then, is why we spent so many years trying to make good students look bad.) Maybe students aren’t forced to take as many courses outside their primary areas of interest in which they didn’t fare as well. Maybe struggling students are now able to withdraw from a course before a poor grade appears on their transcripts. (Say what you will about that practice, it challenges the hypothesis that the grades students receive in the courses they complete are inflated.)

The bottom line: No one has ever demonstrated that students today get A’s for the same work that used to receive B’s or C’s. We simply do not have the data to support such a claim.

In addition to the factors listed by Kohn, psychologist Steve Falkenberg points out a number of other reasons why average grades could rise. His essay is a particularly thoughtful one that is worth reading.

Part of the problem in judging whether grade inflation exists is that we don’t know what the actual grade distribution in colleges should be. Those who argue that it should be a bell curve (or ‘normal’ distribution) with an average around C are mixing up a normative approach to assessment (as is used for IQ tests and SATs) with an achievement approach.

IQ tests and SATs are designed so that the results are spread out over a bell curve. They seek to measure a characteristic (called “intelligence'”) that is supposedly distributed randomly in the population according to a normal distribution. (This assumption and the whole issue of what constitutes intelligence is the source of a huge controversy that I don’t want to get into here.) So the goal of such tests is to sort students into a hierarchy, and they design tests that spread out the scores so that one can tell who is in the top 10% and so on.

But when you teach a class of students, you are no longer dealing with a random sample of the population. First of all, you are not giving your assessments to people off the street. The students have been selected based on their prior achievements and are no longer a random sampling of the population. Secondly, by teaching them, you are deliberately intervening and skewing the distribution. Thirdly, your tests should not be measuring the same random variable that things like the SATs measure. If they were, you might as well give your students their grades based on those tests.

Tests should not be measures of some intrinsic ability, even assuming that such a thing exists and can be measured and a number assigned to it. Tests are (or at least should be) measuring achievement of how much and how well a selected group of students have learned as a result of your instruction. Hence there is no reason at all to expect a normal distribution. In fact, you would expect to have a distribution that is skewed towards the high end. The problem, if it can be considered a problem, is that we don’t know a priori what that skewed distribution should look like or whether there is a preferred distribution at all. After all, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with everyone in a class getting As, if they have all learned the material at a suitably high level.

In fact, as Ohmer Milton, Howard Pollio, and James Eison write in Making Sense of College Grades (Jossey-Bass, 1986): “It is not a symbol of rigor to have grades fall into a ‘normal’ distribution; rather, it is a symbol of failure — failure to teach well, failure to test well, and failure to have any influence at all on the intellectual lives of students.”

There is nothing intrinsically noble about trying to keep average grades unchanged over the years, which is what those who complain about grade inflation usually want to do.

On the other hand, one could make the reasonable case that as we get better at teaching and in creating the conditions that make students learn better, and as a consequence we get students who are able to learn more, then perhaps we should raise our expectations of students and provide more challenging assignments, so that they can rise to greater heights. This is a completely different discussion. If we do so, this might result in a drop in grades. But this drop is a byproduct of a thoughtful decision to make learning better, not caused by an arbitrary decision to keep average grades fixed.

This approach would be like car manufacturers and consumers raising their standards over the years so that we now expect a lot more from our cars than we did fifty years ago. Even the best cars of fifty years ago would not be able to meet the current standards of fuel efficiency, safety, and emissions. But the important thing to keep in mind is that standards have been raised along with the ability to make better cars able to meet the higher standards.

But in order to take this approach in education, it requires teachers to think carefully about what and how we assess, what we can reasonably expect of our students, and how we should teach so they can learn more and learn better. Unfortunately much of the discussion of grade inflation short-circuits this worthwhile aspect of the issue, choosing instead to go for the quick fix like putting limits for the number of grades awarded in each category.

It is perhaps worthwhile to remember that fears about grade inflation, that high grades are being given for poor quality work, have been around for a long time, especially at elite institutions. The Report of the Committee on Raising the Standard at Harvard University said: “Grades A and B are sometimes given too readily — Grade A for work of no very high merit, and Grade B for work not far above mediocrity. … One of the chief obstacles to raising the standards of the degree is the readiness with which insincere students gain passable grades by sham work.”

That statement was made in 1894.

POST SCRIPT: Cindy Sheehan in Cleveland tomorrow

Cindy Sheehan will speak at a Cleveland Town Hall Meeting Saturday, March 25, 1-3 pm

Progressive Democrats of Ohio present Gold Star Mother and PDA Board Member Cindy Sheehan at a Town Hall Meeting on Saturday, March 25, 2006 from 1 – 3 p.m. at the Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Road in Cleveland’s North Collinwood neighborhood. (directions.)

Topic: Examining The Cost of Iraq: Lives, Jobs, Security, Community

Panelists include:

US Congressman Dennis Kucinich, OH-10
Cindy Sheehan – Gold Star mother & activist
Tim Carpenter, National Director, Progressive Democrats of America
Francis Chiappa, President, Cleveland Peace Action
Paul Schroeder, NE Ohio Gold Star Father and co-founder of Families of the Fallen For Change
Farhad Sethna, Immigration attorney and concerned citizen

Grade inflation-2: Possible benign causes for grade increases

Before jumping to the conclusion that a rise in average grades must imply inflation (see my previous posting on this topic), we should be aware of the dangers that exist when we are dealing with averages. For example, suppose we consider a hypothetical institution that has just two departments A and B. Historically, students taking courses in A have had average grades of 2.5 while those in B have had 3.0. Even if there is no change at all in the abilities or effort of the students and no change in what the faculty teach or the way that faculty assess and grade, so that the average grades in each department remain unchanged, it is still possible for the average grades of the institution to rise, simply because the fraction of students taking courses in B has become larger.

There is evidence that this shifting around in the courses taken by students is just what is happening. Those who are convinced that grade inflation exists and that it is evil, tend to interpret this phenomenon as game playing by students, that they are manipulating the system, choosing courses on the basis of how easy it is to get high grades rather than by interest or challenge.

For example, the ERIC report says “In Grade Inflation: A Crisis in College Education (2003), professor Valen E. Johnson concludes that disparities in grading affect the way students complete course evaluation forms and result in inequitable faculty evaluations. . . Students are currently able to manipulate their grade point averages through the judicious choice of their classes rather than through moderating their efforts. Academic standards have been diminished and this diminution can be halted, he argues, only if more principled student grading practices are adopted and if faculty evaluations become more closely linked to student achievement.”

This looks bad and the author obviously wants to make it look bad, as can be seen from his choice of the word ‘manipulate’ to describe the students’ actions and the way he implies that faculty are becoming more unprincipled in their grading practices. But there is no evidence for the evil motivations attributed to such students and faculty. In fact, one can look at the phenomenon in a different way. It is undoubtedly true that students now have many more choices than they did in the past. There are more majors and more electives. When you offer more choices, students are more likely to choose courses they are interested in and thus are more likely to do better in them.

Furthermore, even if students are choosing courses partly based on their expectation of the grade they will receive in it, we should not be too harsh in our judgments. After all, we have created a system in which grades seem to be the basis for almost everything: admission to colleges and graduate schools, honors, scholarships, and financial aid. As I said, grades have become the currency of higher education. Is it any wonder that students factor in grades when making their choices? If a student tries to balance courses they really want to take with those that know they can get a high grade in order to be able to maintain the GPA they need to retain their scholarships, why is this to be condemned? This seems to me to be a sensible strategy. After all, faculty do that kind of thing all the time. When faculty learn that the NIH or NSF is shifting its grants funding emphasis to some new research area, many will shift their research programs accordingly. We do not pour scorn on them for this, telling them that they should choose research topics purely based on their interests. Instead, we commend them for being forward thinking.

It certainly would be wonderful if students chose courses purely on the basis of their interest or usefulness or challenge and not on grade expectations, but to put students in the current grade-focused environment and expect them to ignore grades altogether when making their course selection is to be hypocritical and send mixed messages.

What about the idea that faculty grading standards have declined and that part of the reason is that they are giving easy grades in order to get good evaluations? This is a very popular piece of folklore on college campuses. But this question has also been studied and the data simply do not support it. It does seem to be true that students tend to get higher grades in the courses in the courses they rate higher. But to infer a causal relationship, that if a faculty member gives higher grades they will get better evaluations, is wrong.

People who have studied this find that if a student likes a course and a professor (and thus gives good evaluations), then they will tend to work harder at that course and do better (and thus get higher grades) thus bringing about the grades-evaluations correlation that we see. But what tends to determine how much a student likes a course and professor seems to depend on whether they student feels like she or he is actually leaning interesting and useful stuff. Students, like anybody else, don’t like to feel they are wasting their time and money and do not enjoy being with a professor who does not care for them or respect them.

Remember that these studies report on general trends. It is quite likely that there exist individual professors who give high grades in a misguided attempt to bribe student to give good evaluations, and that there exist students willing to be so bribed. But such people are not the norm.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: And the winner is. . .

Meanwhile, there are Americans who have already have decided which country the US should invade next in the global war on terror, even if they haven’t the faintest idea where that country is on the globe or why it should be invaded. Even Sri Lanka gets a shot at this particularly dubious honor.

Here’s an idea for a reality show, along the lines of American Idol. It will be called Who’s next?. The contestants will be the heads of states of each country and this time their goal will be to get voted off because the last remaining country gets bombed and invaded by the US. The judges could be Dick Cheney (to provide the sarcastic put-downs a la Simon Cowell. Sample: “You think we’re going to waste our smart bombs on your dumb country?”), Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleeza Rice.

Fox television, my contract is ready and I’m waiting for your call.

Grade inflation-1: What is it and is it occurring?

There is nothing that gets the juices flowing in higher education academic circles than the topic of grade inflation. Part of the reason for this passion may be because grades and test scores, and not learning, seem to have become the currency of education, dominating the thinking of both students and faculty. Hence some people monitor grades as an important symptom of the health of universities.

But what is curious is that much of the discussion is done in the absence of any hard data. It seems as if perceptions or personal anecdotes are a sufficient basis to draw quite sweeping conclusions and prescriptions for action.

One of the interesting things about the discussion is how dismayed some faculty get simply by the prospect that average grades have risen over time. I do not quite understand this. Is education the only profession where evidence, at least on the surface, of a rise in quality is seen as a bad thing? I would hope that like in every other profession we teachers are getting better at what we do. I would hope that we now understand better the conditions under which students learn best and have incorporated the results of that knowledge into our classrooms, resulting in higher achievement by students. Any other profession or industry would welcome the news that fewer people are doing poorly or that fewer products are rejected for not meeting quality standards. But in higher education, rising grades are simply assumed to be bad.

Of course, if grades are rising because our assessment practices are becoming lax, then that is a cause for concern, just as if a manufacturer reduces the rejection rate of their product by lowering quality standards. This is why having an independent measure of student learning and achievement to compare grades with has to be an important part of the discussion.

Grade inflation is a concept that has an analogy with monetary inflation, and to infer that inflation (as opposed to just a rise) in grades has occurred implies that grades have risen without a corresponding increase in learning and student achievement. But in much of the discussion, this important conditional clause is dropped and a rise in grades is taken as sufficient evidence by itself that inflation has occurred.

Let’s take first the question of whether average grades have actually risen. At Case, as some of you may know, beginning January 2003, the GPA cutoffs to achieve honors were raised to 3.56 (cum laude), 3.75 (magna cum laude), and 3.88 (summa cum laude) so that only 35% of students would be eligible for honors. (The earlier values were 3.20, 3.50, and 3.80 respectively.) This measure was taken because the number of people who were graduating with honors had risen steadily over the years, well above the 35% originally anticipated when the earlier bars were set.

A look at grade point averages at Case shows that it was 2.99 in 1975 (the first year for which we have this data), dropped slowly and steadily to 2.70 in 1982, rose to 3.02 in 1987, stayed around that value until 1997, and since then has oscillated around 3.20 until 2005, with the highest reaching 3.27 in 2001. The overall average for the entire period was 3.01 and the standard deviation was about 0.70. (I am grateful for this and other Case data to Dr. Julie Petek, Director of Degree Audit and Data Services.)

It is hard to know what to make of this. On the one hand we could start at the lowest point in the grade curve and say that grades have risen by half a letter grade from 1982 to 2005. Or we could start at 1975 and say that grades are fluctuating in the range 2.70-3.30, or about half a standard deviation about the mean of 3.0.

What does the data say nationwide? Henry Rosovsky and Matthew Hartley, writing in a monograph for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences are convinced that inflation has occurred. For evidence of grades increasing, they point to various nationwide surveys that show that average grades rose by 0.43 from 1960 to 1974; that in 1993 the number of grades of A- or higher was 26%, compared to 7% in 1969; and the number of C’s dropped from 25% to 9% in that same period; and that averages rose from 3.07 in the mid 1980s to 3.34 in the mid 1990s.

In this last result, it is interesting to note in another study that grades rose on average only at selective liberal arts colleges and research universities, while they declined at general liberal arts colleges and 
comprehensive colleges and universities, and in the humanities and social sciences

The Rosovsky-Hartley monograph has been criticized for depending on research that itself depended on studies that used surveys, and such studies can be questioned on the fact that it is not clear how reliable the responses to such surveys are, depending as they do on self-reporting.

A 2003 ERIC Digest of the literature on this topic finds results that that cast doubt on the basic question of whether average grades have even risen. For example, “Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst with the U.S. Department of Education, reviewed student transcripts from more than 3,000 colleges and universities and reported in 1995 that student grades have actually declined slightly over the last 20 years.” (my emphasis). His study of 16.5 million graduates from 1999-2000 also found that 14.5% of these students received As while 33.5% received grades of C or lower.

What is significant about the Adelman study is that he used actual student transcripts, not surveys, and thus seems to me to be more reliable.

It seems from this data and other studies that average grades have not increased across the board, but it is plausible that they have increased at selective liberal arts colleges and research universities. The Rosovsky-Hartley monograph says that “In 1966, 22 percent of all grades given to Harvard undergraduates were in the A range. By 1996 that percentage had risen to 46 percent and in that same year 82 percent of Harvard seniors graduated with academic honors. In 1973, 30.7 percent of all grades at Princeton were in the A range and by 1997 that percentage had risen to 42.5 percent.”
Even though it has not been conclusively established suppose that, for the sake of the argument, we concede that at least at selective liberal arts colleges and research universities (such as Case) have seen a rise in average grades. Is this automatically evidence of grade inflation? Or are there more benign causes, such as that we getting better prepared and more able students now, or our teaching methods have improved? Another important issue is whether Case’s experience of rising grades is part of a national trend or an exception.

To be continued. . .

POST SCRIPT: Where’s the balance?

Over at Hullabaloo, Tristero catches the Washington Post in a blatant act of bias in favor of atheistic science. The Post article says:

Scientists said yesterday they have found the best evidence yet supporting the theory that about 13.7 billion years ago, the universe suddenly expanded from the size of a marble to the size of the cosmos in less than a trillionth of a second.

Tristero points out that the article completely fails to mention the controversy around this question, that there is another side to this story, that the big bang is “only a theory” since no one was there to actually observe this event and prove that it happened.

And not a word of balance from the other side, as if the sincere faith of millions of Americans in a Christian God didn’t matter at all to the Post’s editors.

I just hate it when the media reports carefully vetted scientific data as fact and not as just one of many valid points of view. I’m not asking for them to ignore the opinions of these so-called scientists, but they really should report the fact there’s a lot of controversy about whether this kind of evidence is valid. Like, were you there, huh, Mr. Hotshot Washington Post?

Is god punishing Kansas?

The last year has seen too many examples of the devastating power that nature can unleash. The Asian tsunami, hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake in Pakistan all caused massive destruction and loss of life, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless and impoverished and grieving for lost loved ones.

From time immemorial, people have looked on such events as indicators of god’s feelings towards humans. Of course, some despicable people have tried to use this natural tendency to seek signs of god’s power to actually wish for some calamity to strike some community as a sign of god’s righteous anger. Pat Robertson is just one of those despicable people who seems to think that what makes him angry must also be what makes god angry.

Recall that he was upset with the citizens of Dover for the way they voted out the school board that had adopted the pro-IDC (intelligent design creationism) statement in biology classes. He said: “I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover. If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city. And don’t wonder why He hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I’m not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for His help because he might not be there.” (See here for the video.)

But unfortunately for Robertson, God’s anger seemed to have been directed not at the rebellious people of Dover, but at the state of Kansas, which was recently hit by a series of over 100 deadly tornadoes that raced through the midwest, causing widespread destruction, most of it in Kansas.

The irony here is that Kansas is, according to Robertson’s measures, perhaps the most pro-god state in the nation, inserting IDC-friendly language into its science standards and even going so far as to rewrite the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.

The state of Kansas did not rest on these laurels, but in addition overwhelmingly passed (with 71% of the vote) a constitutional amendment banning same-sex couples from marrying or entering into civil unions. There was already an unchallenged law on the books that did the same thing but the people of Kansas wanted to send an even stronger signal to god of their devoted opposition to gay rights.

As Rep. Steve Huebert said “It is the right thing to do, based on the truth that was spoken (in the Bible).”

Kansas is even the home of Reverend Fred Phelps and his merry flock of gay-hating funeral disrupters.

How much more can a state do to please the almighty? So if any state felt entitled to special favors from god, it was Kansas. Getting hit in return with a series of tornados seems like a pretty ungrateful act on the deity’s part.

So what will Robertson say about Kansas, and not Dover, being the target of tornados? Perhaps he will say that the people of Kansas must be harboring some secret sins that made them deserving of this.

Or maybe god was aiming the tornados at Dover but they veered unexpectedly away, thus making Kansas the victim of friendly fire, so to speak. (Coriolis forces are tricky to account for when you are dealing with fast flowing wind currents, and have caused many a seasoned meteorologist to err in their predictions of where and when a storm will hit.)

Or maybe the good people of Kansas, and Pat Robertson, may consider the possibility that this evidence suggests that god is sending a message that he or she is actually strongly pro-gay and anti-IDC.

Or maybe, just maybe, these kinds of things are called ‘natural disasters’ for a reason, not just because they involve nature, but because they have no supernatural cause.

POST SCRIPT: Peter Singer lecture today

Peter Singer, the well-known ethicist, will give a lecture today on “Our Changing Ethics of Life and Death” at 4:00 p.m., Ford Auditorium, Allen Memorial Medical Library, 11000 Euclid Avenue, Cleveland

The talk is free and open to the public. No reservations required.

For more details, see here.

The politics of fear bites back

If there is anything that shows how cynical and manipulative the politics of fear have become, it is the controversy of the Dubai-based company Dubai Ports World taking over management of some US ports. As everyone knows, that company has now said that because of the huge negative reaction, they are handing over that operation to a US-based entity, although the details of that transfer have not been released.

This is an example of the chickens coming home to roost for this administration. To understand this, we have to go back to the events of 9/11. One way to view that disaster was to see it as a criminal act for which the perpetrators had to be sought ad brought to justice, like Timothy McVeigh was for the Oklahoma City bombing.

But that would not have served the purposes of the neoconservatives who needed a grand enemy in order to pursue their vision of global conquest. Treating it as a criminal matter in which the international law enforcement agencies would be involved, would not enable them to go on their preferred route of global conquest. In wars, innocent people die and in order to get the public to accept this, one needs an undifferentiated enemy so that anyone who gets killed can be seen as somehow deserving of it, if only by virtue of sharing some characteristics with those who actually carried out the crimes.

So a global enemy had to be manufactured and portrayed as this vast shadowy conspiracy seeking to undermine and then overthrow America, so that the only appropriate response was to go to war. This war was initially marketed to the public as the “global war on terror.” Attempts were made last year to change the brand name to the “struggle against violent extremism,” perhaps because the acronym SAVE tested better in market research than GWOT. But that change seems to have been nixed by President Bush perhaps because, as Jon Stewart said, Bush likes to think of himself as a “war president” and not a “struggling president.” The latest attempt at a brand name change is to call it “the long war”. This change has been proposed just this year and we’ll have to see if it takes root.

In this war, the undifferentiated enemy necessarily had to be Muslims and Arabs because the middle east was the target. But despite lip service to the notion that not all Muslims and Arabs were being targeted, the rhetoric of the war on terror and the need to try and link al Qaida to Iraq, inevitably led to that particular group of people being demonized.

Wars and warmongers have little use for subtleties. The fact is that much of the Muslim world is cosmopolitan, modern, linked integrally into the world trade system, and have thriving economies, as was the case with Iraq before the first Gulf war in 1991 and the subsequent imposition of sanctions.

But the Dubai Ports World deal has exposed the essential fraudulence of the so-called war on terror. The general public has been conditioned to think of Muslims and Arabs as malevolent beings and potential terrorists and thus there inevitably was a huge outcry at allowing such people access to American ports. And the White House and congressional Republicans and Democrats are responding hypocritically to this reaction.

This administration used a bludgeon against those who argued that acts of terrorism required a nuanced approach, accusing them of not being tough enough or not understanding the dangers the country faced from this vast global enemy coming out of the middle east. Now the same administration is aggrieved that people are not taking a nuanced approach to its dealings with the Arab world.

William Greider, writing in The Nation magazine, ridicules conservative columnist David Brooks for saying that the adverse reaction to the ports deal was an example of political hysteria because the “experts” tell [Brooks] there is no security risk involved. Greider writes:

Of course, he is correct. But what a killjoy. This is a fun flap, the kind that brings us together. Republicans and Democrats are frothing in unison, instead of polarizing incivilities. Together, they are all thumping righteously on the poor President. I expect he will fold or at least retreat tactically by ordering further investigation. The issue is indeed trivial. But Bush cannot escape the basic contradiction, because this dilemma is fundamental to his presidency.

A conservative blaming hysteria is hysterical, when you think about it, and a bit late. Hysteria launched Bush’s invasion of Iraq. It created that monstrosity called Homeland Security and pumped up defense spending by more than 40 percent. Hysteria has been used to realign US foreign policy for permanent imperial war-making, whenever and wherever we find something frightening afoot in the world. Hysteria will justify the “long war” now fondly embraced by Field Marshal Rumsfeld.
. . .
Bush was the principal author, along with his straight-shooting Vice President, and now he is hoisted by his own fear-mongering propaganda. The basic hysteria was invented from risks of terrorism, enlarged ridiculously by the President’s open-ended claim that we are endangered everywhere and anywhere (he decides where). Anyone who resists that proposition is a coward or, worse, a subversive. We are enticed to believe we are fighting a new cold war. But are we? People are entitled to ask. Bush picked at their emotional wounds after 9/11 and encouraged them to imagine endless versions of even-larger danger. What if someone shipped a nuke into New York Harbor? Or poured anthrax in the drinking water? OK, a lot of Americans got scared, even people who ought to know better.

So why is the fearmonger-in-chief being so casual about this Dubai business?

Because at some level of consciousness even George Bush knows the inflated fears are bogus. So do a lot of the politicians merrily throwing spears at him. He taught them how to play this game, invented the tactics and reorganized political competition as a demagogic dance of hysterical absurdities, endless opportunities to waste public money. Very few dare to challenge the mindset. Thousands have died for it.

It is interesting how even local people have picked up on how to play this game and use this hysteria to advance their own interests. In Cleveland, two companies that own commercial office space downtown are protesting a third because that company has been more successful than they at getting tenants to fill their office buildings. The complaint? The successful company is (gasp!) owned by an arm of the Kuwaiti government! Oh, the horror!

The Plain Dealer reports:

UPDATE: I have received an email from one of the people mentioned in the Plain Dealer article disputing the characterization of his views in the article. At his request, I have removed the passage.

What’s next in this anti-Muslim and anti-Arab crusade? Muslims not allowed to buy property in certain areas? Not allowed to get bank loans? Not allowed to park in handicapped spots?

How low can we go?

POST SCRIPT: Biblical inerrancy

Some time ago I wrote about Biblical inerrancy and discussed Bart Ehrman’s recent book Misquoting Jesus. Jon Stewart has an interesting interview with the author.