Harvard Magazine July-August 2020
MANY THANKS for the rather eloquent article in the May-June issue (“Will Truth Prevail?” page 27) by 2020 Harvard graduate Drew Pendergrass on his science education. I applaud his enthusiasm but have reservations about what he seems to have learned from history of science professor Naomi Oreskes.
Pendergrass has obviously been much influenced by Oreskes’s book Merchants of Doubt. I recently wrote a critique of the book’s treatment of passive smoking, an issue so entangled in political bias that the truth, which is in fact pretty clear, is hard to see through the smoke. Pendergrass has obviously picked up Oreskes’s habit of dismissing an argument by impugning the motives of the source. She describes (in Pendergrass’s words) “how a small group of contrarian, industry-funded scientists misled the public about the dangers of both tobacco and human-caused climate change. By sowing doubt, exaggerating scientific uncertainty, and creating their own institutions to publish junk papers that would never survive peer review…more
Why Do American Universities Lead the World in Scientific Research?
Urquiola describes how the history of American universities put them on a path different from European universities, a path where economic forces could act in ways that allowed American institutions to diverge and, in the late 20th century, to become pre-eminent engines of scientific research.
This pre-eminence occurred despite statistics putting US scientific literacy well behind many European countries…more
The Self-Destruction of the Academy
A review of Cracks in the Ivory Tower: The Moral Mess of Higher Education, by Jason Brennan and Phillip Magness.
There is a field of economics called Public Choice Theory (PCT) whose best-known advocates are James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Public Choice aims to show how the incentives to which bureaucrats are subject, the things that their status, perks, and salaries really depend on, frequently push them in directions incompatible with their assigned mission. PCT highlights the purely economic forces that often underlie apparently moral decisions.
Cracks in the Ivory Tower (CIT) is in the PCT tradition. The two authors are economists and philosophers. They ask tough questions about higher education as a business and a bureaucracy. They point out that the misalignment of actual incentives with stated goals also poses moral problems…more
What Happened to the SAT?
Selection bias and the end of Gen Ed.
Posted May 22, 2020 Psychology Today, John Staddon
he Scholastic Aptitude Test was once hailed as a way to open colleges to bright poor kids. It works pretty well to predict performance in college, and even afterwards —at least it used to in 2011. But it has been increasingly criticized on several grounds: It doesn’t predict; it doesn’t predict as well as high school grades; it’s unfair because it’s correlated with parents’ socioeconomic status (SES); it’s unfair because different racial/ethnic groups don’t score the same; rich kids can prepare for the SAT, poor ones can’t; high schools waste time on test prep when they should be teaching substance. There are probably other objections; this is a tangled issue, not to be settled in a short blog post.
I just want to draw attention to a simple problem…more
Science and Activism
Should scientists also persuade, or should facts speak for themselves?
Posted Apr 28, 2020 Psychology Today, John Staddon
The May-June issue of the Harvard Magazine has several interesting articles. The World’s Costliest Health Care, by professor of applied economics David Cutler will perhaps draw the most readers (U.S. health care costs roughly twice as much, per capita, as healthcare in other developed countries; in return we have a lower life expectancy than most).
But almost equally interesting is Will Truth Prevail? by just-graduated student Drew Pendergrass. The piece is well written and Pendergrass’ enthusiasm for science is appealing. Less attractive is his belief that scientists should also be activists, because “truth” doesn’t always win…more
“I’m sorry, Dave; I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
Posted Apr 02, 2020 Psychology Today, John Staddon
Thus spake HAL 9000 in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. The computer saw Dave’s request as jeopardizing the mission and acted accordingly. HAL’s algorithms were moral.
Not to be outdone by science fiction, Congress last year introduced something called the Algorithmic Accountability Act, a novel attempt to hold computer programs accountable for immoral behavior. The New York Times (5/7/19) labeled it “The Legislation that Targets the Racist Impacts of Tech.” The bill seems to have died, but the ideas behind it are worth exploring…more
The Mess That Is Science Publishing
Researchers have been grumbling about the state of scientific publishing for years. Now, rumor has it that the Trump administration (yes, those science-haters!) may be trying to fix at least one problem: access to reports of government-funded research.
The rumored proposal will require free, immediate access to all reports of government-funded scientific research. The rumor is credible enough that an association of 210 academic and research libraries has written to the president in support of the idea. The research-publication system is a mess, and open access would be one small step toward a fix.
But first, a little history. When scientific publishing began, scientists were few, many were amateurs…more
The Meritocracy Trap—A Review
Quillette John Staddon Published October 9, 2019. VIDEO
A review of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feed Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite by Daniel Markovits, Penguin Press (September 2019) 422 pages.
Meritocracy is in trouble. Recent years have seen a flood of articles deploring inequality and blaming meritocracy for it. In the vanguard is Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits who attacked meritocracy in its home, in an address to Yale University graduates in 2015. His new book, The Meritocracy Trap,1 has just been published.
Professor Markovits is a meritocratic champ himself: “In the summer of 1987…I graduated from a public high school in Austin, Texas, and [then] attend[ed] Yale College. I then spent nearly 15 years studying at…the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and finally Yale Law School—picking up a string of degrees [in philosophy, econometrics, mathematics and law] along the way.”…more
Diet Reporting—the Real Fake News
Quillette John Staddon Published on September 18, 2019
No one would choose to study diet as a way to understand the way humans metabolize food. Effects are delayed, often for years. Experimentation is usually impossible for ethical and practical reasons—subjects cannot be sacrificed and dissected to see the physiological effects of different food regimens. And much better methods are available to study how food is processed by the body. On the other hand, people are very interested in what they should eat. There is a huge market for ‘diet science.’
Diet Reporting Should Go on a Diet
The New York Times once had a reputation as the “paper of record,” a reliable, if left-of-center, source of information. I’m not sure it’s ever been reliable when it comes to diet…more
What did she really mean?
Psychology Today John Staddon Posted Jul 23, 2019
Behaviorists of all varieties agree on one thing—that the job of their science is to explain how an organism’s history affects its future behavior.
Here is an example. Imagine a hungry pigeon in a Skinner box facing a disk (called a key) which can be lighted with different colors. He is exposed to a random sequence of two key lights: red and green: RGRRGRGG…Each color stays on for 5 s. If he pecks the red light, he gets a “time-out,” all the lights go out and he must wait in the dark for 60 s until one of the lights re-appears. If he pecks on the green light, he gets a bit of food and the sequence resumes….more
Administrative Bloat: Where Does It Come From and What Is It Doing?
James Martin Center JUN 19, 2019 John Staddon 12 Comments
College bureaucracies have been growing at least since the 1980s. I was then editor of a mildly disputatious Duke University publication called the Faculty Newsletter. The one thing that seems to be remembered from those days is the “VP Count:” The number of people in the administration with “vice president” or “vice provost” in their title. On the first or second page of every issue of the Newsletter, in large letters, appeared the current number of VPs. Finally, I got data from the Duke Archives and published a graph in November 1991, plotting the number of vice presidents from 1959 to 1991. The graph rose with only one small dip, from three in 1959 to 19 in 1991. Now we might have to convert to a log scale….more
The APA Guidelines
Science or ‘Dedicated follower of fashion’
Psychology Today, John Staddon Posted Apr 22, 2019
Many eminent scientists think that science is a guide to action, which is true in a sense: Science guides action in the way that a steering wheel guides a car. But the wheel by itself provides no destination and the car will not go anywhere without an engine. Without moral values to motivate action and set a goal, scientific facts point nowhere.
As David Hume explained several centuries ago: “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me.” Action requires motive; the facts of science by themselves provide no motive….more
Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne
Jerry Coyne’s article “Secular Humanism is Not a Religion” is longer than my “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?”, perhaps because he is confused about what I said. Or perhaps I was too concise. Possibly the problem was my title (not mine, but Quillette’s) which is a bit misleading.
I wasn’t saying that secular humanism is a religion. I was saying that in those aspects of religion which actually affect and seek to guide human behavior, secular humanism does not differ from religion. It has commandments, just as Christianity has. But they are covert, not in plain sight and not easily accessible: not, therefore, as vulnerable to criticism as religious dicta. Moreover, in no case are secular commandments derivable from reason. Like religious “oughts” they are also matters of faith. Secular morals are as unprovable as the morals of religion….more
Is Secular Humanism a Religion?
It is now a rather old story: secular humanism is a religion. A court case in 1995 examined the issue and concluded, rightly, that science, in the form of the theory of evolution, is not a religion. In 2006, the BBC aired a program called The Trouble with Atheism which argued that atheists are religious and made the point via a series of interviews with prominent atheists who claimed their beliefs were “proved” by science. The presenter, Rod Liddle, concluded that Darwinism is a religion. That is wrong, as 18th century philosopher David Hume showed many years ago. Science consists of facts, but facts alone do not motivate. Without motive, a fact points to no action. Liddle was half-right: both religion and secular humanism provide motives, explicit in one case, but covert in the other.
What is religion?…more
Is Diversity an Enemy of Excellence?
Did the Hoaxers Do Anything Wrong?
One of the three “Sokal Squared” academic hoaxers, Peter Boghossian of Portland State University, has been accused of violating his university’s research policies. Boghossian is the only one of the three to hold an (untenured) academic position and so is the only one vulnerable to disciplinary action.
Boghossian and his compatriots parodied fashionable social-“science” research; now, some in the academy are crying that parody is not fair play…more
How Real Is Systemic Racism Today?
Racist attitudes of whites towards blacks have long become socially unacceptable in America, although the reverse, racism of a minority directed at the white majority, is still tolerated or even encouraged. However, statistical racial disparities persist. African Americans, as a population, continue to suffer income, crime and incarceration rate, health, housing and family-structure deficits by comparison with the white population.
These disparities cannot easily be attributed to racist behavior by whites. The disparities have either increased or remained the same while individual racist behavior has declined. What then is the cause of these disparities? There are two possibilities: causes within individuals, what I have elsewhere called endogenous causes; or external, exogenous causes….more
Glenn Beck: Why do they hate him so?
by John Staddon The New Criterion January 21, 2011
In January 2011, Vanity Fair published Tea’d Off, an article by Christopher Hitchens which is an attack on the Tea Party movement and its chief icon, broadcaster Glenn Beck. I have long admired Mr. Hitchens, for his prose, his erudition, his independence, and, not least, his courage now in the face of a dreadful disease. Mr. Hitchens is also one of our most brilliant debaters and polemicists. In short, I’m a fan; but I’m very disappointed by his caricature account of Glenn Beck…more
How Not to React to a Research Paper
Citizens of North Carolina, to the extent that they pay attention to such matters, may be puzzled by the recent storm in a teacup at Duke.
A statistical study co-authored by two Duke economists and a sociologist described data suggesting that black and legacy applicants to Duke are more likely than others to shift majors away from their initial expressed preference for science, engineering or economics to subjects in the humanities or social sciences with a more generous grade distribution…more
Static theories are inadequate to describe real markets
Financial Times OCTOBER 29, 2012 From Emeritus Prof John Staddon.
Sir, As someone who was heckled by Robert May (Comment, October 20) while giving a plenary lecture to a conference on ethology in Oxford more than 30 years ago (I went on too long, as a nervous speaker will often do), I want to add to John Whiteman’s letter about predator-prey equations and market cycles (October 26)…more
Solution is to abolish multinational tax
Cutting the Too-Big-to-Fail Banking Risk Down to Size
Wall Street Journal March 13, 2013, JS and various contributors
If size is the problem, size should be the target. The simplest way to deal with the TBTF problem is a progressive tax on total exposure. The largest banks should pay a marginal rate that makes them unprofitable. It would force them to downsize and would raise much-needed cash in a way that should not damage the economy…more
THE BLOOMBERG WAY
The Atlantic January/February issue 2013, John Staddon
In November, James Bennet interviewed Michael Bloomberg. They spoke about the role of government, highlighting such topics as the New York City mayor’s regulation of soda sizes and metzitzah b’peh, an ancient Jewish circumcision practice.
I liked Mayor Bloomberg more after reading James Bennet’s interview, but I still find him annoying…more
‘Gullivering’ American Enterprise and Its Job Creators
Wall Street Journal ,June 25, 2013 John Staddon and another
Science and the senator: missing the point about government waste
About to retire, Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, M.D., has just released his 107-page 2014 Wastebook, a tabloid-type listing of over a hundred wasteful government-funded projects. Coburn continues the tradition of the late William Proxmire, the Wisconsin senator who, more modestly, chose just one or two “Golden Fleeces” each year.
Many objects of Coburn’s ire—agencies using paid “administrative leave” to isolate whistle blowers, vast misdirection of food-stamp money, for example—are right on target. But when it comes to science, he misses the point…more
A Most Curious Document
National Association of Scholars, June 23, 2016. John Staddon
Elite schools have struggled for many years to increase their racial and ethnic diversity, to foster ‘inclusion,’ and to eliminate any vestige of prejudice. Surely after decades of effort, universities must be among our least prejudiced, biased and hate-filled institutions?
Apparently not. Duke University, one among many, is worried about bias and hate and recently produced a report to prove it: Report of the Duke University Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues (April 30, 2016)…more
Team Player: Professor Shiller and Finance as Panacea
How big should finance be? How productive is the financial industry?
Psychology Today March 6, 2017, John Staddon
This is a new review of a relatively old book by a famous economist. The book seems never to have been critically reviewed, despite the eminence of its author. But as the financial industry looks forward to some kind of deregulation, the issues covered here are returning to the front page.
Shiller, Robert J. (2012). Finance and the Good Society. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Yale professor Robert Shiller is one of the most influential economists in the world. Co-inventor of the oft-cited Case-Shiller index, a measure of trends in house prices, he is author or co-author of several influential books about financial crises – including Irrational Exuberance (2000) and (with George Akerloff) and Animal Spirits (2009). He shared the 2013 Economics Nobel with Eugene Fama and Lars Peter Hansen.
In 2012 Professor Shiller published a full-throttle apologia for plutocracy: Finance and the Good Society. FATGS is a reaction to the hostility to finance provoked by the 2007+ crisis…More
Unlucky strike: Private Health: The Science, Law and Politics of Smoking
Video John Staddon Cato Institute March 11, 2015
Duke Professor’s 1991 Warning about Campus Chaos is Oddly Prophetic
Intellectual Takeout, Annie Holmquist April 27, 2017
If one was to judge solely from headlines, it would appear that the only activities occurring on university campuses these days are riots and outrage. As professor Jonathan Haidt notes, it’s as if the university is possessed of a “tribal mind” which views “the demonization of inconvenient research and researchers” as its chief end…more
Taking Ta-Nehisi Coates Seriously
Ta-Nehisi Coates has become one of the most prominent intellectuals in America. But his case for reparations is flawed.
Kevin Williamson, writing in National Review, disagreed with Coates’ proposal but was impressed with the “beautifully written monograph,” describing the prose as “intelligent and sometimes moving.” In his muted critique, Williamson gives little weight to the faulty logic and fundamental injustice of Coates’ proposal…more
How Is Science Judged? How Useful Is Peer Review?
James Martin Center, John Staddon Jan 31, 2018
The British journal Nature, home in 1953 to Watson and Crick’s important DNA paper, was by 1966 rather in the doldrums, with a backlog of submitted manuscripts and losing ground to the general-science leader, the U.S. journal Science…more
Peer Review: the Publication Game and “the Natural Selection of Bad Science”
James Martin Center, John Staddon February 2, 2018
Professor Brian Wansink is head of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. The lab has had problems, some described in an article called “Spoiled Science” in the Chronicle of Higher Education early in 2017:…more
The Persistence of Memory and #MeToo
Intellectual Takeout, John Staddon February 8, 2018
The recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein have precipitated hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse. Many of the complainants are now adults, even middle-aged. But most of the alleged events took place when the victims were young – teenagers or even children. One of Weinstein’s accusers recounted events that occurred some twenty years previously; another accused Weinstein of raping her in 1992…more
Science and Its Discontents: Too Few Jobs—or Too Many Scientists?
James Martin Center, John Staddon February 28, 2018
The United States is producing more research scientists than academia can handle,” so begins a July 2016 article by respected New York Times science reporter Gina Kolata. It turns out that new PhDs in science have a hard time getting a job like their mentor’s: tenured faculty in a research university. Fifty years ago, in my own area of experimental psychology, things were very different. Postgraduates, after four years of college, were able to get their PhDs in four or five years. They usually got a tenure-track job at a reasonable university right after graduating….more
Duke Divinity School’s Race to the Bottom
Comment on The Irreproducibility Crisis: The State of Science
Racism Is Everywhere…Is It, Really? Suppressing debate is a non-solution
Psychology Today Posted Oct 07, 2017
This blog is about how lack of empathy can lead to charges of racism; and how the perception that racism is pervasive can lead to demands for remedies worse than the disease they are supposed to cure.
A Chronicle of Higher Education article, written by Marcia Chatelain, an African-American curricular activist and associate professor of history at Georgetown University, claims that racism is found almost everywhere, that limiting academic speech is a necessary part of a cure and “That college campuses are complicit in encouraging and emboldening budding white nationalists.”…more
Response to Vicky: Is racism everywhere, really?
This is a response to a thoughtful comment from Vicky to my blog critical of the supposed ubiquity of racism. This response turned out to be too long for a comment; hence this new blog. (It also made Psychology Today uncomfortable).
Apropos race differences in IQ and SAT: They do exist, both in the US and in comparisons between white Europeans and Africans. What they mean is much less clear…more
Sorry, Professor, Speech Is Not Violence, Even To Your Neurons
These data simply do not support Lisa Barrett’s implausible claim that speech directed at college students can cause them physiological harm.
The Federalist, JJohn Staddon20, 2017 By
Diversity and Inclusion of Identity Groups Often Means Uniformity and Exclusion of Ideas
The New Racism, Part I: How ‘Race and Ethnic Studies’ Made Color Blindness a Bad Thing
The New Racism, Part II: The Sociologist’s Toolkit: Justifying Racism Through Language
James Martin Center AUG 3, 2018 By John Staddon 23 Comments
The best way to grasp how sociology has managed to make color-blind racism (CBR) seem believable is to study its Newspeak (to continue the Orwell theme).
To many modern sociologists, color blindness is a racist weapon that works, somehow, through whiteness, a scheme of thought invisible to most whites, but revealed by CBR sociology. Whiteness is part of systemic racism: “Exposing the Whiteness of Color Blindness” is a chapter subhead in Bonilla-Silva’s book. Whiteness is as real an identity as blackness. None of these, neither whiteness, nor blackness, nor systemic racism is measurable in an objective way. Whiteness, “the practices of the ‘new racism’—the post-civil rights set of arrangements that preserves white supremacy” in the words of Bonilla-Silva—is apparently hegemonic: “I contend that ‘color-blind’ ideology plays an important role in the maintenance of white hegemony,” writes Ashley “Woody” Doane, a leading “whiteness studies” advocate who heads the sociology department at the University of Hartford….more
AUG 6, 2018 National Association of Scholars
A couple of years ago, Duke University convened a large task force to produce a 69-page Report of the Duke University Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues, which I discussed on the NAS site. The report expressed much concern about, but provided little evidence for, an epidemic of hate. On the other hand, bias (by Duke’s definition) may well be widespread, since the report emphasized that a “bias incident” need not be intentional.
Now there is a new report from Duke, this time in response to the battles over politically incorrect monuments and lack of representation for ‘marginalized groups’ in the history of Duke and other historically white and male institutions. The lavishly produced 100-page Activating History for Justice at Duke, funded by the philanthropic Bass family,..more
The Devolution of Social Science
This article has two themes: first, how in “soft” science fields, increased specialization has led to fragmentation, incoherence and, ultimately, nonsense. And second, an example of the process: race and ethnic studies (RES) and the concept of color-blind racism (CBR) — the idea that treating people according to the content of their character, not the color of their skin, is itself racist. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous definition of non-discrimination is not accepted by, for example, the 2018 President of the American Sociological Association.
Some science history…more