Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Academic’ Category

Golfing VCs

Economist David Blanchflower wrote an article for The Guardian inviting us to pity the poor underpaid university vice chancellors with their paltry sub-million-pound salaries. In discussing what an awful job it is, and why you

A vice-chancellor’s schedule is set for them. The job has a huge effect on family life. There are few places to hide and find privacy. You are always on show, even on the golf course.

Even on the golf course! Have these vice-chancellor-oglers no shame?

Oddly enough, the analysis by this economist, which included the striking phrase “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” — the monkey here being everyone who is not a vice chancellor — omitted any evidence that universities do indeed prosper from having non-monkeys doing the job. I mean, there are all kinds of jobs that are hard and important, but there’s a limit to how much you’re willing to pay to get just a tiny bit of extra talent (assuming that you can even reliable recognise those distinctions in the course of the hiring process). The suggestion is that you need to pay huge sums just to get one of the exceptional rare individuals who is even minimally qualified not to run the university into the ground. “In the end, there are few qualified and willing applicants.” I’d like to see some working-out on that problem.

Why people hate statisticians

Andrew Dilnot, former head of the UK Statistics Authority and current warden (no really!) of Nuffield College, gave a talk here last week, at our annual event honouring Florence Nightingale qua statistician. The ostensible title was “Numbers and Public policy: Why statistics really matter”, but the title should have been “Why people hate statisticians”. This was one of the most extreme versions I’ve ever seen of a speaker shopping trite (mostly right-wing) political talking points by dressing them up in statistics to make the dubious assertions seem irrefutable, and to make the trivially obvious look ingenious.

I don’t have the slides from the talk, but video of a similar talk is available here. He spent quite a bit of his talk trying to debunk the Occupy Movement’s slogan that inequality has been increasing. The 90:10 ratio bounced along near 3 for a while, then rose to 4 during the 1980s (the Thatcher years… who knew?!), and hasn’t moved much since. Case closed. Oh, but wait, what about other measures of inequality, you may ask. And since you might ask, he had to set up some straw men to knock down. He showed the same pattern for five other measures of inequality. Case really closed.

Except that these five were all measuring the same thing, more or less. The argument people like Piketty have been making is not that the 90th percentile has been doing so much better than the 10th percentile, but that increases in wealth have been concentrated in ever smaller fractions of the population. None of the measures he looked was designed capture that process. The Gini coefficient, which looks like it measures the whole distribution, because it is a population average is actually extremely insensitive to extreme concentration at the high end. Suppose the top 1% has 20% of the income. Changes of distribution within the top 1% cannot shift the Gini coefficient by more than about 3% of its current value. He also showed the 95:5 ratio, and low-and-behold, that kept rising through the 90s, then stopped. All consistent with the main critique of rising income inequality.

Since he’s obviously not stupid, and obviously understands economics much better than I do, it’s hard to avoid thinking that this was all smoke and mirrors, intended to lull people to sleep about rising inequality, under the cover of technocratic expertise. It’s a well-known trick: Ignore the strongest criticism of your point of view, and give lots of details about weak arguments. Mathematical details are best. “Just do the math” is a nice slogan. Sometimes simple (or complex) calculations can really shed light on a problem that looks to be inextricably bound up with political interests and ideologies. But sometimes not. And sometimes you just have to accept that a political economic argument needs to be melded with statistical reasoning, and you have to be open about the entirety of the argument. (more…)

The World’s Greatest University(TM) has a bad PR day

Pity the poor flack in Harvard’s press office that needs to deal with two remarkable instances of cravenness in a single day: Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government bowed to criticism from the CIA to revoke its invitation to military whistleblower and transgender activist Chelsea Manning to come for a short stay as a “visiting fellow”. And Michelle Jones who rehabilitated herself in prison after a gruesome childhood that culminated in the neglect, abuse, and possibly murder of her own child, to emerge 20 years later as a noted historian of the local prison system, to be admitted to multiple graduate programmes in history, but had her acceptance at Harvard overruled by the university administration. (more…)

Mandatory retirement age

Oxford University’s ruling body, the Congregation, had a meeting recently to discuss the possibility of abolishing the university’s mandatory retirement age, with the somewhat orwellian title of Employer Justified Retirement Age (EJRA). EJRA is provided for in the 2010 Equality Act that banned various sorts of discrimination, including age discrimination. Every serious discussion of this topic uses pilots as an example: Safety functions depending potentially on fast reflexes, known to decline with age, and hard to evaluate individually. Not really analogous to a typical university post. Instead, the argument is that the old need to be pushed out to make way for the young, a matter of intergenerational fairness. Of course, there is nothing special about universities in this point — except that university posts are seen (by some) as singularly attractive. It’s a kind of discrimination Catch 22: Anti-discrimination law allows people to keep their jobs as long as they wish (and are performing them competently) only if it is a job that is unpleasant and that they would rather quit as soon as possible. If you have an attractive job that you’d like to keep doing, then you have to retire to make way for new people.

Although my research on ageing has concerned itself largely with technical issues, and often with evolutionary theory rather than social issues, I have been interested from the start in questions of variability in ageing patterns, and I have read some of the literature on the destructive effects of age stereotypes. Personally, I’ve always felt strongly attracted to the sartrean dictum that existence preceeds essence and have reacted viscerally to constraints placed on people because of the categories they are associated with. (more…)

Worst mathematics metaphor ever?

I’ve come to accept “growing exponentially” — though I once had to bite my tongue at a cancer researcher claiming that “exponential growth” of cancer rates began at age 50, because earlier the rates were just generally low — and didn’t say anything when someone recently referred to having “lots of circles to square”. But here’s a really new bad mathematics metaphor: the Guardian editorialises that after Brexit

Europe will be less than the sum of its remaining parts.

“More than the sum of its parts” or “less than” is something you say when you’re adding things together, and pointing out either that you don’t actually get as much extra as you’d think or, on the contrary, that you get more. That you get less when you take something away really doesn’t need much explanation and, in any case, it’s not about the sum of the parts. Whether the remains of Europe are more or less than the sum of the other parts seems kind of irrelevant to whatever argument is being suggested.

“Getting a bit of extra assistance is never cheating”

If I were a philosophy student with a looming deadline for an essay on casuistry, I know I’d turn to BuyEssay for expert help. The Guardian has reported on government moves to crack down on essay mills, that sell individually crafted essays for students who need “extra help” –anything from a 2-page essay to a PhD dissertation (for just £6750!) The article reprints some of the advertising text that these websites offer to soothe tender consciences.

“Is Buying Essays Online Cheating?” it asks, in bold type. You’d think this would be an easy question, hardly something you could spin a 300-word essay out of. But they start with a counterintuitive answer: “We can assure you it is NOT cheating”. The core of the argument is this:

What is essential when you are in college or university is to focus on scoring high grades and to get ready for your career ahead. In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Trivial things like ordering an essay will seem too distant to even be considered cheating.

Given that high grades are so essential, it seems almost perverse that universities make it so difficult to obtain them. Why do they put all these essays and other hurdles in the way — “unreasonable demands from unrelenting tutors in expecting extensive research in a short time”, as the essay puts it? It’s shitty customer service, that’s what it is.

The only critique I might make is that the essay is a bit generic. I’d worry that when I submitted it for the assignment “Is Buying Essays Online Cheating”, that the marker might notice that someone else bought almost the same essay for the assignment “Is Murder Wrong?” In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Wasn’t this the plot of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors?

Who tricked whom into eating potatoes?

Reading Richard Evans’s The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815–1914, I discovered this anecdote about Ioannis Kapodistrias, appointed by Russia as governor of Greece in the late 1820s:

He introduced the potato into Greece, in an effort to improve people’s diet. At first, this met with deep skepticism among the peasantry, who refused to take up his offer of free distribution of seed potatoes to anyone who would plant them. Trying a new tactic, Kapodistrias had the potatoes piled up on the waterfront at Nafplio and surrounded by armed guards. This convinced local people and visitors from the countryside that these new vegetables were precious objects, and thus worth stealing. Before long, as the guards turned a blind eye, virtually all the potatoes had been taken — and their future in Greece was assured.

This reminded me of something I read many years ago, in Fernand Braudel’s The Identity of France:

In France, despite its early success, it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that the potato was regarded as truly ‘worthy’ to be eaten, with partisans prepared to defend it on both dietary and culinary grounds… In the géneralité of Limoges, potatoes were originally banned because they were thought to cause leprosy…

The corner was not really turned until the severe famine of 1769-70. The following year, the Academy of Besançon set an essay competition on the subject: “Suggest food plants which might be used in times of famine to supplement those usually eaten.’ All the essays mentioned the potato — notably the winning entry, which came from Parmentier. He then embarked upon a massive propaganda campaign, deploring ‘the mocking humour of our scornful citizens’. He published widely, gave advice on the growing and storing of the potato, organized gourmet dinners in his own home at which nothing but dishes made from potatoes were served…, brought to Paris all the varieties then cultivated in France and had even more shipped from America to give a better selection. He finally obtained from Louis XVI, in 1786, permission to set up an experimental plantation on about 20 hectares just outside Paris in Neuilly, on the untended and infertile soil of the plain of Sablons. It was a complete success. In his efforts to attract consumers, Parmentier concluded that the best method would be to entice people to steal his potatoes. So he ostentatiously had his plantation guarded by the maréchaussée, the local police — but only by day. Similarly, he advised landowners not to force potatoes on their peasants, but to plant one fine field full themselves and ‘expressly forbid anyone to enter’ — a more subtle approach than that of Frederick II of Prussia who sent in the troops to make the peasants plant potatoes.

Is it possible that Kapodistrias knew of Parmentier’s example? I guess so. Was this actually a well-known method for tricking the childish peasants into trying something new? Maybe. Or are these anecdotes, rather, merely recrudescences of a universal myth about how to trick the childish peasants? I’m not interested enough to track down the references…

16th century Sokal hoax

Many of our readers will recall the celebrated hoax perpetrated by mathematical physicist Alan Sokal in 1996 against the humanities journal Social Text. Sokal submitted an article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” for an issue on “Science Wars”. The article strung together buzzwords helter-skelter to conclude with a flattering claim of the importance of social theory for natural science. The fact that it was published is cited even today by supercilious physicists and insecure journalists as conclusive proof that academic jargon in the humanities and social sciences is all fake.

Anyway, I was just reading Montaigne’s essay “Du pedantisme” (On pedantry), and found the following anecdote:

J’ay veu chez moy un mien amy, par maniere de passetemps, ayant affaire à un de ceux-cy, contrefaire un jargon de Galimatias, propos sans suitte, tissu de pieces rapportées, sauf qu’il estoit souvent entrelardé de mots propres à leur dispute, amuser ainsi tout un jour ce sot à debattre, pensant tousjours respondre aux objections qu’on luy faisoit. Et si estoit homme de lettres et de reputation, et qui avoit une belle robbe.

I observed at my home a friend of mine making sport of one of these [pedants] by making up a nonsense jargon, propositions with no succession, a patchwork of pieces that had nothing in common except for some buzzwords  that he stuck in that related to their topic, and he amused himself a whole day with this crazy debate, always managing to think of new answers to the man’s objections. And this was a greatly reputed man of letters.

The view from one-in-a-billion

Nautilus just published my new article, a nontechnical introduction to large deviations: The theory of how unlikely rare events are, and which way a rare event chooses to occur, given that it occurs.

The secret to a long life

It’s well known that marriage is an important factor in longevity. But maybe we’ve been interpreting that wrong, or, at least, not optimising.

From the Gerontology Research Group article on the current oldest living person, Italian Emma Morano:

In 1926, Mrs. Morano was married to Giovanni Martinuzzi, a marriage she would rather not talk about… Having separated – but not divorced – from her husband in 1938, Mrs. Morano has lived alone ever since, and accredits this as one of the key secrets to her longevity.

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