Archive for New Statesman

The Cox-Ince affair rumbles on..

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on January 1, 2013 by telescoper

The Cox-Ince controversy rumbles on, apparently…

Open Parachute

Popular science presenters like Brian Cox are sometimes criticised by colleagues suffering from a bit of professional jealousy – although it’s a lot better than in the old days. I think most scientists today recognise the need for good science communication with the public – who, after all, are financing our science through the taxation system.

Brian Cox and his mate Robin Ince wrote a recent New Statesman editorial promoting a better understanding of the nature of science and its role in public decision-making (see Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science). It made some good points – but upset some people. The jealousy this time seems to come from a few historians and sociologists – and not scientists themselves.

I think their criticism reveals an unfortunate attitude towards the scientific process, or indeed a misunderstanding of that process. Nevertheless, the debate does reveal some aspects of the…

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Science and Politics

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on December 22, 2012 by telescoper

It’s a dark dreary December day with a downright deluge descending outside to add to the alliteration.  Fortunately, it being almost Christmas, this weekend is offering a glut of crosswords with which I’ve been occupying myself while waiting for a break in the rain.

Among the puzzles I’ve done was a moderately challenging one in the New Statesman.  I have a subscription to the New Statesman, which means that I get it delivered in the post approximately two days after everyone else has had a chance to read it. After finishing the crossword, which contain a number of hidden (unclued) famous pseudonyms, I had a look at the rest of the magazine and discovered that this issue, the Christmas one, was edited by Brian Cox (who needs no introduction) and Robin Ince (who I believe is a comedian of some sort). It’s nice to see science featured so strongly in a political magazine, of course, but I did raise an eyebrow when I read this (about the LHC) in a piece written by Professor Cox:

The machine itself is 27 kilometres in circumference and is constructed from 9,300 superconducting electromagnets operating at -271.3°C. There is no known place in the universe that cold outside laboratories on earth…

Not so. The cryogenic systems on ESA’s Planck mission achieved a stable operating temperature at the 0.1 K level. This experiment has now reached the end of its lifetime and is warming up, but  the Herschel Space Observatory with a temperature of 1.4 K is still cooler than the Large Hadron Collider. Moreover, there are natural phenomena involving very low temperatures. The Boomerang Nebula has a measured temperature of −272.15°C, also lower than the LHC.  How does this system manage to cool itself down below the temperature of the cosmic microwave background, I hear you asking.  A detailed model is presented here; it’s “supercooled” because it is expanding so quickly compared to the rate at which it is absorbing CMB photons.

Anyway, if this all seems a bit pedantic then I suppose it is, but if prominent science advocates can’t be bothered to check their facts on things they claim to be authorities about, one wonders why the public show pay them any attention in the broader sphere. Fame and influence bring with them difficult responsibilities.

That brings me to another piece in the same issue, this one co-authored by Cox and Ince, about Science and Society entitled Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science. I’d realised that there was a bit of a Twitter storm brewing about this item, but had to wait until the horse and cart arrived with my snail mail copy before I could try figure out what it was about. I still haven’t because although it’s not a particularly focussed piece it doesn’t seem to say anything all that controversial. In fact it just struck me that it seems to be a bit self-contradictory, on the one hand arguing that politicians should understand science better and on the other calling for a separation of science and politics.   There are two more detailed rejoinders here and here.

For my part I’ll just say that I think it is neither possible nor desirable to separate science from politics.  That’s because, whether we like it or not, we need them both. Science may help us understand the world around us, and (to a greater or lesser degree of reliability) predict its behaviour, but it does not make decisions for us. Cox and Ince argue that

Science is the framework within which we reach conclusions about the natural world. These conclusions are always preliminary, always open to revision, but they are the best we can do.

I’d put it differently, in terms of probabilities and evidence rather than “conclusions”, but I basically agree. The problem is that at some point we have to make decision which may not depend solely on the interpretation of evidence but on a host of other factors that science can say nothing about. Definite choices have to be made, even when the evidence is ambiguous. In other words we have to bring closure, much as we do when a jury delivers a verdict in a court of law, which is something that science on its own can rarely do. Mere opinion certainly counts in that context, and so it should. The point is that science is done by people, not machines. People decide what questions to ask, and what assumptions to proceed from. Choices of starting point are political (in the widest sense of the word) and sometimes what you get out of a scientific investigation  is little more than what you put in.

It’s always going to a problem in a democratic society that scientific knowledge is confined to a relatively small number of experts. We can do our best to educate as many as possible about what we do, but we’re always going to struggle to explain ourselves adequately. There will always be conspiracy theories and crackpots of various kinds. The way to proceed is not to retreat into a bunker and say “Trust me, I’m a scientist” but to be more open about the doubts and uncertainties and to present a more realistic picture of the strengths and limitations of science. That means to engage with public debate, not by preaching the gospel of science as if it held all the answers, but by acknowledging that science is a people thing and that as such it belongs in politics as much as politics belongs in it.

Credentialism and Overexamination

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2012 by telescoper

Only time for a quick post this morning as I have to go into the department to get my things ready for tomorrow, when the Autumn Semester starts and I have to begin lecturing (at 9am on a Monday morning). Anyway, the text for today’s sermon is provided by Ed Smith’s Left Field column in the New Statesman, the latest issue of which I read yesterday. His topic is the rise of credentialism and the resulting excessive amount of examination in the British school system:

It is now widely accepted that British pupils are excessively over-examined. Teachers are so busy focussing on examinations that there is little time left for education. Exam-led cramming has become the year-round norm – like an election campaign that consumes the whole political cycle. Exams are obviously necessary. But there is an optimal amount of assessment and it has been far exceeded. Grade inflation – notwithstanding this year’s controversial “crackdown” – is simply accepted as a fact.

It’s well said, and it’s not just the school system that suffers from disproportionate emphasis on assessment over education. It’s rife throughout the university system too, starting with the reliance on A-level grades as criteria for assessing students’ suitability for university study, through the “modular” undergraduate degree programmes with examinations twice a year for three or four years.

We examine far too frequently and the effect of this has been to turn the entire education system into a meaningless exercise in box-ticking.

It is an unfortunate irony: in our age of credentialism, exams have never mattered more. And yet they have never been more unreliable as gauges of academic quality.

I’ve felt for some time that in my discipline, Physics (and Astronomy) A-levels are virtually useless as indicators of the suitability of a student for doing an undergraduate degree. Some of the very best students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach came into my university with modest A-level scores; and some students who came in with perfect grades at school never adjusted to the different, more independent type of study required of an undergraduate.

As Ed Smith points out, the increased emphasis on examination grades hasn’t expanded opportunity either.  It may appear to be fairer to base university entrance or award jobs on examination results rather than, say, interviews, but this has just led to a system that can be easily gamed – private tutors, cramming, re-sits to improve grades, and so on. He rightly concludes that the “correlation between exam results and intelligence has been steadily weakening”.

So what’s the alternative? Smith mentions the admissions process at Harvard University, which famously ignores high-school grades and relies on its own interview system. Interviews can be very biased if carried out in an inappropriate way. Subjecting a young person to a 30-minute grilling  in a room with a complete stranger can be enormously stressful for applicants who are shy, and would also play into the hands of those whose educational background has involved specific training for such ordeals. But one thing I’ve found by talking to students face-to-face is that it doesn’t take very long to identify precisely those things that the examination system does not: imagination, enthusiasm for the subject,  and a flair for thinking on your feet:

One teacher told me with regret that she had to advise her most academic pupil not to display her full intellectual range: in order to secure all the ticks, first you have to stop thinking freely.

If you don’t believe this, take a look at this GCSE Science Examination. A truly intelligent student would struggle to find any correct answer for many of the questions on that paper!

This is why we still place so much emphasis on interviews in the postgraduate admissions system: we take it for granted that all applicants for PhD places will have good undergraduate degrees. What marks out an excellent candidate for a position as  research student, however, is not the ability to pass exams but a mixture of creative flair and almost obsessive determination to surmount the difficult challenges involved in independent research. The correlation between these characteristics and degree results is by no means strong.

The problem for a UK University in adopting the Harvard approach is that credentialism is now running the system. Students apply to universities largely on the basis of their predicted A-level grades, lowering their sights if their predicted grades would not be expected to get them into a more “presitigious” department. But departments that take in students with low A-level scores also get marked down in the league tables for taking in “weaker” students. We’re all aware that A-levels are basically useless, but both sides are  bound so tightly into the system that there seems to be no escape.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know if there is one, but I’d love to see what would happen if all universities abandoned A-levels and instead set their own entrance examinations and interviews. It would be a huge amount of work, but it would make a refreshing change if universities could gather useful information rather than relying on the uninformative guff produced by the national examination boards.

And here is Smith’s closing remark that rings very true to me for personal reasons,

There is a further dimension to the problem of credentialism. It encourages life’s winners to underestimate their good fortune and to over-rate the extent to which they deserve their success. Far from advancing talent over privilege, credentialism has strengthened the grip of people already at the top.