M and K in DC

The remainder of my review of Mooney and Kirshenbaum on paper will have to wait a bit longer. You see, I now have Mooney and Kirshenbaum in real life to discuss.

Always happy to have an excuse to visit the big city, I stopped by the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC to see Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum speak about their book. I would estimate there were a little ove a hunred people there.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum tag-teamed their prepared remarks. These remarks were brief and mostly focused on the reasons for writing the book, and a brief summary of what was in it. The points that have caused controversy both with me and with other critics were not raised. In short, pretty generic and unobjectionable stuff.

There were some interesting points raised during the Q and A. Alas, my clever move of making sure I got a seat by sitting down early backfired on my when it turned out I was in an especially inconvenient location for getting to the microphone. About ten seconds after they finished speaking there was already a line at the microphone that was clearly too long for the allotted time. So I didn’t get to ask them something snotty, like, “What did PZ Myers ever do to you?”

We math professor types were well represented, with two of the questioners so identifying themselves. The first one offered the funniest line of the night. As an example of mathematical illiteracy he cited a statement made by a student on a course evaluation: “This professor makes it very difficult for the average student to get an A.”

Actually, the audience reaction to that was interesting. Some people laughed immediately. Then there was a second wave of laughter as more people suddenly realized why that is such a stupid thing to write. Then there was a final wave of laughter comprised primarily of people who didn’t want to admit they didn’t get the joke.

The subject of Francis Collins’ appointment to head the NIH came up. Chris Mooney fielded that one, remarking that Collins’ credentials are impeccable and that his religion shouldn’t be a concern because he is on the right side on evolution.

I haven’t commented on Collins to this point mostly because I was having trouble figuring out what exactly was bothering me about it. His CV is certainly very impressive. I don’t care for his religious views, but that would only be an issue if there was some reason to think his religion would compromise his objectivity in doing his job. I haven’t seen any convincing reason to think that it will, though there are some legitimate questions. It is annoying that now the position of NIH head will be used as a platform for promoting evangelical Christianity, but that too is hardly a disqualification. We all use such platforms as we have for promoting the things in which we believe.

What’s disturbing about this actually has nothing to do with Collins at all, but rather with the process that led to his nomination. There is simply no question that Collins’ outspoken religious views were considered a big resume enhancer, and that an identical person outspoken about atheism would not even be considered for the job. I have seen people get very indiginant with folks like Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers and Steven Pinker for raisingf objections to Collins. “They’re placing a religious test for public office!” they huff. Nonsense. The religious test already exists.

I would add that none of Collins’ major critics have said he should be disquallified for his religion. They have instead pointed to specific statements Collins has made that call his objectivity into question in ways that are directly relevant to the job. But that’s a different post.

The highlight of the night (at least for me) came when one questioner, a scientist from the NIH, approached the mike. She aksed a question about science blogging, mentioning two of her favorite bloggers in the process. They were PZ Myers and … wait for it … me!

I let out a little whoop at that, but it didn’t come out very strongly and mostly served to make the people sitting near me wonder what was going on. When the questioner mentioned my name a second time Sheril, who was at the mike and who knew that I was there, mentioned that I was in the audience. I waved and said hello at this point, and the audience laughed. Some of the people sitting near me then asked about my blog, so if any of them have stopped by for a visit, welcome!

After the Q and A I spoke to my fan for a while. Several other people came over as well and soon we had a nice little discussion going about blogging in general and about M and K’s book. I mentioned that I didn’t care for the book and thought it had quite a few problems. A few of the audience members in the group agreed with that, though I got the impression that most of the people didn’t seem to have read it.

My SciBlings Zuska and Benjamin Cohen were there, so it was nice to see and talk to them for a while. Then it was on to get an autograph from M and K. Though I was disappointed with the book, it was nice to be able to see them again. All in all, an enjoyable evening.

Comments

  1. #1 The Science Pundit
    July 29, 2009

    Clearly that joke was above average. :-D

  2. #2 Jim Lippard
    July 29, 2009

    The grading joke works for many classes, and most math classes in particular, but not for easier subject matter that can be mastered by the average student–or at a school where the average student is exceptional, unless it’s graded on a curve.

  3. #3 minusRusty
    July 29, 2009

    But… but… Pundit… Wouldn’t it have scored +B or some such instead?

    -Rusty

  4. #4 John Kwok
    July 29, 2009

    Jason,

    I’m not thrilled with UA either and gave it a marginal thumb’s up at Amazon. But I did give Chris and Sheril a head’s up via e-mail and Chris understood my position (I think). Didn’t hear from Sheril, however.

    Best,

    John

  5. #5 SLC
    July 29, 2009

    Prof. Rosenhouse should be aware that Mr. Mooney and Ms. Kirshenbaum are rather disingenuously implying that he is less negative about their book then he actually is.

  6. #6 Physicalist
    July 29, 2009

    Jason, that was entirely too civil. You’re going to lose your New Atheist credentials.

  7. #7 AAA
    July 29, 2009
  8. #8 Peter Beattie
    July 29, 2009

    As an example of mathematical illiteracy he cited a statement made by a student on a course evaluation: “This professor makes it very difficult for the average student to get an A.”

    Why exactly is that an example of laughable mathematical illiteracy?

  9. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 29, 2009

    Peter -

    Average students are supposed to get C’s. A student producing A quality work is by definition not average.

    Physicalist -

    Yeah, I get that a lot.

    SLC –

    They provided a link to the review, so I”m not going to get too annoyed that they only quoted the less critical parts.

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    July 29, 2009

    Because even if one isn’t grading on a curve (in which case, a “C” grade is quite literally average), getting an A is supposed to imply mastery of the material, and a student who is described as “average” would have a fair-to-middling grasp of the material.

  11. #11 Wes
    July 29, 2009

    What’s disturbing about this actually has nothing to do with Collins at all, but rather with the process that led to his nomination. There is simply no question that Collins’ outspoken religious views were considered a big resume enhancer, and that an identical person outspoken about atheism would not even be considered for the job. I have seen people get very indiginant with folks like Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers and Steven Pinker for raisingf objections to Collins. “They’re placing a religious test for public office!” they huff. Nonsense. The religious test already exists.

    This irks me too. It’s an obvious double standard that the champions of the status quo seem to be holding up as if it were the most philosophically “sophisticated” position. Collins can go about saying DNA is the language of God, that “fine tuning” is evidence of a creator, and that morality could not have evolved and therefore shows there’s a God. But if an atheist retorts that science fits atheism better, that means she’s a fundamentalist militant shrill New Atheist who is uncivil and intolerant of other viewpoints.

    So it’s acceptable to shoehorn science into one’s religion and vice versa, but respecting other people’s viewpoints means that an atheist should never voice the viewpoint that science and atheism happen to fit together rather nicely, without all the rationalizations, appeals to emotion and gods of the gaps.

  12. #12 Peter Beattie
    July 29, 2009

    @ Jason & J.J.:

    I suppose what I was getting at was that the average student in any given course can very well deserve an A. There is no necessity that makes any educational sense to insist that an average student must receive a C. What if you’re an exceptionally good teacher and the majority of your students actually do achieve mastery of the subject?

  13. #13 Me too
    July 29, 2009

    I was in the P & P audience last night – when your name was mentioned, I pulled out my BB and read your review – so I was a bit disappointed when you didn’t get up to the mike (I was two rows behind).
    What do you think will happen with Collins? Is he a real rock star – as in the GQ variety – or will he be another take the title and run type?

  14. #14 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 29, 2009

    Peter -

    That’s a theoretical possibility, but it has never once happened in any math class I’ve ever been involved with, either as a student or a teacher. :)

    Me too –

    I think Collins will take his job very seriously. After his term is up, on the other hand, he’ll probably find a way to cash in …

  15. #15 eric
    July 29, 2009

    I love the “booktalk” sessions from Politics and Prose.
    I live nowhere near DC, but listen to them via the NPR podcasts. I have purchased and read multiple books after listening to the podcast. I am looking forward to hearing this session once it is posted, and I am interested in reading the book to see if I agree with the issues raised here.

  16. #16 vbs
    July 29, 2009

    The scientist who commented at the Q&A on science bloggers and named you and PZ Myers was… me! What a surprise to find you in the audience!

    Anyway it was nice to meet you. I like reading science news and commentaries to keep up with work outside my field and to hear about their political/social/religious ramifications.

    Keep up the good work!

  17. #17 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 29, 2009

    vbs -

    It was nice meeting you as well. Glad you like the blog.

  18. #18 GAZZA
    July 30, 2009

    Jason – I am kind of curious now: do you grade on a curve, and is that the standard in US Universities? In Australia, I believe there is a certain amount of filtering of the raw score (to deal with the possibility that a particular exam was very difficult, or whatever) but it is theoretically possible for all students to get a High Distinction – or to Fail. (I believe HD would be the equivalent to an A).

    BTW, I’m loving your book! When’s the next one?

  19. #19 Richard Wein
    July 30, 2009

    I must say I’m with Peter here. I fail to see why (on a careful reading) the student’s comment should be seen as an example of mathematical illiteracy. “The average student” presumably here just means a student with average intellectual ability. The question of whether good teaching could enable such a student to achieve an A grade on that particular course is a practical question about learning, teaching and the nature of the course. It’s not a question about the meaning of mathematical averages.

    And, yes, I admit I’m being a pedantic kill-joy. ;)

  20. #20 Peter Beattie
    July 30, 2009

    Thanks, Richard. My point was, indeed, that it should be the job of the teacher to make it as easy as humanly (teacherly?) possible to reach a level of skill that would warrant an A. What else would our job be, just to sort students into categories according to some more or less innate capacity?

  21. #21 Richard Eis
    July 30, 2009

    -A grade on that particular course is a practical question about learning-

    If a professor is making it too easy that even average students are acing a course then that course is too easy. Especially in a difficult medium such as maths and i would be highly suspicious.

  22. #22 Peter Beattie
    July 30, 2009

    » Richard Eis:
    If a professor is making it too easy that even average students are acing a course then that course is too easy.

    Are you saying that even excellent teaching shouldn’t result in competent students? Or are you saying that even excellent teaching cannot change the fact that most student just are mediocre?

  23. #23 Observer
    July 30, 2009

    I wonder if Orithologists have as much fun with “Chicken crossing the road” jokes.

  24. #24 Richard Wein
    July 30, 2009

    Just to clarify… my point is that the student could well have been guilty of overoptimism about what could be achieved by good teaching, rather than of misunderstanding the concept of an average.

  25. #25 SC, Blogmistress
    July 30, 2009

    Prof. Rosenhouse should be aware that Mr. Mooney and Ms. Kirshenbaum are rather disingenuously implying that he is less negative about their book then he actually is.

    They are Deacons of Disingenuousness. Their answer to people quite rightly calling their (and Eugenie Scott’s) response to the incompatibilists disingenuous was itself completely disingenuous! I shouldn’t be surprised at this point, but I had to shake my head.

    They provided a link to the review, so I”m not going to get too annoyed that they only quoted the less critical parts.

    That’s taking generosity to an unwarranted extreme. :)

  26. #26 Richard Wein
    July 30, 2009

    The more I think about this the more I think the joke is on the speaker who quoted this example. He’s the one guilty of making an error. He seems to have unjustifiably assumed that the variable being averaged (in the phrase “the average student”) was the same as the other variable mentioned by the student (the grade achieved on the course in question). But “the average student” here clearly does not mean a student who achieves an average grade on this course. And there’s no logical contradiction between a student being average (on some wider measure) and that student achieving an A on this particular course.

    Perhaps the reason that some people were slow to laugh was not that they themselves were lacking in mathematical literacy, but that they sensed there was something wrong with the speaker’s interpretation of the student’s comment!

  27. #27 eric
    July 30, 2009

    Its amusing to read all the hypothetical situations people spin to make the student’s complaint sound legit. Call me simple, but since it was a course evaluation comment I took ‘average’ to refer to the average course-taker. This would not include either of the fanciful scenarios introduced here, i.e. the one where the math course is of ‘regular’ difficulty yet the entire class is over-prepared geniuses, or the one hypothesizing an entire class of typical students taking a remedially simple course.

    Its funny because the student obviously does not understand that the typical person choosing to take that course could not be expected to demonstrate complete mastery of it.

  28. #28 eric aka #27 eric
    July 30, 2009

    Oops, to prevent misattribution, please note that #27 eric is not the same as #15 eric

  29. #29 Coriolis
    July 30, 2009

    Look if the “average student” gets an A, that means that you are no longer distinguishing between the grades of the average student and the great student – they are both getting A’s. And you’re only distinguishing the presumably bad student who gets below an A.

    Now you may think that’s fine, and in many cases I would agree – but if that’s how you’re going to grade you may as well trash the grading system and just have a pass/fail, since the only important distinction is between the average and the terrible.

    And it’s a funny joke because the idea of having a grading system like this is actually to distinguish between the various shades of good/average/bad. If the vast majority of the people in the class are getting A’s, then the class is too easy for the level of the students in it.

  30. #30 Peter Beattie
    July 30, 2009

    It’s interesting to see that quite a number of people seem to believe (a word I use advisedly here) that students just are good and bad, and that apparently the whole point of grading is to sort the students into the ‘correct’ categories. What then, I should have to ask, is the purpose of teaching?

  31. #31 John Kwok
    July 30, 2009

    @ Peter -

    Yours is a valid point. Have been wondering myself as of late, especially when I know of a proposed New York City high school devoted primarily to creative writing in honor of bestselling memoirist Frank McCourt, and frankly – no pun intended – I think that’s a mistake since students need to have mastery of other subjects, including science and mathematics.

  32. #32 Carmen
    July 30, 2009

    I was sitting behind you at the P&P talk (sorry I forgot to turn the sound on my camera off!) and am sorry I didn’t get the chance to meet you afterward. I’ve been following a few Scibloggers but hadn’t wandered here before. I thought Mooney’s comments about the emphasis on memorization and factoids in science courses (it might’ve even been in response to the person who made this wisecrack) were spot-on. In all honesty, they hit a little close to home.

  33. #33 NeverTheTwain
    July 30, 2009

    “The religious test already exists.”

    Now, there’s an example of condensing pages of argument into a single succinct line. Gonna steal it…

  34. #34 dış cephe
    July 30, 2009

    Great post.Thanks.

  35. #35 MarcusA
    July 30, 2009

    I cannot believe how much over-analysis the word “average” has generated. But I’ll add to the chaos.

    Obviously, if the average students earn A’s, a new grade would have to exist to describe the above average students –like primo, or excellente, or Spamtastic. And then the student quoted would have had to comment “This professor makes it very difficult for the average student to get a Spamtastic.”

    Even if the student quoted meant the professor wasn’t uplifting or inspirational enough, the point still stands, for it’s the job of the student to lift himself up, not to be lifted up. Students whine too much about the quality of teachers. How about the quality of students? They act like they’re entitled to good grades.

  36. #36 Peter Beattie
    July 30, 2009

    » MarcusA:
    Obviously, if the average students earn A’s, a new grade would have to exist to describe the above average students

    Since you too seem to be saying that the purpose of grading is to sort students according to something like innate ability, maybe I should ask you also what, if anything, in your opinion is the purpose of teaching?

    Students whine too much about the quality of teachers.

    Are you saying that as a teacher — for whom such a statement would sound rather plainly self-serving — or as someone without any relevant experience as a teacher?

  37. #37 MarcusA
    July 30, 2009

    Are you saying that as a teacher — for whom such a statement would sound rather plainly self-serving — or as someone without any relevant experience as a teacher?

    My experience is purely as a student, one who has watched fellow students blame everyone else but themselves for failure. What does one say to a fellow student who parties hardy till 3 a.m. every night and then rags about the teacher being boring during a 9 a.m class? I also know a UK physics professor who told me many of his students “regularly” come to class with hangovers. One even vomited on the floor during a lecture. These are hardly atypical anecdotes.

    Of course, there are bad teachers. But their job isn’t to be entertainers. Students have abdicated too much personal responsibility in favor of a sense of entitlement.

    And isn’t grading indented to a give students a relative indication of their individual performances. The sorting appears as a byproduct of there being more than one student per class.

  38. #38 The Science Pundit
    July 30, 2009

    I guess I have to refine my previous comment (#1) to say “Clearly that joke belongs on the Dean’s List.”

    Also, to be clear, when a statistician says something to the effect of “the average baseball player bats .250″, what they mean is that the mean batting average is .250 It is not a nefarious attempt to rank individual players by innate ability. The same goes when they say “the average family has 2.4 children.”

    The joke was funny. You missed it. Get over it!

  39. #39 Richard Wein
    July 31, 2009

    @The Science Pundit…

    So you think the student meant: This professor makes it very difficult for a student who gets an average grade on this course to get an A on this course.

    It’s uncharitable to assume the student is that stupid when there’s a much less stupid alternative interpretation: This professor makes it very difficult for a student of average general ability to get an A on this course.

    The existence of this plausible alternative interpetation undermines the assertion that this is an example of mathematical illiteracy.

  40. #40 Peter Beattie
    July 31, 2009

    @ MarcusA:

    You should be aware of the fact that the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’. I have never heard of any such anecdotes, but that also wouldn’t count as evidence against your claim, would it?

    And who on earth said that ‘being entertainers’ was equivalent to better teaching? That’s nothing more than a straw man.

    As to the responsibility: What do you expect when students are usually given exams that mostly test them on reproducible factoids? That doesn’t exactly call for the exercise of any intellectual responsibility; on the contrary, it tells students pretty bluntly that they’re exchangeable, that individuality is neither sought after nor rewarded, and the amount of material to cram into one’s head is usually such that it is hard for anyone to get an A.

    @ The Science Pundit:

    We got the joke alright. But we actually saw that there is something more to the story than the one dimension that was funny.

    As to your baseball analogy, in that case what is measured is something objective; grades are, so to speak, a completely different ball game. They don’t measure anything objective or even objectively.

    For some real data on grades and grading, please see this article.

  41. #41 Jud
    July 31, 2009

    Re the math class joke: OMFG, people, chill!

    Of course it’s possible for all students in a math class to get scores on the tests that average 90% (or 93% or whatever you want the percentage criterion to be, if grading on that basis) so they all get “A”s. It is also possible for all students to be graded on a curve, where by definition those who are average and hit the middle of the fat part of the bell curve will receive “C”s.

    But putting the pedantic stuff to one side for a moment, thank you, I thought the joke was amusing. Of course if you engage in an exhaustive analysis of the joke’s scenario it’s not going to seem that funny, but I would venture to say that’s true of nearly all jokes.

  42. #42 Lee Harrison
    July 31, 2009

    Jokes are like frogs, folks. Once you disect them, they don’t work.

  43. #43 Lee Harrison
    July 31, 2009

    Damn! ‘disect’ supposed to be ‘dissect’.

  44. #44 Peter Beattie
    July 31, 2009

    @ Jud and Lee Harrison:

    Nobody ever said the joke wasn’t funny. It was. What it also did was possibly to show a rather biased and one-dimensional view of students and grades that is not in very good accordance with actual facts. And that is something I think worthy of debate.

    As I said, for some real data on grades and grading, please see this article.

  45. #45 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 31, 2009

    GAZZA –

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the book. As for the next one, stay tuned! I expect to have something to say about that shortly.

    And yes, I do grade on a curve. Basically, in classes in calculus or higher it doesn’t make sense to declare ahead of time thatgetting over a certain percentage is an A, and so on. The questions are generally too open-ended to be too rigid about the grading. Sometimes a problem I think is pretty hard ends up being easy for the students. More often, sadly, a problem I think is not too hard ends up being a killer. So the only solution is to see what the students actually do, and then decide what ought to constitute A quality work and so on.

    Carmen -

    I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet you. Yes, Chris was right about an over-reliance on memorization in much of high school (college too) science education. Success in memorization is easier to test than is success in understanding the big picture. I suspect, though, Chris was exaggerating in saying he didn’t learn anything because he was just memorizing his way through. After all, learning facts counts for something!

    Joke Analyzers -

    A fascinating discussion, but enough already. I thought it was a pretty funny line, and it’s MY BLOG! Surely that settles things, right?

  46. #46 Peter Beattie
    July 31, 2009

    @ Jason:

    If you don’t want that kind of discussion, that’s certainly your call. But you did apparently approvingly quote the joke and the line that “that is such a stupid thing to write”. I’ve been trying to engage people in a discussion why that should be so. My impression thus is that this line of enquiry is entirely on topic. But do correct me if I’m wrong.

  47. #47 eric
    July 31, 2009

    Interesting coincidence, one of the NYT science writers was asked this week in ‘Talk to the Times’ whether scientists could do a better job communicating with the public. He said they communicate just fine, however the public rarely wants anything more than a sound byte.

    Here’s the link, the question’s near the end: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/business/media/26askthetimes.html?pagewanted=all

  48. #48 Jason Rosenhouse
    July 31, 2009

    Peter -

    I’m kidding around. You can discuss whatever you like for as long as you like. I do think you’re overanalyzing things, though.

  49. #49 MarcusA
    July 31, 2009

    Peter Beattie:

    Hence, my use of “anecdote” in place of “data”. Aren’t words deliberate choices? But we were discussing average students, and drinking is considered a major problem on college campuses. Not to mention the illegal drugs.

    And who on earth said that ‘being entertainers’ was equivalent to better teaching?

    If you haven’t heard a professor lament about students expecting to be entertained during lectures, I’d ask you what remote island you vacation on.

  50. #50 Greg Esres
    August 1, 2009

    Then it was on to get an autograph from M and K. Though I was disappointed with the book, it was nice to be able to see them again. All in all, an enjoyable evening.

    I’m a little curious about this. Is there no ill-will generated by negatively reviewing a friend’s book?

  51. #51 jdhuey
    August 2, 2009

    When I was attending college it was at a very small school and the class sizes were very small for any but the most general of classes. They were especially small for science and math classes, I took one upper division physics class that had just 4 students in it. Within my cadre of math/science students there just happened to be five students that were absolute geniuses (I not exaggerating – they were beyond scary smart) I knew these guys quite well so I made sure that I never took any classes that they were taking. Otherwise, I would never have gotten an A.

  52. #52 Christophe Thill
    August 4, 2009

    “Are you saying that as a teacher — for whom such a statement would sound rather plainly self-serving — or as someone without any relevant experience as a teacher?”

    or, if I may reformulate :
    Either you’re asking the question out of self-interest, or you’re totally ignorant in the matter.

    And with this well crafted quote, Mr Beattie wins the Double Bind Award. It’s brilliant, and I’ll try my best to use it in a discussion!

  53. #53 Peter Beattie
    August 4, 2009

    » MarcusA:
    Hence, my use of “anecdote” in place of “data”. Aren’t words deliberate choices?

    That’s what I always thought. And it’s why you presumably meant to say that an anecdote is somehow logically connected to the phrase “hardly atypical”. It is, of course, just not in the way you implied.

    If you haven’t heard a professor lament about students expecting to be entertained during lectures, I’d ask you what remote island you vacation on.

    Oh dear, seriously? Some professors’ lament is now evidence of what students want? Give me a break. How many students have you taught, and how hard have you tried to find out what they really want and need?