Wednesday, March 09, 2005


Off to Mexico

For those few of you who check this site, I'll be off to Mexico this afternoon. I'll be gone a week to Villahermosa, Palenque, and San Cristobal de las Casas.

Perhaps I'll do some blogging offline but don't expect any new posts unitl March 16 or 17.

Monday, March 07, 2005


Popular nonsense

I had been ready to ignore the new novel by Michael Crichton, State of Fear and was doing so until I read George Will’s column of Dec. 22, 2004 .

I often like Will’s columns but this was such a bad example of someone so ignorant of science and its ways as to be ignorant of one’s ignorance that it worried me. For a lengthy discussion of what was wrong with this column see here and here

The very worst aspect of the column (it seems to me) was Will’s refrence to an article in the 10 Dec 76 issue of Science. The only article in that issue remotely related to the topic of your column is by Hays et al. (p. 1121-1132); however, it's about the effect of variation of the Earth's orbit around the Sun on climate. This has nothing to do with global warming as effected by atmospheric chemistry. The very last sentence to say this: “…the results indicate that the long-term trend over the next 20,000 years is toward extensive Northern Hemisphere glaciation and a cooler climate.” This is a concern wholly apart from today’s worries about global warming, which is a concern over whether or not humans are changing the climate by change the composition of the atmospehre. Will suggested that since three scientists in 1976 said the earth was cooling and today a bunch of other scientists saw we should be concerned about warming that the public really shouldn’t trust those wacky scientists. It very much seems that another ice age might be down the pike - in about 20,000 years. The concerns about global warming as related to atmospheric chemistry are on a much shorter time scale and on top of the longer-term cycles of orbital variation. Moreover, concern about CO2 and other gases has grown significantly since the paper by Hays et al. in 1976.

All of this I knew without reading Crichton’s book but I decided to read it to see if Will had misrepresented it as well. The book puts on airs with footnotes to “document” certain statements made by characters in the book. I didn’t bother to look up each one but others have done this here and here and found many problems.

But in many ways I liked the tone of the book. Although he makes his points using caricatures, I agree that too many people don’t pay attention to the actual world around them when deciding what to do. They act on what they would like things to be, not on what they really are. They don’t even know what they really are. This kind of knowledge does not come easy so many folks would rather hang crystals around their necks than go to the doctor because they don’t understand medicine.

The problem with Crichton’s book, however, is not that lots of environmentalists are cuckoos but that he doesn’t seem to understand that the Earth scientists who are calling the alarm regarding anthropogenic climate change are actually pretty careful and well aware of how to test ideas about nature against actual observation.

If you liked Andromeda Strain or Jurassic Park, then State of Fear might entertain as well. Just don’t expect a guy who gets paid to make stuff up to be a good source about the state of a complicated scientific issue (even if he puts footnotes in his novel).

Sunday, February 27, 2005


For security reasons

Now, don't you feel safer?

A revelation

The sports writer Heywood Broun is credited with noting that, "sports doesn't build character, it reveals it." This has never been more true than in the case of John Chaney , coach of the Temple Men's Basketball team.

Things weren't going the way Chaney wanted in the game against Saint Joseph so he sent into the game, little-used 6-foot-8, 250-pound Nehemiah Ingram to "send a message" to John Bryant and the rest of the St. Joe team. Ingram proceeded to foul out in four minutes of play including a foul that sent Bryant to the ground and breaking his arm.

It's not clear if this represents an escalation or a scaling back of Chaney's behavor since he threatened to kill then-Massachusetts coach John Calipari during a postgame news conference.

Oh by the way, Mr. Chaney has apologized.

Saturday, February 26, 2005


Hold on to your wallet

This post may seem a bit on the inside to some but my real point here is about language, not geology.

What prompts today's correspondence is the seminar given in my department yesterday. Sometimes we get bad talks that are poorly organized or convey little information but it the rare talk that actually does harm. I fear the three dozen or so students left the seminar with a poorer understanding of the world around them than when they entered.

The talk was given by a gentleman whose affliation was given as "International Oil and Gas Consultant" (a polite way of saying "unemployed"). Some noteable aspects of his talk:

1. The industry (or it might just be him) has a term called "proven reserves". This is the volume of hydrocarbons in a particular field. But this is not the amount that has been taken out of the ground; its the amount still down there. How do they know it is down there? Well, they make their best guess. The difference between proven reserves and unproven reserves is that in the former, some oil has been extracted and in the later, none has. OK, so we have a field that had yielded a drop of oil, now all of the other stuff we think might possibly be there is vaulted from unproven to proven. What a crock.

2. Geographic Information System (GIS) is all the rage these days. GIS is essentially a database linked to a map. With GIS folks can display all sorts of data on maps. It is used in lots of things like geology and real estate and urban planning. It can be a terrific tool that helps map makers make pretty maps faster than they ever could before. But some aren't satified with this. Our speaker yesterday asserted that GIS is revolutionizing the Earth Sciences. He argued that it allows us to do things we never could before. What a crock. When one doesn't understand the difference between impossible and impracticable, one is perhaps misunderstanding a lot more. Maps have been being made since the invention of the pencil and fancy computers don't do something new. They may do it faster and offer much more convinience but GIS is not a revolution. It is a tool. The microscope might be a better example of revolutionary technology; it really did allow new observations and measurments to be made. GIS is not a tool of observation but a way to display other peoples observations in interesting ways.

When you see someone declaring a guess as a proven fact and a new way of display as a revolution in science, hold on to your wallet.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005


What is this thing called diversity ? (I)

David Vellemean has a very interesting comment concerning "diversity".

The question is what we do with our diverse student body, once we have gathered it. Do we talk incessantly about how diverse we are? Do we issue hysterical denunciations of every remark or piece of graffiti that might offend some minority group, on the grounds that it violates our diversity mission? Do we require our students to take courses on race and ethnicity? Do we fall all over ourselves to incorporate the racial or the gender angle into every subject? Do we ask academic departments to think about how to make their courses more interesting to minorities and women? Do our administrators make endless speeches exhorting us to value our diversity?

Or, alternatively, do we treat our students like adults, avoid facilitating their efforts to segregate themselves by race, perhaps, but otherwise let them get on with learning from one another -- with all of the frictions that such learning will inevitably entail?

These questions are about the ideology of diversity, not the reality of diversity. And they are the questions that are relevant here. After all, having a diverse campus need not be connected with the politicization of the academy, which is the topic under discussion. A diverse campus need not be politicized.

An interesting thing this diversity. At the university where Comrade Snowball toils away his days we are in the throws of looking for a new provost. Part of this ritual includes a “public forum” in which the general campus community is invited to chat with the candidates. During these Q&A sessions one can count on a question from a faculty member (usual suspects include professors from the departments of History, English, and African-American studies) probing the provost-wannabe’s commitment to “diversity”. FYI, those that would be provost are all for it.

But what is this thing called diversity? Although the provost-wannabes don’t want to say so out loud, it seems to be a diversity of appearance. But there is the implication that this diversity of apperance will gain us some other benefit. Why we don't just adopt policies that will maximize these other virtues is not discussed.

If a variety of appearnce is what we are after it should be pretty easy to determine when we had reached the desired standard deviation. But what are the measures of these other benefits? What are those things we could recognize that would tell us no more diversification is necessary?

I think if you ask these questions of the diversificationists you will be able to identify those who want to get something done and those who just want to do something.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


Maybe he shoud just go to Benedict College

A story in USA Today discusses the downside of self-esteem without competence:

"One of the things the managers talked about is an incredible sense of entitlement for people who don't deserve it," she says. "They'll come in right out of college and don't understand why they're not getting promoted in three months."

Hey, this expectation of promotion without merit starts well before graduation! Here's a exerpt from a recent e-mail exchange with one of my students:

Subject: geology 1330 grade

I never received a response to the following e-mail and I thought perhaps you never received it. I still feel very unsettled to have received a D considering all the time and effort I put in. I plan on applying to the College of Business and they won't accept any classes with grades below a C, so this class won't even count for me. Is there any way that I could do some extra credit to bump my grade up to a C? Thank you for your consideration.

----- Original Message -----

Sent: Sunday, December 26, 2004 6:07 PM
Subject: geology 1330 grade

      I just checked my grades and was rather upset to see that I received D+. I tried very hard in your class, I did all the reading, attended all of the lectures, and I studied really hard for all the tests. I just don't understand why I did so poorly. Is there any way you can please reconsider the grade. I am willing to do anything for extra credit.

Thank you for your time.

----- my response -----

I won't be changing your grade. As far as I can tell, you got the grade you earned. Last semester I had twelve people who got more points than you who did not get a grade of C or better. On what criterion should you be favored over them? Your final score was 225 out of a total of 450 points possible. You got as many questions wrong as you got right but you think you deserve a C. I disagree.

As far as how hard you worked, I'm sorry you feel that a lot of effort was put without a satisfactory result but I'm not in the effort measurement business. However, the next time you want to impress one of your professors of your diligence, I suggest you take all of the tests and do any extra credit exercises offered.

This guy actually thought his grade should be elevated from a D+ to a C even though he didn't show up for all of the four tests offered. David Foster at Photon Courier has wonderfully termed this "Superheated 'Steem". I didn't bother to use it on this guy but I usually ask students claiming how their hard work should be a factor in thier grade whether or not students who had not worked very hard but managed to get good grades anyway should be punished for thier lack of effort. This usually shuts them up but I suspect this guy will only shut up following real and significant failure.

Let us all wish this student well.

Free speech means free speech for everybody

Harvey Silvergate discusses the irony of the protection Ward Churchill rightfully enjoys. An exerpt:

The primary lesson that I take away from this academic spectacle (“Where else but in higher education could such a farcical spectacle take place?” one asks) is the reliable old Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. For more than two decades now the academic left has been seeking—with a considerable degree of success—to censor and otherwise punish the right for its politically incorrect views on a wide range of social, political, and even intellectual/academic issues. Speech deemed offensive to “historically disadvantaged groups” or otherwise “regressive” has been punished as either “harassment” or “hate speech.” Now comes someone from the left mouthing words and ideas found highly offensive by those on the right (and indeed by many on the left), and he is roundly attacked, with a state legislator from Wisconsin, protesting Churchill’s scheduled March 1 lecture at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, describing his writings as a form of “anti-American hate speech.”

Ah, how the worm turns! What better proof is needed that all folks need to protect the rights of all other folks, because next year the target might be on one’s own back? This is the proven genius of our notions of academic freedom and constitutionally protected free speech, and especially of the doctrine of “viewpoint neutrality.” We all enjoy only so much liberty as we accord those we despise but who might be in the driver’s seat next time around.

Do you suppose the furor in the Colorado legislature calling for Mr. Churchill's firing will give pause to those who have broadly favored speech codes and prohibitions on "hate speech"?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005


Well at least we're doing something

The Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics is a well-meaning group. It is made up of faculty at 47 institutions that participate in NCAA sports. However, it is not made up of any university presidents. The faculty senates of universities represented in the Coalition are now considering a document entitled, Academic Integrity in Intercollegiate Athletics: Principles, Rules, and Best Practices. Below are my comments about selections from the Executive Summary of the document:

Because the rationale for merit scholarships based on athletic, rather than academic qualifications is not strong, the Coalition recommends that a reassessment be made of the feasibility of converting athletics scholarships to a need basis.

What could be stronger that the rationale that this guy can run fast (or other athletic qualification)? If sports are about performance on the field then nothing could be more rational than choosing folks who have athletic skills. What the Coalition can’t seem to bring itself to say is that there is little rationale for universities spending millions of dollars every year putting on sports exhibitions.

The campus faculty bears primary responsibility for ensuring that academic programs conform to high standards of integrity in curriculum and student evaluation. Reports of differential academic treatment of athletes by faculty have persisted for years and occasionally been confirmed, but without detailed data on athlete enrollment patterns and grades, faculty governance bodies have no way of routinely assessing the integrity of campus programs in this regard or remediating problems that may exist. The Coalition therefore proposes that campuses collect data on the academic performance of athletes by course section, and convey that information to their campus faculty governance bodies, protecting the anonymity of individual student records. [NCAA bylaw proposal, Section 3.1] .

What a colossal waste of time this would be. Collecting this sort of data would surely show that athletes have a hard time competing with their colleagues not spending much time and energy playing games. But how would it be able to recognize any inappropriate treatment of “student”-athletes? No criteria are offered. None can be imagined.

Because coaches have great leverage to guide their athletes to place academics first, the Coalition recommends performance assessments of coaches and close monitoring that creates incentives for coaches to use that leverage constructively.

Of course they have the leverage but why, oh why, would a coach use this leverage to put academics first? We already have performance assessments of coaches: the win-loss record. Until this plays no part in the future employment opportunities of coaches they are not likely to care much about the academic achievement of their minions.

The competition scheduling decisions that campuses make directly affect the challenges athletes face in the classroom. The Coalition recommends that Faculty Athletics Representatives and campus athletics boards be meaningfully involved in the design of season schedules to ensure that academic priorities guide planning.

Meaningfully involved? Short of actually having the final say, there will be no meaningful involvement of faculty. Can anyone really imagine that academic priorities drive anything in athletic departments? Those who do must not have ever taught at a university. Last semester I had a softball student in one of my classes. She came to me mid-semester to ask how she might improve her pitiful grade. She explained to me that she was taking 18 hours in the fall because she had been coerced (counseled is clearly not the right word) by her academic advisors to do so. She was told to take 18 hours in the fall because softball is a spring sport. “Meaningfully involved” means nothing short of being in charge. It means getting rid of anyone so cruel as to assign students 18 hour semesters simply because it might benefit the win-loss record of the softball team (read: softball coach). A few years ago I taught a student who recounted her experiences dealing with academics on the softball team. She was told that she should consider another major because geology classes required too many field trips. Student Athletes? BUUUUUUUULoney! Until coaches have no say in who gets scholarships it will be worse than doing nothing to claim that faculty have meaningful involvement in the design of schedules that ensure academic priorities. Until coaches are judged by GPA and not winning percentage, none of this will matter.

The success of athlete advising is critical for the academic integrity of campus sports programs. Faculty have a responsibility to understand the role of the OAAA, and to be assured that the office is structured to operate with integrity.

Well sure, if integrity could be found in campus sports programs, it would be nice to start with advising. But I fear my experience with softball players is not unique. However, to be assured that such offices operate with integrity is akin to being told the check is in mail. Integrity is coming to the faculty senate and detailing how last years efforts comport with last years predictions or promises. Integrity is not coming to the faculty senate and declaring victory in the absence of any predictions or well-described mileposts. Integrity is not arguing that since things could have been worse (or indeed that they have been worse in the past) that things are ok. The better-than-a-sharp-stick-in-the-eye defense is not integrity. I understand the role of the OAAA too well.

Here’s another idea. Simply require everything done at a university, including the athletics program, to be subjected to this question: Does this make the institution a better place to teach or learn? If it doesn’t, stop it. Now it may be that answering this question will be complicated but avoiding the question is not the way to make the problem go away.

Well of course it does!

In an interview on Morning Edition on Feb 14 Jerimiah Gerdler of the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests that whether or not our missile defense systems works, "depends on your definition of 'works'".

RED FLAG ALERT: When folks have to convince you of the merits of their position by redefining words everybody thinks they know the meaning of, one should be very skeptical of the position. Just like when some folks were so skeptical when we were urged to re-understand "is".

Shut up, and support our troops

This piece on NPR last night by Bob Sommer resonated with me. He highlighs yet another example of folks who want one thing to happen but can't come right out and say it, so they claim to be interested in something else. Part of what he said:

"Support our troops" is a code. ... Those who presumably need to be admonished to support the troops are those who oppose the decisions of the adminstration. "Support our troops" means then, that we should be supporting the war. I believe that most yellow magnet bearers want support not just for the troops but for the mission, the presence, the president. Maybe the magnets should say, "Shut up, and support our troops".

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