Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Morning sickness and child intelligence

 

Morning sickness may mean healthier, intelligent baby opined the headline, and although no link was given, the journal and lead author were mentioned, which lead me to a brand new meta-analysis of the effects of treated and untreated morning sickness on child development. Within that analysis there is one 2009 paper by Nulman which included intelligence testing. So, the “news” is five years old, but interesting nonetheless.

Long-term Neurodevelopment of Children Exposed to Maternal Nausea
and Vomiting of Pregnancy and Diclectin. Irena Nulman, MD, Joanne Rovet, PhD, Maru Barrera, PhD, Dafna Knittel-Keren, MA, Brian M. Feldman, MD,
and Gideon Koren, MD. (J Pediatr 2009;155:45-50).

In a study comparing long term development of children whose mothers suffered from NVP to children born to women not experiencing NVP, Nulman et al. recruited 3 groups of children: 45 born to mothers with NVP treated with doxylamine–pyridoxine, 47 born to mothers with untreated NVP, and 29 born to mothers with no NVP. Children aged 3–7 years received a comprehensive set of psychological tests including measures of intelligence, neurocognitive abilities and behavior. Mothers were assessed for IQ, socioeconomic status and educational level and severity of their NVP symptoms. Although all children scored in the normal range for IQ, those who were exposed to NVP scored higher than the non-exposed group on performance IQ (P < 0.02), NEPSY verbal fluency (P < 0.003), phonological processing (P < 0.004), and McCarthy numerical memory (P < 0.004). Regression analysis adjusted for child’s sex and age identified the predictors of enhanced results to be NVP severity and maternal IQ.

Children’s intelligence was evaluated with the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence–Revised (WPPSI-R) or the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale
of Intelligence, Third Edition (WPPSI-III) which provided an index of Verbal IQ (VIQ), Performance IQ (PIQ), and Full-Scale IQ (FSIQ). Children also underwent: 6 NEPSY subtests (Visual Attention, Verbal Fluency, Comprehension of Instructions, Visuomotor Precision, Sentence Repetition, Narrative Memory); the Preschool Language Scale (PLS-III or PLS-IV); the Beery Developmental Test of Visual-Motor
Integration (VMI); Wide Range Assessment of Visual Motor Abilities (WRAVMA) Pegboard and Matching subtests, and 3 memory subtests of McCarthy Scales of Children’s Abilities (Pictorial Memory and Forward and Backward Numerical
Memory). All tests administered were applicable to the range of ages in the study cohort. In addition, mothers completed the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) and Conner’s Parent Rating Scale questionnaires to assess child behavior and attention problems for children aged 3 to 17 years. The physician also assessed children’s general health, weight, height, and head circumference. Maternal FSIQ was determined with the Vocabulary and Matrix Reasoning subtests of Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence (WASI). SES was measured with the Hollingshead Four Factor Index, which provides a 5-point social class ranking (1 = high, 5 = low) on the basis of parents’ education and employment.

The key findings are in Table II.

                              NVP+diclectin(45)  NVP no diclectin(47)  No NVP(29)

Mother’s tests
WASI Full Scale IQ  107.5 sd 8.8           108.9 sd 11.7          106.3 sd 11.6     NS

Children’s scores

WPPSI Verbal IQ     112.2 sd 13.4          112.9 sd 13.57        110.3 sd 17.9      NS
Performance IQ       120.9 sd 13.9          112.6 sd 13.1           114.9 sd 14.2   P .010
Full Scale IQ             118.7 sd 13.4          114.6 sd 12.8           112.0 sd 15.5     NS

Comment: The mothers are slightly above average, the children apparently very much above average. Either the fathers are all extremely bright or the tests for the children are over-estimates, perhaps a standardisation issue. It would appear that Performance IQ is about 4 to 6 points higher in mothers who were treated for morning sickness, though this is not statistically significant in these small samples. There were significant differences in fluency, phonological processing, and pictorial and numerical memory.

NEPSY Verbal Fluency   11.85 sd 2.57      11.55 sd 2.50         9.93 sd 3.06   P = .013
Phonological Processing 11.02 sd 2.81       10.75 sd 3.31        9.07 sd 3.44   P = .033
McCarthy Pictorial Mem 12.43 sd 2.97      10.37 sd .32        10.62 sd 3.21   P = .017
Numerical Mem               11.68 sd 2.21       11.39 sd 2.30       9.77 sd 2.32   P = .018

If you close your eyes, forget about treatment, and just compare the results for those mothers who had nausea and vomiting against those who did not, the results look more clear cut, with a 7 point Performance IQ difference:

Test Scale/subtest                              NVP (n 92)                 No NVP (n29)    P value
WPPSI Performance IQ                  116.7 sd 14.1                109.6 sd 13.4       .02
NEPSY Verbal Fluency 1                     1.7 sd 2.5                     9.9 sd 3.1          .003
NEPSY Phonological Processing        10.9 sd 3.0                   9.1 sd 3.4          .004
McCarthy Numerical Mem Forwds    11.5 sd 2.2                   9.8 sd 2.3           .004

 
There is something here to warrant further investigation, even though the samples are small and there is some cherry-picking of significant results. It would certainly be good to follow up these children and test them now that they are older, because the measures of general intelligence will now be better predictors of the levels they will attain in adulthood.

Morning sickness, the authors speculate, may indicate that the child is receiving a better hormonal environment, boosting their system integrity at the cost of the mother having more physiological demands being made of her, and consequently feeling ill. It constitutes an interesting leading indicator of intelligence.

Incidentally, if anyone wants to replicate Dan Freedman’s baby studies on newborns, or Simon Baron-Cohen’s attentional studies on newborns, then if any of this stuff is true then within 30 hours of birth we should be able to pick up some predictors of later intelligence. Worth a look.

Finally, this being a monarchy, the newspaper story was illustrated with a Royal baby. This reminds me of a remark made to me some years ago: if intelligence depended upon the richness of the environment provided to babies, the Royal Family should be the brightest people in the world. Which they may be, your Royal Highness.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Avoiding death: a few ideas

The Deary gang are at it again, this time looking at US health data to show that reaction times are related to mortality. Naturally, I did not wish to think about this paper whilst lying supine on the beach, but now reality presses in on me again, mixed with post-holiday good resolutions regarding exercise and restraint in all pleasurable matters. Although the subject of mortality is dispiriting, imagine my joy to find that their first table consisted of means and t tests, the sorts of statistics I can understand.

Reaction Time and Mortality from the Major Causes of Death: The NHANES-III Study. Gareth Hagger-Johnson, Ian J. Deary, Carolyn A. Davies, Alexander Weiss, G. David Batty

http://www.plosone.org/article/fetchObject.action?uri=info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0082959&representation=PDF

In a meta-analysis comprising 16 studies of over one million participants, a 1
standard deviation increase in cognitive ability in childhood was associated with 24% lower risk of mortality. Reaction time and cognitive ability may both predict mortality risk because they both measure important aspects of neuropsychological functioning or reflect the integrity of one or more bodily systems. However, reaction time is also seen to explain the IQ-mortality association suggesting that it may mediate the association between more complex cognitive processes and mortality. The analytic sample comprised 5,134 adults (2,342 men) aged 20 to 59 with data on reaction time and who were followed for mortality for 15 years (378 deaths).

So, here in Table 1 are a few tips to keep you alive: better to be a woman than a man (though chopping off reproductive organs and taking hormone tablets will not help you, however appealing the ploy may be as a conversational gambit); probably best not to belong to an ethnic minority (American blacks and Mexicans); possibly worth completing your schooling; certainly worth while not being in a lowly occupation and on a low income; and certainly unwise to be a regular smoker and drinker (though no risk in being overweight or obese, or eating saturated fats). Of course, not all of these are under your control, because although most of us aspire to high status, high income jobs, others want them as well, leading to competition and consequently to social stratification. Blood pressure is a risk factor (probably a consequence of other factors) but serum cholesterol is not.

 

image

Into the familiar list of health warnings (notice that in this sample many apparent risks do not prove significant) enters the one behavioural measure, not a full IQ test but a lowly simple reaction time test, which proves to be as significant as the other most significant factors.

No variables attenuated the associations fully, suggesting that the association between simple reaction time and mortality is independent of socio-demographic, socio-economic, health behaviors and CVD risk factors.

It would appear that reaction time gives us an indication of system integrity, a hypothetical construct which determines physical health and is associated with having a sharp and alert mind. Just in case you were considering it, it is not possible to improve simple reaction time by continual practice. Ian Deary tried it by doing the test every morning for about three months, and found that such improvements as were possible were achieved on the second day, and with absolutely nothing thereafter.

So, if you are lying on a  beach, there is no need to practice fast reactions, but you might consider not smoking and drinking and eating so much, once the holiday is over.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

We need to talk about intelligence

 

Prof. Dr. Stefan Schweinsteiger’s essay on the catastrophic demise of German higher education has quickly drawn an appreciative audience of 700 readers and prompted several emails which have been sent to me directly. Here is a conversation between Schweinsteiger and Messi, a university student.

Schweinsteiger

I am starting to believe that it is urgent that we spend time thinking how to deal with individual differences rather than just resisting the conclusion that they exist at all. It upsets me very much that German education is so adamantly against testing. Putting our heads in the sand gives us all a "good conscience" of the condescending sort, but makes the real underlying problem worse. My environment has always made me believe that it's all nurture and that even thinking about genetics is a very
slippery slope. My personal interest in this debate is completely independent of why people are more or less intelligent. I just want individual students' actual performance to be recorded (by real diagnostic exams, for instance) and correlated with their grade, degree, and resulting intellectual standing. And not just gender, or race, "migratory background" as they call it Germany. So my beef with the German education policy is that there is no form of quality control, not for the student, and not for the universities.

Messi

Differences in personality and cognitive ability will cause difficulties even if they are not genetic in origin. Imagine a virus that has infected everyone, but due to chance affects some more than others, and has the effect of lowering IQ to varying degrees. Imagine that we have absolutely no hope of curing the virus by modern medical methods, and that it seems extremely unlikely that a cure would ever by found.
This situation would in fact come close to resembling the present state of the affairs. A key difference, of course, is that my virus is random in its effects, so racial & class differences in intelligence would not exist, but that apart from that my scenario would produce the same normal distribution of ability that we see today. You would still face the same problems produced by cognitive inequality that we do. In the real world these are unfortunately compounded by ethnocentrism & group differences in personality, as if the problems of cognitive inequality were not severe enough.

As you rightly say, accurate individual testing to vital to ensuring genuine meritocracy. There still are always going to probably be some scenarios in civic life where ethnic group profiling is regrettably necessary (think airport security screening procedures), but within the spheres of education and employment, we have the power to eliminate those scenarios altogether. Discrimination may take other forms than racial - we all have a tendency to conflate extraversion with intelligence. Arthur Jensen tells the story of asking a teacher in a class to pick out the brightest and dullest children for him to test. The “brightest” one, a boy, was extremely confident, extraverted, and entertaining, attacking all the test questions with relish. The “dullest”, a girl, was shy, quiet, retiring, and gave all her answers very slowly and hesitantly, even to the straightforward questions. But she scored 116, whereas the boy only scored 105.

Individual & group differences in intelligence also should make us think twice about some of our social policies. The effect of the European Union’s open borders policy is to free the doors for the middle to upper-middle of the Eastern European ability distributions to move here (immigrants tending to be of higher IQs than the mean of their nation of origin). Testing shows that for most European nations (such as Poland), the mean IQ is effectively identical to that of the UK. Thanks to the vagaries of history (Poland, and much of Eastern Europe, having been screwed over so extensively by first German fascism and then Russian communism), UK plc has a chance to replace the lower-ability quartile of its native workforce with higher-ability immigrants (who’s working in all of London’s coffee shops?) Since IQ is correlated with job performance, even for relatively unskilled labour, business cannot fail to benefit. America seems to be doing something similar along racial lines; mass immigration of higher-IQ Hispanics to replace blacks. This is undeniably good for business and for economic growth, but the wider social costs remain as yet unknown. The signs are not promising. I love having my coffee served in the morning by sparkly, sexy young Italian or Spanish ladies fleeing endemic corruption, rigid labour markets, and sky-high youth unemployment at home.  Immigration generally comes with a lot of benefits for white, well-connected, smart people. But for society as a whole?

The usual response of our pro-immigration elites is that education will solve all our problems and allow all to participate in the service economies of the 21st century on an equal footing (if you’ve ever read The Economist, in particular, you’ll have seen this line trotted out a lot). It’s clearly delusional. Jobs, no less than items in a test battery, have a g-loading (if you want to read more on this, Linda Gottfredson wrote many brilliant and clearly written papers, most of them freely available here: http://www.udel.edu/educ/gottfredson/). If you don’t have the required cognitive competence for a job, you simply won’t be able to do it well, or even at all. The powers of education to instil this competence in people have been wildly overstated (as really should be known by now, particularly in America, where they have decades of evidence from Head Start). Our elites would do well to learn from Edward Gibbon, who memorably wrote: "the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous". A significant part of the solution involves educating the political and business castes (as well the general public) who are painfully blind to a large number of ill-known but crucial facts. To date, the differential psychology community has failed to have much influence in crucial spheres. It's time to fix this, both through engagement with today's elites and through the education of the leaders of tomorrow.

Join the conversation.

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.