Archive for Times Higher

Widening Participation – Outreach versus Bursaries

Posted in Biographical, Education, Finance with tags , , , , , on September 5, 2013 by telescoper

This morning I came across a University of Sussex News Item which explains that Sussex has made the shortlist, published today (Thursday 5 September), for Widening Participation or Outreach Initiative of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards 2013.  This piece reminded me of a discussion I had a while ago about the whole approach to widening participation in University education, an issue made all the more serious by the introduction of £9K a year tuition fees. In particular

The University has increased spending on widening participation activities to £8.1 million a year, with over half of this spent on the innovative First Generation Scholars scheme, which supports students who are from low-income backgrounds or who are the first in their family to go to university.

Before commenting on this in any detail I should put my cards on the table. When I went to University in 1982 I was the first in my family ever to go to university. I’m also, at least as far as my immediate family goes, the last. However, in those days there was no need for a First Generation Scholars scheme: there were no tuition fees and, because I don’t come from a wealthy background, I qualified for a full maintenance grant. Life (in Cambridge) as an undergraduate student was fairly comfortable.

Times have changed a lot. Many more people go to university nowadays, but the price is that support for those who don’t have access to family funds is now spread very thinly.  There are no full maintenance grants, and the fees are very high. Looking back, though, I don’t think it would have been the tuition fees that might have deterred me from going to university. After all, they don’t have to be paid back until after graduation, and when one’s income exceeds a certain level. What would have made a difference would have been the withdrawal of maintenance. Without the grant, I simply wouldn’t have been able to study without getting a job. Apart from the amount of work involved in doing my degree, the recession of the early 1980s meant that jobs were very hard to come by.

To get back to the news item I mentioned earlier, I have always thought there is a tricky calculation to be made when it comes to designing programmes intended to encourage students from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible to come to university, whether that be to do with socio-economic considerations, gender, ethnicity, age or anything else. The question is whether pumping money into bursaries is actually effective. I can imagine that a large bursary, perhaps equivalent in money terms to the old maintenance grant, would genuinely influence the decision of a prospective student, but if the pot is shared out among very many people the resulting bursaries are fairly modest. How much does a bursary have to be to make a difference? Answers on a postcard.

The other side of the debate is what the balance should be between bursaries and outreach. In a subject like Physics one of the principal obstacles faced by pupils from the state sector is the dire shortage of physics teachers as well as the lack of laboratory facilities in schools. Here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Sussex we have a very large (and growing) outreach programme which includes giving kids from local schools the chance to come into our building and do specially designed experiments in a laboratory set aside for the purpose.  This kind of activity is intended to get those of school age thinking about doing Physics or Astronomy, which they might not otherwise do.

I don’t see bursaries and outreach as mutually exclusive approaches to  the goal of widening participation. It’s more a question of the balance. How do we decide how to allocate resources? Is there research on the effectiveness of different programmes?

As always, comments are welcome via the box below!

 

Never mind the table, look at the sample size!

Posted in Bad Statistics with tags , , , on April 29, 2013 by telescoper

This morning I was just thinking that it’s been a while since I’ve filed anything in the category marked bad statistics when I glanced at today’s copy of the Times Higher and found something that’s given me an excuse to rectify my lapse. Last week saw the publication of said organ’s new Student Experience Survey which ranks  British Universities in order of the responses given by students to questions about various aspects of the teaching, social life and so  on. I had a go at this table a few years ago, but they still keep trotting it out. Here are the main results, sorted in decreasing order:

University Score Resp.
1 University of East Anglia 84.8 119
2 University of Oxford 84.2 259
3 University of Sheffield 83.9 192
3 University of Cambridge 83.9 245
5 Loughborough University 82.8 102
6 University of Bath 82.7 159
7 University of Leeds 82.5 219
8 University of Dundee 82.4 103
9 York St John University 81.2 88
10 Lancaster University 81.1 100
11 University of Southampton 80.9 191
11 University of Birmingham 80.9 198
11 University of Nottingham 80.9 270
14 Cardiff University 80.8 113
14 Newcastle University 80.8 125
16 Durham University 80.3 188
17 University of Warwick 80.2 205
18 University of St Andrews 79.8 109
18 University of Glasgow 79.8 131
20 Queen’s University Belfast 79.2 101
21 University of Hull 79.1 106
22 University of Winchester 79 106
23 Northumbria University 78.9 100
23 University of Lincoln 78.9 103
23 University of Strathclyde 78.9 107
26 University of Surrey 78.8 102
26 University of Leicester 78.8 105
26 University of Exeter 78.8 130
29 University of Chester 78.7 102
30 Heriot-Watt University 78.6 101
31 Keele University 78.5 102
32 University of Kent 78.4 110
33 University of Reading 78.1 101
33 Bangor University 78.1 101
35 University of Huddersfield 78 104
36 University of Central Lancashire 77.9 121
37 Queen Mary, University of London 77.8 103
37 University of York 77.8 106
39 University of Edinburgh 77.7 170
40 University of Manchester 77.4 252
41 Imperial College London 77.3 148
42 Swansea University 77.1 103
43 Sheffield Hallam University 77 102
43 Teesside University 77 103
45 Brunel University 76.6 110
46 University of Portsmouth 76.4 107
47 University of Gloucestershire 76.3 53
47 Robert Gordon University 76.3 103
47 Aberystwyth University 76.3 104
50 University of Essex 76 103
50 University of Glamorgan 76 108
50 Plymouth University 76 112
53 University of Sunderland 75.9 100
54 Canterbury Christ Church University 75.8 102
55 De Montfort University 75.7 103
56 University of Bradford 75.5 52
56 University of Sussex 75.5 102
58 Nottingham Trent University 75.4 103
59 University of Roehampton 75.1 102
60 University of Ulster 75 101
60 Staffordshire University 75 102
62 Royal Veterinary College 74.8 50
62 Liverpool John Moores University 74.8 102
64 University of Bristol 74.7 137
65 University of Worcester 74.4 101
66 University of Derby 74.2 101
67 University College London 74.1 102
68 University of Aberdeen 73.9 105
69 University of the West of England 73.8 101
69 Coventry University 73.8 102
71 University of Hertfordshire 73.7 105
72 London School of Economics 73.5 51
73 Royal Holloway, University of London 73.4 104
74 University of Stirling 73.3 54
75 King’s College London 73.2 105
76 Bournemouth University 73.1 103
77 Southampton Solent University 72.7 102
78 Goldsmiths, University of London 72.5 52
78 Leeds Metropolitan University 72.5 106
80 Manchester Metropolitan University 72.2 104
81 University of Liverpool 72 104
82 Birmingham City University 71.8 101
83 Anglia Ruskin University 71.7 102
84 Glasgow Caledonian University 71.1 100
84 Kingston University 71.1 102
86 Aston University 71 52
86 University of Brighton 71 106
88 University of Wolverhampton 70.9 103
89 Oxford Brookes University 70.5 106
90 University of Salford 70.2 102
91 University of Cumbria 69.2 51
92 Napier University 68.8 101
93 University of Greenwich 68.5 102
94 University of Westminster 68.1 101
95 University of Bedfordshire 67.9 100
96 University of the Arts London 66 54
97 City University London 65.4 102
97 London Metropolitan University 65.4 103
97 The University of the West of Scotland 65.4 103
100 Middlesex University 65.1 104
101 University of East London 61.7 51
102 London South Bank University 61.2 50
Average scores 75.5 11459
YouthSight is the source of the data that have been used to compile the table of results for the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey, and it retains the ownership of those data. Each higher education institution’s score has been indexed to give a percentage of the maximum score attainable. For each of the 21 attributes, students were given a seven-point scale and asked how strongly they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements based on their university experience.

My current employer, the University of Sussex, comes out right on the average (75.5)  and is consequently in the middle in this league table. However, let’s look at this in a bit more detail.  The number of students whose responses produced the score of 75.5 was just 102. That’s by no means the smallest sample in the survey, either. The University of Sussex has over 13,000 students. The score in this table is therefore obtained from less than 1% of the relevant student population. How representative can the results be, given that the sample is so incredibly small?

What is conspicuous by its absence from this table is any measure of the “margin-of-error” of the estimated score. What I mean by this is how much the sample score would change for Sussex if a different set of 102 students were involved. Unless every Sussex student scores exactly 75.5 then the score will vary from sample to sample. The smaller the sample, the larger the resulting uncertainty.

Given a survey of this type it should be quite straightforward to calculate the spread of scores from student to student within a sample from a given University in terms of the standard deviation, σ, as well as the mean score. Unfortunately, this survey does not include this information. However, lets suppose for the sake of argument that the standard deviation for Cardiff is quite small, say 10% of the mean value, i.e. 7.55. I imagine that it’s much larger than that, in fact, but this is just meant to be by way of an illustration.

If you have a sample size of  N then the standard error of the mean is going to be roughly (σ⁄√N) which, for Sussex, is about 0.75. Assuming everything has a normal distribution, this would mean that the “true” score for the full population of Sussex students has a 95% chance of being within two standard errors of the mean, i.e. between 74 and 77. This means Sussex could really be as high as 43rd place or as low as 67th, and that’s making very conservative assumptions about how much one student differs from another within each institution.

That example is just for illustration, and the figures may well be wrong, but my main gripe is that I don’t understand how these guys can get away with publishing results like this without listing the margin of error at all. Perhaps its because that would make it obvious how unreliable the rankings are? Whatever the reason we’d never get away with publishing results without errors in a serious scientific journal.

This sampling uncertainty almost certainly accounts for the big changes from year to year in these tables. For instance, the University of Lincoln is 23rd in this year’s table, but last year was way down in 66th place. Has something dramatic happened there to account for this meteoric rise? I doubt it. It’s more likely to be just a sampling fluctuation.

In fact I seriously doubt whether any of the scores in this table is significantly different from the mean score; the range from top to bottom is only 61 to 85 showing a considerable uniformity across all 102 institutions listed. What a statistically literate person should take from this table is that (a) it’s a complete waste of time and (b) wherever you go to University you’ll probably have a good experience!

University Admissions Turbulence

Posted in Education with tags , , , , on January 21, 2013 by telescoper

This morning I’ve been compiling various bits of statistical information for our Annual Programme Review and Evaluation. Yes, it really is as exciting as it sounds. In the course of this I remembered a news item in last week’s Times Higher concerning the latest University admissions figures from UCAS.

The story compares overall admissions figures (i.e. the total number of students entering each university) for 2011 and 2012, pointing out that there are huge changes in some institutions with winners and losers even within the Russell Group. The University of Bristol, for example, increased its intake by a whopping 28% whereas Sheffield was down by 13%.

Similar comments can be found here, in the Grauniad.

For your information you can find complete lists for 2011 and 2012 on the UCAS website.

What I usually do when statistics like this are released is look at the places I have worked in my own career, so here we are:

2011

2012

change

Cardiff

5130

5799

+13%

Nottingham

7187

7160

-0.4%

Queen Mary

3704

3484

-5.9%

Sussex

3203

3221

+0.6%

My current employer, Cardiff University, was well up in 2012 compared with 2011, whereas Queen Mary was significantly down. Nottingham was slightly down and Sussex slightly up, but both these variations are really within the level of √N noise.

Of course these are overall (institutional) figures, and I suspect they hide considerable variations at subject level. For example, although Physics has seen something of a resurgence in popularity lately, it’s difficult for Physics departments to over-recruit given constraints on laboratory space.

I’ve heard these changes described as “Darwinian”, but I’m not sure I agree. The big factor allowing Bristol to do so well has been the ability of institutions to recruit unlimited numbers of students with at least AAB at A-level. This completely changed the dynamics of the UCAS clearing system so it’s not at all surprising that it generated short-term chaotic variations. This year it is different again, with ABB now set to be unrestricted; similar turbulence is inevitable.

It’s difficult enough for universities to navigate safely through such unpredictable waters, and persistent tinkering with the controls is not helping in the slightest. Will the chaos decay naturally, or will it be constantly regenerated by badly thought-out interventions from those in charge?

Rubbishing the Viva

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2012 by telescoper

There’s a strange article today in the Times Higher that claims that the UK’s system of examining PhD students is “a scandal” and that it is “way behind the rest of the world”. These comments are from a chap called Ron Barnett (an emeritus professor at the Institute for Education, who explains

“Students can spend five years doing their PhD, present their thesis and come up against the maverick view of an independent examiner and in effect be rubbished,” he commented.

“I’ve seen it happen far too many times,” he told a Westminster Higher Education Forum seminar on the future of postgraduate education, held in London on 17 October.

I have to say I find it hard to reconcile such remarks with the business of examining PhDs as I’ve observed it, in Physics and Astronomy. And I’ve done quite a few over the years; see, e.g., here. For a start, it’s extremely rare for a student to spend five years doing a PhD in my field – the Research Councils put extremely strong pressure on departments to ensure that students submit within four years, and most research students take less time than this to produce their thesis.

But it’s the idea that a maverick external examiner can sabotage a PhD that I find hardest to recognize. If that looks like happening the internal examiner should stand up for the candidate. In fact, here in Cardiff we have an additional safeguard against this sort of eventuality: each viva has a Chair as well as the two examiners. The Chair is just there to ensure fair play and that proper procedure is followed, but is rarely (if ever) called upon to intervene in practice.

I can’t speak for other fields, of course, and it may indeed be more of a problem in other disciplines. Curiously, Prof. Barnett says that he has seen it happen “far too many times”. I wonder how? As internal examiner? In which case he should have stepped in to stop it? If not as internal then in what capacity was he privy to the conduct of a PhD viva? I’m confused.

Anyway, in a couple of weeks I’ll be participating in a PhD examination in another country (Denmark). There the defence is public, and it involves two external “opponents”, but I don’t know whether it is easier or harder for the candidate than the British system so I won’t comment on whether it’s fairer or more rigorous than what we have in the UK. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it works, actually.

In my opinion, if there is a “scandal” in the system of UK PhD examinations, at least in science disciplines, it’s not the one Prof. Barnett describes. It’s that we produce far too many low-quality PhDs based on dull, incremental research and that, if anything, externals are not tough enough.

There, I’ve said it. No doubt you’ll have a go at me through the comments box!

Death by Management

Posted in Education with tags , , , on March 4, 2012 by telescoper

I thought I’d do a quick post before I go out to pass on a story from the latest Times Higher. The news won’t come as a shock to anyone who actually works in a University, but it appears that the number of  “managers” working in Higher Education is growing rapidly:

Data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal there were 15,795 managers in higher education in December 2010 – up by almost 40 per cent on the 11,305 employed in the 2003-04 academic year.

That was compared to the 19.2 per cent increase in academics since 2003-04. It means there is now a manager for every 9.2 academics compared with a ratio of one to 10.8 seven years earlier.

It’s tempting to take the usual easy shot at “managers”, but I’m not going to do that, at least not immediately, because I’m not at all sure precisely how they define a “manager” in the context of this survey. In my School we have a School Manager, who looks after budgets and runs the School Office which carries out a large number of complex administrative tasks related to research grants, undergraduate and postgraduate admissions, student records, and so on. People like this are indispensible because if we didn’t have them these tasks would have to be done by academics, which would be a distraction from their proper business of teaching and research, and which they would almost certainly do extremely badly. Managers who work alongside academic staff and understand the realities of University life are therefore a good thing to have. They actually help.

The problem I have is that, as it seems to me, much of the growth in numbers of “managers” does not involve people in this sort of job at all. The greater part of the increase is in centralised administrative divisions or, as they’re called in Cardiff, “Directorates”. In fact Cardiff is nowhere near as bad in this respect as some other universities I’ve either worked in or heard about from colleagues, but it is an issue even here.

The problem we find with such folk is that they are so remote that they seem to have no idea what people working in  academic Schools and Departments actually do. For one thing they seem to think we just loaf around all day waiting for the chance to fill in some new forms or attend a some allegedly vitally important meeting at short notice (usually in teaching term, and usually mid-morning when lectures are in progress). In fact, there isn’t a day of the week when I don’t have teaching of some sort going on in teaching term. That’s not unusual for an academic in my Schoo, so it’s extremely difficult to attend such events at the drop of a hat without jeopardising teaching. The frequent requests to do so mean that I’d be surprised, in fact, if most of these managers actually knew when teaching term was.  Meetings scheduled outside term of course eat into research time, but given that managers think “doing research” means “having a holiday”, you might be surprised we don’t have more meetings during the student vacations. Of course the real reason for this is that they don’t want us to attend (see below).

Another result of the increase in administrative staff is a plethora of badly thought out “initiatives”, similar initiatives even arising from several directorates simulaneously as managers compete with each other to weigh down academics with forms to fill in. The worst of these involve idiotic schemes in which Schools have to prepare lengthy documents to bid for minuscule amount of money from the central University coffers, the cost in staff time  of administering such procedures far exceeding the financial or other benefits they can possibly deliver.

Worse, these central units are sometimes so badly run that they mess up the basic administrative tasks that they should be carrying out.  Schools are thus forced to duplicate the work that should be done by someone else to make sure that it’s done properly. The idea that centralised administration leads to greater efficiency rarely works in practice. In contrast to the staff in individual Schools, most of whom actually care deeply about what they do because they work directly with the people involved, to the administrators are sometimes – not always, by any means, but definitely sometimes – too remote to care.

So in the end I am going to take a cheap shot at creeping managerialism, but only insofar as it relates to the invasion of universities by people who have no understanding of the core activities of a higher education institution, but who think they have the right to dictate to people who do. Instead of meaningful cooperation with academics, we have phoney “consultations”: meetings usually scheduled in such a way that academics can’t attend (see above) or documents requiring a response with absurdly short deadlines. This kind of management does not lead to a more “professional” institution, it just leads to alienation. In short, these people don’t help at all, they’re a positive hindrance.

Over the last decade, the burden of red tape has steadily increased for all kinds of institutions, but only the NHS vies with Universities in taking the fetish of managerialism to absurd levels. Academics will soon have to take courses in management-speak before they can be employed at a University as the influx of business types continues to accelerate.

The greatest irony of all this is that in the UK universities (with some notable exceptions) are generally regarded by the wider world as examples of international excellence, whereas British businesses (again with some notable exceptions) are seen by those abroad to epitomize incompetence and failure….

The Unprofessional Professors

Posted in Education with tags , , , on November 26, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve been so preoccupied with other things over the past week or so that I haven’t had time until now to comment on an article I saw in last week’s  Times Higher about the role of a Professor in a modern university; there’s also an accompanying editorial in the same issue although, as is usual for editorials in the Times Higher, it doesn’t actually say anything that adds to the original piece.

People outside academia probably wonder what makes a Professor different from a Lecturer or Reader, apart from being older and getting paid a bit more. Undergraduate students probably wonder even more because they don’t see any obvious evidence that Prof. X is any better at teaching than plain Dr. Y. Quite possibly the reverse, in fact.

If you look at the contract of a Professor you won’t find that helps much either. Mine just says words to the effect that I should do whatever the Head of School asks me to do. In my case I have no complaints. I do teaching (lecturing, project supervision, tutorials, exercise classes), administration (various committees, and Director of Postgraduate Studies) and research (including supervising PhD students and a PDRA, publishing papers, etc) and I also do a few things outside the University such as STFC panels. I’m not complaining at all about this workload, for which  consider myself to be quite well paid. What I find difficult is swapping between so many different tasks even during the course of a single day, and I am all too aware that things  do sometimes fall through the cracks.

The criteria for promotion to the rank of Professor (i.e. to a “Chair”)  operated by most universities generally state that a professor must excel at teaching, administration and research. This provides for even greater mystification when you look around the average department because you’ll find many – probably even a majority – who couldn’t administer the skin on a rice pudding, and who make only derisory attempts to teach. These are the ones who have done it all on research, which in reality easily trumps the other two. To paraphrase Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: there are teaching, administration and research but the greatest of these is research. In fact the others don’t matter much at all.

The point is, at least in physics, that current levels of funding for undergraduate teaching mean that departments are financially unviable if they rely on undergraduate teaching as their primary source of income. It’s therefore inevitable that the primary criterion for appointing and retaining staff is their ability to win research grants and be a star performer in the REF. Indeed, many promotions to Chair happen when a member of staff threatens to leave, and take  their research grants and publication statistics with them. Furious negotiations then take place, a promotion to Chair ensues, and more likely than not a reduced teaching and administration load for the newly minted Prof.  Of course this means the load for someone  else has to go up. And if they are given management tasks to do, the Prof will manage the workload by simply not doing it, letting everything fall to bits until the job is allocated to someone else. Likewise with teaching: if you do it so badly that the students fail their exams or complain that you’re useless, you’ll just find your courses are given to someone else and you have more time to indulge your research interests. Studied incompetence is the ally of selfishness. It actually pays to be bad.

This is such a successful strategy that many departments now have as many professors as other teaching staff, if not more, a significant fraction of whom shirk their adminstrative duties and make little effort to teach well. Why should they? They know that as long as they hold onto their research grants they are indispensible, no matter how much strain they put on their colleagues. You might argue that this is unprofessional conduct, but there’s no question that it works.

Given this state of affairs, it’s hardly surprising that junior staff complain that their professors don’t show sufficient leadership and don’t take an active role in mentoring younger staff.  Selfishness pays. How many leaders can a department sustain anyway? If 2/3 of the staff are professors can they all be leaders? Who will follow?

I’ll get into trouble if I name individuals in my department – they know who they are – but I’m sure people in other universities recognize the same thing in their own departments. The situation won’t change until a funding regime is put in place that requires departments to prove commitment to excellence in teaching in the same way that they do for research. Then promotions panels might actually start to follow  their own published criteria instead of doing what they do now, which is nothing short of systematic hypocrisy.

Hard Decisions, Easy Targets

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 25, 2011 by telescoper

Just back from a day trip to London – at the Institute of Physics to be precise – to wrap up the proceedings of this years protracted STFC Astronomy Grants Panel (AGP) business. The grant letters have already gone out, so no real decisions were made relating to the current round, but we did get the chance to look at a fairly detailed breakdown of the winners and losers. Perhaps more significantly we also discussed issues relating to the implementation of the brand new system which will be in place for 2011/12.

I’m not exactly sure at the moment how much of what we discussed is in the public domain, so I won’t write anything about the meeting here. Tomorrow there is a meeting of the RAS Astronomy Forum at which department representatives will also be briefed about these issues. I will, however, in due course, on as much information as I can through this blog in case there is anyone out there who doesn’t hear it via the Forum.

Not being able to blog about AGP business, I thought I’d comment briefly on a couple of recent things that sprang to mind on the train journey into London. Last night there was a programme in the BBC series Horizon called Science under Attack, presented by Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse. I didn’t watch all of it, but I was fortunate (?) enough to catch a segment featuring a chap called James Delingpole, whom I’d never heard of before, but who apparently writes for the Daily Torygraph.

My immediate reaction to his appearance on the small screen was to take an instant dislike to him. This is apparently not an uncommon response, judging by the review of the programme in today’s Guardian. I wouldn’t have bothered blogging about this at all had I wanted to indulge in an ad hominem attack on this person, but he backed up his “unfortunate manner” by saying some amazing things, such as

It’s not my job to sit down and read peer-reviewed papers, because I don’t have the time; I don’t have the expertise

Yet he feels qualified to spout off on the subject nevertheless. The subject, by the way, was climate change. I’m sure not even the most hardened climate skeptic would want Mr Delingpole on their side judging by his performance last night or, apparently, his track-record.

Anyway, this episode reminded me of another egregious example of uninformed drivel that appeared in last week’s Times Higher. This was a piece purporting to be about the limits of mathematical reasoning by another person who is quite new to me, Chris Ormell, who appears to have some academic credentials, if only in the field of philosophy.

Ormell’s piece includes a rant about cosmology which is on a par with Delingpole’s scribblings about climate change, in that he has absolutely no idea what he is talking about. Jon Butterworth and Sean Carroll have already had a go at pointing out the basic misunderstandings, so I won’t repeat the hatchet job here. If I had blogged about this at the weekend – which I might have done had my rodent visitor not intervened – I would have been considerably less polite than either of them. Ormell clearly hasn’t even read a wikipedia article on cosmology, never mind studied it to a level sufficiently deep to justify him commenting on it in a serious magazine.

I’m still amazed that such a pisspoor article could have made it through the Times Higher’s editorial procedures but more worrying still is the ract that Ormell is himself the editor of a journal, called Prospero, which is “a journal of new thinking of philosophy for education”. The last thing education needs is a journal edited by someone so sloppy that he can’t even be bothered to acquire a basic understanding of his subject matter.

What’s in common between these stories is, however, in my opinion, much more important than the inadequate scientific understanding of the personalities involved. Rubbishing the obviously idiotic, which is quite easy to do, may blind us to the fact that, behind all the errors, however badly expressed it may be, people like this may just have a point. Too often the scientific consensus is portrayed as fact when there are clearly big gaps missing in our understanding. Of course falsehoods should be corrected, but what science really needs to go forward is for bona fide scientists to be prepared to look at the technical arguments openly and responsibly and be candid about the unknowns and uncertainties. Big-name scientists should themselves be questioning the established paradigms and be actively exploring alternative hypotheses. That’s their job. Closing ranks and stamping on outsiders is what makes the public suspicious, not reasoned argument.

In both climatology and cosmology there are consensus views. Based on what knowledge I have, which is less in the former case than in the latter, both these views are reasonable inferences but not absolute truths. In neither case am I a denier, but in both cases I am a skeptic. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that’s what a scientist should be.


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Political Correlation

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics with tags , , , , on August 28, 2010 by telescoper

I was just thinking that it’s been a while since I posted anything in my bad statistics category when a particularly egregious example jumped up out of this week’s Times Higher and slapped me in the face. This one goes wrong before it even gets to the statistical analysis, so I’ll only give it short shrift here, but it serves to remind us all how feeble is many academic’s grasp of the scientific method, and particularly the role of statistics within it. The perpetrator in this case is Paul Whiteley, who is Professor of Politics at the University of Essex. I’m tempted to suggest he should go and stand in the corner wearing a dunce’s cap.

Professor Whiteley argues that he has found evidence that refutes the case that increased provision of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates are -in the words of Lord Mandelson – “crucial to in securing future prosperity”. His evidence is based on data relating to 30 OECD countries: on the one hand, their average economic growth for the period 2000-8 and, on the other, the percentage of graduates in STEM subjects for each country over the same period. He finds no statistically significant correlation between these variates. The data are plotted here:

This lack of correlation is asserted to be evidence that STEM graduates are not necessary for economic growth, but in an additional comment (for which no supporting numbers are given), it is stated that growth correlates with the total number of graduates in all subjects in each country. Hence the conclusion that higher education is good, whether or not it’s in STEM areas.

So what’s wrong with this analysis? A number of things, in fact, but I’ll start with what seems to me the most important conceptual one. In order to test a hypothesis, you have to look for a measurable effect that would be expected if the hypothesis were true, measure the effect, and then decide whether the effect is there or not. If it isn’t, you have falsified the hypothesis.

Now, would anyone really expect the % of students graduating in STEM subjects  to correlate with the growth rate in the economy over the same period? Does anyone really think that newly qualified STEM graduates have an immediate impact on economic growth? I’m sure even the most dedicated pro-science lobbyist would answer “no” to that question. Even the quote from Lord Mandelson included the crucial word “future”! Investment in these areas is expected to have a long-term benefit that would probably only show after many years. I would have been amazed had there been a correlation between measures relating to such a short period, so  absence of one says nothing whatsoever about the economic benefits of education in STEM areas.

And another thing. Why is the “percentage of graduates” chosen as a variate for this study? Surely a large % of STEM graduates is irrelevant if the total number is very small? I would have thought the fraction of the population with a STEM degree might be a better choice. Better still, since it is claimed that the overall number of graduates correlates with economic growth, why not show how this correlation with the total number of graduates breaks down by subject area?

I’m a bit suspicious about the reliability of the data too. Which country is it that produces less than 3% of its graduates in science subjects (the point at the bottom left of the plot). Surely different countries also have different types of economy wherein the role of science and technology varies considerably. It’s tempting, in fact, to see two parallel lines in the above graph – I’m not the only one to have noticed this – which may either be an artefact of small numbers chosen or might indicate that some other parameter is playing a role.

This poorly framed hypothesis test, dubious choice of variables, and highly questionable conclusions strongly suggest that Professor Whiteley had made his mind up what result he wanted and simply dressed it up in a bit of flimsy statistics. Unfortunately, such pseudoscientific flummery is all that’s needed to convince a great many out there in the big wide world, especially journalists. It’s a pity that this shoddy piece of statistical gibberish was given such prominence in the Times Higher, supported by a predictably vacuous editorial, especially when the same issue features an article about the declining standards of science journalism. Perhaps we need more STEM graduates to teach the others how to do statistical tests properly.

However, before everyone accuses me of being blind to the benefits of anything other than STEM subjects, I’ll just make it clear that, while I do think that science is very important for a large number of reasons, I do accept that higher education generally is a good thing in itself , regardless of whether it’s in physics or mediaeval latin, though I’m not sure about certain other subjects.  Universities should not be judged solely by the effect they may or may not have on short-term economic growth.

Which brings me to a final point about the difference between correlation and causation. People with more disposal income probably spend more money on, e.g., books than people with less money. Buying books doesn’t make you rich, at least not in the short-term, but it’s a good thing to do for its own sake. We shouldn’t think of higher education exclusively on the cost side of the economic equation, as politicians and bureaucrats seem increasingly to be doing,  it’s also one of the benefits.


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Stephen Fry was right…

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on February 2, 2010 by telescoper

I’ve recently been reminded of a comment made by Britain’s only remaining National Treasure, Stephen Fry, in the Guardian a while ago.

“I don’t know about you but whenever I read a blog I do not let my eye drop below half the screen in case I accidentally hit the bit where the comments reside. Of all the stinking, sliding, scuttling, weird, entomological creatures that inhabit the floor of the internet those comments on blogs are the most unbearable, almost beyond imagining,”

There’s also a similar piece by David Mitchell that expresses the same sort of view.

Let me say straight away that I’m not referring to the comments posted on this blog recently. I always enjoy reading the threads on here, even if – or perhaps actually because – they fly off at unpredictable tangents from the main point of the original item. I would never have imagined that Bob Kirshner’s guest post would have led to an in-depth discussion of lavatory seats, for example. I disagree with quite a lot of the opinions expressed, but it’s actually quite nice to give people the opportunity to get something off their chest, as long as they remain civilised – which they usually do.

So please keep commenting on here, and please don’t be scared to look at the comments either. Some of them may indeed be weird, but they’re not going to disturb your piece of mind. Stephen Fry and David Mitchell were referring   to the sort of stuff you often see on higher-profile sites, especially newspapers, where the online comments are filled with  drivel so moronic that it’s actually depressing to think that there are people lurking out there capable of writing it. These guys (Mitchell and Fry) are in the public eye and so they attract a great deal of comment themselves, much of it staggering in its inanity and abusiveness.

One might have expected a bit better from the readership of the Times Higher, an organ which I thought was read by academics and university-based professionals who presumably must have received some sort of education themselves before gaining employment that involves attempting to educate others. However, the comments following the piece I blogged about recently contains, as well as  some sensible reactions (both for and against my actions),  a few that are just puerile and others that barely conceal the writer’s bigotry. Clearly not everyone who works in a university is either articulate or rational. But then I knew that already.

One particular commenter, the presumably pseudonymous John Fitzpatrick, states

As for Coles, what an effete and bitchy little man he has exposed himself as. How he can face his students and colleagues after that is simply amazing.

Amazing it may be, but I certainly can and do face my students and colleagues, although I usually refrain from exposing myself. I’m sure they don’t all agree with what I did, but my conscience is clear. I don’t have the luxury of anonymity anyway.

The Times Higher asked me to contact them if I felt any of the comments were defamatory or abusive so they could remove them, but I replied to say I thought it was better to leave them all there whatever they said. In their own way, they speak  eloquently  for the very point of view they are trying to oppose…

The F-word

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , , , , on January 31, 2010 by telescoper

Once upon a time, a young man was walking home, alone, from a nightclub on Brighton’s seafront towards the house he shared with some friends. It was a warm summer night or, rather, morning, as it was about 3am. As he crossed King’s Road and began to walk up Preston Street, a group of four youths appeared from the direction of the West Pier, ran across the road and attacked him. He fought back, hitting one of them on the nose and drawing blood, but was soon overpowered and fell to the ground under a rain of fists. He was repeatedly kicked while he lay on the road, and soon lapsed into unconsciousness while the onslaught continued.

To this day he can’t remember how long this went on for, nor can he remember anything at all about the people who eventually came to his assistance. But he can remember the word that was being shouted continually as he was systematically beaten. The word was FAGGOT.

This was 1989, and the young man was me. At the time I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, and I had just spent the evening at the Zap Club (now sadly defunct). On wednesdays, this establishment played host to  Club Shame, a gay one-nighter that was extremely popular and well-known around the town. Unfortunately, this made people leaving it in the early hours of the morning easy targets for the many queerbashers who got their kicks beating up gay men for no other reason than that they were gay.

I was actually one of the lucky ones. Apparently, shortly after I fell to the ground and passed out, a group of passers-by chased off the youths who had attacked me, helped me to my feet, and helped me get home.  The commotion when I arrived woke up a couple of my friends who cleaned me up, and gave me a glass of whisky. I was rattled, angry at the gratuitous violence visited on me by complete strangers, and frustrated by the clear demonstration of my own inability to defend myself.   I had a black eye, a fat lip and a lot of bruises but there turned out to be no lasting physical damage. Although I don’t like to admit it, I do think I have a few psychological scars. I don’t even tell many  people about this episode because my weakness embarrasses me – it’s a slur on my manhood, such as it is. Still, at least I didn’t end up dead, like poor Jody Dobrowski.

Neither I nor any of the friends (also gay) who helped me ever even thought about reporting the incident to the Police. The Brighton police at that time were notorious for dismissing complaints of gay-bashing despite the fact it was an endemic problem. People I knew who had reported such incidents usually found themselves being investigated rather than their assailants. In those days the law did not recognize homophobic offences as hate crimes. Far from it, in fact. Attacking a gay person was, if anything, considered to be a mitigating circumstance. This attitude was fuelled by a number of high-profile cases (including a number of murders) where gay-bashers had been acquitted or charged with lesser offences after claiming their victim had provoked them.

Now fast-forward about 20 years. Attitudes have definitely changed, and so has the law. Certain types of criminal offence are now officially recognized as hate crimes: the list treats sexual orientation as equivalent to race, gender, religious belief and disability in such matters. The Police are now obliged to treat these with due seriousness, and penalties for those found guilty of crimes exacerbated by homophobia are consequently more severe. All Police forces now have special units for dealing with them; here is an example.

These changes are mirrored in other aspects of life too. For example, employment law relating to discrimination or harassment in the workplace now puts sexual orientation on the same footing as race, gender, disability and religious belief. In many universities in the UK, staff have been required to attend training in Equality and Diversity matters not only to raise awareness of the legal framework under which we all have to work, but also to promote a sensitivity to these issues in order to improve the working environment for both staff and students.

This training isn’t about over-zealous busybodies. Under the law, employers have a vicarious liability for the conduct of their staff with regard to harassment and discrimination. This means that a University can be sued if, for example, one of its employees commits harassment, and it can be shown that it did not make appropriate efforts to ensure its staff did not engage in such activities.

Of course not everyone approves of these changes. Some staff  have refused point-blank to attend Equality and Diversity training, even though it’s compulsory. Others attend grudgingly, muttering about “political correctness gone mad”. You may think all this is a bit heavy handed, but I can tell you it makes a real difference to the lives of people who, without this legal protection, would be victimised, harassed or discriminated against.  It is, also, the law.

I think the efforts that have been made to improve the legal situation have been (at least partly) responsible for the changes in society’s attitudes over the last twenty years, which have been extremely positive. I’m old enough to remember very different times. That’s not to say that there’s no bigotry any more. Even in this day and age, violent crimes against gay men are still disturbingly common and Police attitudes not always helpful.

Somewhat closer to home, a recent story in the Times Higher pointed out that relatively few universities have made it onto the list of gay-friendly employers compiled by the campaigning organisation Stonewall. My experience generally, having worked in a number of UK universities (Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff), is that they are  friendly and comfortable places for an openly gay person to work. So much so, in fact, that there’s no real need to make a big deal of one’s sexual identity. It doesn’t really have much to do with the way you do your work – certainly not if it’s astrophysics – and work-related social events are, as a rule, very inclusive.

However, even in the supposedly enlightened environment of a University there do remain islands of bigotry, and not just about gay and lesbian staff.  Sexism is a major problem, at least in science subjects, and will probably remain so until the gender balance improves, which it slowly doing, despite the actions of certain professors who actively block attempts to encourage more female applicants to permanent positions.

I also agree with the main point made by the Times Higher article which is that, despite what the law says, universities still do not seem to me to treat sexual orientation with the same seriousness as, say, race or gender discrimination. Fairly predictably, the online version of the article attracted some nasty comments of a homophobic nature which were subsequently removed according to the terms and conditions of the website.

Recent experiences of my own (relating to this blog) seemed relevant so I passed them onto the Times Higher after reading this story. I didn’t think they would consider it important enough to publish, as in the grand scheme of things it involved a relatively minor offence, so I was a bit surprised to find a full story in this week’s edition. It caught me on the hop a bit because I wasn’t even told they were going to run it at all, let alone straight away and I didn’t get the chance to see the final copy. Thankfully, it’s quite accurate, matter-of-fact, and avoids sensationalism.

I’m not going to put all the details here, because as far as I’m concerned it’s all over and there’s nothing to be gained by going over it again. The relevance to the earlier Times Higher story is clear, however. In a nutshell, I made a complaint about a comment on this blog, involving offensively homophobic language, to the University of Nottingham, the employer of the person who made it. I was not asked to give evidence to the subsequent “investigation”, was not told how it was conducted or how it arrived at its decision, and was not even informed of its outcome for months after it had been completed, and only then after I made repeated requests. My subsequent requests for information about the conduct of the investigation were refused. The University of Nottingham also refused to confirm whether the culprit had ever attended Equality and Diversity training.

What was it I had objected to? It was the F-word – FAGGOT, universally recognized as grossly offensive and, as I’ve explained, one about which my I also have my own particular reasons for objecting to. I was appalled that a former colleague could use that word in a manner that seemed (and still seems) to me to have been calculated to be offensive, subsequent “apologies” notwithstanding. The “investigation”, however, disagreed and accepted the defence that it was meant as a joke. I wonder what they would have decided if I’d been black and had been called a “n****r”?

At the time, I asked for advice on what to do about this. Stonewall encouraged me to report it to the Police, on grounds of criminal harassment. This seemed to me to be excessive, since it had resulted in no physical harm or loss by me and would use up a lot of police time to little effect and a lot of embarassment to others at Nottingham that this had (and has) nothing to do with. A gay-friendly solicitor in Cardiff explained how I could pursue a civil case against the individual and/or employer but that it would be very expensive and damages, if awarded at all, would probably be very small. In the end, therefore, I decided to take the advice of our Equality and Diversity Officer in Cardiff  and reported it instead to the University of Nottingham to deal with internally. What a waste of time that was.

I’m sure there will be some readers of this post who think I over-reacted to the comment in question, and that I’ve blown this matter out of all proportion; this indeed seems to be the prevailing view among the comments on the Times Higher thread. You’re all entitled to your opinion, of course. I fully admit that, for reasons that should now be obvious, I am unable to respond particularly rationally to being called a faggot. But then I don’t see why, in this day and age,  I should be expected to. Things are supposed to have moved on, in case you didn’t know. Anyway, I  don’t think I over-reacted and, in this case, I happen to think it’s my opinion that counts. That’s what the law says too, as a matter of fact.

I’m not claiming to be whiter than white. I am fully aware that I’ve made comments on this blog that have offended some people of whom I am very fond. I’m very sorry that I’ve caused offence in this way. I also admit some of my jokes are a bit off-colour. I tend to be direct in my criticism of those I think deserve it. I think I know how to take a joke too; growing up as  gay teenager in 1970s Newcastle gave me quite a thick skin. I can take forthright criticism too – I should; I’ve had plenty of practice! But I will not accept being called a faggot. Everyone has their limits, and that is mine.

If you don’t like it then, frankly, you can F-off.

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