pharyngula

Heather Mac Donald’s coded racism is not at all subtle

Heather Mac Donald is claiming that identity politics is harming the sciences. It’s an amazing exercise in willful blindness and coded assumptions.

Identity politics has engulfed the humanities and social sciences on American campuses; now it is taking over the hard sciences. The STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—are under attack for being insufficiently “diverse.” The pressure to increase the representation of females, blacks, and Hispanics comes from the federal government, university administrators, and scientific societies themselves. That pressure is changing how science is taught and how scientific qualifications are evaluated. The results will be disastrous for scientific innovation and for American competitiveness.

Yes, we’re always changing how science is taught. When I was a college student, you’d go into a huge classroom, sit on your butt, and a professor on a distant podium would lecture at you. That was great for some things, and I learned a lot, but the most formative experiences in my training were all in small lab settings where we did stuff. Good teachers experiment all the time and try new approaches to engage students. I don’t think Mac Donald is a teacher, or has any experience in STEM, so she’s lacking in qualifications to judge how teaching works, and she doesn’t present any evidence that teaching is getting worse as we reach out to diverse students.

But look at that coded assumption at the end of the paragraph: it is going to have a “disastrous” effect on American science if we increase representation of “females, blacks, and Hispanics”! Why? Does Heather know something we don’t? Are we just supposed to assume that those groups are intellectually inferior to white men, so it’s going to downgrade our scientific institutions if we don’t staff them entirely with white guys?

This next paragraph is actually correct.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency that funds university research, is consumed by diversity ideology. Progress in science, it argues, requires a “diverse STEM workforce.” Programs to boost diversity in STEM pour forth from its coffers in wild abundance. The NSF jump-started the implicit-bias industry in the 1990s by underwriting the development of the implicit association test (IAT). (The IAT purports to reveal a subject’s unconscious biases by measuring the speed with which he associates minority faces with positive or negative words; see “Are We All Unconscious Racists?,” Autumn 2017.) Since then, the NSF has continued to dump millions of dollars into implicit-bias activism. In July 2017, it awarded $1 million to the University of New Hampshire and two other institutions to develop a “bias-awareness intervention tool.” Another $2 million that same month went to the Department of Aerospace Engineering at Texas A&M University to “remediate microaggressions and implicit biases” in engineering classrooms.

Yes. The funding agencies are awake to the fact that American demographics are changing. We can either ignore the shrinking pool of white male students entering the sciences, or we can try to address and incorporate the growing pool of brown-skinned and female people. There is an understanding in the funding agencies that Heather Mac Donald lacks: there is an immense group of intelligent, talented, ambitious people who don’t look like Dennis Miller. We have an aging, largely white male professoriate (who, moi?) and we need to take active steps to end the natural tendency to favor people who look like us.

We were the recipient of an HHMI grant for 5 years, and it’s true: part of the deal was being sent a constant stream of information about how to address imbalances in our student population — in fact, the whole grant was about looking forward to the next generation of the professoriate and tapping into diverse audiences. It was helpful and informative.

Another of Heather’s assumptions is that reaching out to black kids or the children of immigrants requires dumbing down the curriculum. It doesn’t. The last HHMI meeting I attended was all about increasing rigor and math skills in biology students. Does she really think the best scientists in the country want to downgrade science education? The message was always, “You have to be really smart to succeed in science, how can we help really smart kids of all colors learn?”

Look here, more coded dog-whistles.

Somehow, NSF-backed scientists managed to rack up more than 200 Nobel Prizes before the agency realized that scientific progress depends on “diversity.” Those “un-diverse” scientists discovered the fundamental particles of matter and unlocked the genetics of viruses. Now that academic victimology has established a beachhead at the agency, however, it remains to be seen whether the pace of such breakthroughs will continue. The NSF is conducting a half-million-dollar study of “intersectionality” in the STEM fields. “Intersectionality” refers to the increased oppression allegedly experienced by individuals who can check off several categories of victimhood—being female, black, and trans, say. The NSF study’s theory is that such intersectionality lies behind the lack of diversity in STEM. Two sociologists are polling more than 10,000 scientists and engineers in nine professional organizations about the “social and cultural variables” that produce “disadvantage and marginalization” in STEM workplaces.

Of course “un-diverse” scientists were successful! None of this is about saying white students are suddenly inferior — there is no policy in play to shut out wealthy white kids. The goal is to tap into a larger pool of intelligent, science-minded kids of all genders and skin tones. We’re on the path to becoming a minority-majority counter in the next few decades — how do we maintain scientific progress if we only cater to a shrinking group of people on the basis of their skin color and sex, which are totally irrelevant to scientific expertise?

I had to stop reading at the next paragraph, though. The raging racist presuppositions were just too much.

Racial preferences in med school programs are sometimes justified on the basis that minorities want doctors who “look like them.” Arguably, however, minority patients with serious illnesses want the same thing as anyone else: subject mastery.

Why, Ms Mac Donald, are you assuming that giving opportunities to minority doctors will lead to a reduction in subject mastery?

She did all this railing against implicit-bias training, but she’s a picture-perfect, flawless example of implicit bias herself. It would be a useful exercise in recognizing implicit bias to give this article to scientists along with a red pen and ask them to highlight all the examples — as one of those cunning scientists myself, I’d have a quick answer. I’d just pop the pen open, dump the ink into a small beaker of alcohol, and pour it over the paper to give it a nice red wash.

Or maybe it would be quicker to just set it on fire. Fire is red, right?

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We can only hope it ends like the movie did

I’m not telling you how Get Out ended, though.

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Friday Cephalopod: That’s how you get blue-ringed octopuses, you know

pharyngula

Ireland repeals the prohibition against abortion!

It was a landslide, too — 68% to 32% to repeal the 8th amendment to their constitution.

You can throw out the repellent, archaic parts of your constitution? What a brilliant idea, America!

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Jordan Peterson gets burned hard

Whoa, you have to read this op-ed from a retired member of Jordan Peterson’s department at the University of Toronto — and not just a member, but his primary supporter in getting him hired and tenured, and who was good friends with him. Now it’s all regrets.

I thought long and hard before writing about Jordan, and I do not do this lightly. He has one of the most agile and creative minds I’ve ever known. He is a powerful orator. He is smart, passionate, engaging and compelling and can be thoughtful and kind.

I was once his strongest supporter.

That all changed with his rise to celebrity. I am alarmed by his now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency, which I had not seen before. His output is voluminous and filled with oversimplifications which obscure or misrepresent complex matters in the service of a message which is difficult to pin down. He can be very persuasive, and toys with facts and with people’s emotions. I believe he is a man with a mission. It is less clear what that mission is.

I am baffled by all the people who say things like that “He is a powerful orator”. I just don’t hear it — I find him meandering and pointless and weirdly distractable, but OK, I’m just going to have to recognize that some people are sympatico with his lecture style. Every teacher knows that there’s no such thing as a universal communication strategy.

But he really was a strong supporter, initially.

We did not share research interests but it was clear that his work was solid. My colleagues on the search committee were skeptical — they felt he was too eccentric — but somehow I prevailed. (Several committee members now remind me that they agreed to hire him because they were “tired of hearing me shout over them.”) I pushed for him because he was a divergent thinker, self-educated in the humanities, intellectually flamboyant, bold, energetic and confident, bordering on arrogant. I thought he would bring a new excitement, along with new ideas, to our department.

Been there, seen that. Contrary to the right-wing stereotypes of academia, we actually do look for different voices — someone with good credentials who is also enthusiastically radical will get some attention. We won’t necessarily hire them, unless there’s a strong advocate on the search committee, but yeah, that rings true. It’s also sometimes a colossal mistake.

He sat in on some of Peterson’s lectures. This also rings true.

He was a preacher more than a teacher.

We walk a tightrope in the classroom. I think it’s a good thing to be transparent about my biases, but I have to be careful to avoid strong rebukes of students’ ideas — my job is to give them the basics, get them thinking, and draw out their ideas in discussion. I am not the repository of all knowledge, I’m the guy who has read a lot and can steer the class in productive engagement with the material, I hope. That’s not Peterson’s style.

And then it gets weird.

Jordan exhibits a great range of emotional states, from anger and abusive speech to evangelical fierceness, ministerial solemnity and avuncular charm. It is misleading to come to quick conclusions about who he is, and potentially dangerous if you have seen only the good and thoughtful Jordan, and not seen the bad.

Shortly after Jordan’s rise to notoriety back in 2016, I emailed him to express my upset with his dishonesty and lack of intellectual and social integrity. He called in a conciliatory voice the next morning. I was reiterating my disappointment and upset when he interrupted me, saying more or less the following:

“You don’t understand. I am willing to lose everything, my home, my job etc., because I believe in this.” And then he said, with the intensity he is now famous for, “Bernie. Tammy had a dream, and sometimes her dreams are prophetic. She dreamed that it was five minutes to midnight.”

That was our last conversation. He was playing out the ideas that appeared in his first book. The social order is coming apart. We are on the edge of chaos. He is the prophet, and he would be the martyr. Jordan would be our saviour. I think he believes that.

He used to support him, but now he’s seeing serious problems with the man — problems that are probably key to his popularity, but also tell us what we ought to fear in this guy who is basically a religious fanatic on a mission from God.

What I am seeing now is a darker, angrier Jordan than the man I knew. In Karen Heller’s recent profile in the Washington Post he is candid about his long history of depression. Depression is an awful illness. It is a cognitive disorder that casts a dark shadow over everything. His view of life, as nasty and brutish, may very well not be an idea, but a description of his experience, which became for him the truth. But this next statement, from Heller’s article, is heartbreaking: “You have an evil heart — like the person next to you,” she quotes him as telling a sold-out crowd. “Kids are not innately good — and neither are you.” This from the loving and attentive father I knew? That makes no sense at all.

It could be his dark view of life, wherever it comes from, that the aggressive group of young men among his followers identify with. They may feel recognized, affirmed, justified and enabled. By validating them he does indeed save them, and little wonder they then fall into line enthusiastically, marching lockstep behind him. That is unnerving. The misogynistic attacks on the British broadcaster Cathy Newman, after she was humiliated and left speechless by Jordan in the infamous “gotcha moment” of their TV interview, were so numerous and vicious that Jordan asked his followers to back off. These devoted followers are notorious for attacking Jordan’s critics, but this was different. It was more persistent and more intense. That was not outrage in defence of their leader who needed none; she was the fallen victim and it was as if they had come in for the final kill. Jordan’s inflammatory understanding of male violence for which “the cure … is enforced monogamy” as reported by Nellie Bowles in the New York Times is shocking. This is upsetting and sad if you are, or were, Jordan’s friend. But it is also frightening.

Peterson is also getting scathing reviews of his skills as a therapist. Again, he’s not there to help people learn and become better — his goal is to bully people into accepting his dogma, or to pander to their beliefs if they’re already aligned.

Ugh. Just ugh. I can’t believe this fellow has such a zealous following, but then I’ve never understood how people can fall for Deepak Chopra, or Joel Osteen, or Donald Trump, either…but they do.

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The Pope Told a Gay Guy He’s Alright! But Catholicism is still the Worst

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Transcript:

Big news out of Rome, you guys — Pope Awesome Guy III has privately, quietly, allegedly told a gay man that “God made you this way.” This is huge news, because it reveals that Catholic doctrine is being slowly but surely nudged toward a more progressive path by Lady Gaga. The Pope’s next pronouncement will involve forgiveness for paparazzi, but only those who chase you down until you love them.

So everyone is once again celebrating the Pope, and by proxy the Catholic Church. I have a few tiny issues with this. One is that the headlines are highlighting one thing that the Pope didn’t even say on record, and which has no direct impact on actual Catholic doctrine, instead of the entire reason for the gay man’s visit to the Vatican: he was there because he was a young victim of pedophile priests, and the Pope had previously been hardcore defending the Chilean bishops who had spent decades covering up these crimes. When an internal investigation revealed that, hello, this is obviously a huge fucking problem, the Pope finally reversed his position and apologized, and then called all the Chilean Bishops to Rome where they eventually offered their resignations.

Maybe that doesn’t make as nice a headline as “Pope Tells Gay Guy He’s Fine in His Book,” because the Pope looks pretty bad in it. Unless, of course, you have rock bottom expectations for the Pope, which, it turns out, pretty much everyone does, because even this is seen as a huge win for him. Pope Francis was a Cardinal in Argentina from 2001 to 2013, where it would be literally impossible for him to have not heard of the Catholic sexual abuse crisis (and the previous Pope’s hand in it), and you would hope that he’d have an inkling of what was happening in that regard in his neighboring countries.

But in this retelling, he was blissfully ignorant and just believed the priests instead of the children they abused for years, until the evidence was so overwhelming that he was forced to acknowledge it. But that gets him a good behavior cookie, and so does privately reassuring a gay man that he was born this way. No word on whether or not gay people are allowed to have sex with each other, or whether they’ll still be going to hell, or whether the Pope still considers transgender people to be nuclear weapons.

I really do understand why people want to applaud even the smallest step forward. That’s probably a good idea that will convince evil people and organizations to very slowly become less evil. But I can’t do it. I can’t applaud Hitler for being a vegetarian. And yeah, I did just compare the Catholic Church to Hitler, because it’s 2018 and Godwin’s law is moot.

Watching the Catholic Church become slightly more progressive is like watching the British monarchy become slightly less inbred. Good job on that, but you know the rest of us have been doing it for centuries and it’s feeling a little late by now.

Here’s my main issue: organizations like the Catholic Church shouldn’t be taking baby steps. The entire world took baby steps, because changing the culture of the entire world is really fucking hard. The Catholic Church is now lagging behind the rest of us, and in order to catch up they need to be working harder, and faster, to catch up to us. We’re on mile 16 of the marathon and the Pope is still lacing up his sneakers. What he needs to do is go stand on his little balcony and tell the throngs of people below that gay people are exactly equal to straight people and can love and marry who they want. Trans people are people, not weapons. Women are people who deserve bodily autonomy and access to safe abortions. Rape victims are victims and should be taken care of, not shamed for having sex outside of marriage. Priests should be allowed to get married and have sex, not push all their desires deep down inside them to fester and turn them into sociopathic monsters.

Oh, and one person isn’t the mouth of God and a billion people shouldn’t do whatever he says. I know, that’s a longshot, but it’s the most important, most progressive thing a Pope could say. Why? Because no matter how cool Pope Awesome Guy III is, Pope Awesome Guy IV could be a massive shitlord.In conclusion: fuck the motherfucking pope.

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Does Deadpool 2 Contain a Sexist Trope? (SPOILERS!)

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Transcript:

I just saw Deadpool 2 and I have to talk about it so heads up! Major, major spoilers are incoming. I’m giving you 5 seconds to nope out of here if you haven’t seen the movie and you want to go in fresh.

Okay, ready? Let’s do this.

I freaking loved Deadpool 2, but I knew I would because the first Deadpool is one of my favorite superhero movies of all time and I expected this one to be just as good. It was. However, the beginning of the movie worried me a little and still makes me think that it could have been better in one major way. Again — spoilers.

Women in Refrigerators” is a trope coined by comics writer Gail Simone to describe the plot device in which a male main character’s story arc is advanced by brutally murdering (or sometimes raping) his wife, girlfriend, crush, or whatever. It’s named after a particularly galling example in which a villain murders Green Lantern’s girlfriend and shoves her body in his fridge for him to find. It’s inherently sexist because it’s pretty much always a male protagonist and a female victim who is never heard from again. She literally only exists to die so that the protagonist can have some angst.

I really enjoy it when films subvert this narrative. One example is John Wick, in which he does lose his wife at the start of the film, but that’s not what drives the movie’s storyline. In fact, his dog gets put in the refrigerator. It’s the exact same trope, but instead of a woman, it’s his dog. I hate seeing an animal hurt in a film but I honestly loved that.

Deadpool 2 opens with DP’s girlfriend from the first film, Vanessa, getting murdered by a criminal who DP had been tracking down. This is classic refrigeration: she dies, which tears Deadpool apart and provides the impetus for him to build himself back up and to learn what family means. Because of that, I was disappointed, and considering how self-aware Deadpool is, I thought that they would immediately undo it somehow. Here’s the surprising thing, though: apparently the writers of this film weren’t actually as self-aware about comics as Deadpool usually is. And honestly? It’s probably because they’re men.

In an interview with Vulture, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick admitted they had never even heard of the trope and hadn’t considered it at all. In a way it’s understandable because they’re human and they can’t be expected to know everything, but in another way it’s a bit unforgiveable for the writers of Deadpool to miss such a huge trope. In case you don’t know, Deadpool’s entire thing is that he breaks the fourth wall and is fully aware that he’s in a comic book (or a comic book movie). He tells Josh Brolin’s Cable that he’s so dark he should be in the DC universe, and then calls him “Thanos” because Brolin also plays that character in Infinity Wars, just to name two examples. It’s what makes Deadpool so fun — it’s one of the few superhero movies where I manage to catch a lot of the easter eggs, as a person who was once completely obsessed with the 80s and 90s era X-Men.

It really feels like having a single woman look at the script could have helped them avoid a lazy, sexist trope, though then they might have had to rewrite the entire thing. As an aside, I am always available for punching up a script. For example, in the first Deadpool when Deadpool and Weasel walk into the strip club, Weasel asks DP how he knew Vanessa worked there. DP says it’s because he’s been following her but he should have said “Because Stan Lee is the announcer here.” See? I can help. Call me for Deadpool 3.

Anyway, back to Deadpool 2. Vanessa gets put in the fridge, but Gail Simone (who, again, helped coin this trope) says on Twitter that she doesn’t think this actually fits into the trope. She correctly points out that an important part of the trope is that the character being refrigerated disappears from the narrative, never to be seen again because she no longer matters. In Deadpool 2, Vanessa is still there as a beautiful angel in heaven (or some version thereof) who communicated with Wade in riddles, leading him to where he needs to go. And of course, in the end (well, after the end, mid-credits) Deadpool goes back in time and saves her.

It’s a fair point, but if anything it elevates Vanessa only slightly. She’s mostly absent from the story after her death, and when she is in it, she only exists to further motivate Deadpool. You could argue that every character in the film is there to move D eadpool along his hero’s journey, and you’d be right, of course, but many of them have their own motivations and arcs. Cable is trying to save his wife and child. Russell wants revenge on his abusers and to find a real family to love him. Peter…well, Peter just wants to have a fun adventure. But don’t be fooled, he IS a fully fleshed out character. Seriously, you can follow him on Twitter. He hates swans and loves his wife Susan and her personal trainer, Gus.

Vanessa, here, is really an anima — that otherworldly spirit that guides the protagonist along his journey.

So sure, she’s not just a girlfriend stuffed in a fridge, never to be seen again. But she was used in the typical cliche way that a murdered woman is usually used, and even though she at times subverts the trope, and even though the film is massively entertaining and I fucking loved it, it’s still a little disappointing that they didn’t do something more creative.

The good news, in my opinion, is that since Deadpool reversed her death, there’s a chance for Deadpool 3 to be really amazingly creative. I want to see Deadpool go through some shit with Vanessa still beside him, for once. I mean, she doesn’t need to be a superhero, though that could still happen, since the writers say they could finally turn her into Copycat, a mutant who can take on other mutant’s abilities. Honestly, that would be awesome, but I also think it would be awesome for Deadpool and Vanessa to start a family — a weird, fucked up family, but a family. My favorite part of the first Deadpool was how strong and surprisingly healthy their relationship was, and superhero films never really explore that sort of thing without, well, killing the wife and child to advance the storyline.

 

Okay, all I really want from Deadpool 3 is more amazing sex scenes between Wade and Vanessa. If they call it Deadpool 3: Happy International Women’s Day, all will be forgiven.

 

Anyway, I’m interested in hearing what you guys thought of it, and where you hope the series will go from here!

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This Idiot is Going to Kill Us All Because He Thinks Rocks Make the Sea Levels Rise

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Transcript:

What’s the dumbest thing a Republican lawmaker can say in reference to climate change? Is it Donald Trump saying it’s a Chinese conspiracy theory? Is it Representative John Shimkus saying that it doesn’t matter because God promised us after Noah’s flood that he wouldn’t hurt us again? Is it Senator James Inhofe telling Rachel Maddow that it can’t be true because combatting it would be too expensive? Or is it the latest contender: Representative Mo Brooks, telling an actual climate scientist that the global sea levels are rising because of rocks falling into the ocean?

Hold on, because it’s about to get worse. Brooks had the opportunity to say such a stupid thing because he is on the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space and Technology Committee, which is like me being on a committee focused on NASCAR, Steven Universe fan fiction, and post-Keynesian economics — in other words, shit I know nothing about. I know, I know, I’m sorry, I’ve been meaning to watch Steven Universe.

The committee was gathered to talk about how technology can be used to combat climate change, but instead it turned out to be a third-grade-level two-hour lesson in which Dr. Philip Duffy of Woods Hole Research Center patiently explained to 70-year old men that no, rocks do not make sea levels rise. And no, the chart that Lamar Smith brought to prove that climate change was fake was not based on actual science just because it’s in chart form. And no, Bill Posey, scientists in the 1970s didn’t think that humans were actually causing the Earth to cool. No, that Time magazine cover is a hoax.

Of all the dumb shit that was said during those two hours, obviously Mo Brooks is the dumbest. Here’s a direct quote from him as he attempted to really sell his idea that rocks falling into the ocean are what’s responsible for sea levels rising:

“Every time you have that soil or rock or whatever it is that is deposited into the seas, that forces the sea levels to rise, because now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up.”

Mo Brooks is a 64-year old man and he sounds like an actual child. That is something a child would say in a poorly researched report on what he thinks makes water go up and down.

“Now you have less space in those oceans, because the bottom is moving up.” Jesus fucking Christ.

This is why we’re all going to die, by the way. Yes, the coming nuclear war with North Korea or whoever isn’t going to be pleasant, but some people will survive. No human will survive the coming temperature increase, and it’s going to happen because the science wing of the government of one of the biggest superpowers in the world today can’t talk about technological solutions to the problem because the people running that committee can’t even get past the fact that it’s really happening. It’s as if our house is on fire and when the firemen show up they say, “I’m sorry but we just don’t believe in fire.” And you’re like, “Wait, you what now?” And they say, “We don’t really have any evidence fire is real. What even is it? If it’s a solid then how does my hand pass through it? If it’s a gas why can I see it? How does it grow if it’s not alive? I read a scientific article on 4chan that says that fire is a Chinese conspiracy made up to frighten us into being chilly in the winter.”

When you’re dealing with someone that willfully stupid, your house is just going to burn down because by the time you answer all their stupid questions it will be too late.

Remember this as midterms approach. Please, for the sake of the next generation, and for my own sanity’s sake, please vote these man-children out of office. Before our house burns down.

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The Scientific Study of Bull****

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Transcript:

One of my favorite emerging fields of study in the sciences right now is the what I’m calling metaphorical scatology — not the study of actual shit, but the study of the stupid shit that comes out all our mouths at some point. That’s right: bullshit.

New progress was made in the field this month via John V. Petrocelli of Wake Forest University, who found compelling evidence that we’re most likely to spew bullshit when there is social pressure for us to have an opinion about something and there’s little chance that we’ll actually be held accountable for that opinion — in other words, the Internet.

First Petrocelli had undergrads (the normal psych study participants, though in this case maybe it’s a really good group to study bullshitting, I don’t know) list opinions about various topics, telling half the group that they didn’t have to list an opinion if they didn’t want to, but not telling the other group that.

In a second experiment, Petrocelli had subjects list an opinion with no recourse, and then list three more that they were told would be evaluated by an expert and then discussed with them in a recorded conversation.

Sure enough, he found that people were more likely to offer a bullshit opinion (that is, one not based on facts or knowledge of the subject) if they felt pressured to do so, and if they didn’t think they were going to have to defend it to someone who knows about it.

This got me thinking about how often I bullshit. I mean, the answer is “pretty much always,” because I love to hear myself talk, but I do have occasional crises in which a news story is happening and as someone with a sizeable following, I feel the need to have a “take,” either on Twitter or here on YouTube. But often, I have an opinion but I know that if I express it, I’m going to need to defend it against some very smart people in my audience who I respect, so in general I keep things to myself unless I feel strongly about it.

But right now, it’s almost impossible to not feel pressured to feel strongly about everything. There are literal Nazis marching in the streets. Israel is gunning down Palestinian protesters while the Trumps smile in front of a new Jerusalem embassy. Brooklyn 99 was (almost) canceled. If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. I mean, that’s the way the saying goes but the truth is that everyone is angry despite the fact that everyone is clearly not paying attention. A lot of people are just angry because a lot of stuff is happening and they feel like they’re supposed to be angry — at the Nazis, at antifa, at feminists, at North Korea, at Trump — we live in an angry time, my friends.

And so, we also live in a time of bullshit, because as this study helps to show, bullshit isn’t just something that exists inside a person and spews out at random times — it’s reliant upon social factors. Bullshit is cultural, and we may be experiencing a bullshit bubble right now. I’m not sure if popping it would be a good thing or a bad thing.

In his paper, Petrocelli points out that the cure for bullshit is calling people out on it. Since it thrives best in a situation in which the person knows everyone will nod and go along with it, make sure that if you know what you’re talking about and someone else is bullshitting, speak up! Don’t let someone at a party randomly just say “yeah, there have been studies that show vaccines cause autism but the government is hiding it.” Ask them where they heard that. Tell them they’re wrong. The next time they want to dribble out some bullshit, they may just think twice.

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Why Alfie Evans’s Death isn’t a Result of Socialized Medicine

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Transcript:

So recently I learned via social media that England decided to kill a toddler and that’s why we can’t have single payer healthcare in the United States. I was very disappointed to learn about this, because I’m a filthy liberal who wants to give all my money away to people who need it but don’t deserve it for some reason. Oy. Where to even begin.

Alfie Evans was a toddler who was born seemingly healthy but developed seizures a few months later and was essentially hospitalized from then on. His doctors said he had a degenerative brain disease, and sure enough by the time he was almost two he was braindead and being kept alive only by a ventilator. The doctors pointed out that it was inhumane for him and his family to keep him in that state and so they recommended he be removed from life support.

His young parents, though, decided that if Alfie could breathe by ventilator than he could still get better, despite the protestations of his doctors. They appealed to the Catholics, who as you may know are very big on keeping white babies alive and not really anybody else. Sure enough, they got the Christian Legal Centre to represent them in court, and even flew to Rome to get the Pope’s blessing, which seems like a thing that could at least be done over Skype considering that their kid is stuck in a hospital bed in England and generally you’d want to stick pretty close but hey, who am I to judge people in a position I will literally never be in because I won’t have kids, and if I did have kids I would listen to what doctors had to say about their medical care.

The parents, Tom Evans and Kate James, wanted to take Alfie to a Vatican-affiliated hospital in Rome, but the doctors said that it would be incredibly unethical to transport a braindead child hours by plane just to operate on him and hook him back up to machines to keep him breathing for, and I quote, “an undefined period.”

The parents and the Christian Legal Centre took the hospital to court, where the judges ruled in favor of the doctors. They then turned to the Supreme Court, where the judges wouldn’t even let them appeal. Finally, they went to the European Court of Human Rights, where the judges again said they did not have a case. Why? Because the doctors made the right decision initially: Alfie’s human rights demanded that his treatment cease.

In the end, doctors were able to terminate Alfie’s care and he of course died.

Meanwhile over on social media, conservatives and Christians spun this as the State overruling the rights of parents and making a cold-hearted decision to kill a little boy because his care cost too much, with even the vaccine denialists getting in on the action by claiming he was killed by vaccines and it’s all a big cover-up. Prominent American alt-righter Charlie Kirk demanded to know:

“Hey @jimmykimmel why did you demagogue the national conversation to advocate for socialized healthcare when it came to your son, but you remain shockingly silent when socialized medicine killed Alfie Evans? ?”

So did socialized medicine kill Alfie Evans? Obviously not. The people saying shit like that have no idea how the English government, socialized medicine, or America’s current healthcare industry actually operate. If they did, they’d realize that first of all, this was a decision made by the court system, not “socialized medicine.” You see, the original recommendation was made by doctors. The parents had every right to object to the doctors’ expertise. The court system then found that it was the parents who were attempting to violate the human rights of their child, not the doctors.

Then, let’s look at what would (or could) happen under the current American system. Instead of doctors making decisions based entirely upon what is best for the patient (in this case, Alfie Evans), the patient and their family have to make decisions based on their own insurance coverage and financial situation. They have to decide if they have the money to keep their child on life-support, or if they are even able to go see the doctors in the first place when the seizures started.

Let’s say that have health insurance, so they do go to the doctor and they do put the child on life-support without being financially ruined. When the doctors suggest they pull the plug and the parents want to continue, it’s up to the insurance company to decide if they will continue to provide coverage for the patient. In this case it’s not a doctor making the decision and then trained judges evaluating that decision — it’s a paper pusher at an HMO who gets to decide if the patient lives or dies. The parents would then still have to go to court if they wanted to force the insurance company to pay, which is what happened to the family of Selah Canton, who was in a persistent vegetative state following a drowning. It was Florida Governor Rick Scott who granted them a waiver for a 24-hour nurse.

Or of course there’s the famous case of Terry Schiavo, who was in a persistent vegetative state for years while her husband tried to terminate her care (which were her actual wishes) and her parents attempted to force the hospital to continue keeping her on life support. That case went to the courts, who again decided in favor of the doctors, who said Schiavo was already dead and that the humane thing to do was to terminate treatment. The parents appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, but in the end the doctors, Terry, and her husband won out and she was removed from life support.

But despite these and many other cases, I don’t see Charlie Kirk and the alt-right demanding to know why private healthcare caused those deaths. The simple reason why is that they will use anything they can to demonize a “liberal” program that is not perfect but is obviously far better than anything else, which anyone can see by looking at any study showing that we pay the most amount of money for healthcare despite seeing lower life expectancy than other industrialized countries. And do you want to talk about babies dying? The United States has an infant mortality rate that’s 50% worse than the UK’s. 50%. Maybe start thinking about why that is before you yell about a single sensationalized case that you know nothing about.

The post Why Alfie Evans’s Death isn’t a Result of Socialized Medicine appeared first on Skepchick.

school of doubt

SIU Zero-time Adjunct Follow-up

[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]

After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.

Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?

Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.

Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?

In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.

What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?

Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.

Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.

First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.

Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?

Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.

So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?

Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?

Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.

This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.

*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).

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And so It Has Come to This

Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.

Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.

Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):

Dear Chairs,

I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.

Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.

These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.

The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:

· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.

· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.

The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.

Thanks,

Michael


MICHAEL R. MOLINO
Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research

COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS
MAIL CODE 4522
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
1000 FANER DRIVE
CARBONDALE, ILLINOIS 62901

mmolino@siu.edu
P: 618/453-2466
F: 618/453-3253

In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.

For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.

But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.

At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.

Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.

And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.

[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]

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*Out of Office Response* Re: quick question?

Dear [STUDENT],

Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.

This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.

The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.

Let’s begin, shall we?

1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?

If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.

If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.

2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:

When and where does our class meet?

What assignments do we have and when are they due?

When are exams and what will be on them?

How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?

3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.

4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?

You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.

5. Is your question unrelated to our class, inappropriate, or just plain unanswerable?

Such questions might include but are not limited to:

How much wood a woodchuck can chuck

The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)

Whether or not Bernie would have won

6. If you have reached the end of this questionnaire without finding the answer you need, you probably have a valid question. Congratulations!

Please contact your TA for assistance.

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Required Reading, 5 March 2018

Just one today, because it is Important.

Ron Srigley, “Whose University is it Anyway?” LA Review of Books, Feb 22, 2018.

On another note, you may be noticing some visual changes across the Skepchick network. Along with the face lift we hope to soon put out a call for new writers and ramp up the activity a bit again, so watch this space!

The post Required Reading, 5 March 2018 appeared first on School of Doubt.

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Pros of Participation Grades 3

Continuing my series on the downsides and benefits of grading participation, here is another benefit.

3. It is a motivation for some.

There’s no magic secret to motivating people, and broadly speaking it doesn’t work. One of the common skeptical criticisms of practices like firewalking and other such “motivational” activities is that the motivational effect is very short term. The body likes homeostasis and hearing someone yell “you can do it!” at you doesn’t do much to make long-term changes in the massively complicated set of hormonal interactions that affect our desires and willpower.

One of the things that was emphasized in my educational psychology classes was that teachers can’t motivate students. That is, we can’t make them want to do things. While we can try to set up extrinsic factors to “motivate” students, we have no real effect on their efficacy (eg. offering candy fails if a student doesn’t like candy) or on the much more powerful intrinsic motivators.

There are, of course, things that teachers can do to affect what students do. If this wasn’t the case, school wouldn’t really work at all. Millions of students do homework, take notes, and write tests that they don’t really want to, because they have some kind of motivation to do them that pushes beyond their personal disinterest.

Grades are one such motivating factor. Not all students are motivated by grades, and those who are are not all motivated to the same degree. However, there are such a significant number of students who are that it seems logical to use. Grades can even be an indirect motivator. A child might not care about the letter on the paper, but a parent might. The child may be motivated by a parental attitude, meaning that grades are important even when they are not.

(I’m not going to discuss whether grades are a good reflection of student ability – this post is simply proceeding with the fact that this system exists, not arguing about whether it should.)

If participation is important at all, it stands to reason that it should be graded. Grades reflect student performance and part of their performance is in how they participate, so it is not as if grading participation is assessing something irrelevant (like assessing physical appearance). Because many students are motivated by grades, tying participation in class to students’ grades can be an effective way to get some students to participate more in class.

A key weakness in this argument is that it is assuming that participation is important. In some cases, participation is truly irrelevant (and in such cases I would certainly argue against grading participation). However, in the cases where student participation is vital, including it as part of grades can be a good idea.

Another weakness of this argument is that it depends on students. If they do not care about their grades, this is once again irrelevant. However, there are always some who do care, directly or indirectly, and there can be ways of encouraging students to care (such as point out how a grade can affect their chances of getting something they want, like a job or special program).

One other potential problem with this argument is that one might argue that students who are motivated by grades also tend to participate well in class anyway. As a former extremely shy student who obsessed over grades, I can say that there are a number of classes in which I owe my active participation entirely to the fact that I was graded on it. Though I’m not a majority, students like me do exist and we can be a part of the reason to grade participation.

The post Pros of Participation Grades 3 appeared first on School of Doubt.

bad science

Evidence to House of Commons Sci Tech Select Committee on Research Integrity

Sorry not to be in regular blogging mode at the moment. Here’s a video of our evidence session to parliament, where they are running an inquiry into research integrity. I think clinical trials are the best possible way to approach this issue. Lots of things in “research integrity” are hard to capture in hard logical […]
bad science

How do the world’s biggest drug companies compare, in their transparency commitments?

Here’s a paper, and associated website, that we launch today: we have assessed, and then ranked, all the biggest drug companies in the world, to compare their public commitments on trials transparency. Regular readers will be familiar with this ongoing battle. In medicine we use the results of clinical trials to make informed treatments about […]
bad science

Meaningful Transparency Commitments: the WHO Joint Statement from Trial Funders

By now I hope you all know about the ongoing global scandal of clinical trial results being left unpublished, and of course our AllTrials campaign. Doctors, researchers, and patients cannot make truly informed choices about which treatments work best if they don’t have access to all the trial results. Earlier this year, I helped out […]
bad science

How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb?

Robin Ince just asked if I know any epidemiologist lightbulb jokes. I wrote this for him. How many epidemiologists does it take to change a lightbulb? We’ve found 12,000 switches hidden around the house. Some of them turn this lightbulb on, some of them don’t; some of them only work sometimes; and some of them […]
bad science

“Transparency, Beyond Publication Bias”. A video of my super-speedy talk at IJE.

People often talk about “trials transparency” as if this means “all trials must be published in an academic journal”. In reality, true transparency goes much further than this. We need Clinical Study Reports, and individual patient data, of course. But we also need the consent forms, so we can see what patients were told. We need […]