Saturday, December 10, 2005

Teaching Scientific Method

A few days ago, PZ Myers of the Pharyngula fame (not the pharyngula stage, though - much more advanced in development) wrote a post ( that links to this article ( about creative ways to teach scientific method:

"I found that I had to teach the nature of science at both
the undergraduate and graduate levels for the honors class and molecular
genetics class that I taught. Even at the graduate level the understanding of
science cannot be taken for granted. It turned into my one lecture speel. I'd
hand out essays by Richard Feynman and Peter Medewar on the nature of science
for the students to read and then we'd work on a jigsaw puzzle. I'd use the
puzzle as an example of how science works. I'd use those cheap 100 piece kid
puzzles that you can buy at WalMart. I found that the two puzzles that I
purchased had an identical cut out pattern with different pictures. The first
thing that we'd do is turn over the pieces and I'd try and get the students to
think about the problem. Just looking at the pieces, can they come to some sort
of idea of what the picture was. Unless you have sometype of super genius that
can assemble the pieces in their mind the students can only come up with vague
ideas of what the picture might be. We do this in science all the time. Even the
assumption that it will make a picture that they can make sense of should be
pointed out to them. Try and get them to think about what they are doing. When
they start to assemble the puzzle ask them what they are doing. None of the
students I've had have tried the random assembly of just putting any two pieces
together. Get them to understand that they are hypothesis testing by grouping
the pieces by whatever character that they are using (color, pattern, shape).
Ask them why their hypotheses fail so often. Get them to understand the problem
that science deals with when you make assumptions based in incomplete data. If
they were able to take all the characteristics of each piece and make a perfect
analysis they would never be wrong in their choice of which pieces fit where,
but using the mark I eyeball and only a limited set of characters you often make
mistakes. You have to expect to be wrong quite often in science. You have to be
able to test your hypotheses. A few students always assemble the edge of the
puzzle first. I point out that this is just what scientist try and do when they
create a framework and build on it. We usually get the easiest pieces in place
first and the edges are the easiest pieces to fit because they only have three
interacting sides to consider. Science does what it can and builds on it. About
this time someone notices that I've taken away the corner pieces. When they ask
for the corners I ask them how they know that the puzzle has corners. It isn't a
trick question. We make assumptions like this all the time, and it is based on
our experience, but they can also see that some pieces are missing based on
their expected square side and only two interacting edges. They have an
hypothesis that something is missing and it is based on their experience and the
physical evidence. I throw out the corners and they have to scratch their heads
because I've given them the corners to another puzzle, but they still fit and
they still complete the outside of the puzzle. I tell them that science is full
of pieces that don't quite fit, but that are good enough to help us get a better
idea of what it is that we are working on. As the puzzle gets completed I make
them note how the qualitative as well as quantitative nature of the hypotheses
that they are testing improves as they acquire more knowledge of what the
picture looks like. The picture never gets perfect because the corners don't
match, but it is obviously good enough to get a pretty good idea of what the
picture is. I don't think that I've ever brought up creationism or ID in this
lecture, but if you want to you can just state the fact that ID as a "concept"
has never been able to place a piece in the puzzle of nature. They have tested
quite a few pieces to see if they fit, but there isn't a single one left in
place at the end of the day. Essentially, it is a concept with a 100% failure
rate upon testing. The only pieces left on the board are the ones that haven't
been tested yet. It has been found to be worse than just randomly picking any
two pieces and trying them to see if they fit. If any student doesn't believe
this, just ask them for a single piece that ID has placed in our scientific
knowledge. You won't find a list of these things at the Discovery Institute
because there are no ID scientific successes. The farce is that they have lists
of scientists that were or are religious and state their scientific successes
without telling anyone that usually these guys were responsible for kicking out
an ID piece from where it didn't belong. These guys are known for their
scientific contributions and not their ID contributions. This is why many
scientists define science in such a way that ID is excluded from consideration.
It simply has never worked, and it has been a monumental waste of time.
Definitions like those that exclude ID get put in place to protect the
incompetent from themselves. Most rational scientist can figure out for
themselves that they can think about ID, but they can't really expect to use it
for anything. Not a single success and a 100% failure rate upon testing is
pretty convincing to most scientists. "

The comments section on Pharyngula was also very interesting, with some valuable modifications suggested, e.g.:

"Here is how many disagreements among scientists arise: one thinks the piece is important and goes in the center; another it isn't important and is part of the edge (say the blue sky, not carrying much info); yet another thinks it's part of another puzzle altogether. And yet another that it isn't even a puzzle piece" [Revere]

"A virtue is that it shows science as a dynamic process. The closed nature of the assembly may be a drawback. Novices could easily conclude that the completed puzzle is what science is about. That the small puzzle is simply a step in the assembly of a much larger puzzle is implicit for us. Literal minds may need to assemble a series of increasingly larger puzzles to get the principle. It's disturbing to imagine what the most literal minds might require" [Les Lane]

"One variation I think I'd make is to at least remove one whole edge of the puzzle, to emphasize the fact that we don't "finish" science in an hour session" [PZ Myers]

"...wants to do this with her classes, with some other changes/refinements--such as splitting the puzzle into two ~40% chunks and having half the class work on each. "But how do you know that you're all working on the same puzzle?"" [JBWoodford]

Of course, I just came back from the store with two 100-piece puzzles that I will use later this week. I'll let you know how it worked. If you have any suggestions, write a comment.

I have, before, used a different approach - the light-switch example. Let me try to describe how I do it:

While the students are too busy doing something (e.g., a lab exercise) to notice where I am and what I am doing, I switch off the lights. I love my current teaching lab as it has no windows and just a single simple master switch, so the effect is immediate and the result is pitch darkness.

I ask what are they observing. They may say "darkness" or "light went out" or "you switched off the light". I can, of course, pick the answer I like, so I home in on "darkness" and frame it as "an observation that the room is now dark, while before it was lighted". Then I ask them to come up with a hypothesis to explain the observation ("you switched it off" comes in here), and an experiment to test that hypothesis ("flip the switch"). I flip the switch (so we can see each other again and nobody sneaks out) and the light comes on, but then, I continue: "What if the light did not come on?"

Over the next several minutes we go through a number of alternative hypotheses (and tests): burned lightbulb, bad socket, broken switch, flipped fuse, broken fuse, rotten (or mouse-chewed) wiring inside or outside the room, broken cable that brings power to the building, a failure at the power-relay, a failure at the power-plant, a terrorist attack, aliens taking over the Earth, etc....

Usually, the order of the ideas that come up is from simpler to more complicated. The later hypotheses depend on the negative results for the tests of previous hypotheses. The tests of later hypotheses require more and more time, money (for tools and materials), expertise (prior education how the system works), and usually more and more people involved. Yet at each step, the hypothesis is a simple yes/no question: it is either supported by evidence or it is not.

Then I go back to science and try to draw the parallels: how science is really a complex outgrowth of everyday use of basic common-sense, how in the early days of science it was possible for individuals without much prior knowledge to make observations, form hypotheses and test them without inordinate amounts of time, effort or money (e.g., "flipping the switch"), but how today, we have progressed to more complex and detailed studies that require many years of training, many people working co-operatively, quite a lot of time, effort and money (e.g., "fixing a blown power-plant"). Of course, some lines of research are at that stage, while others are still in the beginning and simple experiments by individual scientists can do the trick, but the federal funding agencies are unlikely to fund such research as it is not "sexy" and high-tech enough, not to mention that it asks questions about problems that some may have trouble understanding - as those were never mentioned in textbooks. What is mentioned in textbooks is stuff that has been researched to death. Many other questions have never been asked, thus they are not in the textbooks, but that does not mean they cannot be, or should not be asked.

I also make the point that many little children understand the connection between the flip of the switch and light coming on, but would have no idea that a lightbulb can burn out, or anything else about the way the system works. Similarly in science, we need to learn the basics first, teach these basics to the new generations of scientists, so they can go on and test more complex hypotheses. Generation by generation, the understanding gets better, but the sheer volume of knowledge gets bigger and requires more and more years of study to master.

Once the hypotheses get very complex they often go against the common sense, e.g., "if it looks like something is designed it must have been made by a designer", but the years of study of the way scientists have, over the centuries, gone through the endless series of simple tests, convince one that the counter-intuitive solutions are the correct ones. Thus, if you want to learn something about evolutionary biology, biochemists, physicists and engineers are not the people to trust - you have to ask people who have spent years studying evolutionary biology! This is just like you won't ask domestic law or immigration law questions to be explained by a lawyer whose expertise is constitutional law or tax law. I will never try to explain particle physics to you - I have read about it in popular literature and had a college-level course, but that does not make me an expert.

Finally, I make a point that not all science is hypothesis-testing. Much work concerns developing new ways/techniques of observing stuff (e.g., new staining techniques for cells, or new molecular techniques or new methods of sampling natural populations), or orrganizing knowledge (building taxonomy, or new mathematical models) and also much work involves just observing and cataloguing observations (e.g., discovering and listing all salamanders in North Carolina, or sequencing the complete human genome).

Related (somewhat): for several months now I have been looking for a website or a piece of software I can use to place a picture of my own choosing, break it into puzzle pieces, then put back the pieces one by one, finally copying some of the stages of the process into separate slides of a PowerPoint presentation I want to use for a talk. Does anyone know of such a website or software? Please let me know if you do. I am pretty sure it is possible as I have seen puzzles in kids' educational games (before they grew out of them and moved on to slash and burn bloody gory games).

Update: I did both the light-switch and the puzzle this morning. Both worked very well.
It took them about 10 minutes to figure out that corner-pieces were missing (upon which I gave them corners from the other puzzle). I did what PZ suggested and left out one whole edge. This made them much more uncomfortable than placing the corners from the wrong puzzle. In the end I gave them the edge-pieces with a big caveat that this is a part of the exercise that does not fit in the way science works, that perhaps that edge should be used to connect the puzzle to another puzzle and another and another, and all those little puzzles forming one huge puzzle, that is never finished.

A couple of neat things happened that made good teaching moments. First, one of the "wrong" corners turned out to be the key to linking two big parts that were, until then, sitting unconnected on the table. There was a side edge with a few more pieces added to it, and the bottom edge with many pieces added to it. The "wrong" corner piece linked those two portions and allowed them to see the outlines of the "big picture". I told them that although it makes them uncomfortable, the semi-correct piece was a key for subequent research and that in the end, they can always come back and reconsider the corner-piece and replace it with a correct one ("correct" meaning that it fits with color, pattern and shape, not just shape).

Second, the students had different "research styles": two started with edges, one homed in on one of the "characteristic" pieces (and eye of a cat) and built around it, another picked a random piece and worked on finding all its neighbors and so on. Each made progress, illustrating that different strategies and styles are all good, that there is no one "perfect" approach.

Finally, there was a point when one of the students found a piece that connected a lot of stuff together and, at that moment, ALL the students simulteneously oohed and aahed how that was a "key" piece. I stretched the metaphor further, pointing that this is like a study in Nature or Science, that everyone in the field ("consensus of the scientific community") agrees is a very important study.

I will definitely keep using both exercises in the future.

Cross-posted at Science and Politics

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Apart From Being An Idiot, Horowitz Is Also An Unwiped Anal Orifice With Hemorrhoids

Chris is so nice. Way too nice. And naive. He actually contacted David Horowitz and offered to do a study that has a potential to PROVE Horowitz's claim that conservatives are discriminated against in the Academia. Read the whole episode here:

As you can see, my title is just an euphemistic version of what Horowitz called Chris! My title is also a sign of jealousy that blogs like Rox Populi and Pharyngula are listed as Terrorists on Horowitz's pitiful blog, while Science And Politics is not - it's a badge of honor of sorts, a proof of belonging to the reality-based community. His blog is pitiful not just due to its sophomoric and hateful content, but also its ineffectiveness. People who have been linked there reported NO DETECTABLE rise in traffic! Is DH just talking to himself? Singing in the shower?

Of course Chris was snubbed by DH. DH knew instantly that he was dealing with a damn pinko-commie liberal. Who else would even think of getting emipirical data for any reason? Conservatives like Horowitz don't need data - they know The Truth ( They have no use for research - only academic liberals do research (

Chris keeps claiming agnosticism. I think we differ on this because of different definitions of conservatism ( Isolationism in foreign policy, or fiscal responsibility are NOT logical components of the conservative worldview ( Instead they are a result of historical contingency. At some brief point in history long time ago, Republican Party, which is supposed to be conservative, was isolationist and fiscally responsible and the labels somehow stuck although the reality has been the opposite for many decades now. Thus, what he calls "serious conservatives", i.e., people who actually think and do research ARE NOT CONSERVATIVE in my book (

Developmental psychologists have described stages in cognitive development of children. At one point, infants can make a connection between two events happening simultaneously. This is like that old experiment with a horse: presented with a bell-ring and an electric shock through the floor, the horse learns to lift the foot at the sound of the bell. At a later stage, the child is capable of making a linear connection: if A precedes B, this means A caused B. This is hierarchical way of thinking as everything has to have a single direct cause (e.g., Designer). Many, many years later, one becomes capable of grasping how complex systems of multiple interacting elements produce novel results that are not caused by any single element, but by the act of interaction betwen these multitudes of elements. Many people never reach that stage, due to the way they are raised. Strict Fathering impedes the development of this kind of abstract reasoning and gets children stuck at the hierarchical stage. Conservatives, BY DEFINITION, are stuck at the hierarchical developmental stage, and it takes TWO generations of active effort at Nurturant Parenting to get out of this predicament. DH appears to be incapable of even making a two-event connection like the horse described above.

When hearing liberals explain something, conservatives are just incapable of understaning it. They are not developmentally ready for it. Liberals get called communists all the time. Wonder why? Because Communism on the Left, just like its counterpart on the Right - Conservatism - is a hierarchical top-down control system. Such systems are the only ones conservatives are capable of understanding. They will never understand that liberalism is NOT hierachical, NOT linear, NOT governmental top-down control of anything. They are psychologically incapable of grasping such complex notions.

University is a place where the top thinkers in a society do their best thinking, research and teaching. Why would developmentally arrested people expect to be hired there, beats me! University faculty, both in natural and social sciences are SCIENTISTS. They are trying to test their hypotheses and generate empirical data. Compared to biologists, physicists have it easy - the systems are much simpler, thus it is easier to do well-controlled experiments. Compared to biologists, social scientists have it hard. They are dealing with even more complex systems that are even more difficult to test well. Everybody is trying to identify and eliminate own biases, but they sometimes creep in. But when they do, they are pointed out and corrected by liberal colleagues doing better research, not by screaming preaching conservatives who "know" everything a priori. What even the most inept and biased social scientists do is still science, perhaps shoddy science, but still science. What conservatives have are preconcieved absolutes, opinions based on belief not supported (actually very well refuted) by empirical research. They, like Creationists, do it backwards: start with conclusions, then design and cherry-pick arguments that invariably lead to those conclusions. That type of "reasearch" is not something that will get you hired at a University.

Of course, this is yet another instance of conservative Luntzian framing. By talking about "liberal and conservative opinions" and "liberal and conservative scholarship" they are trying to place on an equal plane conservative OPINION and liberal SCHOLARSHIP. This is the same tactic that Creationists use, stating that both IDC and evolution are science AND that both IDC and evolution are BELIEF systems. Sorry, but evolution is science, and IDC is religious belief. Liberalism is based on empirical evidence about the world, conservatism is based on wishful thinking about the world (Rich White Femiphobic Protestant Men uber alles).

So, Horrorritz is either a lying thug, or an insane moron. Or both. Come on now, put me on your Black List already.

Cross-posted at Science and Politics

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Student Evaluations

I guess it is the time of year when college professors get their student evaluations back and, of course, some of those who blog have written about their experiences. For instance Bitch PhD cites some really hillarious ones, but concludes with this:

IMHO, while evaluations are important, one down side is that
they can and do encourage this kind of "customer service" attitude towards the
professoriate--an attitude that I think is inimical to really good teaching and
learning. IMHO, reframing evaluations to encourage students to reflect on how
and what they learned, and to offer feedback on how and what they might have
learned better, would be truly valuable. Presenting them to students--as if
often done--as evaluations, not of the course but of the instructor, fails to do

PZ Myers, on the other hand is very anti-evaluations:

They evaluate how well we meet the student's expectation of
the course, which is usually radically divergent from the instructor's ("sleep
through class and get an A" vs. "understand the basic concepts of signal
transduction and epistasis," for instance.)

My thoughts:

My evaluations are usually very good, so I should not object, but I never found them useful for improving my teaching. I have not taught a large course yet. I have mostly taught labs and have also designed and "taught" a graduate journal-club-type class once.

In labs, the students mostly say that I know the material very well, am approachable and grade fairly. I still keep a couple of evaluations that state "My best TA ever!". Yet, most of the comments address issues that are out of my control - the syllabus, the physical space, the availability of materials/equipment, etc.

For the grad seminar, the only objection was that I chose all the papers. I guess they forgot how many times, just before the course began, I e-mailed everyone who signed up and asked for readings suggestions and nobody responded. Good thing about the class is that several faculty members joined in (not always the same ones every week) which made the discussion in class better, as well as broke some ice between some younger grad students and faculty.

I also teach intro to biology to adults at a community college. We meet once a week for eight weeks. Every time, the lecture lasts four hours. I know I am capable of talking for four hours - I suffer from incorigible logorrhea - but I understand that the students would not get much out of it. So, I assign articles for them to read in advance, and start with a discussion of one of the articles. Of course, I know what I am doing and, after a while, I lead the discussion in the direction I want, so I can say "A-ha!" - to which my students know it is time to sit back and pay attention because I spring up to the white-board and give a passionate 20-minute lecture on the actual science they need to know in order to be able to continue with the discusssion in an informed manner. Then we go back to the discussion for a little while longer, than have a smoke-break. The same scheme repeats for article #2 after the break etc. until the class is over. I may end with a short video followed by perhaps five minutes of my commentary.

It took me a while to calibrate the difficulty of articles I can assign. At my school, I am dealing with kids who are biology majors and products of new (and excellent) biology high-school curricula, so I can assign anything. But at the community college these are adults majoring in business or computers and have ZERO background in science and are afraid of it. Thus, I cannot use anything harder than an article from Scientific American and even there I have to make judicious choices. I try to pick articles from mainstream media that cover hot news related to biology and explain the way one critically evaluates science reporting, how one finds relevant information on the Web, and how science underlies almost everything from daily life to politics. I usually get very good evaluations (and administrators like to see that I am a "hard teacher" but "very approachable" every time I teach this).

The problem I see with evaluations is their inherent support for the notion that students are "clients" or "customers". But, one of the most important roles of the University is to change the perception of students what education is.

Incoming freshmen think of themselves as "customers" or "clients" - they expect to get a "product" which is a diploma, a GPA of 4.0 and an instant job with a nice salary and benefits. It is the job of faculty to change that perception. Each student changes at own rate and in own way. I read much more carefully the evaluations by honors seniors than by sophomores. The Department Head does the same (a smart guy).

A professor I know once did an experiment. He taught the same class two semesters in a row. First time, he did not grade on the curve, the second time he curved. You can guess already what the result was - his evaluations went up by more than a whole point the second time around.

Letters and e-mails from ex-students who, sometimes years later, write to thank a professor for teaching a most useful (or life-changing) class, get filed by the Department Head as worthier than the current evaluations.

A professor in our department is an outstanding lecturer, designs extremely hard exams, and is a very harsh grader. He is used to getting bad evaluations. Letters from ex-students, on the other hand, thank him for being that hard as this made a difference once they got into med schools. The only comment he ever got that really bothered him was one that stated that he is "not funny" (he has a very European-style wry and sarcastic sense of humor which I find very funny, but 20-year old Americans may not) .

A few years back, a very tough and strict professor (in another department) who taught a class that is by its nature boring, was, for political reasons, going to be fired (though tenured and even an Administrator herself). When the case hit the media, literally HUNDREDS of her old students wrote to the University (and the press) explaining that though at the time they thought it was a horrible class, now, with 20/20 hindsight they realize it was the ONLY class they ever had that was actually useful for them in their profession. You bet she was not fired. Once she received a public apology she ceremoniously quit (her husband hit fame and fortune in the meantime so she could afford this bold move).

If the "customers" do not yet know what the "product" is, how can they possibly evaluate that product?

As a grad TA I always tried to also go to the lectures (not just teach the lab) and my opinions on the teaching (particularly of young faculty) was often asked and always valued. I think my words have helped raise the standing of some junior faculty (in spite of initially getting bad student evaluations). On the other hand my word was probably the last straw that resulted in not hiring a part-time faculty into a permanent position (I had to re-teach all of his lectures during lab every day and, although without any preparation, in my ad hoc lectures explained the stuff to the students much better than he did with preparation). Perhaps grad students should be used in some way to evaluate faculty.

So, how can faculty be evaluated? Student evaluations are just one method, but they need to be thoroughly re-thought and re-designed to ask questions about student's learning, not about professor's style. Peer review is employed for promotions in my department and it is a good second form of evaluation. I think that graduate students should have a role in evaluating faculty, as well as in advising undergrads in wchich courses are good or not-so-good as they have a much better idea than undergraduate "peer-advisors", or for that matter, better than the faculty who may like or dislike a colleague yet have no idea if that person is an effective teacher or not.

I also think that alumni can be involved. Let's say an evaluation form is given to students after about a month into the course (to help faculty make immediate changes if something is really going bad), at the end of the course, and then every year for ten years or so in the future. One can see if the opinion gradually goes up or down as the memory dims and the ex-students gain understanding which were and which were not useful ways to impart knowledge relevant to their lives.

Combining several different methods is probably the only way one can get a reasonable idea about the quality of teaching of individual faculty. Unfortunately, I hear that student evaluations are the ONLY method in many departments around the country. That is scary.

Cross-posted at Science and Politics

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Postmodern Conservatism

I have hinted several times (here, here, here and here) before that relativism (including moral relativism) is not consistent with the liberal core model (in Lakoffian sense). Instead, postmodernism is used these days as a tactic by conservatives to push their pre-modern views within a modern society. In other words, faced with the reality of a modern world, the only way conservatives can re-intorduce their medieval ideas is by invoking relativism, i.e., equivalence between their view and current view. Thus, they are pushing for so-called "fairness" and "balance" in the media (he said/she said journalism) as that is the only way to get Ann Coulter on TV. Thus, they are pushing for "balance" in schools, as that is the only way they can smuggle Creationism into schools. Thus, they are pushing for "balance" in Academia, as that is the only way Horowitz can force his minions into it. Unfortunately, there is no, and should be no "balance" between their out-dated opinion and the modern understanding of the world, based on empirical data collected by liberals.

So, I was about to write a long post explaining all this, but then I discovered this piece of satire that does the job of explaining this much better than anything I could have written:

Intellectual Diversity at Stanford


But these far-left academics just ignore these devastating critiques. They
continue to pretend their job is to investigate "reality" and believe things
based on "evidence", when everyone can see that these are merely absurd
justifications for them to maintain their positions power and status over
society. And,
as has widely been conceded, their advanced "search committees" and "hiring requirements" are just ways to prevent nonconformists from challenging their orthodoxies.

The party of McCarthy must save academic freedom. Wealthy businessmen must pool their resources to fight elitism. Racists and sexists must tout the values of diversity. Conservatives must embrace postmodernism. Hard work? No doubt. But they are bravely willing to sacrifice all credibility to protect our nation’s youth. We should salute their courage.

(via Stanford Discriminates Against Stupidity! on Patternhunter:

I see that Chris has written on the same topic, citing the very same post by Aaron Swartz ( Chris is not as blunt as I am, but if you unwrap the tortilla-bread and look at the stuffing, I believe he would agree with me:

Yet, as Aaron Swartz (link via Preposterous Universe), an undergraduate at Stanford, so aptly (though sarcastically) notes in response to claims of discrimination at his university, "diversity," at least in the realm of ideas, is not an inherent goal of universities. Universities are in the business of educating and scholarship, both of which require that ideas be held to some standard, of truth for instance [my emphasis].

...and later adds:

It would be reasonable to say that universities like Stanford discriminate, albeit indirectly, against believers in astronomy and telepathy, as promoters of these ideas will have a very hard time meeting the standards of scholarship that such universities demand. Few of us would argue that universities have a compelling interest to remedy the effects of such discrimination.

...but than states this:

While it may not be fair to compare political conservativism to astronomy and telepathy.... which I say: Why not? The whole Part VI (Chapters. 20-23) in Lakoff's "Moral Politics", most of Graff's "What is marriage for?" (particularly Part III) and the whole book "Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are" cover the empirical data on human nature, human development, human behavior, and effects of particular parenting styles on development of offspring's ideology. The basic premises upon conservative worldview is built on have turned out to be wrong. Thus, people who would promulgate conservative ideas by teaching them to the next generation are a couple of centuries out of date in their scholarship. Why should Universities hire them?

Cross-posted at Science and Politics

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Ward Churchill? Who Cares?

I was asked the other day what I thought about the Ward Churchill affair. Frankly, I had not followed it at all (but you can: Apparently, Whingers want to kill him, or at least get him fired (e.g.,, or, while Progressives are divided: some distance themselves from "an obscure nobody that Right-wing pulled out to push their agenda"(e.g.,,, while others assert that he is telling the truths that are unpalatable to those whose emotional health depends on buying into neocon proto-fascism bait, hook and sinker (e.g., I have not read his paper (but you can:, so I will not take any sides. Perhaps he said the truth that makes Right-wing loonies uncomfortable, perhaps he crossed the line into conspiracy theories - I do not know.

The whole thing is, really, about the ideological "balance" in the Academia. I have no idea how I missed the hullabaloo over "dominance" of liberalism in academia last year and involvement of Bob Brandon and Mike Munger in the whole affair (read these:,, I will dig through it deeper later, but for now, here is an excellent Brandon's (last?) response:
...and especially read through the comments - all written by idiots who were not able to graduate from college and do not understand how University works. And I am far less charitable to them than Brandon ever was (e.g.,,

Why is Horowitz saying that Churchill should not be fired? ( In the name of protection of free speech? Yeah, right! And I am the Pope. Horowitz's program is to push Right-wing loonies into academia to pollute youngster's minds (as if there is not already too many of them in economics, law, religion and business departments). If he succeeds, he must know that they will spurt out stupidities, for which he wants them to have the same kind of protection.

There is this batshit frothy-at-the-mouth winger who blogs at and who did not like my piece at the last Carnival of Education ( Quick perusal of his blog shows that he is all for teaching critical thinking, AS LONG AS such thinking leads inevitably to medieval right-wing ideological conclusions. He wants kids to learn the "facts" but it is his deluded hateful superpatriotic ( facts, not the real truth that he wants them to get to. He also keeps putting up the "postmodernist/deconstructionist liberal" straw-man, not realizing that such people are a) rare in academia these days, b) particularly reviled by liberals (do you think Sokal is a right-winger?), c) not really liberal (, and d) more resembling current right-wing moral relativism (which is presented as moral absolutism, but it is really the same thing) than anything close to liberalism. These are the kinds of people, like the "instructivist", that Horowitz wants to push into universities (and lower-level schools), so they can raise yet another misguided Strict-Fathering generation of batshit brownshirts unquestioningly loyal to the Great Dictator and his minions.

The reason why various departments in humanities and social sciences do not hire conservatives is the same reason no department of Organismal and Evolutionary Biology would ever hire a creationist - they are wrong. Their research method is useless: starting with the conclusions then cherry-picking "evidence" to support the conclusions. That is how creationists operate. That is how conservatives operate. That is not quality work and there is no reason why any department should hire such sub-standard faculty. The important question is how come such ass-idiots ever got hired and tenured in departments of business, economics, religion and law? Isn't THAT the real example of ideologically-based hiring? There is no other explanation for them being hired in the first place. Quality of their work and thought could not possibly have been a cause for their hire.

Just as there is no equivalence between Flat-Earthers and Creationists on one hand and scientists on the other (thus the former should not be given ANY public forum to spew their nonsense), there is also no equivalence between liberal and conservative ideology. The former is driven by a moral view of the society and based on empirical knowledge about the way the world works. The latter is 200-years out-of-date femiphobic (, mysoginist (, superpatriotic bullshit, driven by ideology of anxious masculinity ( and based on Creationist-like quality of argument, i.e., a grade of F. Why are conservatives (and GOP) ever given any time on TV and any space in newspapers, not to mentioned treated as a legitimate political ideology, has bothered me for the past 13+ years since I came to live here. And it is getting worse - now they are letting Godidiots like Behe spew nonsense in New York Times, all in the idiotic striving for journalistic "balance" (called "He said/She said Journalism") that one side clearly does not deserve.

So, it does not matter if Ward Churchill is right or wrong. What matters is that the Wingers are surely wrong and have to be, somehow, kept away from our kids.

Note: For new visitors (especially from Instructivist's blog, you need, for background, to read around my blog a bit before making any conclusions, i.e., you need to know who am I, and where I come from. So, look through some categories, like Education and
Understanding America, and perhaps
Local, Personal and Fun Stuff, Etc first before making an ad hoc comments. Thanks.

Cross-posted at Science and Politics

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Thursday, December 08, 2005

Great Men and Science Education - Take 2

Hmmm, looking back at my post (, and reading johnnybutter's comment to it, I was not really clear how I made the connection between science and politics, and between Great Men and No Great Men history.

The first class I described, the class I took, was a great example of teaching a field of science using a "Great Men in Context" approach. We learned names of people who did stuff, but also why they did it, i.e., how was it possible for them to even think that way at the time they lived. Why was a certain interpretation of data possible or impossible in 1700s, or 1920s, or 1950s, although we have a different interpretation today, with 20/20 hindsight. This approach made the class extremely effective, and I wish more science classes are taught this way.

The second class, the one I taught, was an example of avoiding any people and any context BECAUSE the audience is likely to already have an a priori negative view of them. Thus, I did not talk about Darwin at all (I did later - I actually led a discussion about Creationism the following week, and it was great - I think I converted most, though not all, students). It was all concepts and principles.

Thus, these two examples served to show how different situations call for different solutions: Great Men for some, No Men for others. This is something I tried to find a parallel in political movements: Great Men are better in some situations, No Men in others.

As for art and science, I agree there is great similarity in creativity and "thinking outside the box" between the practitioners of the two. I adore Erasmus' poetry. He provided the Seed that Charles turned into Fruit.

This reminds me of my oral prelims a couple of years ago. Knowing I was one of those rare grad students who actually reads a lot about history and philosophy of science, the committee members were eager to get the science portion of the exam done quickly and to start asking me fun questions. I was asked the names of people who received the last three Nobel prizes for physiology/medicine and for what discoveries. I actually knew it. We discussed post-modernism/relativism in academia (remember: this is an exam in Zoology!). Then, one of the members asked me to name three scientists who I admire the most, and why. I think he expected me to take some time thinking about it, so he was surprised with my machine-gun rapid-fire response:

"Charles Darwin, Niko Tinbergen and Knut Schmidt-Nielsen. Although they were officially working in three different fields - evolution, behavior and physiology - they have something in common. All three went out in nature and noticed things that nobody ever did. All three went out in the nature and noticed stuff that everyone knew and took for granted, yet they found astoundingly interesting. All three displayed huge childlike curiosity. All three were very capable of putting disparate facts together that nobody before thought to put together. All three were very creative - they were well known for designing extremely simple and cheap, yet effective tests of their hypotheses: play flute to earthworms, move some pine-cones around, overheat some camels - all those things could have been done by Ancient Greeks, not to mentioned by their peers, yet nobody thought of it. All three used their results to build large theories that stood the test of time. Were they genuises? Well, they were sure thinking differently from their colleagues and contemporaries, people who had the same social environment and same scientific education."

Cross-posted at Science and Politics

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Great Men and Science Education

There is an interesting thread here:

about "faith" in science and the way science is taught. Why no science textbook is a "Bible" of a field. Here are some of my musings....

So much science teaching, not just in high school but also in college, is rote learning. Memorize Latin names for body parts, Krebs cycle, taxonomy of worms… Taught that way it does seem like that is all there is.

I got excited about my area of research BECAUSE of the way the course was taught on it. Every topic started with "the first guy" who thought about it, then went through the history, stopping to analyze the key experiments and how they were interpreted by the authors and readers at the time (and why - the importance of context), and ended with the current knowledge, including some "hot off the presses" stuff. There was no way anyone could have taken the class without leaving with an impression that everything is tentative, that new research can change stuff really fast, and how much still there is to learn. That feeling that the field is wide open, feeling I got due to the way this was taught, made me want to jump into the discipline and do my own research.

A couple of years ago I taught an intro bio "speed-class" to adults at a local community college. The school insisted I follow the syllabus to the ‘t’ and, of course, the two chapters that were explicitely on evolution were not included. Yet I found a couple of paragraphs on evolution in the Introduction (which the students were asigned to read) and used that as an excuse to spend the very first two hours of the very first class meeting talking about evolution. I covered EVERYTHING in those two hours, frothing at the mouth, frantically drawing red and green "animals" on the board, dividing them by new rivers and mountain ranges - the whole shpiel. I was dead scared - there were 20 or so people in front of me, in their 40s and 50s, mostly African Americans, trying to get a business degree so they could get a promotion at work. And they were staring at me with poker faces all along. Like Darwin in the "Origin" the one and only time I used the word "evolution" was at the very end: "And everything I told you in the past two hours is called evolution!". Silence….lasting about two minutes (endless). Finally, a lady in the back row raised her hand: "Thank you, sir, for explaining this. I thought evolution had something to do with monkeys turning into humans. But what you just explained purely makes sense!". Oh was I relieved.

Publius has an interesting post, with a great thread of comments, using Sistani as an example of possible validity of the "Great Men" way of understanding history:

My quick thoughts:

The "Great Person" history is usually scorned by professional historians. One would understand that historians of art would stick to it - Beethoven, Leonardo and Dickens were one of a kind: if they did not produce their works of art, nobody ever would.

Interestingly, in history of science, in which abandonment of the "Great Men" approach would be most expected as discoveries would be made sooner or later no matter who did it, there is instead quite a layering of contingency and personality. The social environment shapes the person, but person also has to be unique in some way in order to produce the revolutionary scientific discovery.

For instance, evolution by natural selection would have been postulated anyway, and probably at about the same time, as the social conditions and the state of biology at the time were ripe for this discovery. However, some historians believe that, if it was not for Darwin, the theory would have been discovered in a piece-meal fashion, by a number of people over a period of time, producing a number of "warring factions" and generally requiring much more time for the whole theory of evolution to crystallize.

Darwin is considered by some professional historians of science to be a "genius" in the "great person" sense, as he put the entire theory out all at once, in an ubelievably tight and well-thought-through argument that, almost in its entirety, is still valid today. He also did it in a clear prose quite uncharacteristic for the Victorian times, making the "Origin" an instant besteseller and a great hit with the crowds. If anyone else did it, the book may have just been un-noticed at the time and forgotten soon after.

As for "Great Men" as leaders of revolutionary movements, it appears that they are not always neccessary. The great movements of the past used to be associated with great men - Valessa, Mandela, Gandhi. Today, the movements PURPOSEFULLY avoid this. Removal of dictators by popular demand in Serbia, Belarus and Ukraine was not associated by great men. We may remember that Milosevic was deposed, or Kuchma, but who but the locals even knows the names of the leaders of the movements - Kostunica anyone? Yushchenko's name will be forgotten when the Ukrainian election is all over with. The movements do it on purpose. First three attempts to remove Milosevic were not successful mainly because the movements were associated with charismatic leaders (e.g., Vuk Draskovic in Serbia) who had a large but not universal following. When "Otpor" in Serbia organized for the final push they consciously decided not to rally around a popular leader in order to get all the leaders of the opposition to join in. They also came up with great marketing strategies. It worked. Now the "Otpor" organizers sell their experience on the market - they have organized the demonstrations in Belaruss and Ukraine. Sometimes a "Great Leader" is a hindrance.

How about the Progressive movement in the USA today? Was the Deniac revolution wrong in putting so much stake into a "Great Person", i.e., Dean, who in the end did not turn out to be so great? The Kerry movement was most definitely not a "Great Person" movement. The closest to a movement defined by the Man and not the troups was the Edwards primaries cohort - people abandoned their policy qualms and, ranging from conservative Republicans to uber-liberals, rallied around the guy they loved on a visceral level. Should the Progressive movement of the next few years be defined by a Great Leader? Perhaps it depends on the perception of the gravity of the situation and the level of earthshaking that the movement intends to trigger. Perhaps, righting some mid-size political wrongs via elections is better done without a charismatic leader, while a large overhaul of societal norms requires a Lightning Rod, someone like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, or Lech Valessa. Does it depend on the culture itself? Perhaps in the intellectual Eastern Europe ideas are more important than personalities, while here in the Third World of America, personality trumps ideas. Any thoughts?

Cross-posted at Science and Politics

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Monday, December 05, 2005

Why Is Academia Liberal?

From Dr.Munger's blog, an interesting article:

Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual
(permanent link: )


Conservatives on college campuses scored a tactical hit when the
American Enterprise Institute's magazine published a survey of voter
registration among humanities and social-science faculty members several years
ago. More than nine out of 10 professors belonged to the Democratic or Green
party, an imbalance that contradicted many liberal academics' protestations that
diversity and pluralism abound in higher education. Further investigations by
people like David Horowitz, president of the Center for the Study of Popular
Culture, coupled with well-publicized cases of discrimination against
conservative professors, reinforced the findings and set "intellectual
diversity" on the agenda of state legislators and members of Congress.

The public has now picked up the message that "campuses are havens for left-leaning
activists," according to a Chronicle poll of 1,000 adult Americans this year.
Half of those surveyed -- 68 percent who call themselves "conservative" and even
30 percent who say they are "liberal" -- agreed that colleges improperly
introduce a liberal bias into what they teach. The matter, however, is clearly
not just one of perception. Indeed, in another recent survey, this one conducted
by the Higher Education Research Institute of the University of California at
Los Angeles, faculty members themselves chose as their commitment "far left" or
"liberal" more than two and a half times as often as "far right" or
"conservative." As a Chronicle article last month put it: "On left-leaning
campuses around the country, professors on the right feel disenfranchised."
Yet while the lack of conservative minds on college campuses is increasingly
indisputable, the question remains: Why?

The obvious answer, at least in the humanities and social sciences, is that academics shun conservative values and traditions, so their curricula and hiring practices discourage non-leftists from pursuing academic careers. What allows them to do that, while at the same time
they deny it, is that the bias takes a subtle form. Although I've met several
conservative intellectuals in the last year who would love an academic post but
have given up after years of trying, outright blackballing is rare. The
disparate outcome emerges through an indirect filtering process that runs from
graduate school to tenure and beyond.

Some fields' very constitutions rest
on progressive politics and make it clear from the start that conservative
outlooks will not do. Schools of education, for instance, take constructivist
theories of learning as definitive, excluding realists (in matters of knowledge)
on principle, while the quasi-Marxist outlook of cultural studies rules out
those who espouse capitalism. If you disapprove of affirmative action, forget
pursuing a degree in African-American studies. If you think that the nuclear
family proves the best unit of social well-being, stay away from women's

Other fields allow the possibility of studying conservative authors
and ideas, but narrow the avenues of advancement. Mentors are disinclined to
support your topic, conference announcements rarely appeal to your work, and few
job descriptions match your profile. A fledgling literary scholar who studies
anti-communist writing and concludes that its worth surpasses that of
counterculture discourse in terms of the cogency of its ideas and morality of
its implications won't go far in the application process.

No active or noisy
elimination need occur, and no explicit queries about political orientation need
be posed. Political orientation has been embedded into the disciplines, and so
what is indeed a political judgment may be expressed in disciplinary terms. As
an Americanist said in a committee meeting that I attended, "We can't hire
anyone who doesn't do race," an assertion that had all the force of a scholastic
dictum. Stanley Fish, professor and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts
and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, advises, "The question
you should ask professors is whether your work has influence or relevance" --
and while he raised it to argue that no liberal conspiracy in higher education
exists, the question is bound to keep conservatives off the short list. For
while studies of scholars like Michel Foucault, Michael Hardt, and Antonio Negri
seem central in the graduate seminar, studies of Friedrich A. von Hayek and
Francis Fukuyama, whose names rarely appear on cultural-studies syllabi despite
their influence on world affairs, seem irrelevant.

Academics may quibble
over the hiring process, but voter registration shows that liberal orthodoxy now
has a professional import. Conservatives and liberals square off in public, but
on campuses, conservative opinion doesn't qualify as respectable inquiry. You
won't often find vouchers discussed in education schools or patriotism argued in
American studies. Historically, the boundaries of scholarly fields were created
by the objects studied and by norms of research and peer review. Today, a
political variable has been added, whereby conservative assumptions expel their
holders from the academic market. A wall insulates the academic left from ideas
and writings on the right.

One can see that phenomenon in how insiders,
reacting to Horowitz's polls, displayed little evidence that they had ever read
conservative texts or met a conservative thinker. Weblogs had entries
conjecturing why conservatives avoid academe -- while never actually bothering
to find one and ask -- as if they were some exotic breed whose absence lay
rooted in an inscrutable mind-set. Professors offered caricatures of the
conservative intelligentsia, selecting Ann H. Coulter and Rush Limbaugh as
representatives, not von Hayek, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Thomas Sowell, Robert
Nozick, or Gertrude Himmelfarb. One of them wrote that "conservatives of
Horowitz's ilk want to unleash the most ignorant forces of the right in hounding
liberal academics to death."

Such parochialism and alarm are the outcome of
a course of socialization that aligns liberalism with disciplinary standards and
collegial mores. Liberal orthodoxy is not just a political outlook; it's a
professional one. Rarely is its content discussed. The ordinary evolution of
opinion -- expounding your beliefs in conversation, testing them in debate,
reading books that confirm or refute them -- is lacking, and what should remain
arguable settles into surety. With so many in harmony, and with those who agree
joined also in a guild membership, liberal beliefs become academic manners. It's
social life in a professional world, and its patterns are worth describing.

The first protocol of academic society might be called the Common
Assumption. The assumption is that all the strangers in the room at professional
gatherings are liberals. Liberalism at humanities meetings serves the same
purpose that scientific method does at science assemblies. It provides a base of
accord. The Assumption proves correct often enough for it to join other forms of
trust that enable collegial events. A fellowship is intimated, and members may
speak their minds without worrying about justifying basic beliefs or curbing

The Common Assumption usually pans out and passes unnoticed --
except for those who don't share it, to whom it is an overt fact of professional
life. Yet usually even they remain quiet in the face of the Common Assumption.
There is no joy in breaking up fellow feeling, and the awkward pause that
accompanies the moment when someone comes out of the conservative closet marks a
quarantine that only the institutionally secure are willing to endure.

Sometimes, however, the Assumption steps over the line into arrogance, as
when at a dinner a job candidate volunteered her description of a certain
"racist, sexist, and homophobic" organization, and I admitted that I belonged to
it. Or when two postdocs from Germany at a nearby university stopped by my
office to talk about American literature. As they sat down and I commented on
how quiet things were on the day before Thanksgiving, one muttered, "Yes, we
call it American Genocide Day."

Such episodes reveal the argumentative
hazards of the Assumption. Apart from the ill-mannered righteousness, academics
with too much confidence in their audience utter debatable propositions as
received wisdom. An assertion of the genocidal motives of early English settlers
is put forward not for discussion but for approval. If the audience shares the
belief, all is well and good. But a lone dissenter disrupts the process and,
merely by posing a question, can show just how cheap such a pat consensus
actually is.

After Nixon crushed McGovern in the 1972 election, the film
critic Pauline Kael made a remark that has become a touchstone among
conservatives. "I don't know how Richard Nixon could have won," she marveled. "I
don't know anybody who voted for him." While the second sentence indicates the
sheltered habitat of the Manhattan intellectual, the first signifies what social
scientists call the False Consensus Effect. That effect occurs when people think
that the collective opinion of their own group matches that of the larger
population. If the members of a group reach a consensus and rarely encounter
those who dispute it, they tend to believe that everybody thinks the same way.

The tendency applies to professors, especially in humanities departments,
but with a twist. Although a liberal consensus reigns within, academics have an
acute sense of how much their views clash with the majority of Americans. Some
take pride in a posture of dissent and find noble precursors in civil rights,
Students for a Democratic Society, and other such movements. But dissent from
the mainstream has limited charms, especially after 24 years of center-right
rule in Washington. Liberal professors want to be adversarial, but are tired of
seclusion. Thus, many academics find a solution in a limited version of the
False Consensus that says liberal belief reigns among intellectuals everywhere.
Such a consensus applies only to the thinking classes, union supporters,
minority-group activists, and environmentalists against corporate powers.
Professors cannot conceive that any person trained in critical thinking could
listen to George W. Bush speak and still vote Republican. They do acknowledge
one setting in which right-wing intellectual work happensnamely, the think
tanksbut add that the labor there is patently corrupt. The Heritage Foundation,
the American Enterprise Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Hoover
Institution all have corporate sponsors, they note, and fellows in residence do
their bidding. Hence, references to "right-wing think tanks" are always
accompanied by the qualifier "well-funded."

The dangers of aligning
liberalism with higher thought are obvious. When a Duke University philosophy
professor implied last February that conservatives tend toward stupidity, he
confirmed the public opinion of academics as a self-regarding elite --
regardless of whether or not he was joking, as he later said that he was. When
laymen scan course syllabi or search the shelves of college bookstores and find
only a few volumes of traditionalist argument amid the thickets of leftist
critique, they wonder whether students ever enjoy a fruitful encounter with
conservative thought. When a conference panel is convened or a collection is
published on a controversial subject, and all the participants and contributors
stand on one side of the issue, the tendentiousness is striking to everyone
except those involved. The False Consensus does its work, but has an opposite
effect. Instead of uniting academics with a broader public, it isolates them as
a ritualized club.

The final social pattern is the Law of Group
Polarization. That lawas Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of political science and
of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago, has describedpredicts that when
like-minded people deliberate as an organized group, the general opinion shifts
toward extreme versions of their common beliefs. In a product-liability trial,
for example, if nine jurors believe the manufacturer is somewhat guilty and
three believe it is entirely guilty, the latter will draw the former toward a
larger award than the nine would allow on their own. If people who object in
varying degrees to the war in Iraq convene to debate methods of protest, all
will emerge from the discussion more resolved against the war.

Polarization happens so smoothly on campuses that those involved lose all sense
of the range of legitimate opinion. A librarian at Ohio State University who
announces, "White Americans pay too little attention to the benefits their skin
color gives them, and opening their eyes to their privileged status is a valid
part of a college education" (The Chronicle, August 6) seems to have no idea how
extreme his vision sounds to many ears. Deliberations among groups are just as
prone to tone deafness. The annual resolutions of the Modern Language
Association's Delegate Assembly, for example, ring with indignation over
practices that enjoy popular acceptance. Last year, charging that in wartime,
governments use language to "misrepresent policies" and "stigmatize dissent,"
one resolution urged faculty members to conduct "critical analysis of war talk
... as appropriate, in classrooms." However high-minded the delegates felt as
they tallied the vote, which passed 122 to 8 without discussion, to outsiders
the resolution seemed merely a license for more proselytizing.

The problem
is that the simple trappings of deliberation make academics think that they've
reached an opinion through reasoned debate -- instead of, in part, through an
irrational social dynamic. The opinion takes on the status of a norm. Extreme
views appear to be logical extensions of principles that everyone more or less
shares, and extremists gain a larger influence than their numbers merit. If
participants left the enclave, their beliefs would moderate, and they would be
more open to the beliefs of others. But with the conferences, quarterlies, and
committee meetings suffused with extreme positions, they're stuck with abiding
by the convictions of their most passionate brethren.

As things stand, such
behaviors shift in a left direction, but they could just as well move right if
conservatives had the extent of control that liberals do now. The phenomenon
that I have described is not so much a political matter as a social dynamic; any
political position that dominates an institution without dissent deterioriates
into smugness, complacency, and blindness. The solution is an intellectual
climate in which the worst tendencies of group psychology are neutralized.

That doesn't mean establishing affirmative action for conservative scholars
or encouraging greater market forces in education -- which violate conservative
values as much as they do liberal values. Rather, it calls for academics to
recognize that a one-party campus is bad for the intellectual health of
everyone. Groupthink is an anti-intellectual condition, ironically seductive in
that the more one feels at ease with compatriots, the more one's mind narrows.

The great liberal John Stuart Mill identified its insulating effect as a failure
of imagination: "They have never thrown themselves into the mental condition of
those who think differently from them." With adversaries so few and opposing
ideas so disposable, a reverse advantage sets in. The majority expands its power
throughout the institution, but its thinking grows routine and parochial. The
minority is excluded, but its thinking is tested and toughened. Being the lone
dissenter in a colloquy, one learns to acquire sure facts, crisp arguments, and
a thick skin.

But we can't open the university to conservative ideas and
persons by outside command. That would poison the atmosphere and jeopardize the
ideals of free inquiry. Leftist bias evolved within the protocols of academic
practice (though not without intimidation), and conservative challenges should
evolve in the same way. There are no administrative or professional reasons to
bring conservatism into academe, to be sure, but there are good intellectual and
social reasons for doing so.

Those reasons are, in brief: One, a wider
spectrum of opinion accords with the claims of diversity. Two, facing real
antagonists strengthens one's own position. Three, to earn a public role in
American society, professors must engage the full range of public opinion.
Finally, to create a livelier climate on the campus, professors must end the
routine setups that pass for dialogue. Panels on issues like Iraq, racism,
imperialism, and terrorism that stack the dais provide lots of passion, but
little excitement. Syllabi that include the same roster of voices make learning
ever more desultory. Add a few rightists, and the debate picks up. Perhaps that
is the most persuasive internal case for infusing conservatism into academic
discourse and activities. Without genuine dissent in the classroom and the
committee room, academic life is simply boring.

Mark Bauerlein is a
professor of English at Emory University and director of research at the
National Endowment for the Arts.

http://chronicle.comSection: The
Chronicle ReviewVolume 51, Issue 12, Page B6

Hmmmm, why was the poll conducted only in social science departments (e.g., sociology, psychology, philosophy, history, anthropology, perhaps English...)? What was the point of the poll? To show that excessive pseudo-liberal post-modern straw-man actually exists? Sure it does, and it is excessive, pseudo-liberal, and post-modern, in other words it is not representative of liberalism in its pure form. Even in these departments, only an occasional member is really that far out ( ).

How about business, accounting, economics and religion departments? Who says there are no conservatives in the academia? Hey, the Head of the political science department at Duke is a conservative - Dr.Munger himself!

So, one can argue that some fields of inquiry attract liberals, and others attract conservatives. Some areas are built on liberal foundations, others on conservatives foundations. So far, so good.

But, let's look at apolitical departments. How about math, natural sciences, engineering, agriculture, medicine? One's political views are not aired during the job interview, exposed in faculty meetings, do not show up in classroom teaching, do not get published in peer-reviewed journals. So, how come 90% of those faculty are also liberals/Democrats/Greens? Why are conservatives shunning these areas, or being shunned (if even recognized) by these departments? Is there something deeper going on here?

A couple of years ago I was talking to a post-doc in our department. We were talking about our research in general. I said that only about a quarter of my experiments work. She said: "You are a genius! That is a fantastic record". I said something about having a good advisor who doesn't let me do foolish stuff. Still, this shows what kind of person can survive in science: one with very thick skin, able to shrug, wash the dishes, go have a beer, and come back to the lab in the morning.

Academic life is extremely competitive (wouldn't that make it inherently more attractive to conservatives?). Landing a tenure-track position is very difficult. It is reserved for the best of the best. One has to be the super-expert in one's field. How does one become such a person?

Success in an academic field, especially in sciences, requires an exceptional clarity of thinking, sharpness of logic, and ability to see through the BS. One needs to be able to swiftly discard one's most cherished pet hypothesis at moment's notice when faced by the damned data that disprove it, data of one's own making at 4am. This happens every day, every week, throughout one's career, starting in grad school. It takes quite a high dose of honesty and ability for self-criticism to do so on a regular basis without getting frustrated enough to quit. A sense of humor is almost a requirement (as opposed to the common stereotype of a dour professor). Self-deprecation is a great survival tactic in such an endeavor.

So, why do people who survive such a painful training happen to be overwhelmingly liberal? Can it be, perhaps, because they employ the same brutal honesty and sharply-honed skills of critical analysis to politics? Can it be that their well-trained baloney-detection kit detects baloney in conservative ideology? Can it be that conservative thinking is just pure bad? Or at least out-dated? Can it be because conservative worldview is not based on empirical information, but on one's own bias inherited from one's parents, molded by one's early childhood environment? Can it be that liberal model passes these tests?

There is no equivalence between Creationism and Evolutionary biology. So, why is it assumed that there is equivalence between the conservative and liberal outlook? It is the same kind of comparison. One view is out-dated and based on faith, the other is modern and based on empirical information about the way this world works. Perhaps there are very few conservatives in the academia for the same reason there are very few Creationists in the academia ( ). Universities want to teach students the best available scholarship, so why hire the sub-standard thinkers?

As far as diversity of opinion in the clasroom, there is always a bunch of young unthinking loudmouth Republicans among the students. There needs to be someone in the position of authority to put them straight, teach them how to think clearly, and show them the way out of their medieval mindsets. Conservative writings need to be studied at the University in order to understand the anti-elite forces in order to learn how to defeat them (or isolate and leave behind to die out a natural death). People like von Hayek, Russell Kirk, Leo Strauss, Thomas Sowell, Robert Nozick, or Gertrude Himmelfarb need to be read by students in order to learn how to see through the deceptive rhetoric and destroy the argument, just like they need to know how to destroy arguments of Creationists.

How can we make sure that conservatives mis-educating our students in business, poli-sci, and economics departments get replaced by someone more up-to-date? Can the GOP tax-cutting madness, the Enron scandals, and the Bush electoral win be traced to the mis-education going on these departments?

That is what the University is for - the focal point of societal progress, the place where outdated ideas of the parent generation are replaced by modern fact-supported ideas of the intellectual elites ( ). The modern University is the engine of progress. If it was not liberal, we might as well just have seminaries ( ) and take the country back to the Middle Ages and keep it there for centuries.

Am I an elitist to think this way? Sure I am, and proud of it. Elites are the avante-garde of society, the cutting edge of progress - why should one be ashamed of belonging to the elite or even of trying to join the elite? Why is this country so anti-elitist and anti-intellectual? It does not seem to be that way in Europe ( ). What can we do to change that here? Perhaps the tragedy of the second Bush term will be a rude awakening for the country and the cause of final disgraceful downfall of the so-called "conservative" ideology.

Cross-posted at Science and Politics

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Assault on (Higher) Education - a Lakoffian Perspective

Eric at Total Information Awareness wrote two excellent posts on something that touches me personally, yet has much broader consequences on the country as a whole: the well-organized and well-funded assault of the Right on the University.

Academic Freedom Fighters, Parts I and II (check some links in the comments section, too):

There were a couple of other articles on the same topic, e.g., :

The Right's Kind of Campus

Thought Control for Middle East Studies

University of Fear

In Lakoffian perspective, the ultimate goal of Strict Father ideology is the defense and spread of Strict Father ideology, with no tricks and tactics entirely deemed a 'no-no'.

As I keep repeating, inculcation into an ideology is a developmental process starting at birth. Strict Father parents will, without much effort (or perhaps using Dobson's childrearing books they buy at christian bookstores), produce little Strict Fathers of the future. Unfortunately for them, the "childrearing" shelves in bookstores are packed with Benjamin Spock, Penelope Leach, T.Berry Brazelton and the like - an extremely Nurturant Parent bunch of advisors.

But once the kids leave home to go to school, there is interference, as the teachers are generally Nurturant Parents, thus negating the influence of home. For this reason, many conservatives home-school. For the same reason, conservatives push vouchers, pass and underfund NCLB, and generally try to undermine the public schools in order to usher as many kids, especially "their" kids, into parochial schools that continue the Strict Father indoctrination (including corporal punsihment etc.).

In a previous post (, I used the village and the university as examples of environments in which Strict Father and Nurturant Parent models, respectivelly, are easily reproduced. I meant that quite literally. James at the "The Left End of the Dial" understood these to be metaphors, and he may be right:

The metaphor of The Village aptly describes a small, intimate, closed, and a bit paranoid community, in which everyone knows everyone else, keeping the traditions is one of the most important aspects of life, everyone knows one's place, and you can envision the local schoolteacher in a small village school pulling ears and using his ruler to punish every inkling of a kiddo questioning his authority. The outside world is strange and uncomprehensible, thus scary.

The University as a metaphor, on the other hand, evokes a large bustling community of strangers, each bringing in a different set of traditions and beliefs, all questioning authority, all dependent on each other for learning and personal growth. This is an example of a network of intertwined and inter-dependent destinies, each coming in, contributing something, taking away something, and leaving more appreciative of the world as a whole. Students learn from professors, professors learn from students, students learn from students, old barriers fall, old prejudices are erased. It is no coincidence that The University is a metaphor for a Nurturant Parent model of a community.

It is also no coincidence that The University is the seeding place for progress of the society, a place where new ideas first arise before they are disseminated, by departing graduates, into the big world. Of course most of the faculty are liberal. Of course this is a place where young conservatives see the light and become liberals - their own experience in college forces them to abandon the outdated beliefs and traditions they brought from the Villages they grew up in. Liberal Enlightement is slowly and steadily replacing the medieval conservativism, and The University is the way station where this conversion takes place.

So, of course, The University, being the main nexus for turning young Strict Fathers into adult Nurturant Parents, is the logical next target for the remaining rabid conservative groups. If they are to survive, and they can feel the time is working against them, they have to stem the flow of kids leaving them and joining the modernity. Their attempt at imposing conservative faculty on colleges is the most logical thing for them to do. They are pretty smart with the tactics and the use of language, but they are fighting an uphill battle as their enemies are the smartest, best educated, most liberal, and most political people in the country, people who can read right through the fog of words, and have such a majority voice at the University, they will not find it too difficult to defend themselves and their students from the assault of the Right. We'll wait and see if I am correct to feel this optimistic.

Cross-posted at Science and Politics

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The Three R’s

Why does one so often hear that education can be improved by concentration on three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic? The way this is usually implemented is by giving students exercises in these three areas, then giving them simple tests to evaluate if they learned them. This makes the mechanics of teaching and testing easy, that’s for sure, and the test results can be used to punish under-performing students, teachers and schools.

But these exercises are boring and meaningless examples of rote learning. Is that the way we are schooling in the 21st century? What kind of ‘product’ is the result of such schooling? People who can read, write and add up numbers, people who are devoid of skills of critical thinking and discriminating between sense and nonsense.

What would happen if, instead, we taught our children the three S’s: sense, science and statistics? With the word ‘sense’ I mean logic, formal symbolic logic, and its application in reading, writing and debating. I would like all kids to learn how to recognize all the logical fallacies (ad hominem, straw man, red herring, slippery slope, begging the question, argument from authority, etc.) and to use that skill throughout their schooling, no matter what the subject matter is. Such skills are rarely taught, even in college, unless one takes a course in logic. Look up college textbooks in logic (e.g., Hurley’s A Concise Introduction to Logic, chapter 3) and advanced writing courses (e.g., Heffernan and Lincoln’s Writing: A College Handbook, chapter 7), or popular science literature (e.g., Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, chapter 12). Just as I’d love to see the logical fallacies exposed in posts by trolls, as well as fallacies avoided in posts of our bloggers, I would love to see all our kids grow up with skills for independent thought, critical thought and a healthy dose of skepticism.

By ‘statistics’, I mean math in general, but statistics especially. The general and widespread ignorance of statistics leads many smart people to believe stupid things. I love popular books by John Allen Paulos, e.g., Innumeracy, Beyond Innumeracy, or Mathematician Reads The Newspaper, as they are full of funny examples of bad decisions people make because of lack of grasp of statistics. Such real-life examples should be the starting points of all math lectures.

By ‘science’, I mean both social and natural sciences. For instance, history is usually taught as political and military history only. That way, it becomes and endless list of dates and names. Who wouldn’t be repelled by history after such a treatment? Yes, Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. So what? Who cares? But if you paint the picture of the world in 1812, the current state of philosophy, religion, science, agriculture, medicine, art, music and private life, it becomes much more interesting as well as more meaningful. You understand why Napoleon invaded Russia, why in 1812, and why we should care now. What did people believe at that time, what did they know, what did they not know yet, what did they eat and wear, how did they shave, what music they listened to, what did they read, how did they treat diseases, how did they entertain themselves, how did they transport stuff, what common objects were not invented yet? Making such connections makes history interesting and relevant and will, almost as an aside, motivate children to read and write. If history is taught that way, it immediately connects with other subjects in the curriculum: philosophy, comparative religion, science, literature, art etc., thus the whole year’s curriculum can be designed around particular topics or periods.

Natural science also does not have to follow the 19th century German model of memorizing facts. Do kids really have to know Krebs cycle, classification of worms and Latin names for body-parts? How boring?! Why don’t we, instead, take topics from the popular media (e.g., cloning, endangered species) or science-fiction novels (make them read “Brave New World”, not “Star Wars”), and topics inherently interesting to kids (space flight, dinosaurs) and use them as starting points for teaching the underlying scientific principles. If that information is presented not dogmatically – “this is true because it says so in the textbook”- but as a cumulative result of a process of observation and experimentation performed by many people through history, then the students will grasp that science is not a collection of facts but a method of getting true information about the world. They will also understand that all scientific ideas are tentative, that these ideas are in constant flux, and we are far from the point that we know practically everything – quite contrary, we have just scratched the surface and there are many exciting discoveries yet to be made. Perhaps, seeing that science is far from exhausted, kids will more readily choose science as a career. Not to mention the benefit of honing their baloney-detection skills even further, reading and writing about topics that interest them, and applying mathematics to relevant problems. By teaching the three S’s, the three R’s would come in effortlessly, as a fringe benefit of learning about the world and the logical way the world functions.

In the world in which the pace of progress is so fast, we cannot afford to teach ‘job skills’ that will be out-dated by the time they graduate. The real ‘job skills’, as well as ‘life skills’, are ability to locate information, evaluate quality of information, make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information, using and applying information, producing or discovering new information, and disseminating information to others effectively. That is what we need to teach, not the three R’s.

Cross-posted at Science and Politics

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