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August 8, 2008 | 12 Comments

The B.S. octopus

Jonathan Bate, of Standpoint, recently wrote an essay “The wrong idea of a university”:

It used to work like this. Dr Bloggs, the brilliant scholar who had solved the problem of the variant quartos of Christopher Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, was one of the most boring teachers on God’s Earth. Mr Nobbs, who never got around to finishing his PhD on the image of the sea in English Literature, let alone publishing any academic articles, was an awe-inspiring teacher: he had read everything and could instil in his students a passion for the subject that would stay with them all their lives. All the Head of the English Department had to do was give Nobbs a heavy teaching load, which delighted both him and the students, and Bloggs a light one, which also delighted the students and gave him more time alone with his textual collations. The department was a happy place.

But then along came the RAE. Bloggs’s work was just the stuff to bring the department the money that came with a five-star rating. Nobbs, to the distress of the students, was pensioned off as “non-returnable”. The next generation of academics learnt the lesson. They finished their PhDs and started up new journals in which to get their work published. They developed more and more specialised areas of expertise. (The RAE is Research Assessment Exercise, an attempt to quantify academic quality in England.)

In proof that university politics have not changed in the 100 years since William James wrote his now-famous essay “The PhD Octopus“, there is this quote:

Some years ago, we had at our Harvard Graduate School a very brilliant student of Philosophy, who, after leaving us and supporting himself by literary labor for three years, received an appointment to teach English Literature at a sister-institution of learning. The governors of this institution, however, had no sooner communicated the appointment than they made the awful discovery that they had enrolled upon their staff a person who was unprovided with the Ph.D. degree. The man in question had been satisfied to work at Philosophy for her own sweet (or bitter) sake, and had disdained to consider that an academic bauble should be his reward.

His appointment had thus been made under a misunderstanding. He was not the proper man; and there was nothing to do but inform him of the fact. It was notified to him by his new President that his appointment must be revoked, or that a Harvard doctor’s degree must forthwith be procured. (Be sure to read the rest of this essay.)

It will probably always be thus at universities: no PhD, no respect. Good thing nobody told Einstein, however, who had his miracle year long before he actually had the credentials to do so. Good thing, too, that nobody told the editors of the journals where he submitted his papers, nor did anyone notify readers of those journals of the lack of Einstein’s bona fides.

Actually, in areas like physics, chemistry, math, and so on, lack of credentials is still not a barrier for authors to gain consideration. Anybody is free to submit a paper, and due to the blinded, or ever double-blinded, refereeing policies at these journals, the paper will get something like a fair hearing. If the paper is published, still nobody will know that the person who wrote it lacks certification (unless, of course, somebody knows the person).

Incidentally, medicine is an exception to this rule. Every paper in medical journals list the authors’ credentials after their names. Papers are festooned with MDs, MPHs, DDS, EDDs, DOs, PhDs, and every other possible combination of letters. I have even seen some with the lowly BS. I have been unable to find any other field—I have looked in English, sociology, history, and so on—that maintains this silly practice. The argument of Appeal to Authority remains strong in medicine. Too, these authors like to see their degrees displayed prominently. Well, who didn’t know that physicians have large egos? (When medical co-authors ask me for my letters, I tell them “HS”, which I almost got away with once until a journal editor caught it. HS = High School.)

Although anybody is free to submit papers regardless of their formal education, few to none will actually work for a university as a professor without the actual blessing. This is so well know as to be unexceptional. It is not usually the professors in the department who employ a teacher sans PhD that care. I have known two exceptional men who were welcomed, more than welcomed, in their departments in spite of their lack of letters. It is usually the administration who insist. They see the spreadsheet before them with a blank column by the man’s name and they balk, unable and unwilling to grant the title “professor”, regardless of the teacher’s ability, unless that column can be filled in. But, however, this has been the way of the world for at least the last century.

What is more pernicious, is that the desire for credentials has spread to nearly every area in society. People used to be able to get jobs with nothing more than high school educations. While it’s probably true that the content of a high school education nowadays is less than it used to be, it is still sufficient to allow somebody to, for example, be an assistant manager of Jamba Juice. That company, we learn from, is soliciting applications for the position, advising applicants that a “Bachelor’s” degree is preferred. Do you really need a BS or BA to learn how to prepare and pour a smoothie? Like many job postings, this one merely says “degree wanted” and is indifferent to the field of study. Proof that the “degree” is not a necessity.

It is true that, generally, more knowledge is better than less, and that colleges attempt to give students more. But it is not clear that what colleges attempt to teach is the sort of knowledge that is useful to being a manager at Jamba Juice. Nor is it even close to true that the only or best or ideal way to gain knowledge is by attending college, especially to acquire job-specific knowledge.

A typical answer from students about why they are attending college is “to get a degree.” Note carefully that this is not the same as “to learn all about biology” or physics, or English literature, or whatever. Or to learn how to be a better citizen or lead an examined life or become, as the hackneyed phrase has it, “well rounded.” Some will say they are at college to “get an education”, which is synonymous with “get a degree”, because, as I hope you know, education is not equivalent to knowledge.

Getting a degree, and not necessarily gaining knowledge, is a rational thing for students to do. This is because they know, as we have just seen, that employers explicitly require “degrees.” It is true that some employers also require field-specific knowledge, but this is not stressed strongly or at all for entry-level candidates. Businesses will teach people what they need to know to do their jobs once they get there. Except in certain highly technical areas, where some competency with computers and an extensive numeracy are expected. Students can gain these skills in college, but they could just as easily have attained them in a trade school in half the time at half the cost. But more and more, non-technical, non-complex jobs require Bachelor’s degrees, mainly because, well, because businesses have convinced themselves “degrees” are needed.

On the whole, employers—and civilians, too—view a Bachelor’s “degree” as something magical, imbuing its holder with special powers—but not necessarily special knowledge. You’ll have heard stories of some person, wholly competent in her job, who is paid a low salary because she has not yet attained her “degree.” Once she comes by it, she is immediately given a raise, because people with “degrees” of course rate a higher salary. Or you might know of another person who everybody agrees should be promoted and given extra responsibility, but, sorry, no degree, so the promotion cannot be given. Everybody is heartily sorry for it, of course, but what can they do? It’s a degree we’re talking about, after all.

It is true that knowing whether a person has advanced educational credentials helps predicts whether they will be to accomplish some task. But it is not wholly predictive, and not even mostly predictive. People are fooling themselves by weighing the evidence of letters after a name too strongly. It has also been observed that the more education a person has the less likely that person will admit a mistake or ignorance on any subject.

A host of “experts” have exploded into public life over the past twenty or thirty years. There is a credentialed expert for any subject imaginable, ready to be drug out and placed onto television to say why this or that is so. Businesses regularly host expensive consultants with “MBAs” from “good schools” to tell them how to do their jobs. Government routinely taps academia to justify or give blessing to what it wants to do. The letters after the name of the expert are enough for most people to accept what is uttered unquestioningly. Having somebody make decisions for you is also comforting and easy. Objecting too what an expert says, unless the dissident is at least as credentialed as the expert, is seen as distasteful, and even in some cases immoral (see two posts back). There is much more to say on this subject, but for now we can note that the old rule that the best argument wins has been lost.

I don’t think anything can stop or reverse this trend of the increasing hunger for degrees. Jobs that used to require nothing except intelligence now require a Bachelor’s. Some of them prefer a Master’s. Soon, a PhD will be the minimum. But we should all remember the words of Frank Mundus, the famous (uncredentialed) shark hunter whose life partly formed the basis for the fisherman Quint character in the book and movie Jaws. Some “PhDs” once took exception to a belief he espoused about a certain behavior in sharks. Mundus was proved right and the “experts” wrong. In reply he said, “A PhD don’t mean shit.”

Amen, brother.

By the way, in case you were nervous, your author (me) has a PhD in statistics from Cornell, so you know I know what I’m talking about.

August 6, 2008 | 21 Comments

Don’t be so sure

A number of mixed items today, mostly with the theme that Experts are often too sure of themselves.

  • The organization GRASP, among many others, until yesterday warned of the “imminent extinction faced by gorillas” and other primates (not humans). NASA, an organization of experts, has a page called “Gorillas in the Midst of Extinction.” They used sophisticated, powerful, high technology satellites to count gorillas “giving scientists and conservationists” a way to count gorillas. The phrase “scientists and conservationists” must mean there is a difference between the two types of creatures. Anyway, the previously (?) communist magazine New Scientist recently had an article called “Ebola pushes gorillas towards extinction” (in the late 1990s there were several books published warning of the same fate for homo sapiens sapiens).

    And then yesterday came a report by a group that unexpectedly came upon a troop of about 125,000 gorillas in the Congo, which more than doubled the previous estimate of the number of gorillas alive. Jillian Miller, the director of the conservation group Gorilla Organization, shockingly admitted (quoted in today’s New York Post), “I think the lesson for conservationists today is that, yes, the world is full of surprises. There’s a lot of uncharted territory.” I wonder if she’ll still feel the same way during the next round of fund raising.

  • “Bubble fusion” researcher Rusi Taleyarkhan‘s research was burst at Purdue this past week. This is the guy who claimed in 2002 he could induce fusion using the force of collapsing tiny bubbles (the learned word for bursting bubbles is cavitation). The claim was always silly, which is fine, because there are more than enough silly ideas that pass for “research” in academia. The press and others originally bought the idea, however, and surely there will be some people who will always believe, just like there are still some who tout cold fusion. But the claim was too silly for some, who were angered by Taleyarkhan, and they sought to punish him.

    This week’s Science magazine has an article (subscription required) on how Purdue is castigating Taleyarkhan. They suspected he fudged his data, but couldn’t prove it, so like the feds with Al Capone, they got him on a technicality, a move that I hope they are not proud of. Turns out that Taleyarkhan wanted a second author on a paper so that the paper would appear stronger: supposedly, more authors means less likelihood of cheating. So he showed the paper to a graduate student who made changes and recommendations, and then Taleyarkhan put the grad student’s name on the paper. Bingo! Research misconduct! cried the judges. Well, maybe, but if so, then roughly 98.3% of all academics are guilty of the same crime. People often, for a host of reasons, politics, fear, friendship, tit for tat, habit, and on and on, put names of people on papers even though those people had little or nothing to do with the work. Ah well. Poor Taleyarkhan.

  • For fun, we have a list of the Top 30 Failed Technology Predictions from the List Universe. Here’s #2, from Mr Bill Gates, a well known rich person who lives near Seattle: “We will never make a 32 bit operating system.” And #8 from Lord Kelvin, who was a mathematician and physicist, and president of the British Royal Society, 1895: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”

    Ho ho ho, we say to ourselves when we read these prognostications. How stupid can they be! We experience mirth. But that is exactly the wrong emotion. You might despise Bill Gates, but he is an incredibly bright person, an expert among experts in his field. Kelvin, who you probably haven’t heard of, was one of the smartest people who ever lived (not at the top of the list, to be sure, but ahead of all of us). These, and the other people with quotes on the List Universe page, were masters, yet they made remarkably huge mistakes.

    You must also remember that when these men, superior in perception to their peers, made these predictions, there were not hosts of others saying the opposite. Most people believed the predictions, and with good reason. These experts had often been right before. What we should take away from this list is an increased skepticism, a belief that experts are not nearly right as often as they’d like us to think they are. Doubt, therefore, is the proper emotion.

August 4, 2008 | 28 Comments

Wrong -> Immoral -> Illegal?

Says Paul Krugman, a writer for a local New York paper,

The only way we’re going to get action, I’d suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral.

He means “action” on man-made global warming. We’ll come back to his musing after a moment.

The other day, Krugman wrote an essay featuring Martin Weitzman, a Harvard economist, who speculated that the earth was doomed unless something is done “before it’s utterly too late.” By “something” they both meant “elect Barack Obama.” Weitzman wrote a paper with “sophisticated” equations and which assumed climate model output was infallible, said that we humans will “effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it.” Again says Krugman

It’s true that scientists don’t know exactly how much world temperatures will rise if we persist with business as usual. But that uncertainty is actually what makes action so urgent. While there’s a chance that we’ll act against global warming only to find that the danger was overstated, there’s also a chance that we’ll fail to act only to find that the results of inaction were catastrophic. Which risk would you rather run?

There is something in economics called decision analysis. The idea is simple. Find out how much something will cost if it happens. Then find out the probability of that thing happening. Multiply these two numbers to get the expected cost. If the expected cost of that thing is too high, or higher than any other possibility, it’s best to try to alter or stop the thing from happening.

If you do not know the probability, then you cannot calculate the expected cost. Weitzman calculates there is a “5 percent chance” that global temperatures will rise at least “18 degrees Fahrenheit.” In Weitzman’s paper, he also calculates there is a 1 percent chance that temperature will rise at least 36 degress Fahrenheit. Yes, you read that right. 36 degrees. The expected cost of a 36-degree rise is, of course, enormous, meaning that we should certainly try and stop global warming.

But we are actually confronted with probabilities of two outcomes, not just one. There could be apocalyptic global warming or Wietzman could be wrong. This implies our probabilities are: (1) A 1% chance of truly catastrophic warming, or (2) The economist Weitzman has fooled himself into being too certain by relying on complex formulae with faulty input.

Everything we’ve ever experienced about the accuracy of economists’ predictions, especially in areas in which they have absolutely no expertise, makes most of us believe (2). Thus, (2) is the rational and optimal option.


Krugman, obviously, believes (1). He’s an economist, too, you see, and naturally sides with his brother economist. All of which would be perfectly harmless, even if Krugman did nothing more than write a column explaining Weitzman’s mathematical fantasies. Except for that one little thing that Krugman advocates: painting those who do not agree with him as not just wrong but immoral.

That is to say, not just wrong, but evil. Krugman, limited in imagination as he is, cannot conceive that anybody could possibly disagree with him, nor look at the same data and come to a different conclusion. People that fail to accord with him are not just making a mistake, they are being mischievous.

Krugman is not the first to suffer from this kind of delusion. La Shawn Barber has written an article called Is Climate Change… Racist? He looks at liberal Congressman James Clyburn, who has written a report echoing the old joke: “World Ends Due to Global Warming: Poor Blacks Hardest Hit.” The gist is that those who disagree with the end-time visions risk being called a racist, a frightening term in today’s USA. University of Amsterdam “philosopher” Marc Davidson has even written a peer-reviewed paper in a prominent journal alluding that those who disagree with Weitzman-like claims are no better than slave holders (no, I’m not kidding).

In a society, when something is wrong, it must be corrected. For example, a person who forgets to apply for a certain kind of building permit to repair his fence is punished by having to pay a small fee back to society. Few would claim that the homeowner had acted immorally, however. More heinous crimes are punished more strongly, such as by restricting the liberty of the perpetrator.

A crime is an act which is immoral. Acts which are perceived to be immoral by the ruling class of society are usually made criminal. These actions usually happen over time. For example, being a “racist” has gone down the path of being distasteful, to being immoral, to finally being illegal in certain ways. Disagreeing with newspaper columnists’ perception of climate change is already distasteful—those who disagree are called “deniars” and even, we now see, “racists.” Krugman now wants these people to be seen as immoral.

How much longer, then, before some enlightened journalist or politician calls for disagreement being illegal? For the “good of society”, of course.

UPDATE: Thanks to TokyoTom for the link to the Weitzman paper. You can read TokyoTom’s take Weitzman at this link. And you can read his take take on Jim Manzi`s take on Weitzman/climate policy at this link. Thanks also to Raven’s correction! My original, and stupid, “70” shows what happens when you are in a hurry.

August 1, 2008 | 4 Comments

Effectively destroy planet Earth as we know it

That quote is from the economist Martin Weitzman from Harvard. I said Harvard. So you know he knows what he’s talking about.

Reader Raven suggested we glance at Paul Krugman’s New York Times op-ed piece today where that quote can be found. That’s right, I said the New York Times. So you know they know what they are talking about.

Apparently, Weitzman, who Krugman says, “has been driving much of the recent high-level debate, offers some sobering numbers.” Numbers which I plan on reading after I return from Fitzgerald’s tonight (it’s steak & kidney pie day). Anyway, Economist Weitzman has been “researching” climate models and has discovered that we are doomed.

Which is probably why The Onion had this headline yesterday:

Al Gore Places Infant Son In Rocket To Escape Dying Planet

Gore Al saves his son

We’re not actually doomed because Weitzman/Klugman says that electing Barack Obama will save us. That’s good news, but it does come too late to save Gore’s kid.

Timing is everything!