The Fetishization of Elite University Admission

A friend of mine who served on a local school board attended multiple meetings in which parents complained about the way GPA and class rankings were calculated for high school students in AP courses. After hours of passionate discussion driven by a very small number of parents, he lost his temper and said “We have thousands of kids in our district and I am sick of spending all our time debating whether the few of them who want to go to Princeton are going to end up at Dartmouth instead”.

I thought of my friend when I read the recent New York Times story with the doleful title Best, Brightest and Rejected. My university’s very low rate of acceptance is the kick-off point for the article, which mentions the case of Mr. Isaac Madrid. Isaac does not understand why he didn’t get in to Stanford. Tragically enough, the story informs us, he will instead have to go to Yale.

Yale! Congratulations to Isaac and family! The NYT photo makes Isaac look pensive and maybe a little sad, when it ought to show him jumping up and down with joy because he is a no doubt amazing young person who is heading off to a world-class university.

Stanford University is a great place to get an education and I am lucky to be a professor here. But no one’s life chances break down into two mutually exclusive options: Stanford admission vs. Chronic unemployment and homelessness. Whether it’s intentional or not, the extraordinary amount of focus NYT and other prominent media outlets give to the importance of getting into ONE PARTICULAR ELITE UNIVERSITY (Usually Harvard or Stanford) distorts the perspective of many young people and their parents. I would not have believed it until I got here and saw it up close, but there really are parents with great kids heading off to great schools who consider their children not being admitted to Stanford a disaster, a crime against humanity, or both.

I think the media could do a public service by focusing coverage of university admissions more proportionately on the kinds of institutions that most people attend (e.g., my alma mater). As part of that, I would hope they could bring alive for anxious parents and young people the reality that there are lots of terrific places to get a college education and that most of the successful and fulfilled people in the country did not attend the handful of small, private institutions whose admissions are the subject of outsized media attention.

Is Academic Book Publishing Struggling?

Like I suppose everyone else, I have seen many articles describing the decline of old line media, including the hollowing out of copy editing and research departments. As a result of these changes, even outstanding papers such as The New York Times often have spelling and grammatical errors in their articles, or get simple facts (like people’s names) wrong. What I am curious about is whether academic publishing is going through similar travails.

My question is prompted by a recently published book about Hollywood that I just read. The author did an excellent job, but whoever at the university press was responsible for copy editing really blew it.

In the very first paragraph of the book was the phrase “and most of important of all”, and later a scene in a movie is described as being filmed “without no dialogue”.

Gardening is described as exercising control over “you own domain”, we are informed that an actor “love this period” with his wife, Donna Reed’s name is spelled correctly in one paragraph and then spelled as Reid in the next.

A photo from a famous war movie is captioned as a Corporal taking over a platoon after a Private has a mental breakdown. Corporals outrank Privates, so this makes no sense. In the movie, both men are Sergeants.

As for the index, I only tried to use it once which isn’t a good quality check. But FWIW, one actor was mentioned twice in the book playing similar roles and when I went to the index later to find the linked roles, he was only listed once and I had to page through to find his other mention.

Does anyone in the business know if academic publishers are cutting staff (and corners) like the newspapers, or, was this just a case of an unusually badly copy edited book from a university press?

Letter to the Washington Post’s Public Editor Regarding Poor Science Reporting

I complained to the Washington Post about their poor science reporting regarding addiction, but got no answer

I emailed this to the Washington Post’s Public Editor 5 weeks ago, and was disappointed to get not even a perfunctory answer.

Dear Mr. Feaver,

As a professor of psychiatry and addiction treatment researcher at Stanford University, I was very disappointed that the Washington Post was among the news outlets that reported almost verbatim from a press release the claim that Oreo cookies are as addictive as cocaine.

As I described on our university’s medical school blog, the “proof” for this assertion was an undergraduate research project at Connecticut College which has not been published, peer-reviewed, or indeed even presented in any public forum.

Yet this Post story by Valerie Strauss took a stenographic approach, passing along the claims of the press release almost word for word. Indeed, her story even reproduced the photo and large block quotes from the release. Ms. Strauss barely added any words of her own to her article, and certainly none that conveyed appropriate skepticism.

It is to the Post’s credit that a few days later Stephanie Pappas wrote a critical column about the study, quoting an expert who pointed out the fatal flaws in the research. However, it is worth noting that while her article opened with a dig at the “blared headlines” about the study at Fox News and Time, it did not own up to the fact that The Washington Post itself was among those media outlets which uncritically passed along the sensational and untrue statements in the press release.

I understand the pressure to publish and to do so quickly. But I would like to see leading newspapers such as yours implement some policies to ensure that speed does not trump accuracy. It could involve allowing only journalists with relevant science background to write science stories. It could require reporters to at least talk to one critical expert before passing along a press release as fact. In an era where every month there are press releases claiming that new studies show that climate change is a hoax, or that the MMR vaccine causes autism, I am not the only person who counts on your great paper to filter the wheat from the chaff.

Respectfully
Keith Humphreys

Another Outrage of the Day Turns Out Not To Have Happened

The “stiffed lesbian waitress” fake story is one in an endless series of untrue “outrages of the day”

Remember the lesbian waitress who didn’t get a tip from a couple who hated her “lifestyle”? Remember the story going viral and all the talking heads and bloggers nattering on about what it “really meant”, sometimes adding in various details that made the story more vivid with each retelling? People taking sides against the couple, against the waitress, or against our culture that turned the couple against the waitress?

As is so often the case with these little tempests in a teapot, the incident never really happened. But that is unlikely to generate as much attention as did the original, juicy-but-untrue story.

Tomorrow there will be some other outrage of the day, because the 24-hour a day media and commentary beast is always hungry. Did you hear about the 4-year old boy who was thrown out of school by anti-harassment Nazis for kissing a little girl? The Rhode Island governor who told a 5-year old child that only bad people say “Merry Christmas”? The woman in an Afghan immigrant community who was stoned to death for wearing blue jeans? The African-American mail carrier who was sent to prison for wearing a pro-Obama badge at work?

I don’t know what the next outrage of the day will be, but I know that the fact that so many of these turn out to be distorted or fabricated outright will not stop many people from believing it and commenting on it as if they had personally witnessed it.

Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. And so it goes.

Of Oreos, Cocaine and Press Release Science

I am frequently asked by journalists to comment on unpublished studies that make one odd claim or another. When I was younger and more patient, I used to dig up the press release about the study and try to determine from the limited bit of information available whether there was any basis at all to the study’s conclusions. But I am older and less patient now with colleagues who blast unreviewed findings into the media. The most recent example was the press released “finding” that oreos are as addictive as cocaine, about which I cut to the chase with journalists:

The cornerstone of scientific quality is peer-review,” Humphreys said in an email to HuffPost. “This study hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal. It has not even been presented at a conference. All I know is that they put a press release making a series of claims based on a study, the details of which they have not shared with their colleagues. On principle, that makes me doubt their conclusions.

The Oreos press release, which was based on an undergraduate research project at Connecticut College, is part of a broader trend of sensationalized non-peer reviewed scientific claims. I decry this trend and assess the damage today at Stanford Medical School’s SCOPE Blog.

Normalizing the Abnormal

Ashely Parker and Jeremy W. Peters write in NYT today:

A major source of Mr. Boehner’s limitations as speaker is simple math. Republicans control 232 seats, and 218 are required for a majority when there are no vacancies, meaning that in most instances, he can afford to lose only 14 Republican votes.

I am disturbed at this bland equation of being a Speaker of the House of Representatives with being the leader of only one’s own party within it. Boehner isn’t trapped by “simple math”, he is trapped by his decision not to function as a true Speaker of the House, which would involve drawing votes from both parties at least some of the time. By failing to point this out, the NYT story is normalizing Congressional behavior that is in fact well outside the historical norm.

Not Much of a Retraction

Radley Balko writes

here’s a related statistic that’s pretty mind blowing in and of itself: According to the FBI, in 2011 there were 3991.1 arrests for every 100,000 people living in America. That means over the course of a single year, one in 25 Americans was arrested.

No, it doesn’t. This would only be true if we assumed that people do not get arrested more than once a year. The FBI Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) specifically caution against interpreting arrest data in the way that Balko does. Indeed, they make this warning so prominently within the UCR documents that it’s hard to miss.

Apparently, Balko was caught out by readers pretty quickly, because he updated his story later the same afternoon by adding this note at the very bottom:

CLARIFICATION: A few folks have noted that the 1 in 25 figure could be misleading, given that many people are likely to have been arrested more than once. Fair enough. It’s an average. The most accurate way to phrase it would be that in 2011, there were approximately four arrests for every 100 residents.

Yes, things that are not true “could be misleading”. But after acknowledging that his “1 in 25 Americans was arrested last year” claim was inaccurate, he left it as the screaming headline of his story.

Of interest to Chicagoans (possibly)

As some of you might know, I was one of a pair of “Dueling [theater] Critics” unceremoniously bounced from Chicago Public Media for being too expert.  (I am not making this up.)  However, you can’t keep a good battle down, and my colleague Jonathan Abarbanel and I have resumed our role as the Bickersons of Chicago theater on a podcast of our own design and creation.  You can hear us on soundcloud every Friday morning and/or subscribe to us on iTunes.

See you at the theater!

Tabloid Newspapers: Mocked but Mighty

To encourage riders to remove and recycle their newspapers rather than leave them on the train, the London Underground has posted signs proclaiming in bolded capital letters that “The newspaper you’re reading is rubbish”. On my train this morning, a wag had scribbled in below this pronouncement “That’s the Mail for you”.

That was the second laugh I got at the expense of the UK tabloid newspapers this week. The first was when I was digging through a pile of newspapers and read the screaming headline of the Daily Express “PLAN CRAP PENSIONS”. When I removed the FT from on top of that rag, I saw that when no longer partially obscured, the headline was “NEW PLAN TO SCRAP PENSIONS”. But the headline as I misread it would not have been out of character for the paper.

Despite the disdain the tabloids draw from many people, including me, they remain enormously popular and influential. The Daily Mail operates one of the most widely visited news websites in the world and the whispered rumour that “The Sun is strongly opposed to your policy proposal and is planning a cover story” is enough to freeze the blood of even the most senior politicians.

But back to mockery. My friend Kevin Grant, a delightful British wit, penned this memorable summary of British newspapers for the television series “Yes, Prime Minister”.

Syria and the lessons of Iraq

There’s no shame in having learned the lessons of Iraq: no to a war in Syria.

Apparently, the Obama administration is set to send weapons to the Syrian rebels. The New York Times article reporting that implies that this may be too little, too late if our plan is to prevent a military victory by Assad. To do that, we’d have to take out lots of Syria’s airstrips.

All this is excellent instrumental reasoning, but it’s time to contest the premise: since when has it become American policy to topple Assad, whatever the cost and consequences? Washington pundits, always more militarist than the American people, have been lamenting that the lessons of Iraq have made the Obama administration “cautious” or “loath to intervene”–as if reluctance to militarily intervene in a large and well-armed country, caution in trying to topple a dictator whose fall would produce a country consumed by deadly sectarian hatreds (partly ancient and largely new, but who cares?), were a bad thing.

David Bromwich’s article in the latest New York Review of Books, where he takes the role of what Mark Danner has called an “empiricist of the word,” provides an excellent corrective to the creeping insinuation that intervention is in the cards and that those who propose staying out must somehow justify that. Read it all, as they say, but here are some highlights: Bill Keller, who got Iraq so horribly wrong, is now asking us to trust him that Syria is different, but can’t really say why (after reading Keller’s argument, I think Bromwich is quite right.). Keller is determined that his past “error of judgment” not leave him “gun-shy,” but while he worries about his mojo, I care more about the people at the other end of his vicarious gun. A recent New York Times article “White House Sticks to Cautious Path on Syria” already is slanted, as Bromwich notes, in the very headline (slightly revised in the online version without changing its substance): why would a lack of change in policy count as news unless we’re assuming that intervention is, or ought to be, the default assumption? By the way, Mark Landler, who co-wrote that article as well as what Bromwich shows to be an over-hyped article about chemical weapons, also co-wrote the latest article approvingly citing “[s]ome senior State Department officials” who  “have been pushing for a more aggressive military response, including airstrikes to hit the primary landing strips in Syria.” The man has at the very least a bias; at most, an agenda.

About those chemical weapons, by the way: Even stipulating that Assad has used them, and I certainly wouldn’t put it past him, I deny that this gives the U.S. good reason to intervene. The bright-line taboo on using nuclear weapons is far more dubious when applied to chemical weapons, whose ability to kill and sicken horribly in a limited area is not qualitatively greater, and often less, than the ability of awful contemporary conventional weapons to kill and maim. President Obama was foolish enough to make chemical weapons a “red line”—as we now know, as an off-the-cuff remark that he hadn’t thought out—but neither America nor Syria deserves to pay the price for his gaffe, no matter what the White House thinks.

I realize that the Syrian civil war is horrible. Tens of thousands (perhaps more) have been killed; millions have fled. Assad is a vicious dictator and he does not plan to change. But the pundits eager for intervention have not explained an alternative better than this: another war. For reasons those State Department hawks have explained, this war would start with our bombing airstrips. I submit it would progress, given the need to protect our aircraft against surface attack, to our bombing all kinds of “strategic” targets, killing thousands of civilians (as in Iraq). We would quite likely send ground troops who would instantly become the targets of die-hard Alawites, not to mention Hezbollah. In the best case, and whether or not we sent troops, we would eventually hand over the country to a motley coalition of well-organized Salafis and poorly-organized moderates. Further civil war would almost follow—with no likely end to the killing, nor the flow of refugees.

There’s no shame in having learned the lessons of Iraq. Shame on those who are so determined to deny that they are lessons that they would rather repeat them. We should stay out.