Friday, May 22, 2015

Just to poke Mark Bauerline with a stick one more time:

As my friend Steve Saideman pointed out in his response to Bauerline's piece, the argument relies largely on "anecdata" - individual observations (why aren't there students lined up in the hall of the English department at UCLA?) that may or may not mean anything. When you stoop to that level of argument, someone else's anecdata can be just as good as yours, maybe better.

So here are a couple of data points that contradict Bauerline's assertion that "professors don't matter anymore". Both are related to the recent retirement of a colleague who had served my institution for 30 years:

• A group of students organized a retirement party for said professor. Attendance was standing room only, probably 60-80 people there. One student drove from Virginia Beach to Dayton, OH just to be at that event - because this professor had meant that much to his career.

• At a subsequent retirement dinner, three recent graduates (two of them grown men) broke down in tears as they recalled the impact which my colleague had on their lives. Their paeans to her accomplishments went far beyond "got me a job" to her impact on their lives and their character - those in pursuit of mere employment don't cry about it in public.

Bauerline laments that professors are no longer "moral authorities" but have been reduced to "accreditors". My colleague's retirement, and reflections on her entire 30-year career (up to and including this past year) are a ringing indictment of his sweeping statement.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Marketplace of Ideas Really is a Marketplace

A little over a week ago Mark Bauerline, an Emory English professor, published an op-ed in the Sunday Review of the New York Times that asked “What’s the Point of a Professor?” In it he laid out a variation of the old “kids these days” argument and lamented that professors had lost their “moral authority”. It was the kind of “what’s wrong with the world” Jeremiad popular in many public discussions.

Bauerline’s article was swiftly skewered by dozens of other bloggers and writers in higher education, from the famous and well-placed (DanDrezner in the Washington Post) to the semi-famous (Steve Saideman, Matt Reed in Inside Higher Ed) to the obscure (including me). As Drezner and Reed pointed out, the problem was not merely that Bauerline’s argument was wrong, but that it was published in the New York Times. As Drezner wrote, “off-base op-eds like these are the only source of information that general readers like my mother have about the current state of higher education”.

This isn’t the first time that the NYT Sunday Review has published a misleading piece that grossly oversimplifies the world of higher ed. Six weeks ago Paul Campos, a law professor at Colorado, published an argument entitled “The Real Reason College TuitionCosts So Much” in that same publication. It was just as simplistic as Bauerline’s, and met with a similar level of criticism. But it was, of course, widely read.

Why does this happen? Why are the most published voices about higher education those who have the most simplistic views of it? There are dozens of excellent writers and bloggers who understand higher education in all its complexities. Why aren’t they being published?

This state of affairs isn’t because the NYT’s editorial board only wants to publish simplified arguments. It isn’t because of their decision-making at all. The lack of good, widely-available public writing from people inside higher education is because of the choices we faculty and administrators make. To quote the late Walt Kelly, we have met the enemy and he is us.

To understand why this is so, you have to understand the dynamic that drives most human behavior: incentives. While for most people being published in the Sunday New York Times would be a very great honor, for most faculty and administrators it’s not that impactful. Academia is famous for developing metrics of productivity, particularly in writing and research. But popular op-eds (even in the NYT) don’t show up in those systems. They don't help you get promoted, or get tenure, or get a better raise. The same thing is true of administrators, who are rewarded and compensated for a host of measured things none of which involves contributing to the public discussion. University presidents will occasionally weigh in, because they can argue to their boards that they are “thought leaders”. But for most of the rest of us working stiffs, there isn’t enough in it to justify the effort.

So why do people like Bauerline and Campos do it? Because they stand to gain by doing so. Both have made careers as “public intellectuals” by publishing books that are both widely read and highly controversial. Every time their name appears in print, their book sales get a bump. Better still, as champions of publicly controversial arguments they are sought-after speakers. Each is represented by at least two speaking agencies that book speakers across the country for various events, generally for a minimum fee of $5000 - $10,000 per appearance. This is the way the modern intellectual economy works. If you want to make money as a professor, particularly in the humanities, the road to riches lies not within the academy but outside of it. And on that road, visibility in publications like the New York Times is the coin of the realm. It turns out that the marketplace of ideas really is a marketplace.

In pointing this out, I am not at all casting aspersions on either of these gentlemen or doubting the sincerity of their arguments. I am sure that they do, in fact, believe what they write. But it is true that both have a powerful economic incentive to make those arguments in as forceful, simplistic, and controversial a manner as possible in the most visible places in the public arena. Which is how they end up in the Sunday Review.

Since this isn’t true for the rest of us who rely for our living primarily on doing a good job within our universities, we don't have the same incentives. We write blogs, because it’s easy. A few who are still rooted in academia and who value more complex arguments, like Drezner and the founders of The Monkey Cage, have managed to land in higher-visibility places – though most of what they write about is politics and other issues more of interest to the wider masses. There are some excellent writers in the Chronicle of Higher Education, but few in the general public read that august publication.

This dilemma is not unique to higher education, but it is particularly problematic for us. We lament the fact that the public discussion is driven to a large degree by Jeremiads and sensationalist headlines (like Time magazine’s infamous “Is College Worth It?” cover). We wail and gnash our teeth as state legislatures slash spending on universities or debate laws dictating how many courses professors should teach. We know that the American higher education system, once and still the envy of the world, is being steadily eroded by a tide of ignorance. But we mostly complain amongst ourselves. If we want to turn this trend around, more of us have to push back against our own incentive structures and speak out. Otherwise the “marketplace of ideas” will continue to be impoverished, dominated by those who know the least about what is really going on in higher education.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Higher Education Myths: The "Golden Age" Fallacy

My good friend Steve Saideman had an excellent post this morning taking on Mark Bauerlein's NYT article "What's the Point of a Professor?" I'm sure that Bauerline's piece will get plenty of response in the higher ed world - it could be described as a form of trolling, or at least the NYT stooping to click-bait to boost their online attention. But I'll go ahead and jump into the fray anyway.

I do so because Bauerline is guilty of one of the most common fallacies in higher education writing: pining for a "golden age" of college, usually back in the 1960s, when things were so much better and wonderful and isn't it a terrible shame how far we've gotten away from that idyllic time? Or, as my friend Steve puts it much more succinctly, "Kids these days!"

Bauerline's argument is that "back in the day" - when Todd Gitlin was a "fiery working-class kid at Harvard" in the 1960s or when he himself was a student at UCLA in the early 1980s - students were much more engaged (especially with faculty), were more interested in the intellectual conversation that faculty serve as mentors and shepherds into, and were more intent on "developing a philosophy of life" than in crass material things like getting a job. It was a wonderful time when you couldn't walk down the hall of the English department without tripping over the legs of students who couldn't wait to engage in deep, meaningful, mentoring conversations with their professors. No doubt when Bauerline chose a career in higher education, he hoped to have a similar experience from the other side of the desk. And now he's not - and he's got surveys to prove it!

There are several problems at work here. One is the narrow view of higher education which many in higher education themselves hold. Three specific institutions are mentioned in the article: Harvard, UCLA, and (if you count the byline) Bauerline's employer, Emory University. These are all brand-name institutions, instantly recognizable across the country. And because most people in higher ed went to elite institutions like this (and yes, UCLA and Emory ARE elite institutions), then tend to think that these experiences represent the whole of higher ed.

The truth, unfortunately, is much more prosaic. Most college students - especially today, much more so than in the 1960s - don't go to these kinds of institutions. Most of them go to comprehensive regional universities near where they live: University of Akron, Wright State (my employer), Wichita State, Bridgewater State, Millersville, Shippensburg, SUNY (there are 64 SUNY campuses, only a small sliver of which are in or near NYC), and so on. Many of them are the first in their entire families to go to college. These students are, in my experience and observation, practical people pursuing practical things. Most of them don't have the background to understand the Golden Age image of the Life of the Mind that Bauerline is talking about. That's not to say that they can't come to appreciate those goals - but that's not where they are.

These students - many of them also post-traditional, not fresh-from-high-school - make up the vast bulk of college students today. So when Bauerline starts comparing surveys of students today to surveys of students in the 1960s, he's comparing apples and orangutans - they're completely different things. A MUCH larger swath of the American population goes to college today than did in the mid-60s, or even in the early 1980s when Bauerline was in school. It's no wonder they answer the questions differently - they're different people.

Then there's the problem of the supposed "culture shift". This is the "kids these days" part of the argument - Bauerline's lament that "back in the day" college students cared more about self-development, but now they just want to get jobs and make money. It's tempting to blame that shift on the kids themselves, which as Steve points out makes us old folks feel good about ourselves. Except that it isn't the kids' fault - its ours.

As a professor and administrator at an institution much closer to the median of higher ed than Emory, I see this on a regular basis. Every state politician - governor or legislator, Republican or Democrat - talks about education (and higher education in particular) in one manner only: Jobs, Jobs, Jobs! Our entire state government - made up completely not of slacker 20-somethings but of grown men and women older than Bauerline or me - views universities through this lens. Jobs and workforce development are the beginning and the end of the conversation. What state dollars we get depend on our ability, as a public university (which, remember, is where most students go), to sing from this hymnal. Is it any wonder that our students have absorbed what their elders spend so much time talking about?

This sometimes leads to another fallacy - the faculty "call to arms", in which professors complain that their university presidents should "push back" against this "crass commercialization" of higher education. Some of them want to mount the barricades and "take back the university" from those who would extinguish the higher purpose in pursuit of mere economic growth.

That's a comforting battle cry when you're a tenured full professor at a stable and elite university. I've known faculty to get extremely worked up demanding that their university presidents take up this standard and "fight back". But that ignores the reality that presidents face every day: they have to keep the lights on and the salaries paid. State dollars, dwindling as they are, are important for doing so. So are tuition dollars, and a full-throated old-school demand for "higher education the way it was Back In The Day" doesn't pull students in. Again, that's not where our students and their families are. And if we insist that they meet us where we want them to be - if we move the starting line back to someplace we think it once was, and then demand they follow - they won't. Call that crass commercialization if you want, but it's reality. Any good teacher knows - you have to meet students where they are, not where you wish they were.

And why is it, anyway, that politicians are so bent on casting higher education as jobs and workforce development? Look to their constituents - only 35% of them, in most areas, have a college degree. In really well-educated places like San Francisco or Boston, that figure can challenge 50%. But that's it. The reality is that 2/3 of the country hasn't gone to college in any meaningful way - and even accounting for differential rates of voting and participation, those folks are still a large part of the electorate. When Bauerline talks about the "moral authority" of faculty as mentors, most people have no idea what he's talking about. And those are the people who vote, pay taxes, and aspire to send their kids to college.

In a way, then, the problems which Bauerline and his Jeremiad brethren complain about are really the result of the enormous success of higher education. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when very few people went to college but the country was consumed with the idea of upward mobility and making things better for the next generation, there began a vast expansion of higher education as a means of bringing more and more people into and upwards within the middle class. That boom resulted in large numbers of new students, massive growth at existing universities, and the creation of new ones. My current employer is a byproduct of that growth - in 1967, Bauerline's benchmark survey year, Wright State didn't even exist. Now it sports 18,000 students and is looking to grow past 20,000.

All that growth inevitably changed the nature of higher ed. As more students arrived who DIDN'T have a multigenerational experience of college, the broader environment of norms, ideas, and expectations shifted. These newcomers brought their own goals, and universities naturally adapted to try to meet those goals. I won't argue that the broader culture hasn't changed, too - we are perhaps more concerned with jobs and careers and economic growth than may have been true in the past. But if that is true - and we need much better evidence for it than Bauerline offers - it's not the fault of our kids, its the fault of us and our parents, the people who really drive society.

None of this is to argue that the Liberal Arts ideal is dead, or that we shouldn't strive for meaningful mentorship as faculty. I'm a product of the liberal arts world myself, and still believe strongly in its benefits both for career-building and for enlightened citizenship. But the ways we instill that in our students - most of whom work, many of whom don't know what college used to look like, and most of whom have life experiences very different from ours - will of necessity be very different.

The story of a bygone "Golden Age" may be comforting to some, but it just isn't true. We haven't lost the opportunity to engage with our students, and students aren't necessarily less engaged than they used to be - they just engage in different ways. Real transformation is still possible in higher education - indeed, it happens all the time. Meaningful relationships and conversations do still go on between faculty and students. Students themselves frequently talk about the real and significant impact which faculty have had on them. These experiences just don't necessarily happen during regular office hours anymore. Better that we figure out how to do more of this in light of today's realities than pine for a past which isn't coming back, if it ever existed at all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Guns Are Often Not the Best Tool

I have made the point here before that I am neither a strict pacifist, nor do I believe that guns cannot be used for legitimate self-defense purposes (here and here). I believe that, on balance, guns are often not the best tool for self-defense; they are certainly not the panacea that some seem to want to claim. But I do not come at this issue as a fanatic, either pro-gun or anti-gun.

From that standpoint, the following story is an interesting one. It is told by a gun owner, about another gun owner who appears to be both responsible and thoughtful - not a "gun not", and not a proponent of openly carrying guns either for symbolism or for deterrence:
Man Attacked in Walmart Won't Open Carry Again
I appreciate this fellow's perspective, and the restraint which he showed in this situation. He is certainly correct that the best use of a gun for self-defense involves NOT pulling the trigger. I give him props for properly noting that situational awareness is the best defense. I think he's also probably right in his conclusion that openly carrying a weapon in this case made the defender a target - that had he not been carrying his weapon visibly, this fellow would not have attacked him at all. There's an irony there, but I'll leave that for others.

Those who have read my writings on this subject before know that I prefer unarmed means of self-defense where possible, and am a proponent of traditional martial arts in particular (though there are a great many "non-traditional" systems, including Russian Systema and Krav Maga, which can be highly effective as well). Interestingly, the story linked above actually helps make that point - this fellow would have been better off had he not been carrying at all, even if the other guy still attacked him, provided that he was ready to deal with such an attack.

The story itself is fairly simple: a stranger grabs a baseball bat from a rack in the aisle of a store and takes a swing at the protagonist's head with it. Here's the meat of the story:
The man picked up a bat from the bat rack, and without warning, drew back and swung it at Mr. Walker’s head with full force. 
Unlike most people who would have frozen due to the unexpected nature of the attack, or who would have reflexively recoiled away, Mr. Walker stepped forward into the swing and turned his shoulder into his attacker. His reaction both reduced the force of the blow, and kept his assailant from making a potentially deadly strike to his head. 
Mr Walker then stepped back to create distance and drew his open-carried Sig Sauer P226 in .357 Sig, racked the slide the chamber a round (he carries it on an empty chamber), and ordered his attacker to the ground.
Martial artists will recognize this scenario - the baseball bat attack is one of the most common "armed attacker vs. unarmed defender" scenarios we use in training. And this guy's first reaction - to step in rather than out - was a good start.

From there, however, the best next step would have been to control the attacker, taking away his option to continue the attack by immobilizing the arm, taking away the bat, or preferably both. There are dozens of ways to do this, and most reasonably experienced martial artists could think up two or three of them on the spot.

So while I applaud the defender in this story for his restraint in not firing his gun, the fact that he didn't is not because of his virtue or skill - it's because the attacker chose to comply rather than continue the attack. As many in the self-defense community will tell you, that's a weak reed on which to hang your fate.

By his own admission, the defender "stepped back to create distance" - let's assume six to eight feet at most, a quick couple of steps. That would take him out of immediate swing range, but not so far that the fellow with the bat couldn't try again. A determined, or crazed (or drugged-up) attacker could very well do so.

This is where watching movies and TV gets us in trouble. On screen, there is a certain narrative omniscience - we see that the good guy has a gun, and the bad guy sees it to. But what if, in this case, the bad guy didn't see the gun? Or what if his judgment was impaired, or he thought he could get the swing in before the gunman pulled the trigger? Any of these is possible in the real world, and experienced cops and prosecutors will tell you they all happen.

At that point, our gun-armed defender faces a terrible choice. An attacker with a baseball bat who has already swung at him once is 6-8 feet away and charging again. That attack is going to land in 0.5 seconds, tops. In that time, the defender must make a life-or-death choice: to fire or not. Both choices can lead to disaster. It's a terrible position to be in - shoot or don't shoot, either can ruin your life.

The martial artist does not face this same choice, having a range of tools at his disposal. In response to the initial attack, he can take away the bat and immobilize the attacker. He can strike in a way that injures, but does not kill. He can break the attacker's arm, rendering another swing impossible. He has a wealth of options, limited only by his training, his skill, and his imagination. Almost none of those options leave anybody dead.

Every attack is different. One problem in debates over self-defense is that they are anecdote-based: we present stories or make up scenarios and then argue that our preferred method would be the best way to deal with this situation. Rarely in life in there one answer to everything. But in self-defense, guns present for me too stark a choice: kill or be killed. I prefer to leave matters of life and death to others, and to try to fill my toolbox with skills and abilities to cover a scaleable range of possibilities. I applaud this gun owner for the outcome of this case. But he would have been better off with training and practice in place of the gun.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

It's Not the Economy, Stupid: Politics is Fundamentally about Power

When Bill Clinton ran for President back in 1992, his campaign had a few simple phrases that they used internally to stay on message. The most famous of these became widely cited: "It's the economy, stupid." Clinton's success propelled that phrase to almost mythic status: elections are won or lost on economic or "pocketbook" issues.

This is relevant as we start the serious, above-board portion of the next Presidential election cycle (yes, it's still early in 2015 and we're talking about the 2016 campaign - so it goes these days). Candidates are emerging from the woodwork (few of them surprises) and already starting to argue about the agenda. Economic issues are featuring prominently already, and probably will throughout.

A lot has been written (including in this blog) about the growing level of inequality in America. The phrase "the 1%" now has a lasting and universally-understood meaning, which itself is an indication of how skewed things have become. I still believe that the question of economic distribution is one of the fundamental issues of our time, because it opens the door to the wider question of what kind of society we want to live in.

Unfortunately, the economic argument has become mired in our usual tribal politics and bumper-sticker sloganeering. And here I have to give props to the conservative side of the argument, because they have managed to fashion a couple of closely related trump cards. One is the argument that "Liberals care about equality of outcomes, conservatives care about equality of opportunities." The other is the nearly universal revulsion the conservative movement has instilled towards the notion of "economic redistribution". Robin Hood (taking from the rich and giving to the poor) no longer has much legitimacy in America.

Leaving aside the sincerity of either of these arguments (and I believe that many conservatives are sincere, especially about the opportunity vs. outcome side of things), this whole "debate" misses the point. Focusing on money and economic distribution is trying to treat the symptom instead of diagnosing the disease.

The real issue - indeed, the fundamental question of all governance no matter what kind of political system you have - is distribution of power. We talk a lot about money corrupting politics, and it clearly can and does - but that's a back-end reinforcement mechanism. Money follows power far more than it leads it. Take a look at folks who got rich outside the usual power structures - Bill Gates is a good example. Gates has more money than the Koch Brothers will ever have, but that doesn't make him more powerful. His wealth has had very little, if any, impact on American politics. Most people don't even know what his political views are.

So when we argue about whether our political system should be redistributing wealth, we are barking up the wrong tree. What we should be talking about is the redistribution of political power. We have forgotten that such redistribution is exactly what democracy is designed to do. Political power always and everywhere tends naturally to accumulate over time in the hands of a small elite - this has happened in every human society, everywhere, at every stage in history. The whole point of the American revolution, the Constitution (and before it, the Articles of Confederation), the Magna Carta, and all of what we regard as the best political experiments in history have had this one thing in common: the goal of intentionally taking power away from the few and spreading it out among the many.

In this, our current political system is failing spectacularly. I've cited before the study by Gilens and Page showing remarkable evidence of oligarchy stretching back decades. Other studies have been done, and other evidence collected, pointing in the same direction. The growing concentration of power in the United States isn't a debatable point - all the evidence we have points to the same conclusion.

This will sound to some like a partisan argument, and in a certain sense it is. The Republican Party, from its policy positions to its core ideology to its funding sources, seems to have aligned itself some time ago with the existing dominant bases of power in the United States. A message that rejects wealth redistribution is a message in defense of the status quo - that is, the current distribution of power in the country. So far as I can tell, the Republican Party on most fronts seems content with the existing concentration of power.

But mine is not necessarily an argument in favor of the Democratic Party in general, or Hillary Clinton (the presumptive nominee at this point) in particular. Clinton is very much a part of the existing power structure (as are nearly all of the other potential Democratic candidates), and has never shown a great deal of fervor for the mission of redistributing power back out, though she does adopt some of the lingo. The Democratic Party in general, going back probably the late 1960s and the Chicago debacle, has largely accommodated itself to the existing power system as a means of remaining relevant.

Recently some friends of mine on the left have been cheering as wealthy private individuals (Warren Buffet, George Soros) with more left-leaning views have begun talking about jumping into the political fray to push back against the power of conservative money. And while such a struggle would appear to make the system more "balanced", in reality it simply turns American politics into an argument among rich white guys. The famous Swahili proverb seems to fit: "When the elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled."

Some have turned to the growing Libertarian movement as an antidote, and on its face it would seem that Libertarianism - with its message of shrinking the power of government and pushing decisions back to the local level - is consistent with the notion of redistributing power. But in this, Libertarians are terribly naive. They focus entirely on official government power and ignore the significant power in the hands of private players (the Koch Brothers, Buffet, or otherwise). A weak central government is an extremely fertile ground for an oligarchy - look at Russia in the 1990s under Yeltsin, when the oligarchs ran roughshod over the country and gobbled up nearly everything of value. Believing that you can shrink the power of government and wind up with a freer and more democratic outcome - or even a place that people like living in - flies in the face of the evidence.

So where to turn? As usual, I don't have any good solutions - if the answer were obvious somebody else would have found it already. But I do argue - as I always have - that asking the right questions and focusing on the right issues is far more important that having the answers. Right now our political system is largely asking all the wrong questions. We have for the most part abandoned the central mission of democracy in favor of some of its trappings. If we start asking the right questions, I don't know what will happen - but I think the outcome is likely to be better than the path we are on.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Why Does College Cost So Much? Beating the Same Dead Horses

Frankly, I almost hate to write this. I've written plenty of pieces before about the rising cost of higher education and the increase in administration within universities. There are too many to link them all here; try this one for starters, it points back to several of the others.

So why rehash this subject again? Because Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, somehow managed to get an op-ed published in the New York Times - in the Sunday Review section, no less - that beats this dead horse one more time with a bizarre series of not-quite-comparable almost-statistics that sound vaguely like an argument. You can find lots of writing picking his article apart piece by piece, from his misuse of analogies to his simple misstatement of facts. I'll assume that ground has been crossed already and so won't go over it again here.

Unfortunately, the visibility of Campos' piece has given new life to an argument that ought to have been disposed of a long time ago - that the rising tuition cost of college if really a function of evil, greedy, grasping, ever-multiplying administrators. Perhaps Mr. Campos pictures us sitting around in our office twirling our mustaches and petting white fluffy cats. But because he got his nonsense published in the NYT, we have to go over this again.

Are there more "administrators" on campuses? Yes, absolutely - although the first challenge you confront when you try to verify that is defining the line is between "administrator" and "staff". A lot of the "administrators" that Mr. Campos points to as the source of the problem are people who do things. Many of these things, as I have pointed out many times before, were things that universities were not expected to do two generations ago (he seems fond of comparisons to 1960) but are today.

In many if not most instances, universities did not choose these things for themselves - both society and government have thrust a great many mandates onto universities and colleges in that intervening 55 years. Faculty can't both be faculty and also do all of these other things (Title IX compliance; online education authorizations; demonstrating a bewildering array of accreditation standards; outcomes assessment; workforce development; student success for a vastly more diverse student body; etc, etc, etc). One of the few things to get bipartisan agreement among some members of Congress recently is the assertion that regulation of higher education has gone a bit too far in many areas. On this point, Republicans have been standing on solid ground for years: regulation has costs. Mr. Campos apparently doesn't want to talk about that.

There's also a gratuitous reference in Mr. Campos' piece to "seven-figure salaries for high-ranking university administrators". I will freely concede the point that such salaries are ethically and economically indefensible. But to suggest, as he apparently wants to do, that these have any measurable impact on the cost of tuition is absurd. The vast majority of universities (my current employer included) have nobody earning anywhere near that amount. Schools with those salaries are mostly restricted to the handful of top-tier research & NCAA Div I/BCS institutions, and even at those places only a small handful of people are making a million dollars or more. Slashing their salaries in half would make only the tiniest dent in those institutions' budgets. I don't think football and basketball coaches should get $3 million a year either, but pointing to that as the cause of the tuition problem simply makes Mr. Campos look like he can't do math.

The reality, as always, is more complicated and would require a more complex conversation to really deal with. Mr. Campos' assertions aside, we DO invest less as a society in higher education than we used to. For a while (in particular, in the 1960s and 1970s) spending did rise as the number of students going to college rose as well. The cuts (measurable on a per-student basis, something Mr. Campos doesn't want to engage with) have come about in the last 20 or so years. It is also true during that time that tuition has gone up for a variety of reasons - some having to do with more student aid being available (a phenomenon which doesn't surprise economists, price inflation is a natural consequence of flooding a system with more money), some having to do with the increased cost of doing business for universities and the rising societal and governmental demands on those institutions, some having to do with cost-shifting based on a reimagining of higher education as a private good as opposed to a public good.

All of these things matter, and all of them have a hand in creating a problem that is in fact very real. As a parent of a college student who looked at both private and public university options, I agree that the affordability of tuition has gone wildly out of control just between my generation and my daughter's. I wonder sometimes how some of these smaller, less well-known private institutions manage to stay in business (the announced closing of Sweet Briar came as little surprise on that front). Even public institutions are less affordable than they once were.

So I agree with Mr. Campos on one point: we have a real college affordability problem. At a time when having a college degree is increasingly becoming THE path to a middle-class life, it is becoming harder and harder even for middle-class kids to get one. We should think seriously about this as a society, and together come up with changes that will help move us closer to the kind of country we want. But flogging dead horses and pinning everything on overly-simplistic, monocausal theories doesn't get us anywhere - even when you do it in the New York Times.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Where's the Truth? The Challenge of Scientific 'Controversies'

I wrote a little over a month ago about the use of the term "research" in public arguments over science. I argued at the time, and still maintain, that people often claim to have done "research" when what they really mean is that they have (very selectively) read other people's research. This is related, I think, to the erosion of respect for expertise, but that's a subject for another day.

At the time, a fairly robust Facebook discussion broke out among my friends about whether there isn't another reasonable form of the word "research" - what we might call "library research". Isn't it fair, some argued, for a layperson who is not expert in a given field to say that they are "researching" some issue by digging into the literature and reading what the experts have written? I will concede this point - though I would prefer the term "library research" to distinguish this from the sort of research that generates new knowledge, I think it's fair for non-experts to talk about "researching" a topic in the sense of informing themselves about the current state of what is known.

Of course, many of those who try to stir up "controversy" on scientific subjects (vaccines, climate change, etc.) aren't really doing this kind of "research" either. There's a difference between reading The Literature on a subject to try to find out what the experts think about something, and selectively reading that same research to bolster a predetermined conclusion that you've already arrived at (vaccines cause autism, climate change isn't real, the earth is 6000 years old - take your pick). Those people still aren't engaged in research, even of the "library research" variety, any more than a small child putting on his father's tie makes him an employed professional with a job. It's just window dressing, and usually pretty ill-fitting at that.

But in the midst of that Facebook conversation, one of my friends raised a very good question: if you are a non-expert faced with a controversial subject, how do you go about trying to research that topic to figure out, as best you can, what the truth is? This is actually harder than it might seem, in part because experts often don't do a very good job of communicating with the public and in part because those who are trying to create "controversy" as a way of arguing for extremely unorthodox (often demonstrably false) ideas like to muddy the water as much as they can. In the midst of that kind of free-for-all, what's a reasonable non-expert person to do?

There are a few fairly easy rules of thumb that will take you a little ways down the road. Just as the corollary to Godwin's Law states that whoever mentions Nazis first in an argument automatically loses, the adoption of any argument predicated on a vast conspiracy of silence on the part of thousands of otherwise-autonomous (if not competitive) individuals is a guaranteed loser. Efforts, therefore, to dismiss "climate science" as a cooked-up conspiracy fail on their face since such a theory would require the complicit cooperation of thousands of individual scientists around the world who all know better but have been convinced to lie to the rest of us. Ditto for arguments that the CDC  and NIH are somehow engaged in a conspiracy of silence - anybody who watches government agencies for any length of time knows that most of them leak like sieves and can't be trusted to keep much of anything secret. So if one side of a "debate" is relying on this kind of argument, it's safe to say they're probably wrong.

Beyond that, however, the waters get pretty muddy. Many folks involved in these controversies make claims to certain kinds of authority, while denying the authority claims of the other side. Take, for example, the work of Dr. Stephanie Seneff, a senior research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. She has given a number of public talks recently claiming that modern chemical agriculture, and Monsanto's RoundUp product in particular, are going to make 1/2 of all American children develop Autism by the year 2025. This has been widely reported in a number of fringe science websites, often with headlines line this:
MIT States That Half of All Children May Be Autistic By 2025 Due to Monsanto
On the face of it, this is absurd. "MIT" states no such thing - in fact, the university itself does not endorse the work of any of its researchers. Moreover, Dr. Seneff is a highly controversial figure at best - an electrical engineer and expert in computational algorithms for understanding human language who has wandered into matters of public health, biochemistry, and epidemiology that are pretty far afield from her established expertise. Beyond presentations and talks, much of the work she has published in this area has been in the journal Entropy, itself a highly controversial publication whose parent organization, MDPI, has been accused of shady scientific practices. All of this gets into the realm of claim and counter-claim which can be VERY difficult for non-experts to sort through.

Folks that like to cite impressive institutions (MIT, Harvard, Johns Hopkins) on behalf of their claims are often quick to dismiss other equally-impressive institutions when scientists disagree with the argument they're trying to advance. This is another good indication that you may be dealing with a questionable argument - a persistent habit of attacking people rather than ideas (similar to the reliance on conspiracy theory, above). It's legitimate to question someone's credentials, because that's germane to whether they are a reliable source of information. Questioning motives, on the other hand, is generally out of bounds. Inconsistency doesn't look good either; note this article's introduction of its purported expert as a "Johns Hopkins University graduate" even though nearly every other graduate of that same institution engaged in research in the field of vaccines disagrees with him.

In the end, if you REALLY want to know what the state of knowledge is on a given subject, you first have to become conversant in the basics of the scientific method and you have to be willing to wade through an awful lot of material, some of which may be deliberately obfuscatory or misleading. That's a tall order for most folks, but if it matters to you to be right then that's what you have to do. This is one reason why scientific literacy is so important - more people need the tools to do this right. But equally important, people need the mental discipline to not "reason backwards", picking the answer they want based on their social tribe and then cherry-picking evidence to support it. That's probably the hardest barrier of all, and it's what separates actual scientists from wannabes with agendas.