Category Archives: School

scienceruinseverything

If I had my act together, I would have had my final installment of “It Ain’t Heavy, It’s Science” ready for today, as we’re having the #ScienceMarch. But I don’t, so in lieu of that I will turn things over to Carl Phillips and Nicolas Bourbaki, who share their thoughts on the event.


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Category: School

I didn’t know this media personality in Sangamon’s major media market went to my middle school. He did a feature for Good Morning Sangamon about going back to Rotterdam Middle School where he remembers being a sports legend but everybody there remembers something different. I had never heard of the guy, but it was an interesting outside look at my middle school. He did fly down to film the segment (or maybe he was in town anyway). It was obviously meant to be comedic, but I liked seeing my middle school in a TV segment, including pictures of him in the same football uniform I wore!

It was a little weird, though, in that it felt like a fictionalized version of the school. Other than the aforementioned uniform, almost nothing looked familiar. I did recognize one coach, but that was about it. He was talking about “the principal who had been there 20 years” and it was somebody I’d never heard of. There was Principal Warfield, who was there before I was. He was followed by Principal Snidely, who left my seventh great year to be replaced by Ms McDonald whom I don’t remember as particularly impressive but apparently impressed somebody because she was the Superintendent of the entire district by the time I graduated from college and now has a school named after her. Then Warfield came back shortly after I left when Mossman got promoted en route to fame and fortune. Who was this person they were interviewing?!

I had originally thought that they might have taken some liberties or something, then I realized “Holy crap, I’m old.” As in, someone could have been there for 20 years and would still be “after my time.” Indeed, the only teacher/coach I recognized was new my eighth grade year. I remember him as seeming old at the time, but that probably meant he was 25 or something. (Tangential, but another teacher/coach friended my brother on Facebook and it turned out that he was in his twenties despite my remembering him as old.

My friend Clint and I went back and visited the middle school towards the end of our junior year in college. It was… pretty anti-climactic. I thanked the first teacher I ever had that flunked me, which turned out to be a really good thing and turned my academic career around (I got a lot of just-passing grades in elementary school that I am pretty sure were sympathy grades). We had always planned to do an open house at the elementary school one of those years, but they actually discontinued it at some point and so we couldn’t. And since our schools are bunkers now, you can’t just stop by without people assuming you’re some pedo creep or something.

My elementary school isn’t my elementary school anymore. We were re-routed somewhere else. My high school isn’t my high school for the same reason, and also it doesn’t exist because they demolished and rebuilt it. My middle school, though, remains my middle school. Even if they replaced all of the cast.


Category: School

In a conversation at the Southern Tech football forum, conversations about high school came up, which reminded me somewhat of of an odd thing that’s not so odd. It turned out, people who didn’t know each other had gone to the same high school. There are roughly 150 public high schools in the greater Colosse area, and a lot of people who went to Southern Tech weren’t from Colosse to begin with, and others went to private school.

Yet, as it happens, when people who are generally from Colosse get together and start chatting, the same high schools keep coming up. Very few from Colosse Consolidated School District. Most from the suburbs. And even then, most from the “right” suburbs. I went to Mayne High School, which is very well regarded and thoroughly upper middle class or lower upper class. Next door to us is Southfield High School, which is about the same size and is a little more economically mixed.

Some of you know of Vikram Bath and others remember him by his previous name. He and I had never met until we ran across one another in blogs. And lo and behold, we went to the same high school (at the same time, it turned out, with a few friends in common). This happens with Mayne High School. Before I asked, I half-expected that we might have gone to the same high school. I almost never run across anyone from Southfield out in the wild. And even high schools that I have very limited contact with, on the other side of the city, I meet people who went there.

I’m sure it comes down to economics and class. The places I am likely to run into people are going to filter through whether or not they went to college or not, and Southfield kids go to college with less frequency. The same applies to the other high schools that come to mind, most of which are upper crest. Most of which located near their own Southfield, where I far less frequently run into someone I know.

But it has the weird effect of seeming like contrived writing. Like Colosse is a fictional city (heh) and the writers only have so many high schools that they’ve bothered to identify, so characters all come from those schools.


Somewhat relatedly, a decade ago they closed one of my middle school’s rival middle schools. Sort of. What they did was built a nice fresh new school a few miles over. They then didn’t invite any of the kids that went to the old school to go to the new school. By sheer coincidence, the new school was places do that it would mostly draw affluent kids from nearby schools, thereby giving the kids who went to old school space at some other old school. My school district really was ruthless when it came to such things.

This is going to be the subject of another post, but they’re in the process of demolishing Mayne High School and rebuilding it. Same spot, same kids going there. The district recently expanded to add two new high schools, and it just wouldn’t do for Mayne – the wealthiest – to have the second oldest facilities.


Category: School

A little while ago, I wrote a post about bias in science. I started with the story of a recent retraction of a paper that attributed certain negatively-framed characteristics to conservatives when they actually applied to liberals. How did this mistake happen? I said that it was likely related to the fact that the wrong data was in line with the researchers expectations.

Jesse Singal wrote a long piece on the conflict. He starts off dismissive of the political angle, pointing out repeatedly that the wrong results actually ran contrary to most scientific work done in this area. Which is to say that the news is no news at all, scientifically. It was only the wrong news that was news, because it was new, because it was wrong. So why in the world did the researchers so matter-of-factly expect the data to run the other direction (and why did they believe the prevailing science already stated as much)? Well, here we go:

Ludeke [the young researcher challenging the wrong findings] was right: This is exactly what Hatemi and Verhulst got wrong — highlighted by DeYoung, writing on his grad student’s behalf, in his very first email to Hatemi.

The first of many emails, it would turn out. Hatemi responded in a friendly enough manner the following morning, but sounded surprised by what DeYoung and Ludeke were claiming. “[Y]ou have a [data] set where P tracks with being more liberal? Weird. The scale is pro authoritarian and militarism – that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.” (This is a clear misreading of the P scale.) A few emails later, after Hatemi noted he was on vacation but assured DeYoung that “the directions of the relationships… [were] right” when he looked at the raw data, DeYoung responded, “Thanks Pete. Didn’t mean to bug you on your vacation. Maybe we can talk about this further when you’re back at work. We’d love to take a look at your data to see if we can understand why your results are opposite to ours.”

So we have two things of note. The first is that as I previously supposed they were satisfied with the answers because that’s what they were expecting. But secondly, their approach to the entire enterprise seemed to carry the really heavy assumptions. They (incorrectly) looked for “negative” attributes, assumed that conservatives would be assigned to them, and proceeded without really understanding what they were doing but with an implicit understanding of which side of the right/wrong line that conservatives would fall on.

Good to know.

Anyway, the whole article is worth reading even apart from this particular aspect. It deals with hierarchies, among other things. Essentially how a little fish caught a big fish in error, had a lot of difficulty correcting the record, and by the time all was said and done was left regretting that he ever had.

That is not a good recipe.


Category: School

Mostly because I’m ignorant of the nuts and bolts, I’ve pretty much avoided the debates about whether transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choosing. My position is roughly the same as Thoreau’s over at High Clearing.

However, what little commentary I’ve read seems to leave an important point unaddressed. In my experience, schools are unforgiving when it comes to respecting students’ privacy. In my middle school, no provision was made by our gym class for those students who would have preferred not to shower in a room full of other naked boys. The gym teachers (there were 2 gym teachers who taught one class0 actually made it into some sort of right of passage, something we all had to do as a step to manhood. At least that’s how I interpreted their attitudes.

In high school, the school for whatever reason ordered the doors to all the bathroom stalls in the boys rooms to be dismantled so that if someone had to do “sitting-down business,” they had to do it in full view of others. As in the middle school shower example,

It was rumored that school policy in each case treated the girls better. I had heard (but didn’t know and still don’t know if it’s true) that for the girls’ gym classes, my middle school allowed the students to have their own shower stalls. I had heard (but didn’t know and still don’t know if it’s true) that my high school permitted girls to have bathroom stall doors. If those rumors are true, then I think that’s inexcusable sexism, not that girls should have to suffer the same as boys, but that boys shouldn’t be especially targeted.

Despite my hyper-modesty, I was able to do the middle-school showering with no problem. But in keeping with my hyper-modesty, the “no doors on bathroom stalls” policy really, really bothered me. When you gotta go, you gotta go, except when you’re too afraid to, then you can’t, but you still gotta. And well, nobody’s gonna be sympathetic.

My anecdote is just that, an anecdote. I’m sure some schools handle things better and some, worse. And maybe at a systematic level, most schools handle these things better. Or maybe I’m just hypersensitive. I realize it’s asking a lot to suggest the world needs to change to accommodate my special neuroses.

But the debate over transgender privileges needs to take privacy seriously. I’m actually optimistic that the debate can lead to greater respect for students’ privacy, if only because any workable compromise or solution on the issue may include offering things like private clothes-changing stalls, private shower stalls, and doors on bathroom stalls.


Category: School

If there’s one thing we can take for granted, it’s that authoritarians veer Republican. Everybody knows this. Science says so. You don’t have science, do you? If you do, you’re probably a Republican.

So when a study in the American Journal of Political Science found more data points to confirm what we already know, it got a lot of coverage. As researcher Steven Ludeke says:

The erroneous results represented some of the larger correlations between personality and politics ever reported; they were reported and interpreted, repeatedly, in the wrong direction; and then cited at rates that are (for this field) extremely high. And the relationship between personality and politics is, as we note in the paper, quite a “hot” topic, with a large number of new papers appearing every year.

The problem, as you may have heard, is that it’s exactly backwards. It is not conservatives that have the propensity for psychoticism, like authoritarianism, but liberals. It is not liberals that that are so wonderfully into social desirability, but conservatives. They read the data the wrong way. How could this have happened? Fortunately, they explain it for us:

In line with our expectations, P [for “Psychoticism”] (positively related to tough-mindedness and authoritarianism) is associated with social conservatism and conservative military attitudes. Intriguingly, the strength of the relationship between P and political ideology differs across sexes. P‘s link with social conservatism is stronger for females while its link with military attitudes is stronger for males. We also find individuals higher in Neuroticism are more likely to be economically liberal. Furthermore, Neuroticism is completely unrelated to social ideology, which has been the focus of many in the field. Finally, those higher in Social Desirability are also more likely to express socially liberal attitudes.

One almost wonders what might have happened if they’d read the results correctly. Results that did not conform to their expectations? Let us look, for a moment, Richard Feynmann talking about the hard sciences:

We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.

A good thing, that! Then there’s no problem, right? Let us consider, for a moment, the dangers of cell phones on the roads. Some scientists look at it recently and found themselves quite surprised to find that cell phone bans resulted in no reduction in accidents:

“We were expecting to find maybe a five to ten percent reduction in accidents. We had read the studies that talking on your phone is as dangerous as drinking and driving. But even after controlling for gas prices, miles traveled, rainfall, and holidays—all factors that impact traffic patterns, road volume, and crashes—they found no impact on the rate of accidents.

“Only after spending a ton of time looking at the data, slicing it in different ways, we eventually came to the conclusion that there was no evidence of a decline in accidents. It took a while for us to convince ourselves that there wasn’t something there.”

Interesting. So they got a result that didn’t seem right to them, so they kept investigating. They tried to control for every single factor in search for a particular answer, and they didn’t find it. This is science working. Except, of course, if you consider if some factor gave them the result they were expecting. If some fluke or uncontrolled-for-factor had given them the reduction they were looking for, that cell phone bans result in fewer accidents wouldn’t be wrong or unproven, it would be scientific fact.

Now, imagine that we’re not talking about the unforgiving hard sciences. Imagine we’re not talking about something as technocratic as cell phone bans, but matters of social political theory. The difference in most of our minds between right and wrong. While we’re at it, imagine that you’re investigating the foot soldiers of right and the foot soldiers of wrong. I don’t know what you imagine, but I imagine that if you are getting results that are “in like with your expectations”, your normative expectations, how likely are you to double-check the findings? How likely are you to wonder if perhaps you are using the wrong test to determine what is and is not authoritarian? In this case, maybe they wouldn’t have because they say that which attributes to which side of the gradient wasn’t the point of the study. Maybe they would have looked at the results and said, “Huh. Maybe we’re the authoritarians.”

I mean, it’s not actually impossible. Science! Heck, it’s possible that the researchers themselves were conservative and were not the least bit surprised to find out about their own authoritarian streak. Maybe they wore it as a badge of honor. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Or maybe they are, in fact, human. Maybe they came into it with their own suspicions about how people divide themselves into liberal and conservative and maybe, just maybe, that influenced their thinking. And maybe sometimes “reality has a liberal bias” because those whose job it is to (scientifically!) determine reality, approach it from the point of view of human beings with their own expectations and impressions.

You can move beyond the scientists themselves and to another step. If you’re an academic journal, are you more likely to scrutinize the methodology of something that brings an unexpected, or unpleasant result? Or are you going to approach both of them with absolute neutrality because science? Well?


Category: School

Connecticut is looking at instituting a Yale Tax. Specifically, a tax on endowments for universities meeting certain qualifications. Basically, Yale.

Taking a suggestion from Yale alum Walter Olson, Ira Stoll argues that the university should consider relocating to Boston. Boston? Meh. That might help with the tax situation, and he makes some other arguments, but on the whole seems penny-wise and pound-foolish and ignores other Yale issues.

Florida Governor Rick Scott has extended an invitation:

Florida Governor Rick Scott on Tuesday called on Yale University to consider a move south if Connecticut legislators follow through on a proposal to tax the net investment profits of the university’s $25.6 billion endowment. {…}

“With news that the Connecticut Legislature wants to unfairly tax one of the nation’s most renowned universities to deal with the state’s budget shortfall, it is clear that all businesses in Connecticut, including Yale, should look to move to Florida,’’ Scott said. {…}

“If Connecticut lawmakers are seriously considering another tax on Yale, businesses and families should be concerned about the other tax increases their Legislature will consider. We would welcome a world-renowned university like Yale to our state and I can commit that we will not raise taxes on their endowment. This would add yet another great university to our state.”

General Electric may have moved out of the state, but of all of the institutions to leave a state for tax reasons, universities would be among the most difficult. And sure enough, the university has expressed disinterest in the prospect.

That’s a shame. (Sort of.)

I have long been of the belief that it’s been to the detriment of this country that as our population has grown considerably, our premier institutions of higher learning have not. I’ve long said “We should have a Harvard West! Harvard Texas!” But hey, Yale Florida would work.

The typical argument against my proposal is that you just can’t have more than one Harvard and have it hold the same prestige. This is both true and false. It is true that the prestige of Harvard and Yale revolve around their exclusivity, but it’s not as though we have fewer premier academics per-capita than we did fifty years ago. It’s not as though we have fewer stellar students per capita that we did fifty years ago. The universities themselves talk about how nearly impossible it is to choose among such an amazing crop of students. There are probably enough students that could have gotten into Harvard fifty years to fill a dozen schools. It’s just that now they go to Rice, Duke, and other universities. But no matter how good those schools get, even if their median student is better than that of Harvard of yesteryear, almost none of them will completely get their due.

For the most part, it’s not in the interest of the universities to be anything but as selective as they can be. If only being able to accept 1 out of 50 of the equally indistinguishably greatest students in the country is good, then accepting only one out of 250 is even better! Or something like that.

Yale, though, could be an exception. Not just because of the tax thing, but also because being where it is it lives so much in shadow of Harvard. I mention above that the students accepting the Harvard students (and Harvard professors) of yesteryear aren’t getting their due, but there is one major exception: Stanford. There’s the Ivy League, and there’s Stanford. Arguably, these days, there’s Harvard and there’s Stanford. Stanford has a benefit that separates itself from every other Not Harvard, which is that it is far away from Harvard’s shadow. Yale, in contrast, seems to exist almost entirely in Harvard’s shadow.

Florida would fix that!

Now, Rick Scott wants them to move their entire university. That really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But if Yale set up a school in Florida, that could be a different story. Why would anyone go to Yale if they can go to Harvard? Most of the time, I’m not sure. Stanford, sure! Silicon Valley and California weather. Florida has no Silicon Valley, and the weather is different, but it has a great winter climate and beautiful beaches. There are students and faculty who would likely be interested in going there for all sorts of lifestyle reasons that Connecticut just can’t provide. They can move the endowment there and along with student tuitions the thing could pay for itself.

While Harvard Texas would run a risk of being a notably inferior institution, Yale Florida would have a lot more potential to possibly even exceed Yale Connecticut or at least challenge it like Stanford challenges Harvard. The biggest problem with my preference for expanded Ivy League schools is real estate, and regional campuses can be a tough sell. Yale Florida satisfies both concerns.

Also, tax breaks.


Category: School

…I’m proud of my employer, the University of Sangamon at Big City. A certain very controversial presidential candidate from one of the major parties will soon be holding a rally at a campus event center, and the chancellor has declined to heed calls to forbid that candidate from appearing.

The chancellor has issued a statement that says in part, “Consistent with its role as a public university, the University of [redacted] is not endorsing, sponsoring or supporting any candidate for political office,” said the statement. “At the same time, it has been our standard practice for decades to rent available space on campus to any political candidate when requested. As a result, we have a long history of campaign events on campus, and no legal basis to exclude any candidate because of the views he or she expresses.”

Elsewhere, perhaps the same statement (I’m cut and pasting from a couple different articles), the chancellor says “”[the university]’s core values of freedom, equality and social justice for all, regardless of race, religion, national origin, disability status or sexual orientation, are deeply rooted in our diverse community and not endangered by the presence of any political candidate on campus,” [the Chancellor] wrote. “We encourage public and civic engagement by all members of our University and we endorse the idea that the answer to speech that one does not like or finds offensive is more speech and not censorship.”

Some faculty and staff have signed a petition claiming that university should cancel the rally for safety concerns. I hope they’re wrong. But even if they’re right, I wouldn’t want to forbid political speech just because of safety concerns. And this is political speech in the most obvious sense of the word. If a rally by the front runner for a major party’s nomination for president doesn’t count as “political” speech, I’m not sure what does. And for what it’s worth, the university is taking safety precautions (although I don’t know what kind).

I won’t be going to the rally. My biggest worry about it happening on campus–aside from the fact that I don’t support the candidate–is that it will probably make it hard to leave work on time this Friday by tying up buses and city trains.

I’m used to criticizing my university. It has in the past had a tendency to adopt the most weak-willed, tepid positions in defense of mediocrity. Its sister university–the University of Sangamon at Flagship City–recently had a controversy where it denied a job it had offered to someone seemingly because of that person’s extramural political speech. That was a closer case than this one, but from what I have heard, the chief negative consequence wouldn’t have been “safety” concerns, but some major donors discontinuing their support for the university.

So good on the university and the chancellor for doing the right thing. Here’s hoping everything goes off peaceably and that the candidate and the inevitable protesters enjoy the right to make their views heard.


Category: School, Statehouse

Alan Jacobs recently wrote about a former colleague at Wheaton College who during a class decided to skip on a couple of the assigned readings. This colleague

devoted two weeks to studying a book and then, at the end of that time, said to his class, “I don’t think that went as well as it should have. Let’s do it again. We’ll have to leave out the next book or two on the syllabus.” Some students — I don’t know how many — went ballistic over this. That’s not what the syllabus says! I’ve already bought those other books and now we’re not even going to read them! Some faculty and administrators became concerned over this “lack of professionalism”; they wondered whether Wheaton could afford to have faculty “the students don’t really respect.” Me, I just wished I had the courage to go off-script that far;….

Now, the main point of Jacobs’s post was about racism at Wheaton. Jacobs’s colleague was black, and Jacobs suggested that his colleague likely got more push back from administrators because he was black than he would have if white. I’m not commenting on that aspect of the post.

What I want to comment on is why it’s usually wrong to skip assigned readings.

One, books cost money. Sometimes a lot of money, sometimes not a lot of money. Not all students–even, I imagine, at Wheaton–are independently wealthy.

Two, in some cases, a student may choose to take a class based on the assigned readings. I can’t say for sure that I ever did, bu when I registered for classes, sometimes I did look forward to certain of the assigned readings. I would have been upset if the readings hadn’t been assigned. The obvious retort is that I could have read the book anyway. But that neglects what one gets from reading a book in class. Sometimes classroom discussion or the guidance of the instructor helps one understand and appreciate a book. Maybe that’s not true for everyone, but it was sometimes true for me. One of my favorite books of all time–a collection of short stories, Dubliners–I read for an English lit class and I’m convinced I would not have understood or appreciated many of James Joyce’s allusions. I might not even have understood some of the stories.

Three, “going off script” and changing the syllabus means the instructor planned poorly. Maybe it’s sometimes necessary to go off script. In at least one class I taught when I was an adjunct, it would have behooved me to go off script because I had too poorly anticipated the classroom dynamics. And while doing so would have been admitting failure, it was more of a failure for me to keep on as I was doing. So I get that sometimes it needs to be done. But it’s still a mark of poor planning.*

There is such a thing as over-entitlement among undergraduate students (and especially among graduate students, but that’s a different story). And part of going to college is learning that life isn’t always fair and learning how to adapt to changing circumstances. I get it. But instructors need to realize that they have an obligation, too. Whether my admonition actually applies to the case Jacobs is talking about or not, I don’t know because I don’t know the specifics. But on the facts as Jacobs relates them, the students’ complaints weren’t baseless.

*Not exactly the same thing, but as an undergrad I was particularly frustrated with some professors’ practice of changing, at the last minute, an in-class exam to a take-home exam. Take-home exams are MORE WORK. Even if the professor says “I only want you to spend an hour on it,” they’re going to grade you as if you had more than an hour to work on it. If a student has to work, he or she likely has to plan a tight schedule to balance work and studies, and fitting in even an extra hour of schoolwork can be hard.


Category: School

The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost put out a bunch of Tweets for President’s Day that I thought were worth sharing. One tweet for each president, followed by an account of the three most underrated presidents in his estimation.

Thirty-Two Tweets For Thirty-Two Presidents

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Category: School

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