19 March 2019

The legality of legacy admission

In the light of the “Operation Varsity Blues” college scandal last week, a lot of people were complaining about university admissions generally. I learned that a lot of people:

  1. Think university admissions are hopelessly corrupt across the board, and that these cases were not “a few bad apples.”
  2. Are super grumpy about “legacy admission.” 

I knew about court cases  about affirmative action (including the current one at Harvard), but I got curious as to whether legacy admissions had ever faced a legal challenge, and if so, what was the basis for keeping it.

I found one case that concerned legacy admissions: Rosenstock v. The Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina. This is the relevant bit about legacy admissions:

Plaintiff also attacks the policy of the University whereby children of out-of-state alumni are exempted from the stiffer academic requirements necessary for out-of-state admission. Again, since no suspect criteria or fundamental interests are involved, the State need only show a rational basis for the distinction. In unrebutted affidavits, defendants showed that the alumni provide monetary support for the University and that out-of-state alumni contribute close to one-half of the total given. To grant children of this latter group a preference then is a reasonable basis and is not constitutionally defective. Plaintiff's attack on this policy is, therefore, rejected.

The questions raised here are, in large part, attacks on administrative decision-making, an area where the federal courts have not and should not heavily tread. Plaintiff has not shown a constitutional reason for abandoning this judicial policy.

The court is saying legacy admissions are okay because the university can make money. And it’s not up to courts to change administrative decisions.

Regardless, I kind of suspect that legacy admissions are going to come under increasing pressure because they are, as the pundits say, “a bad look” for universities.

External links


Six of the top 10 universities in the world no longer consider legacy when evaluating applicants—here’s why

What we know so far in the college admissions cheating scandal

18 March 2019

The Zen of Presentations, Part 72: Hasan Minhaj is one of the best presenters today

At any given moment in time, there are people who are well known for giving good presentations.

In the early part of the twenty-first century, many people pointed to Steve Jobs as an example of what a great presenter could do. In her book Resonate Nancy Duarte says, “Jobs had the uncanny ability to make audience engagement appear simple and natural.” She points to the iPhone launch in 2007 as one of the best product launches of all time.

I often pointed to Hans Rosling, who leapt into people’s awareness with some of the first TED talks in 2006. Indeed, Rosling practically provided the templatefor what a TED talk was. Others followed in his footsteps for years to come.

But we lost Jobs in 2011, and Rosling in 2017.

But now I would like to nominate the person who is, I think, one of the best presenters of this time.


Hasan Minhaj.

You might object that Minhaj is a stand-up comedian, and stand up isn’t really a presentation in the usual sense. That’s certainly what I might have thought when I had only seen him on The Daily Show. Funny, yes. But a great presenter?

But then I saw his special Homecoming King. It’s stand up, but like many one person shows, there’s a strong narrative running though it. It mostly revolves around a prom date gone wrong.


But it’s not just Minhaj on a stage. He has a screen that shows a lot of images that are relevant to what he is describing. In other words, his Peabody Award winning special is a PowerPoint presentation. A high end and heavily disguised PowerPoint presentation, but it’s not such a different beast than many.

His Netflix series Patriot Act is less personal but more topical, and Minhaj pushes his presentation skills even further. In each episode, Minhaj does a deep explanation of one or two subjects. In science communication terms, Minhaj is making “explainers.”



And these are data driven episodes on somewhat esoteric subjects. You don’t see a lot of coverage of the Indian general elections in the news on North America.



Chinese censors, street wear hype, drug pricing, and affirmative action all come under the microscope. (In light of the university admissions scandal that broke last week, the first episode about university admissions is worth a watch, too, as Minaj lays out the the background for the lawsuit against Harvard about admissions that is being backed by white guys trying to destroy affirmative action.)

Patriot Act the only show I can think of that wouldn’t surprise me if it did an entire episode about Plan S and academic publishing.

Why I think Minhaj’s presentation is the best around right now?

Obviously, Minhaj is legit funny. But he isn’t afraid to tell niche joke. In one episode, he says something like, “I tell jokes for four people at a time.”

Minhaj’s show is committed to evidence and data. Minhaj says he has a team of researchers that help him look smart, but most shows wouldn’t bother. Most comedy shows would just be content to have their comedian mouth off whatever thoughts they have, maybe with some light fact checking. But Minhaj is not just expressing opinions. He’s building arguments.

Minhaj is concise, and has the ability to sum up complicated backstory in a few short, well-chosen sentence. Almost accidentally, this makes him fast. I sometimes think an episode of his show would almost be one of the best “Intro to political science”lectures on any campus, but then I realize that it would be too quick for students to take notes. But you’re not taking notes, so it doesn’t matter. You can just enjoy the delivery and flow.

And Patriot Act is filmed in front of an audience. While his monologues are obviously incredibly tightly scripted, Minhaj still pays attention to his audience. He goes off script for a few seconds to responds to them and interact with them.

While I said Minhaj’s lectures wouldn’t be too effective for students trying to take notes, I will be taking notes: not on the content, but to figure out what makes his presentations so good.

11 March 2019

“Crustacean Compassion” advocacy group gives one-sided view of evidence

This morning I learned of the UK advocacy group “Crustacean Compassion”, which wants to change laws around the handling of crustaceans in the United Kingdom. They are currently engaged in a campaign to recognize the decapod crustaceans as having “sentience.”

They claim to be an “an evidence-based campaign group,” but when I went to their tab on whether crustaceans feel pain, I was presented with a one-sided view. Not lopsided. One-sided.

All the evidence comes from one lab, that of Professor Robert Elwood.
Weirdly, the page is so singularly built from Elwood’s work that it even omits research from other labs that could be viewed as supporting their premise that decapod crustaceans might feel pain.

They present experiments that have not been independently replicated as though they were unquestioned. They discuss none of the interpretive problems behind those experiments. They act as though there is a clear consensus within the scientific community when there is not (review in Diggles 2018).

Their full briefing for politicians is similarly one-sided.

In science, single studies are not definitive. Studies all arising from a single lab are not definitive.

If you claim to be all about the evidence, you have to present all the evidence, not just the evidence that supports your position. Some of the individuals behind the group have academic and scientific backgrounds, but judging from their bios, none have training working with invertebrates. None have training in neurobiology.

While I have reservations about the information provided by their group, the part of me that loves graphic design gives them full points for their clever logo (shown above).

References

Diggles BK. 2018. Review of some scientific issues related to crustacean welfare. ICES Journal of Marine Science: fsy058. https://doi.org/10.1093/icesjms/fsy058

Puri S, Faulkes Z. 2015. Can crayfish take the heat? Procambarus clarkii show nociceptive behaviour to high temperature stimuli, but not low temperature or chemical stimuli. Biology Open 4(4): 441-448. https://doi.org/10.1242/bio.20149654

Related posts

Crustacean pain is still a complicated issue, despite the headlines

What we know and don’t know about crustacean pain

Switzerland’s lobster laws are not paragons of science-based policy
 

28 February 2019

When the internet fails, you feel gaslighted by the world

One of the downsides of living in a world where you can verify so many things with a single search in Google is that when you can’t do that, you seriously start to wonder if you’re right in the head.

For years, I remembered a song I heard when I was young. Because I was young, I don’t think I ever knew the name of the artist, but I remembered the chorus. Every now and then, I would go to Google and search for lyrics I remembered from the chorus.

I’d like to ride a big white horse
‘Cause I can’t ride with the damned
Or maybe drive a racing car
And steer it with one hand
I’d live a life of danger
Most any way that I can
‘Cause that’s the kind of man
That I am
‘Cause that’s the kind of man
That I am

And every time: nothing. I was back at it again today after an NPR interview with Michael Murphy reminded me of another song I remembered but could never track down (“Wildfire”). And try googling those lyrics, and I'd get songs from the wrong decade, sometimes the wrong century. But somehow, I finally found the right combination of search terms to find a top 40 Canadian hit:


“That’s the Kind of Man That I Am” by The Good Brothers! Even knowing the artist and title of the song, and Even though it was a top 40 hit on Canadian country radio stations, there does not appear to be lyrics entered in any lyric database anywhere.

Now, if I could just find a song from around the same time called “Shotgun Rider.” (And no, I don’t mean the BTO song. There are a lot of songs titled “Shotgun Rider.” Marty Robbins, Blue Jug, Tim McGraw...)

11 February 2019

The weekly science news cycle

In politics, there is constant referencing to the “news cycle”, which is generally considered to be 24 hours. The next day is not quite a blank slate, but things older than that are not “news.”

In science, there is also a news cycle, it’s not a daily cycle. It’s a weekly one.

The scientific news cycle starts on Wednesdays, with the release of that week’s issue of Nature. It continues Thursday, with the releasee of that week’s issue of Science. Love them or hate them, the papers dropped by these two journals in mid-week drive much of the media coverage for science – whether newspapers, television, radio, or something else – for the rest of the week.

These journals are well tied into the traditional news ecosphere. Journalists often have advance notice of the big stories dropping by embargoed press releases, so the most connected media outlets are often dropping headline stories about Nature and Science papers in the middle of the week.

Social media discussions are also heavily influenced by these two glamour magazines. You often see early reaction on science Twitter the day of release, and longer reactions (blog posts, for instance) before the weekend is out.

Friday and Saturday are days for continuing, slightly longer and more in-depth coverage. Many science radio shows (also available as podcasts) air on Friday or Saturday, and they almost invariably feature interviews with authors who had a publication in Nature or Science that week. I’m thinking of NPR’s Science Friday, CBC’s Quirks and Quarks, and ABC Radio National’s The Science Show on (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, not the US TV network).

These are also days where websites and media companies that don’t have their own science reporters learn about stories from other reporters. A large amount of media coverage of science says, “As reportedimn The New York Times...”, not “A new paper in Nature...”.

Sunday is the day for deep dives and long reads about science. Newspapers and magazines often put out their long form feature articles or investigative pieces. It’s the day for things that “not news, but still important.”

Monday and Tuesday are reaction days from the some in the scientific community, particularly those who are low-key users of social media. They are the catch-up points for people who heard about some story that broke last week, but they maybe heard about it by listening to a radio show or reading a New York Times article. But they didn’t really tweet or comment about it because they weren’t at their desk until Monday.

05 February 2019

Second letter in Science!

I have yet another story of a publication that started because I was wasting time on the Internet. I say again: blogging is one of the best ways for an academic to work out ideas.

This new publication is my second brush with the realm of glamour magazines in my career. It’s a letter again and not a research article, but I’ll take it.

Blog readers and maybe some of my Twitter followers might recognize the arguments. They are the same ones I made in this blog post previously. Somewhere along the way, I found myself referencing it in tweets that I thought, “Maybe I can bring this to a wider audience.” More people read the glamour magazines than my blog. I chose to try for Science because it seemed to me that GRE discussions were most relevant to the US.

While the letter is short, it actually expanded from what I originally submitted. Letters editor Jennifer Sills pushed me to expand the last paragraph to include a few sentences about possible solutions. This was a good push, and the letter is better because of it.  I’ll quote Clay Shirky again (emphasis added):

(W)hat are the parent professions needed around writing? Publishing isn’t one of them. Editing, we need, desperately.

While blogging is one of the best ways I have found to develop and work through academic ideas, an editor who genuinely edits is invaluable in fine tuning and honing ideas.

References

Faulkes Z. 2019. #GRExit's unintended consequences. Science 363(6425): 356. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw1012

Related posts

Letter in Science!
I come to bury the GRE, not to praise it
Publishing may be a button, but publishing isn’t all we need

04 February 2019

“We need to do a better job training PhDs in...”

I went looking for how many ways people completed the some version of the sentence, “We need to do a better job training PhDs in...”:


And that is with a couple of very trivial searches. I daresay many more entries could easily be added to this list.

As an educator, I never want to be the person to be the person saying that we shouldn’t train people. Heck, one of the entries on the list above is from me! But there is a finite number of things we can expect to teach people in a finite amount of time. I see two problems..

First, faculty tend to think, “We can do this in house.” They underestimate the complexities of fields, and they don’t reach out to experts in other fields. So the training risks being done by amateurs.

Second, long lists like this tend to encourage superficial “box checking.”

It may be that this “Train them in everything” is a symptom of the loss of support jobs in universities. Faculty are increasingly expected to do everything. If a department doesn’t have a staff photographer, who will do it? Faculty. Professors have to be one person bands, capable of playing every instrument, because universities don’t want to hire an orchestra (so to speak).

This is not a realistic expectation by academics. We should not expect to train grad students to be experts in everything, because nobody can be an expert at everything.

If I had the ability, I would rather see departments try have many more staff positions for some of these task above. Expand the pool of staff experts so that faculty don’t have to try to do everything.


Related posts
 


All scholarship is hard


18 January 2019

Low on “agreeableness”


Grumpy prof is grumpy (low agreeableness score) just because, not because he’s stressed (low negative emotion score).

Test results of the “Big five” personality traits. Take the test here.

Hat tip to Adam Calhoun.

External link

Most personality quizzes are junk science. Take one that isn’t.

14 January 2019

How to fix a lab fail

I did my fair share of physiological experiments with neurons when I was a trainee.

The experiment was an attempt to get a handle on whether a particular pathway between sensory neurons A and interneurons B had few neurons (maybe even only a single connection; monosynaptic) or many neurons (polysynaptic).

One way you can test whether you have few connections or many is by messing with the physiological saline the neurons are sitting in. Physiological saline is a solution that mimics the inside of the animal they are normally found in. Different species have different mixes of salts and other chemicals that keep the neurons alive and firing. There is usually a lot of gold ol’ sodium chloride (table salt), potassium chloride (salt substitute for some people), and so on.

Normally, that physiological saline contains some calcium, because calcium causes neurons to release neurotransmitters. If you change with the amount of calcium in your saline, you make each connection between neurons more and more likely to fail. Using some ions that mimic calcium (like magnesium) make this plan even more effective.

Pathways with single connections between will often keep working with this altered saline: hen you stimulate A neurons, you still see the response in B neurons.

Pathways with many connections usually stop working with this altered saline. When you stimulate A neurons, you are unlikely to see activity in B neurons.

I was doing this experiment, and the results kept being... disappointing. I couldn’t understand the results. And the neurons seemed to keep dying faster than usual. I talked to my supervisor about these experiments. We went back and forth a bit, and at one point, my supervisor asked,

“What did you mix the solution in?”

I replied, “I mixed it in...”

Freeze frame. Record scratch.

It was at that precise, exact instant – after that exact word but before I said the next – that I simultaneously recognized and solved the problem that had been vexing me in the lab. If I was a cartoon, a lightbulb would have clicked on above my head. If I was in a modern movie, I would have had a high speed montage run in front of my eyes showing the key moments I went wrong.

All of this happened in pause that lasted about a second.

But I couldn’t stop myself from finishing the sentence, even though I knew that I was about to reveal myself as having made a dumb, amateur, “I should damn well have known better” mistake.

“...distilled water.”

My supervisor laughed. Not loudly. A chuckle, I think would be the appropriate description. I think the laugh was not only because he knew the solution as soon as I said it, but because he saw the look on my face that revealed I’d experienced “Aha!” and “D’oh!” moments simultaneously.

I’ d put the calcium substitutes in pure water. Not saline with all the other salts that were needed. No wonder the neurons kept dying.

I fixed the saline and went back to trying the experiment. The neurons were much happier, although it turned out the results of the experiment were so muddy and hard to interpret them that we never published that data in a paper. (It appeared on a couple of conference posters.)

And the moral of the story is: Whenever you have a problem in the lab, make sure to tell someone else. Because sometimes, you might just solve your own problem.

P.S.—I told this story on video as part of the SICB lab fail contest in 2018. I did not win. I wonder if the video is kicking around someplace...

P.P.S.—I didn’t know it until years later, but I was using a technique “Rubber duck problem solving.

P.P.P.S.—In the original account, the duck was stuffed (as in, a hunting trophy, not plush fur), not rubber.

P.P.P.P.S.—When I was deep into CCGs like Legend of the Five Rings, I talked a game company staffer who answered the phone. Her name was Mindy. Mindy would get players calling in with rules questions all the time. If you know CCGs at all, you know there are many complex rules questions that arise, because there were a lot of possible interactions between cards. Mindy said she would often get people really wanting to ask detailed questions about the Ninja Shapeshifter or something. But because Mindy was customer service and events, not game design, she didn’t have all the cards memorized. She’d ask the person on the phone to read the card out loud to her.

She said she lost track of the number of times the person would start reading the card to her, pause, and then say, “Oh.”

They answered their own question just by reading the card out loud.

Say stuff out loud, people. I’m telling you. It works.

03 January 2019

When side projects take over

It's probably fair to say that for the last few years in the science community, the thing I’m best known for is the poster blog.

I was on my Google Scholar page a few days ago, and noticed I had a new “most cited” paper: a paper I co-authored on science crowdfunding from the #SciFund days.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with both of those projects and I’m glad they’re successful. But I don't think they are representative of my professional work on brains and crustaceans. And that is a little frustrating.

I suppose that this shouldn’t be a surprise to me. As I tell people, a key part of learning to be an academic is figuring out what you don’t suck at. I realized back in grad school or my post-doc days that other people were much more skilled in the lab than I was. I’m okay in the lab, but I felt writing and communication was where I didn’t suck.

So I had a sense for a while that maybe the place I would make the biggest impact was never going to be at the bench, churning out data, or getting students to churn out data. It’s nice to have that suspicion confirmed. I actually kind of suspected I might get more involved in the editorial side of science, but that hasn’t happened, either.

The papers that I think have the most potential to advance knowledge are a pair of crustacean nociception papers. I wish a lot more people referred to the second paper when the discussion about “Does it hurt lobsters when they go into the pot?” question when it makes the round every eight to ten months or so. Because that’s still the only paper that’s really tested the issue of whether high temperatures are noxious. I don’t think that paper gets as much attention as it should.

So if you would like to make me happy, please have a look at that paper.