Friday, 18 July 2014

Leberwusrt University, somewhere in Germany

The catastrophic demise of German higher education

Prof. Dr. Stefan Schweinsteiger [*]

To respond to Dr. Thompson’s request to describe our university standards, I will describe the educational situation at the university that I work at, Leberwurst University [*]. Even though in Germany education policy is determined by the federal state, Leberwurst University is a fairly typical German university, and its educational policies and standards are similar to most of the many other German universities that I know.

Before I go into the horrors of Leberwurst education standards, first a bit of background, so the reader knows “where I’m coming from”. In my admittedly layman’s view (I am not an expert on education), the central aim of education is that students acquire certain skills and or knowledge which they did not possess before. In order to achieve this goal, two things need to happen. First, students go to an institution (for instance, a university) where they engage in intensive interactions with qualified experts who will teach them the required new skills and knowledge. Also, in order to facilitate the learning process, the students also do home assignments etc., supervised by the teacher. Secondly, in order to ensure that the students actually have acquired the desired skills and knowledge after the educational experience, the students are tested, for instance by taking verbal or written exams, doing home assignments, writing essays, etc. These tests enable the institution to establish the degree to which the student has become skilled and knowledgeable, usually with the help of a ‘grading system’ that quantifies the level of expertise that the student has reached. Testing students serves the purposes of quality control, both at the student level (universities, and presumably, the students themselves, want to know how competent a particular student has become) and at the university level (universities want to know how effective they are at educating students).

You may perhaps be yawning already, but trite as this all may sound, the German higher education policy does not share these assumptions at all. Generally, the aim is not to change students into more competent and knowledgeable people, but rather to give as many members of the population as possible a certified university education. The difference between educating people and giving people a certificate of education is comparable to the difference between a country increasing its GDP on the one hand, and simply printing more money on the other. This rather odd goal is motivated by the noble political ideology of Chancengleichheit (“equal opportunity”), which is also why our students have to pay nothing at all (as in: zero Euros) for the privilege of receiving a university education. At the end of this essay I will explain why and how the German education policy nevertheless manages to severely obstruct equal opportunity.

In Leberwurst University, the simple education strategy outlined above completely and utterly fails, for the following reasons.

First, it is forbidden for teachers to require their students to be present. I do not mean “mentally present” here; I mean, “physically present at the location where the education actually takes place”, e.g., a classroom or a lecture hall. It is forbidden to record the absence or presence of the students, and it is most certainly forbidden to use presence or absence of students as a criterion for grading, or for deciding who ‘passes’ or ‘fails’. This is not only the policy of the management of Leberwurst University (although it is) but it is also official federal state policy. We even got an official letter from the Federal Ministry of Education that told us that we are not allowed to require students’ presence, as this would violate educational law in that it would restrict the students’ Studierfreiheit (“freedom of study”) and even more serious, it would violate constitutional law because it would restrict the students’ Handlungsfreiheit (“freedom of action”). So if we as teachers require students to be educated at a certain location, we are illegally restricting them in their personal freedom. The consequences of this policy are disastrous. First of all, a very large percentage of students actually hardly ever show up in their seminars. Usually they drop by once or twice to get a bit of a taste of what’s going on, and that’s about it. For large lectures this is not much of a problem, because if students really believe they can pass the exam without the lectures, that’s their problem (more on this later). But for small and intensive seminars, where texts are discussed, techniques demonstrated, exercises explained and discussed, etc. etc., it is simply not possible to engage in meaningful educational interactions if the majority of the participants in this interaction is physically not present. Also, the few students that do show up occasionally are usually different ones every week, so it is not possible to build on material that has been covered before, forcing the teachers to make little stand-alone sessions without any cumulative coherence whatsoever. Another interesting consequence is that students sometimes enlist in two or three simultaneous courses, reasoning that if they don’t need to be present, they might just as well be absent at three courses at the same time. Finally, student evaluations of teachers become irrelevant and even absurd, if the students filling in forms about what they thought of the quality of the teaching have never even showed up at the actual teaching.

Now some may argue: why not just do a tough exam at the end of the course, and then the students who weren’t there will simply fail. Fail they will, but there are three reasons why this strategy does not work. First, a large majority of courses do not require a grade. For instance, in the BA program I teach, students will have to complete 25 courses (i.e., seminars, lectures etc.). Of these 25 courses, only four require a grade. The other courses require instead something called aktive Teilnahme (AT), “active participation” which is a very Orwellian name because it neither involves activity nor participation. To get AT, the students have to do something at least vaguely related to the content of the course, usually give a short talk about one of the articles they read, or hand in a summary or protocol. But the thing is: we are not allowed to judge (grade) the quality of the work that is handed in; we are only allowed to assess whether they have done it. The important legal criterion here is whether they have “put in some effort” (which the students can always claim to have done, and we can never disprove it). So if their requirements for AT in Wurstology 101 are “hand in an essay about the contemporary pricing policy of German wurst” and the student hands in a text saying only “I never eat wurst because I’m a vegetarian, so I have no idea”, they have formally complied with the request. And then there is literally nothing the teacher can do to stop this student from getting the AT certificate. Even if the student has otherwise never even been present at the course at all, doesn’t even know the name of the teacher, and everyone knows that the student’s knowledge of Wurstology is absolutely zero.

Second, even for those courses where grading is still allowed, you just can’t get away with failing 95 out of a 100 students. The management will sternly tell you that either your standards are too high, or you are a bad teacher, or both. And if you then tell the management: “no, but they just don’t show up when I teach”, the common reply by the management is “well, then your courses are apparently not attractive and student-friendly enough”. Also, failing students often results in legal procedures initiated by the students (which they very often win) and in any case in having more students to deal with in the next semester, because at Leberwurst, students can repeat courses indefinitely, as often as they like. So there are many strong incentives for teachers to give up their academic standards and just pass everyone at some point in time. The management’s pressure to pass students is to a large degree caused by pressure from the federal state government to lower the quota of students who fail to get a degree, so failing 95% of the students, no matter how justified, will lead to all kinds of (usually financial) negative consequences for the university and the faculty.

Which brings us to the next point: grade inflation. The German grade system is numerical with 1 meaning “excellent”, 2 “good”, 3 “satisfactory” and 4 “sufficient”. But giving someone a 2 or worse often results in either suicidal or legal behavior by the students, so the actual realistic margins are between 1 and 2. Even then, students getting a 1.7 often angrily demand an explanation why they didn’t get a 1.0. So when some funding organization once asked us to give them the list of the 5% best students on the basis of grades, we could not comply, because if a massive majority has an average of 1.0, the best 5% are simply not definable. So we were then asked to “intuitively” identify the best 5% of our students, which we can do, of course, but it obviously defeats the purpose of using a grading system. Even more absurd is the grading system of PhD theses. In our neighboring country The Netherlands for instance, the qualification “Cum Laude” is rather rare and indicates an exceptional performance of the PhD candidate. In Germany, the same qualification “Cum Laude” actually means: “dear candidate, please take your thesis and please discretely take the back exit and never show yourself at this university again, because we are extremely disappointed in your thesis”. We now have “Magna Cum Laude” and the highest, “Summa Cum Laude” for the acceptable and the good thesis respectively. At least, that was the case 15 years ago. Now the Summa is becoming the new norm, and it is seen as an “affront” to give someone anything lower than Summa. Interestingly, many German applicants who only have the default “Cum Laude” are undeservedly seen as geniuses in other countries, where this inflation has not taken place.

It is also not allowed at Leberwurst to require students to have successfully completed course A before one can follow some course B. So we cannot require any foreknowledge for any of our courses, except for the first year in which a few elementary courses have to be completed. This makes it very hard, if not impossible, to go deeper into complicated topics, because there are always some students lacking the necessary background, slowing the entire educational process down to a near-halt.

Generally, the students are very powerful at Leberwurst, and most of them are interesting in doing as little as possible while still getting their certificate as fast as possible. Professors are perceived as authoritarian relics from the past whose only elitist goal is to prevent students from getting the degree they deserve as a birthright. Students are fundamentally against any form of testing for which they can fail, and often have the political power to get to a large degree what they want, because the German educators are very reluctant to compare students and judge them qualitatively. The very idea that there are better students and worse students is strongly discouraged in our current educational ideology.

A good illustration of the mentality of the German student at Leberwurst is the following anecdote. A teacher was very annoyed by the fact that her students didn’t read the texts they were supposed to read. So she said: OK, you know what? Go home, read the text, and we’ll discuss the text next week. Instead of feeling ashamed about not having read the text, the students immediately went to the Dean to complain that the teacher was not fulfilling her legally required 9 hours of teaching per week.

The consequences of this type of educational environment are catastrophic. Leberwurst University is getting a very bad name in German industry (as are German universities generally), the students that leave Leberwurst with a certificate have hardly learned anything, and have acquired a very bad working mentality in the process.

Another thing that we can learn from this German educational “experiment” is that education is a contract between teacher and student. If one of these parties does not fulfill their side of the bargain, no education is taking place. Even the best teacher in the world cannot teach students anything if do not show up and invest some effort. Not only is this student-teacher dynamic very detrimental for the students’ acquisition of knowledge and skills, another not unimportant effect is that it really kills any residual didactical motivation in the teachers. And staying motivated is hard enough already for German professors with their legally minimal teaching load of nine hours per week.

As a final remark, the German educational policy seems to be a classic example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. If everyone can get high grades and a certificate without any form of talent and/or hard work, a smart person from a poor socio-economic background cannot distinguish her or himself from a not-so-smart person from a rich family. So by giving everybody effectively the same high grade or qualification, the end result is that the person from a poor background is deprived of the possibility to let his or her qualifications compensate for the cultural disadvantage. In the end, employers who need to select the best people cannot do so on the basis of grades, and will be tempted to look at less relevant aspects such as accent, manners or clothing style, in other words: indicators of social class.

[*] For reasons of anonymity, these are not real names.

Monday, 14 July 2014

University Standards: Yahoo University, USA

An American correspondent writes to me about university standards.

1 What do you think of the quality of education in your university and in your country?

U.S. & my specific university-the whole spectrum. You can major in physics or fashion merchandising.

2 Which circumstances encourage or prevent your university from educating students to a high level?

Politics. At the center of the university is an emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism. This emphasis is seen by the newest building constructed at the center of campus (the multicultural center) during an extremely tight budget. This emphasis is seen in faculty awards in which numerous are given for excellence in diversity, whatever that means, and only one for research. My guess is that preference is given for those who research diversity.

I identify this emphasis as a hindrance for education because the focus is ideology and not “truth”. The two are at odds and ideology has been chosen.

3 How many of your students are able to follow “College Format”, which means that although they attend lectures they can also learn based on gathering and inferring their own information, and establishing and applying general principles rather than following checklists. They do their own reading and show autonomy in learning. Learners are expected to search for faults in what they are taught. They can deal with tasks which require the application of specialised background knowledge, dis-embedding the features of a problem from a text, and drawing high-level inferences from highly complex text with multiple distractors. For more guidance, they will be in the top 5% of the population, or better still, top 2%.http://drjamesthompson.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/the-7-tribes-of-intellect.html

A handful. I don’t have a good feel for the “college format” concept so I can’t estimate a percentage.

4 Does your university recognise that students have different levels of ability, and factor that into exam results and student opinions about the teaching they receive?

I am having trouble understanding this question. Is it asking if students receive extra points on exams for having lower abilities, kind of a sliding scale? If this is the question the answer is no. If it is asking if teacher evaluations are adjusted for student ability, the answer is no as well.

5 Are you allowed to set demanding examinations, even if many students fail your test and some are asked to leave the university?

Yes, but it is not encouraged. Your student evaluations would suffer. If untenured, you would risk receiving tenure. If tenured, you risk performance pay raises.

Besides no one likes being disliked or the extra work that results from unhappy and failing students.

6 Are you allowed to give extra attention to your brightest students, including additional seminars and research work?

Yes.

7 Does your university recognise that university staff have different levels of ability?

Given the focus of the university the ability = diversity and those who are more diverse are given awards.

8 Do you feel able to teach about group differences in ability without negative consequences to your career?

As with the level of difficulty for the courses I have tried to balance honesty/integrity and living in the real world teaching at my university. The direct question of group differences finally came up in a graduate course I was teaching last fall. I said I don’t discuss the issue in class because anything I say will most likely be misconstrued and that I would be more than willing to direct any interested students toward readings that would introduce them to multiple sides of the issue.

We had read a little bit of Steven Pinker’s Blank Slate and he mentions something about group differences in this particular summary. A student brought a section to the attention of the class that alludes to group differences in intelligence. The student’s intention was to cast the whole reading as bullshit because of this allusion. When I responded to the student that group differences were an empirical, not political question (a question I would personally not discuss), I got the feeling that this seen as an unsatisfactory response on my part.

It was interesting, I believe the students wanted me to dismiss the possibility of group differences out of hand, but they couldn’t argue against it being an empirical question. This seemed to bother several of them even more.

9 Are there other aspects of university standards which are relevant to the overall quality of the education provided to students?

I can’t get my head around this question either.

 

Comment: I look forward to hearing from other readers.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

University standards

It is probable that many of my readers work in universities. I would like to hear from you, wherever you are in the world, about a number of matters:

1 What do you think of the quality of education in your university and in your country?

2 Which circumstances encourage or prevent your university from educating students to a high level?

3 How many of your students are able to follow “College Format”, which means that although they attend lectures they can also learn based on gathering and inferring their own information, and establishing and applying general principles rather than following checklists. They do their own reading and show autonomy in learning. Learners are expected to search for faults in what they are taught. They can deal with tasks which require the application of specialised background knowledge, dis-embedding the features of a problem from a text, and drawing high-level inferences from highly complex text with multiple distractors. For more guidance, they will be in the top 5% of the population, or better still, top 2%. http://drjamesthompson.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/the-7-tribes-of-intellect.html

4 Does your university recognise that students have different levels of ability, and factor that into exam results and student opinions about the teaching they receive?

5 Are you allowed to set demanding examinations, even if many students fail your test and some are asked to leave the university?

6 Are you allowed to give extra attention to your brightest students, including additional seminars and research work?

7 Does your university recognise that university staff have different levels of ability?

8 Do you feel able to teach about group differences in ability without negative consequences to your career?

9 Are there other aspects of university standards which are relevant to the overall quality of the education provided to students?

I am happy to receive short essays provoked by these questions, rather than just comments, though those will also be welcome. I will present each as a separate posting under University Standards.  I also understand that you may wish to write to me directly, and ask for your contribution and your university not to be identified. Inventing a name for your university might help. For such matters send me an electronic mail addressed to my first name James followed by a full stop and then my surname Thompson followed by curly a and then “university college london” as initial letters only, then dot “ac” dot “uk”

That should fool everyone, shouldn’t it?

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

A secret between the two of us

Abusers of children often try to convince them that what is going on should be kept secret. It suits their purposes, because sex with children gratifies the abusers, and they know exactly what is going on, unlike the child.

As a consequence, investigators of child abuse take pains to explain to children that some secrets need to be shared with others, not kept for ever. The UK is currently going through trials of sex abusers of children, and also re-examining the investigations which were carried out, or more commonly not carried out, in previous decades. The general mood in the press is that it is time to expose the secret world of abusers, which may include high profile people capable of covering up their practices and impeding the course of justice.

Regular readers of this blog will not need the following to be spelt out for them, but to new readers, welcome, and please understand this distinction: one can be morally opposed to a practice and also retain an enquiring mind about how it is defined, detected, proved and punished.

In a recent trial of what is now called “historical child abuse” many reporters have said that many sexual practices and events were revealed in the trial which they thought it proper not to report to the general public. They said that the material was so disgusting that it should not to be published. In general, I agree with such restraint.

However, it means that a secret is being kept from us: namely, precisely what takes place when a child or young woman is abused. This cannot be kept secret from everyone. Somewhere there must be trial proceedings which can be seen by researchers who, even if they don’t report each trial in detail, can at least classify the behaviours in terms of severity. For example, child pornography has been classified in terms of the blatant and intrusive nature of the acts portrayed, and presumably this is known to researchers, and can at least be described in general terms. There are many definitions of sexual abuse, but this covers a wide range of behaviours, from unwanted touching to rape. We need more understanding of the categories of actions that constitute abusive sexual behaviour. Otherwise, as members of the general public, we are being led to believe by press accounts that people are being sent to prison for allegedly touching the breasts of young women. It is also unclear how courts deal with adult accusers who apparently consentingly return to the alleged abuser on many occasions for sexual meetings. Restraint in reporting sexual crimes can lead to public bewilderment.

When sexual abuse of children was being investigated decades ago I recall sitting through tapes of children talking about what had happened to them, whilst being interviewed by questioners using anatomical dolls. The interviews were harrowing, and also flawed. Some children being interviewed had very probably been abused. However, many interviewers did not realise that the questions they were putting to the child were too complex, and that they were leading the child rather than using appropriate open-ended enquiries. It was frustrating to see how errors were very probably being made because of a lack of care in interviewing methods, and a lack of understanding of childhood cognition.

There are also more general evidential matters to consider: reporting makes it unclear how the statements of the accused are balanced against the statements of the accuser. Current prosecution policy seems to be to show that there is a pattern of behaviour, namely that the accusation made by one person has also been made by others, presumably independently. This is somewhat different from the procedures followed with other crimes, in which a habitual burglar is judged on each case, not on the fact that they habitually burgle houses. Pattern recognition makes sense from a psychological point of view, but usually common law has been against it, attempting to judge each event on its own merits.

I do not intend to attend any trials, but it would be good if, sometime, someone would spell out what the press did not report, perhaps in an obscure legal report or academic paper. As always, if you know what is going on, please send me a reference.

Monday, 7 July 2014

An Editor’s real opinion of peer review

 

Richard Smith has retired from the British Medical Journal, after 25 years. I met him in 1984 when he was reporting on a conference I was attending, and after having listened to most of a symposium he offered to leave the room, to write up a journalistic summary, and to return to present the results, thus getting us to appreciate what journalists were looking for, and how they worked. It was a generous offer, though some felt there was no point asking a general journalist to deal with even mildly technical matters. He returned with a good piece, though several conference participants still griped about journalists. The general reaction was “Better a paper never read than a readable summary which didn’t quite get the subtleties of our deliberations”.

Now Richard has written his swansong, equivalent to HMG Ambassador at the end of his posting writing back to the Foreign Office to tell them exactly what he thinks of the locals. Of some interest to me are his caustic words on peer review:

Peer review is still in the dark age with most journals,11 12 and the BMJ has not progressed far. After centuries of being unexamined, the sacred process of peer review has been shown through research to be slow, expensive, ineffective, a lottery, biased, incapable of detecting fraud, and prone to abuse.11 12 Evidence for its upside is sparse. Through our collective failure of imagination it is still, however, the least worst system, and the best strategy seems to be to try to improve rather than replace it. My vision has been that a clumsy black box should become an open scientific discourse conducted in full view and real time on the web. This vision is not widely shared, and even with the BMJ we've got only as far as letting authors know the name of reviewers.

Richard’s plea will sit well with many commentators on this blog and elsewhere.

I find he is a fan of CP Cavafy, whose poem Ithaka gives him the title to his farewell: “Hope your road is a long one, Full of adventure, full of discovery”. Cavafy, the master poet of Alexandria has a talent for the long view. His magisterial and valedictory poem Apoleipein o Theos Antonion  The God Abandons Antony was read at Jackie Kennedy’s funeral. For personal longevity however, I best recall The Afternoon Sun which Lawrence Durrell mentioned in his Alexandrian Quartet. In fact, I think I remember the poem better than the quartet.

BMJ Editor farewell here: http://www.bmj.com/content/329/7460/242

Cavafy canon here: http://www.cavafy.com/poems/list.asp?cat=1

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Mutilated genitalia, mutilated statistics?

 

I am sure that you will have detected that I am against Female Genital Mutilation. I think it is a foul practice carried out by stupid people. I also think it is stupid to condone stupid habits because of the notion that habits are sacrosanct because they are part of “culture”. Cultures vary: some lead to good lives, others to miserable ones. The National Socialists certainly had a culture: ideas, policies, plans, uniforms that some people still find exciting, a very vivid and memorable party symbol, marching songs and the profound belief that their habits would last a thousand years. Mercifully, though at the cost of millions of lives, their awful culture lasted only 12 years. For the record, I am also not a fan of Stalinism or Maoism or Pol Pot.  I am against FGM (as we must now refer to it) and want the perpetrators identified, named, and given a firm lecture whilst seated on a large sharp spike. However, despite my revulsion, it is also possible that there has been a massive hype about this, in the sense that FMG happens in other countries but rarely in the UK, hence my interest in whether anyone has any data for the UK. Andrew Sabisky makes a credible case for the sceptical position, giving the reasons why it may happen less when immigrants travel to new countries. Anonymous of 3 July 2014 19:23 sends a link to a publication by Julie Bindell, to see if that helps resolve the matter.

Not very much, I’m afraid. I have looked through the essay for prevalence estimates, and remain disappointed. The essay makes an admission: “The main assumption made in the calculations that follow is that the rates of FGM among groups in the UK are the same as are found back in the mother’s country of birth.”

This is an understandable assumption, in that behavioural continuity is the default position for cultures and for emigrants, but for the reasons advanced by Sabisky in his comments, it might be an over-estimate. Some habits can change if the social pressure which sustains them is weakened, or if those habits become difficult to follow for practical reasons in the new country.  So, most of the Bindell position is based on surmise. The references are unsatisfactory on the key matter of prevalence estimates. It is a policy paper, not an academic paper. It assumes there is a problem in the UK and that an institutional and legal response is required.

Unicef 2013 is probably the main study quoted by Bindell. The authors of that publication say:

More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where FGM/C is concentrated.

Of these, around one in five live in just one country: Egypt. Since certain minority groups and immigrant communities continue the practice in other countries as well, including in Europe and North America, the total number of girls and women worldwide who have undergone FGM/C is likely to be slightly higher. The actual figure remains unknown, however, since reliable data on the magnitude of the phenomenon in these population groups are largely unavailable.

So, they don’t know, and we don’t know. The authors, who have done a reasonable job in the circumstances, admit the estimates are probably too high, and too high for emigrants. Self report is of variable accuracy when compared with physical examination. The UNICEF report does its best. It asks mothers about their daughters (because the mothers ought to remember what was done to their children, even if their daughters themselves were too young to recall being cut). They find that there are big ethnic differences (honour cultures are the most rabid cutters) and that wealthy (and presumably brighter) Africans are less keen on the practice. Many African women would like the practice stopped. However, none of this is of direct relevance to what happens in the UK, though it certainly identifies the African and Middle Eastern groups who follow these habits.

Bindell gives the following figures on page 14:

1 Around 170,000 women and girls in the UK today have undergone FGM (own figures; see Appendix D).
2 Some 65,000 girls aged 13 and under are at risk of mutilation (own figures; see Appendix D).
3 More than 70 women and girls seek medical treatment every month for FGM
(NSPCC, 2013a).
4 Some 7,000 women affected by FGM give birth in London every year (Equality Now, 2010).
5 In the last two years alone, over 1,700 women and girls have been referred to specialist clinics that deal with FGM (Metropolitan Police, 2013).

Bindell adds:  However, it is believed that the true number of those who have undergone FGM is likely to be much higher, since only a small fraction of victims seek medical help (Metropolitan Police, 2013).

This is the familiar “tip of the iceberg” argument. However, when you look at the references these are not published papers. They are links to claims that have been made.  The calculation about girls at risk in Appendix D are the usual sort: count how many Africans are in the UK, Africans do this sort of stuff, therefore they are probably continuing to do this stuff. Probably so, but not certainly so. Below is the preliminary report from the NSPCC: 

As of September 2013, the helpline had received 96 contacts (voice and non-voice): 18 for advice, 35 for referral and 43 for an enquiry. Information was available for 27 contacts: 8 related to abuse that had taken place on the same or the previous day; 11 related to abuse in the previous month; 5 were about abuse that had taken place in the previous 6–12 months; and 3 related to historic abuse. Although the dataset is small, it does seem to indicate that the helpline is being used more for current or very recent incidences of FGM. Of those contacts for which information is available (44), 23 were made by professionals, 11 by members of the public and 10 by a parent, carer or relative of the child. It is interesting that, according to the available data, no survivors of FGM had themselves made contact using the helpline. All information received by the helpline is routinely referred to the local police, children’s services and the Metropolitan Police. By September 2013, some 35 referrals had been made to the police, and these had resulted in 47 investigations, none of which had led to a conviction.

Comment: Suggestive and worrying, but does little to establish prevalence. The reference is opaque about what a “referral” means. It is hard to get convictions even when you have been knifed in the street, but zero convictions don't help to establish any case.

The Metropolitan Police stuff does not establish that FGM took place in the UK or by UK parents taking their children abroad. The “reference” given by Bindell leads to a webpage which repeats the claim without giving any information. So, the claim that: “In the last two years alone, over 1,700 women and girls have been referred to specialist clinics that deal with FGM” is supported by ….. the repeating of the claim. What does “referred to specialist clinics” mean if we don’t know what the specialist clinics found? Did a Police surgeon do a medical examination? It is very hard to track down the real findings. I often find that references in policy documents lead to a dead end. I am still searching for a paper which gives hard figures on a sample who have been examined physically.

The Dorkenoo, Morison and Macfarlane (2007) paper is said to make a prevalence estimate. http://www.popline.org/node/201747 

This paper turns out to be a disappointment. They just count Africans in the UK and judge their daughters to be at risk of the razor. Lots of numbers and maps, but no capture/re-capture numbers. The authors also make it clear that they cannot entirely trust the Unicef numbers, so they are using an African prevalence rate about which they are doubtful and, in an act of faith, calculating how many Africans now living in the UK are “at risk” of behaving like Africans in Africa. They may be absolutely right that Africans will be Africans, but as regard messing around with genitalia, it is interesting to note that African women mostly wish that this practice should stop, and perhaps emigration gives them a chance to achieve freedom from this gross practice. Although the authors have worked carefully, they then pat themselves on the back and say “The results presented here are the most rigorous estimates to date. To obtain a clearer picture of actual prevalence among both migrant and second generation women, a survey of women giving birth in the UK would be needed, however.” Rigorous “to date” perhaps, but not rigorous in the usual sense of that word. They are right about the need for maternity ward estimates. If we had good data of that sort we would be on firmer ground,  but see below for a fuller procedure.

McCaffrey M, Jankowska S HO and Gordon H (1995) ‘Management of female genital mutilation: the Northwick Park Hospital experience’ British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 102: 787–90.

Unfortunately it is hard to draw conclusions about prevalence from this study, let alone any data about prevalence of the practice in the UK. The impression gained from reading the paper is that these African women suffered mutilation mostly in Somalia and then came to Britain, where their damaged genitalia presented significant problems at childbirth, leading to de-infibulation, the practice of surgical intervention to open up the vagina prior to delivery, thus significantly improving the outcome of the pregnancy for mother and child. Cultural practices be damned.

Here are the scraps of information for the Bayesians among you. The number of African women delivered at Northwick Park Hospital has risen from 1.23% in 1988 to 5.79% in the first seven months of 1994. Fifty women have attended the clinic in the first six months. (Not clear how many African women in total attended maternity services at Northwick Park). Thirteen of the women were non-pregnant, 14 were primagravid, and 23 were multigravid. The main reason for attendance of the non-pregnant women was a request for de-infibulation. In addition, three patients had been victims of sexual assault (two children and one adult), and one patient had a painful vulva swelling. Where information on age at the time of circumcision was available, the mean age of infibulation was 6.7 years (range: birth to 13 years). The ages of the pregnant patients ranged from 17 to 34 years (mean age 26 years). Those who were not pregnant ranged in age from 14 to 33 years (mean age 23.3 years).

All this tells you very little about how many African women have their genitalia messed about with, and how many suffered this in the UK.

Summary: FGM is apparently still rife in Africa, but if modernity, globalisation and education for girls has any effect then it should be dying out, which is what African women want. There is no hard evidence it is being done in the UK, but it is worth investigating, so long as the indigenous white locals can bear to think that some aspects of their culture are better than some aspects of other people’s cultures. 

So, is Female Genital Mutilation the tip of the iceberg or the skin of an onion? I tried to explain these two conflicting analogies on 6 December 2012. It is an argument which rages about many a human behaviour and presumed epidemic disorder.

http://drjamesthompson.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/icebergs-and-onions.html

If we really want to get an estimate of FGM rates we will have to do some examinations at gynaecology clinics, STD clinics and maternity wards in specified populations. Then, by checking names, we should be able to get capture/re-capture/re-capture numbers within a year, from which much better estimates might be derived. Then we have to do the hardest thing: we have to say that not mutilating genitalia is a better policy than taking out razor blades. How shall we explain that?

Suttee or sati is the Indian practice of widows immolating themselves on their dead husband’s funeral pyre. Initially British rulers in India tried to regulate the process by requiring it to be supervised by local religious authorities (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) but eventually banned it. There were protests from Hindu priests in 1859 who complained to General Sir Charles James Napier, the Commander-in-Chief in India about the prohibition of sati by British authorities.

"Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.

I doubt we have the self-assurance to do anything remotely like that now.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Generational conflict

Some years ago it was fashionable among some British baby-boomers to argue that their excesses in the 1960s had been enjoyed at the cost of the prosperity of later generations. The basic argument was: we have so much money now and today the young  are poor, have no jobs and will be burdened with debts for the rest of their lives, and we “pinched” their futures from them.

Although this was a silly argument it provides a teaching point: in looking at the effects of ageing you have to distinguish between biological and historical effects. You, dear reader, whatever your age, will be showing effects of age, and potentially also the effects of the times in which you lived. For example, if you are a bright young thing and applied for a job with Lehman Brothers on 14 September 2008 you would have received an unpleasant surprise the following day, and may not be currently employed as a banker. You will still be full of wit and energy, well employed, but not yet a wage millionaire. Conversely, if you applied for any job in the USA in 1929 you may have been unemployed for several years, and possibly badly fed, and almost certainly denied educational opportunities.

So, in deciding how to distinguish between biological ageing and historical cohort effects one looks at cross-lagged comparisons. For example, starting in any particular year you look at the intellectual capacities of 20 year olds, 40 year olds, and 60 year olds. Then, 10 years later, you re-test your former subjects, who are now 30, 50 and 70 and also test some new 20 year old. Repeat as required. Warner Schaie changed the view of ageing from very pessimistic to much more optimistic, showing that much of apparent cognitive decline was a cohort effect and not a true biological ageing effect.

So, as anyone ought to be able to see, if you are doing generational comparisons of intellect, or earnings, or wealth, you need long data series which allow cross-lagged comparisons. You compare 20 year olds of the 60’s with 20 year olds of 2010, and adjust for inflation before launching any rhetorically fireworks. The Office of National Statistics has looked at the earnings of those who entered the UK labour market in 1975, 2009 and 2013 and inflation adjusted all of them. Those who entered in 1975 had the hardest time. If you want to pick a generational fight you can say that the generation of 1975 slaved to provide luxury for the generation of 2009.

 

By the way, these earning comparisons are fine, and probably the best ones to do and could well look a bit different after another 5 years of economic growth, if that happens. Accumulated wealth in Britain is largely based on the value of property, and that is currently inflated in London for global reasons. Student debt may never be paid off, and is probably less burdensome for higher earners than the very high tax rates of the 70s and 80s. Furthermore, wealth comparisons now need to be done not only at 60 but also at 80 when the costs of nursing care usually write off a large chunk of accumulated wealth for many older people.

Methods, you see, are to be preferred over assertions, and sometimes social scientists develop methods which can contribute to economic debates.

Where does culture, oops, female genital mutilation, come from?

 

Many years ago it was common to feel sympathy for citizens living behind the Iron Curtain, because their press was severely controlled. Even though their main newspaper Izvestia was called “the deliverer of messages", derived from the verb izveshchat "to inform"and "to notify" it left many messages undelivered and failed to notify the population about many matters. For example, they were rather late to admit the Americans had landed on the moon, and late and dismissive about the meltdown of one of their reactors at Chernobyl, though that eventually changed when the reactor kept burning and the nearby company town had to be evacuated.

So, I hope you will feel sympathy for those who rely on the BBC for their news, as I often do. Here is a BBC news item today (broadcasts on the topic were being shown last night)

Failure to stop FGM is a 'national scandal', say MPs.

 

I certainly agree with that. Here is the link to the full story: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28127678

Perhaps saying “the full story” is being too generous. The story certainly includes this line: “Practised in 29 countries in Africa and some countries in Asia and the Middle East”. However, it does not say who practices this cultural habit in the UK. If there is a scandal, it is usual to identify what sort of people are perpetrating it. I presume that although the MPs blamed a "misplaced concern for cultural sensitivities" for inaction, the BBC maintained its usual stance of cultural sensitivity for the perpetrators wielding their razor blades.

The Wikipedia entry is better:

FGM is practised as a cultural ritual by ethnic groups in 27 countries in sub-Saharan and Northeast Africa, and to a lesser extent in Asia, the Middle East and within immigrant communities elsewhere.[8] It is typically carried out, with or without anaesthesia, by a traditional circumciser using a knife or razor.[9] The age of the girls varies from weeks after birth to puberty; in half the countries for which figures were available in 2013, most girls were cut before the age of five.[5]

The practice is an ethnic marker, rooted in gender inequality, ideas about purity, modesty and aesthetics, and attempts to control women's sexuality.[13] It is supported by both women and men in countries that practise it, particularly by the women, who see it as a source of honour and authority, and an essential part of raising a daughter well.

So, Wikipedia actually says “and within immigrant communities elsewhere”.

I presume, but cannot confirm, that the UK figures are related to the cultural/genetic origins of the people, as Wikipedia suggests, but if anyone has data about the continuation of this foul practice in European countries, I would be interested to see the findings.

If it is necessary to send it to me in Samizdat form, using the Gestetner Cyclostyle duplicating process which I un-fondly remember using in 1968, then I am willing to meet you on a park bench somewhere in London. As Vladimir Bukovsky summarized it: I myself create it, edit it, censor it, publish it, distribute it, and get imprisoned for it."[1]

Sounds like blogging, doesn’t it?

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Where does culture come from?

 

How does yoghurt differ from Los Angeles? Yoghurt has more culture.

HBD Chick asks me Where does culture come from? How does it arise? Where are its roots?

Two human abilities are required for human culture: imitation and memory.

Imitation requires close observation, as one human (who could do something else) finds a reason to notice what another human does, and that some benefit probably results to that human from his action that can also be obtained by the observer who imitates him. Brain is required, even for plagiarism.

Memory is needed, particularly to remember the individual steps that must be taken, and to work out the contexts in which the imitated behaviour can be utilised again. If the crucial steps can be remembered in rhyme or better still, written down, one can pass on the tricks to the next generation.

So, culture is the cultivation of the mind (the soul, Cicero thought: cultura animi) which makes it more productive than it would have been in its wild state. It transforms milk into yoghurt, land into crops, rocks into bronze. Culture provides the petri dish were useful things thrive.

One of our greatest cultural achievements in terms of consistent product was the Olduvai Tool Set, a collection of stone implements our ancestors made, with minimal variation, for 600,000 years.  In that era we were very conservative or not very bright, most probably both.  If only Microsoft could quit playing around with their software, and accept that an operating system has to be rock solid before all else. Quit messing around with the commands I have learned over the years. They are part of my cultural heritage: don’t trash them. Every keystroke is a Buddhist temple to me, and I don’t want corporate Taleban terrorists dynamiting my skills.

Of course, a cultural tradition can outlive its usefulness. Restrictions on eating pork make less sense once a cultural has ubiquitous refrigeration. Culture can keep the wrong things going: stoning people to death; cutting of bits off reproductive organs; sticking to stupid ideas. Petri dishes sometimes help mould to flourish.

Do long-lasting cultural habits suggest genetic causes?

 

In the Boston Review has Philip Cohen reviewed Wade’s “A Troublesome Inheritance” in a piece entitled “Don’t Trouble Yourself”. A couple of points caught my attention. In the last paragraph of his section entitled “Descent into Racism” (this may give you a flavour of the mood) Cohen writes:

Obviously, Wade offers no evidence to support his genetic story of Africa’s poverty because none exists. In the absence of evidence, Wade resorts to homicide statistics. Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa have higher homicide rates than the rich countries, which he calls “a difference that does not prove but surely allows room for a genetic contribution to greater violence in the less developed world.” This contradicts the basic logic of science. As the biologist H. Allen Orr points out in his devastating review, the existence of a difference is not evidence for any one cause of that difference.

Here is the relevant section from Orr: “But if the issue is whether people differ innately in a behavioral trait, a material line of evidence cannot be that people differ in the trait. They may easily differ for other reasons. (Do differences in currency have a genetic basis? After all, there are differences in currency!)”

The argument is true as far as it goes. By leaving out intelligence differences Wade has weakened his explanation of economic differences. However, the currency analogy is interesting. A long established currency would be evidence in favour of something which led to restraint in financial matters for generation after generation. That the name of the British currency is still the “pound” is trivial compared to the fact that it is the world’s oldest currency still in use. So, either solely cultural, or genetic and cultural forces have maintained this store of value since Anglo-Saxon times. The “culture only” explanation is interesting, because it suggests that a habit, once established, will continue, like motion in frictionless space.  This is not entirely silly: culture is a collection of habits, and a habit may persist simply because no-one can be bothered to change it (like calling the currency “the pound”). There are still little roads in the City of London which reproduce paths up from the river landing piers. Now that everyone has built their houses it would be tedious to destroy that street pattern. Worse, it would lead to the loss of some good pubs, for whose customers in the late evening the zigzag nature of the thoroughfare is so well suited.

However, that behavioural inertia would suggest that colonial practices should have stuck in Africa. The railroads should still be there, and all the heavy equipment, all well maintained. Why did that not often happen in Africa? Why did not the African and Indian peoples build on these cultural traditions to make sure there citizens travelled in the carriages, and not on the carriages? Why did Malaysia, post liberation, do better than Kenya, which was predicted at the time to be the likely winner?

So, a difference between genetic groups does not of itself prove a genetic cause, though of course it suggests it, rather in the way that finding health and lifespan difference between social classes suggests that status and resources are part of the cause of the observed differences in life outcomes.

It seems the key attraction of culture as an explanation of behaviour is that it is like mercury, flowing everywhere, adapting to everything, and moving on without leaving a mark. Culture accounts for a people not changing, for a people changing a bit, and then for not changing again.

Although I am not in the prediction business, I wonder what the culture-only protagonists would predict for North Korea? It certainly seems a very different country from South Korea. As Jayman has noted, it may not be a full genetic match, because we do not have genomic data from North Korea. On the basis of the East German experience, if the two countries were to be unified today I predict it would take one generation for the North Koreans to almost catch up with the South Koreans in terms of enterprise and innovation. Specifically, that after 25 years the new generation in the North will be very much like the next generation in the South. All this assumes that the South, as seems likely, supports the North for about 25-40 years. So although the main effect will be over in a generation, this implies that residual effects last two generations. So perhaps we have to say that cultural effects can be reversed in two generations and genetic effects somewhat changed if you implement very strong selection for 16-24 generations.

Is there any state of the world the culture-only hypothesis denies?