This article is the second in a 52 part weekly series on the United States of America. It’s a chance to celebrate the diversity of our nation, and to educate ourselves about the members of our union, both the States and the Territories. We encourage you to comment and share you thoughts on the States, and hope you learn something new about each of the valuable members of our wonderful Union.
– The Staff of The 12 Angry Men

Last time, we covered Indiana, a state that does just about everything right, but doesn’t quite clean up enough for a fancy party. This week my cross hairs are lined up on Florida a state that does just about everything wrong that is imaginable, but the weather.

Quick Facts about Florida
Admission to UnionMar 3rd, 1845
Population Density309/sq mi (8th)
Area65,795 sq mi (22nd)
Gross State Product$713 billion (4th)
Tax Burden+0.02

Florida, a nice place to visit, but like so many nice places to visit, you wouldn’t want to live there. First visited by the Spanish in 1513 who, in a well thought out plan, decided it would be just peachy to build some settlements in the path of every major hurricane. Florida was ceded to the United States by the Spanish in 1819 for $5 million dollars, and the promise that the US would renounce all claims to Texas (yeah… like that was going to happen). Unfortunately we accepted, and from that day forward Florida was known as “America’s Wang”.

Throughout most of its history (until the middle of the 1900’s), Florida was the least populous state in The South. Following the advent of air conditioning, Florida experienced a massive population boom, peaking in the 60’s with growth rates of nearly 80%. Now you would certainly think that such massive population growth, and the influx of all of the tourist dollars would result in a healthy sustainable economy. Yep, you would certainly think that, but no, you’d be dead wrong. Despite having a GDP on par with Australia’s, Florida manages the horrible sin of being a tax burden on the rest of the country (for every $1.00 Floridians pay in taxes, the Government hands them back their whole dollar, and then chips in an extra $0.02 of the rest of our money). Hey Florida, maybe you should start collecting an income tax, before you start asking the rest of us for handouts!

What Florida does right: Well… um… they have nice weather! Except when Hurricanes are obliterating their major cities, that is. Well they do have Disney World, and everybody likes going to Disney World! Yeah, sadly, that’s all I’ve got. Florida has a decent education system, but it’s nothing to write home about. They don’t have an income tax, which is nice if you’re greedy and want the rest of us to foot the bill (and if you don’t mind the fact that the state rolls your estate for money when you die). You would think, as one of the most populous state they’d have more going for them than just being “The Pretty One”, but as we’re about to see, this “Pretty One” has been riding the short bus for a long, long time…

What Florida does wrong: Just about everything. Let’s face it. The state has it’s own Fark tag. For those of you who don’t know, is a website which lists various interesting, amusing, and downright stupid news stories everyday. They have tags like “Interesting”, “Cool”, and “Hero” for stories which are impressive and good. For those which outline human stupidity they have tags like “Asinine”, “Stupid”, and “Dumbass”. The site founder, however, noticed that most of the really and truly bizarre news, usually involving people acting dumber than bricks, came from Florida. Thus, there is also a tag on Fark called “Florida”. That’s right, Florida is the only state which is so dumb, that news stories about it need special labeling.

It’s not hard to see why either. Despite having been given one of the largest government installations (Kennedy Space Center), theme parks out the wazoo, and the lion’s share of the citrus industry, it still manages to draw more coins out of the Federal purse than it puts in. Are you seriously telling me that with the fourth largest population in the Union, and the fourth largest economy in the Union, you still need the rest of us to help you pay the bills?!?! BAD FLORIDA!, no cookie for you! The people of Florida need to go sit in the corner, in timeout, and think about how the rest of the top five states manage to pay their bills. Florida gets a D for economy, and that’s being generous! You guys are lucky that I’m saving the F for Arkansas and Mississippi!

Look Florida, you need to realize that you didn’t mature as fast as your population boom would seem to indicate. You’ve got the population, and the income, but like a teenager with her first credit card, you’re living beyond your means, and not properly investing in your future. It’s time to grow up, get a better education, and stop living in our basement.

-Angry Midwesterner

This article is the first in a 52 part weekly series on the United States of America. It’s a chance to celebrate the diversity of our nation, and to educate ourselves about the members of our union, both the States and the Territories. We encourage you to comment and share you thoughts on the States, and hope you learn something new about each of the valuable members of our wonderful Union.
– The Staff of The 12 Angry Men

I’ve been planning this series of articles for a while now, and have been trying to decide which state to lead it off with. I could have gone alphabetically, but I thought it would be better to choose an order than meant something to me. I’ve chosen to lead with Indiana, as of all states in the Union, Indiana is the one which seems the most like home to me, even though I’ve never actually lived there. I’ve got a lot of family in Indiana, and spent a good deal of my summers in the state. Even though, in many ways, Indiana is the oddball of the Midwest, it’s still some place I always feel welcomed, and a place I think of fondly. As such, it seemed a natural state to introduce first.

Quick Facts about Indiana
Admission to UnionDec 11th, 1816
Population Density169.5/sq mi (16th)
Area36,418 sq mi (38th)
Gross State Product$248 billion (16th)
Tax Burden-$0.03

Indiana was the 19th state admitted to the Union, and is solidly in the Midwest, which of course makes it one of my favorites. It resembles the other core Midwestern states culturally, and economically, having a population which is based in a few large cities, surrounded by little sprawl or suburban regions, and vast nearly flat country side. Due to the extremely fertile soil, almost every inch of the state is farmed. Like most of the Midwest, it industrialized early, and throughout most of the 20th century relied on manufacturing and other industrial jobs.

While many short sighted individuals have used the term “Rust Belt” to refer to parts of the North which suffered economically after the loss of American industry, the term really doesn’t apply to Indiana. As one of the few states to carry a tax burden (for every $1.00 paid in taxes in Indiana, only $0.97 are returned by the Federal Government), Indianans help the other states in this category to carry the slack from most of the USA. Their high Gross State Product puts them on par with such nations as South Africa, and Denmark, and actually higher than Argentina, Iran, or Ireland. Not bad for a bunch of rednecks, huh?

What Indiana does right: Quite a lot actually. Between a diversified economy which leads the nation in biofuels, and comes in second in pharmaceuticals, and a stellar education program which leads the nation in foreign applicants, Indiana is doing a lot to ensure their future success. They get an A+ for economy both for their booming economic sectors, their commitment to education, and more importantly because they don’t shoulder the rest of the Union with any economic burden. They’ve also managed to strike a nice balance between progress and the environment. The beaches at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore rival those of the Mediterranean, with azure blue waters, and soft white sand. Parks and natural areas are spread in healthy measure across the state, and even in a city as big as Indianapolis it is easy to find a park in which the city itself seems to disappear. On the other hand, the state is home to Indianapolis, one of the largest and most dynamic cities in America, which features a rich cultural scene, museums, and a breathtaking canal district which features fountains, gondola rides, and numerous hanging gardens.

What Indiana does wrong: Let’s face it. People from Indiana are Hill Billies . That’s right, I said it, Hoosiers (a term which folks from Indiana don’t even understand) are good old fashioned, rednecked Hicks. In fact, given the absence of hills, they’re not even hill billies. Better just call them Hick Billies and be done with it. When it really comes down to brass tacks, no matter how well they compare to the rest of America, in the Midwest they’re the red headed stepchild. They’re low on population, and despite their great education program (maybe they’re lacking enough iodine…) they’re a little low in other categories as well. Out of all the Midwestern states they are the single solitary one to speak with an accent. Thick, twangy, drawling accents, all of them. We love you Indiana, we really do, but you need to learn that there isn’t a single “R” in Washington, that “think” and “thank” do not sound the same, and that stream running through your back yard is a creek, not a crick. When it comes down to it, no matter how successful you are as a state, you just don’t clean up well. That’s why your neighbors Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio will never invite you to any fancy parties, so you always get stuck drinking whiskey with Kentucky, while you shoot cans off the broken down car you’ve got jacked up on cinder blocks in your front lawn.

Seriously Indiana, you’re so close to being a really high class state. You’ve got everything, education, beautiful vacation spots, a roaring economy, and one of the nicest, cleanest cities in the world. Just do us one favor. Leave the overalls at home?

-Angry Midwesterner

Click to enlarge

So unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of the One Laptop Per Child project, aka OLPC. This innovative and amazing idea is the brain child of Nicholas Negroponte, of MIT Media Labs, and set off with the goal of making an affordable, durable, fully featured laptop computer for children in under privileged areas. Originally the machines were supposed to cost no more than $100, and while this price point has not yet been reached the Project has created an absolutely incredible machine for only $199.

Click to enlarge

I’ve been a fan of the project since I first heard about it. The idea is brilliant. I’ve long thought that children should have more exposure to computers, they’ve changed the world immensely, and have become a common and necessary tool for daily life. Especially with the modern prevalence of the internet, and the information it brings to your finger tips, computer use has become a priceless life skill. Education has been the one aspect that hasn’t fully embraced computers and, let’s face it, the price hasn’t made it easy for them to even try. The OLPC Project’s XO Laptop fix this problem, and not just for developed nations, as evidenced by the number of countries which are taking part in the program.

While many news outlets have discussed the effect that the Project will have on developing nations, there has been surprisingly little coverage on the effect it will have in the United States, and the information available on the OLPC wiki isn’t very enlightening. Since I have a lot of interest in the education system here in America, I decided to see if the OLPC staff would answer some questions about the level of interest they have received from US states, and the status of the project in America. They were gracious enough to answer my questions, and help me to gain a better understanding of the OLPC Project in the United States.

Angry Midwesterner: I have a few questions about the XO laptop, specifically about the effect it might have on poorer regions of the USA. I was wondering if it is possible to get information about what states have expressed interest, or in fact committed to buying, the XO laptop?

OLPC Staff Member: 19 states have contacted OLPC for more information and expressing some level of interest in doing the program. OLPC hasn’t disclosed which states because it doesn’t make sense to do so until something concrete happens.

Angry Midwesterner: Completely understandable. Has the organization considered making OLPC’s available not only to countries and states, but to county/city level education programs? If so, when might they be available, if not, would this be considered in the future?

OLPC Staff Member: OLPC’s focus is working with governments of developing nations. OLPC is focused on achieve large scale distribution of laptops and that is best handled at this level. OLPC does not have the resources to work with lots of individual county/city level education programs. There may be exceptions to this now and then but generally OLPC wants to focus on the largest possible distribution.

Angry Midwesterner: Thanks, one last question. If a county or city wanted to obtain laptops for their students, could they use your Give Many program to
direct them to a city or county school system, like perhaps the City of Chicago Public Schools, or Champaign County Public Schools?

OLPC Staff Member: I think they could but depending on the quantity they’d probably want to just work directly with OLPC.

Angry Midwesterner: Thanks for all of your help. I’ve really appreciated your talking with us, and answering our questions.

It’s great to know that the folks working on the OLPC have in fact been working directly with US states, and have mechanisms in place to work with city and county school boards, should the need arise. While some states, such as Maine and Georgia, have instituted laptop programs, and at least 17 other states have started investigating the OLPC, education has long been a rather local issue in the USA. Most school boards, while beholden to the states, are rather independent, a fact that is all too apparent when one looks at the variation in quality of education present within any given states. Some areas, such as the Mississippi Delta region are so impoverished that they sometimes resemble underdeveloped countries. It’s a sad fact that Americans everywhere don’t have access to the same standard of education, a fact that projects such as the OLPC could help to change.

In addition to providing children with a tool for learning technology, the OLPC has many other exciting applications. Imagine the cost savings to school districts if they could purchase textbooks in e-book format, instead of print format? Suddenly textbook life spans are extended by huge margins, and the cost of each individual book drops dramatically, allowing teachers to order additional resources for their students. Locker space could be reduced as well, as students now don’t have to manage a pile of seven thick text books, only their XO Laptop, which they bring with them to every class anyway. Given the model of student ownership for each laptop, it’s not too hard to see how this model extends beyond Elementary School, but instead provides the student with a machine that could last them until High School and beyond.

Of course the truly exciting fact is that the XO Laptop is available for us to purchase through the Give 1 Get 1 promotion which runs until December 31st, 2007.

For $399 ($200 of which is tax deductable) you can not only receive an XO laptop for yourself, but also give one to a needy child. It’s a brilliant idea in my opinion, and I hope they get a lot of interest. I know I’m interested. This is a great option for individuals looking to develop for the XO Laptop, or for those of us who simply would like a durable, portable machine, tablet, and e-book reader with an outstanding battery life. T-Mobile has chipped in for the program too, and sweetened the deal by offering a year of free Wi-Fi service at any T-Mobile hotspot.

I have my fingers crossed that this project will be the huge success it promises to be. If it is adopted as readily and widely as it should be in the USA, it will help to equip young Americans from varied backgrounds and income levels to compete in the global technology market of the future, and help to reduce the cost of operations for each individual school, freeing up additional resources that can be used to outfit other needy sectors of education, such as properly outfitting science labs, and building maintenance. Keep up the good work OLPC, the future depends on you.

-Angry Midwesterner

1Photo by Jim Gettys, used under permission of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.
2Photo by Mike McGregor, used under permission of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

What do Islamofacism, methamphetamine production, tort lawyers, and homemade fireworks have in common? The answer is that they are all part of the seemingly inevitable process of destroying the childhood Chemistry Set. A.C. Gilbert, in 1918 was titled the “Man who Saved Christmas” with his innovative ideas of packaging a few glass tubes and some common chemicals into starter kits that enabled a generation to learn the joy of experimentation, and the basis for the scientific method of thought.

Chemcraft Set Gilbert Set
Chemcraft Chemistry Set Gilbert Chemistry Set

Some of Gilbert’s original sets included such items as sodium cyanide, radioactive samples (complete with a Geiger counter), and glass blowing kits. I will freely admit that one of the first things I did with my chemistry set was to attempt to make an explosive. I remember mixing up chemicals that evolved free chlorine gas and having to evacuate the house. I remember mixing potassium nitrate and sugar to make rocket engines and quickly evolving to higher specific impulse fuels. I remember the joy of finally obtaining some nitric acid which allowed me to nitrate basically everything in the house (cotton for gun cotton, glycerine and alcohol for nitroglycerine). So yes, I have to admit that there is a risk involved. But this is how people learn. Sometimes knowledge comes with pain — one-shot induction.

Today however, the Chemistry Set is toast. Current instantiations are embarrassing. There are no chemicals except those which react at low energy to produce color changes. No glass tubes or beakers, certainly no Bunsen burners or alcohol burners (remember the clear blue flames when the alcohol spilled out over the table). Today’s sets cover perfume mixing and creation of luminol (the ‘CSI effect’ I suppose).

In some States, you need a FBI criminal background check to purchase chemicals. Some metals, like lithium, red phosphorus, sodium and potassium, are almost impossible to purchase in elemental form. This is thanks to their use in manufacturing methamphetamine. Sulphur and potassium nitrate, both useful chemicals, are being classified as class C fireworks (here is a good precursor link). Mail order suppliers of science products are raided. Many over-the-counter compounds now require what is essentially a (poor) background check. Even fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) is under intense scrutiny. Where does this trend end? Ten years from now, will the list include table salt, seawater and natural gas — precursors to many industrical chemicals?

Then there is the liability issue. Of course some people buy into the lets be safe at any cost and assert that much chemistry can be done without explosions and stinky fumes. If a ladder manufacturer is under a constant barrage of liability suits, imagine the torrent of litigation directed to those giving a child a set of potentially dangerous chemicals. Its a CHILD, for God’s sake. [Oh, I’m sorry, for a minute there I was waxing Democrat.]

Yet there is still a little hope. Although Thames and Kosmos can’t ship their sets with the full range of chemicals needed to perform their listed experiments, at least they provide a list of sources from which to acquire them (assuming the appropriate permits, licenses, fees, FEES, background checks, and did I mention fees.) What is at stake here is no less than the future of America’s competitiveness and the innovation the make the United States the magnet for international entrepreneurs and scientists. Without the chemistry set, will we have scientists and innovators, or just a country of rock stars, political commentators and movie idols.

[Author’s Note: This article is primarily a result of my frustration in trying to acquire a few hundred grams of potassium carbonate for an electrolyte solution.]

Update: See also Sightings in the Wild on this blog.

Everybody wants to rule the world. —Tears for Fears

Recently I wrote about some reports of surveys of university professors. Today, let’s dig deeper into specifics.

Whether the issue with Evangelicals is a “genuine” expression of prejudice—as in “I hate you because you are X, end of story”—is hard to answer definitively. Certainly the by now well-known fundamental attribution error suggests that it’s important to watch out when we come to this point as it’s very hard to attribute motive accurately, particularly for people you disagree with: “I have my reasons for the things I do, but you are evil by nature.” That said, I’m going to throw out what I think is the modal academic’s unarticulated position, though ultimately it represents mine and I’ll have to hope I’m close enough to the modal opinion for me to be a stand-in.

There is certainly going to be prejudice, much of it social class-based; this is not confined to the academy but is widespread in the population. The extent to which Evangelicals are perceived to be “bubbas” or otherwise lower class will make things difficult for them among groups higher in the social hierarchy. I bet that the view of speaking in tongues in a board room of a Fortune 500 company isn’t very high either. Fire-and-brimstone social conservatism isn’t a great sell among a group that leans to the social libertarian side, either. In addition, with academics, the perception of lack of education is a particularly strong negative—we do like what we’re selling, after all…. 🙂 (Edit: I should note—it’s implicit below—that there is a real diversity among the groups called “evangelical” that many outsiders don’t recognize. The perception among the non-evangelical population is largely the Jerry Falwell/Pat Robertson types. It’s really the flipside of “professor = left wing atheist” problem I’m talking about.)

However, a good chunk of the issue I think many academics have with Evangelicals in particular is this: Evangelicals have become the public face of a substantial anti-intellectual movement and, well, intellectuals really don’t like anti-intellectual movements. (Edit: Here and here is a good example of the kind of crap I’m talking about. I can only hope it’s a sick joke but I have my doubts. I bet Senator Brownback would rather not have friends like these….) There is a non-trivial group of hard core moral relativists, mostly concentrated in the humanities, and the staunchly anti-religious who have stronger objections such as Richard Dawkins, but the survey results discussed above suggest that they are quite far from the majority in the academy. The entire attitude of Evangelicals (more particularly fundamentalists, and yes, I know there is a difference, but from a very long distance that’s not apparent or even all that important), is essentially “Everything you need to know can be found by looking in the Bible.” (Fundamentalists in other areas substitute different holy texts, e.g., Das Kapital, The Koran, largely unwritten “tradition”, etc.) For most academics this is a truly alien and essentially horrific basic premise. It’s just not going to fly with people who’s starting premise is “I’m going to look into it… and even then we’re going to argue about it.” Now I won’t deny that there are some very dogmatic academics out there who love their theories to death, but in general the bias of academics is against such views and, at least in my experience, most really aren’t heavily dogmatic. One doesn’t typically go into a job that requires a constant probing of questions with an attitude of dogmatism. The fact that evangelicals are leading the charge against the teaching of evolution is a good specific example, since it is perceived as fundamentally coming from a non-scientific motive.

What about respect for other religions? The authors seemed to have glided by this point in their hand-wringing. If universities were hotbeds of anti-Christian sentiment, you’d expect other branches of Christianity to get slammed. However, the data speaks to the contrary. Why? Let’s look at an example. Catholicism, for instance, has a longstanding tradition of scholarship and a network of universities identified with it. American, Loyola, De Paul, Notre Dame, Marquette and Georgetown are all good examples. (Many American private universities used to be sectarian, but over the course of the 20th Century the connection of institutions such as Harvard (Episcopalian), Princeton (Presbyterian), the University of Chicago (Baptist), etc., were broken or heavily downplayed. And of course state universities have never been sectarian, with possible early 19th Century exceptions.) The big difference between Notre Dame or Georgetown on one hand and, oh, Liberty University (Jerry Falwell), Regent University (Pat Robertson), Patrick Henry College or Oral Roberts University on the other, is the fact that the former are perceived as “real” because they have a long list of high-end scholars, and have for decades, while the latter are tarred (rightly or wrongly) with the anti-intellectual brush endemic to the modern American Evangelical movement. Given the evident quality (or lack thereof) of legal minds graduated from Regent University’s law school, I have to wonder, but rather than speculate, let’s look at course offerings. After browsing their web pages, Liberty, Regent, Patrick Henry and ORU tend to be essentially the equivalent of “teaching,” liberal arts, degree-completion or low-end professional schools, and have quite limited course offerings with little or no science, for instance. One of Regent’s highlighted majors is (surprise, surprise) TV production! They may well provide good but probably pretty limited educations for their students. I don’t know.

There’s a reason for such places, but they aren’t the likes of a Notre Dame… and my money’s on them never becoming so. Let’s consider why. At Wheaton College—one of the best Evangelical schools, and one that does have well-regarded science programs—faculty have to declare how their research is consistent with “biblical doctrine that is consonant with evangelical Christianity.” (Pity the pure mathematician or physical chemist!) They’ve also had issues with faculty conversion, as the dismissal of a professor who converted to Roman Catholicism shows. Having interviewed at Notre Dame some time ago, I can attest that while there is a clearly stated Catholic hiring preference, if being a Catholic isn’t a precondition for your job, i.e., you are not teaching theology or the like and so long as you don’t plan on going on an anti-Pope rampage, you are a viable candidate. Wheaton isn’t lying to you, the job candidate: They tell you right up front what’s up. However, they do drive off people who don’t fit their mold real closely and it will cost the college in terms of scholarship because the number of very solid scholars who also happen to be committed Evangelicals is, by definition, smaller than the number of very solid scholars, i.e., something has to give. By contrast, Calvin College, an Evangelical liberal arts school in Grand Rapids, Michigan connected with the Dutch Reformed Church, is quite well-respected more broadly, has science programs, and so on. I’ve bumped into their faculty at academic conferences. So it is possible to make things work.

Furthermore, heavily faith-identified universities such as Maharishi University tend to come in for some pretty heavy skepticism among most academics; it’s not just Christianity. In short, it’s about scholarship, or perceived lack thereof, and not faith identification or Evangelical attachment per se. Naturally, for faith-based institutions, the priorities are exactly the other way around, Wheaton being a laser-spot-on example thereof. On the double standard towards Muslims also mentioned in the articles, I bet that’s mostly ignorance. If Muslim fundamentalists were as in-your-face about things as Evangelicals have been locally, Muslims would receive far more negative attention from American intellectuals. (Take a look at the current attitudes in Europe as an example of how things could go here.) Right now, most of them are sufficiently far away to be under the radar and appear, as the authors of the Jewish Research press release speculate, to be thought of as underdogs.

A few limitations of the studies: The surveys didn’t indicate the number of foreign-born faculty, or at least I couldn’t tell from digging around in their methodological appendix. There are, of course, quite a few non-American faculty members, who can be expected to have rather different views than the rest of the population. This is a methodological limitation of the study I wish they’d addressed more clearly. They also did a lot of data-dredging, which can lead to capitalization on chance. However, the fact that studies were done at all—as opposed to the usual alternative, anec-data—is a good thing.

In sum, my contention is that much of the disagreement between Evangelicals and academics comes from the fact that we are living in the middle (to end) of what’s been referred to as the Fourth Great Awakening or, to use Pat Buchanan’s term, the “culture war.” It’s a genuine disagreement about fundamental issues. One set of priorities sees faith in received wisdom as the defining feature. The other sees largely unlimited inquiry as the defining feature. These two visions just don’t line up. The conflict’s not going to be settled by an affirmative action program or by self-righteous finger-pointing by anyone. In fact, I don’t think it’ll be settled at all—which isn’t bad so long as things do not spiral out of control. As the quote of Karl Popper at the beginning points out, conflict isn’t a bad thing in a society, but (as he goes on to discuss later), the key is finding ways to manage it so people don’t end up dead. The term “culture war” has been bandied about of late, but there are disturbing and bloody precedents of what happens as they get pushed too far (see Eric Rudolph or the Weather Underground and go down from there). So there is a point to sociological representation and (lightly) enforced tolerance because it’s not good for what are supposed to be broad-based institutions to become “hostile environments” to substantial groups in the population. Indeed, the Air Force Academy has had some real issues with a hostile environment for non-Evangelicals, including observant Jews, Catholics, feeling pressured by the numerous Evangelicals connected to nearby Colorado Springs mega-churches. (The AFA is in Colorado Springs, sometimes known as the “Evangelical Vatican.”) Sometimes we have to do some things to make such institutions open up more we don’t especially like, though “thought police” is something we need to stop well short of, as certain academic disciplines show quite clearly. But the problem is broader than just universities and we shouldn’t be selective or short-sighted about it.

There can be no human society without conflict: such a society would be not a society of friends but of ants. —Sir Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies

A few months back the results of two large representative surveys of the political views of university faculty were published with little fanfare. This was reported on a web page of the Allan Bloom-inspired group Minding the Campus, but the details for the one by Jewish Research is here. (MtC seems to mostly have just copied what Jewish Research said.) Here is a link to another study, done by sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons at Harvard and George Mason, respectively. There was a little press coverage, e.g., this article in the Washington Post by Alan Cooperman. In the big scheme of things, this isn’t an enormous issue, so fair enough, but I still figured it would be worth some analysis.

In short, university faculty do not resemble the general population on their political and religious views. The data show that university faculty are similar to other “elite” groups of highly educated people in the society, i.e., more liberal than the norm, less religious, less likely to have voted for George W. Bush, etc.

Big surprise, there.

What’s interesting is what the studies don’t show. While university faculty are more liberal, less religious, etc., things are not monolithic. The vast majority still describe themselves as religious, have some involvement in a church, and so on. For instance, atheists—rare in the general population—are more common among university faculty, but by no means even close to a majority, making up about 8% of the respondents, with agnostics being about 12%. This is about three times the rate of the general population. The survey done by Gross and Simmons had an important caveat: Community colleges and state comprehensive universities have faculty that resemble the ordinary population more than elite institutions, which shouldn’t be shocking, either, since they tend to be drawn more from the ordinary population. This is important because a substantial majority of students attend these universities, not elite institutions. So in a sense, often the discourse is about what goes on at elite universities… which we shouldn’t really expect to resemble the general population much at all. The authors slice and dice the data in other ways; take a look at the original studies for more. The Gross/Simmons study is probably the one to read as it is much shorter and better written. (If you do, keep in mind that the margin of error for both surveys is about +/-4% on any estimates and if you want to be safe, don’t interpret differences less than about +/-6% as meaning much.)

Two groups, however, get singled out for special opprobrium among university faculty: Mormons and Evangelicals. I don’t pretend to understand the issue with Mormons aside from their appearance as a “mystery cult”—special underwear, closed temples, tales of revelation in upstate New York, and a history of polygamy will do that. But Mormons are far from popular among other groups, including Evangelicals, who like them even less than I suspect most university faculty do, so it’s unclear what to say about that. (Edit, 12/20/08: It seems that the Southern Baptist Convention may be responsible for much of the negative attention against Mormons.) On the issue of Evangelicals, the press releases have a certain doom and gloom aspect to them. From the press release on MtC:

Authors of the survey call this finding “alarming” and say those surveyed “have identified a deep and wide breach in the promotion and protection of diversity and open debate.” The report wonders about the long-term impact of prejudice against Evangelicals on campus and says it “stands out prominently in institutions dedicated to liberalism, tolerance and academic freedom…Colleges and universities have some serious soul-searching to do about these findings.”

Soul-searching? Hmmm…. Partisan agendas aside, lying behind the press release is, I believe, a theory of sociological representation, i.e., one that says that the distribution within an institution should resemble the society at large. (“Theory” here is being used in its philosophical, not scientific, sense.) In a sense, sociological representation is not a crazy notion, although different groups in our society can and do take it way, way too far, leading to things like the widespread gerrymandering of the 1990s to increase the number of representatives in the House from minority groups, made possible by an unholy alliance of left-leaning minority groups and conservative Republicans, both of whom could only agree on one thing: a desire to pick the voters rather than the other way around. The truth is, people self-select into all sorts of groups all the time. Furthermore, if you allow free association, identifiable sub-groups within society will not, in general, end up looking the population at large. For instance, people going into business tend to be much more financially motivated and generally economically conservative than Joe Average. I don’t hear conservatives hand-wringing about that.

2005 Economics Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling actually wrote a fascinating book considering (among others) the topic of segregation by individual choice, Micromotives and Macrobehavior, showing that very mild preference for “people like me” leads to near-total segregation quite quickly. (For the geeks: Schelling’s model was actually the first example of a cellular automaton model used to answer a real research question.) The result is counter-intuitive, but if you want to see what I mean, observe any large cafeteria where people get to choose their seats. Or you can play with Schelling’s model yourself (some assembly required). Anyway, the point is that underlying the hand-wringing about the fact that university faculty—and a lot of other social groups—fail to resemble the average population lies this notion of representation. Of course, many conservatives reject such a theory when it is applied in areas such as court membership (does the composition of the SCOTUS resemble the population at all? should it?), juries, boardrooms, and so on, but do seem to believe it about university faculty. Liberals like it when it comes to institutions they don’t control and feel the opposite in institutions they do. It’s not a good idea to trust the partisans on this issue (or, IMO, any issue, but that’s another story). Better, instead, to dig a little deeper….

(Continued here)

Consider the following statistics:

  • 40% of University of Virginia (UVa) students consume an average of six or more drinks a week.
  • 24.4% of UVa students don’t care if their friends drink and drive.
  • 33.5% of UVa students don’t mind if their drinking causes problems for other people.
  • 16.5% of UVa students are too scared of the cops to call 911 when one of their friends has alcohol poisoning.
  • About one in twenty UVa students has gotten into a fight while drinking.
  • 25.4% of UVa students drink alone and/or go to frat parties without anyone there that they know.
  • 35.1% of UVa students will leave their drunk friend with a stranger.
  • 10% of UVa students who drink have been injured at some point because of their drinking.

Now, consider the source of these statistics, namely a web site that is supposed to convince UVa students that other students don’t drink. The idea is that students will be overwhelmed by how many of their peers do the right thing, thus causing students with drinking problems to abandon all of their foolish and irresponsible habits.

Of course, to make this argument more convincing, all of these statistics are provided in reverse. For instance, they assert that 60% of UVa students consume 0-5 drinks per week…

I guess you’ll have to excuse me if I’m still underwhelmed by those numbers.

Apparently, this is a popular approach to addressing alcohol problems at universities. You can even find consulting companies that will put together one of these “Social Norms” campaigns for your school. There are (at least) two things wrong with this picture.

  1. If I go to a crowded frat party or a popular bar that is turning people away at the door every Friday and Saturday night, I’m not going to be worried that too many of my peers will look down on me for drinking. On the contrary, I’m still going to be more worried that I’m never going to get through the crowd around the bar to get a drink of my own.
  2. If you can do the simple arithmetic that I did at the beginning of this post, then you can figure out that there are very large groups of students who do these things that you are not supposed to do. There are over twenty thousand students at UVa, and so I have to conclude that nearly a thousand of them have gotten in a fight while they were drunk. The first two rules of Fight Club might be not to talk about Fight Club, but they evidently still have quite a few members in their Charlottesville chapter.

The only part that I can’t figure out about all of this is why anyone would think that such a ridiculous campaign would work in the first place. Yes, people are very sensitive to what their peers are doing, but people also already have a pretty good idea of how much their peers are drinking and posters with these messages certainly aren’t going to change that.

PS – Please double-check to make sure that your friends would actually call an ambulance for you if you needed one. Apparently, a fair number of my peers wouldn’t.

Recently a few things have gotten me thinking about credentials, in particular, academic credentials and its evil component, credentialism, the excessive attention to formal credentials. Credentials are not, in and of themselves, bad things, but excessive attention to them leads to some pretty serious problems which I will elaborate below. What put me on this train of thought? Pretty disconnected stuff, actually. First, it’s graduation time, so a lot of people are getting their degrees (congratulations if you are getting one). Second, it wasn’t all that long ago that students were choosing their schools, where they hope to get their degrees (congratulations if you got into a good one). Third, the case of Marilee Jones, former admissions director at MIT ousted for faking her credentials, has been in the news of late (sucks to be her). Finally, Rush released a new album, which, longtime fan that I am, I bought and have been rocking out to; get it if you like the band. This reminded me of the old claim that drummer/lyriecist and now book and magazine author Neil Peart had “a PhD in English” because he writes lyrics with lots of literary references. I’ll tackle these in reverse order.

(1) Neil Peart, “PhD” I’m not sure where the rumor that Neil has a PhD in English got started. Quite possibly it came about from a telephone-game style mutation of Neil’s early stage moniker “The Professor of Drums.” I remember hearing it (and possibly repeating it) back in high school (mid to late 80s). Neil’s obviously a very smart, highly articulate and well-read man but, as it used to say on his web page (I can’t find it anymore—sorry, but his Wikipedia bio has similar info as does Andy Olson), he’s a high school dropout who moved to London from Canada and back again while working odd jobs and playing in unsuccessful bands before hooking up with Geddy and Alex when he was in his early 20s. Then they worked their tails off for several more years touring and recording before making it big. So there was no time for finishing high school, much less college or a PhD in English, but plenty of time for reading tons and tons of books in the back of the tour bus, which is exactly what he did. Rather than spending all his time screwing groupies and sniffing coke, Neil read some pretty heavy stuff, starting with the works of Ayn Rand but branching out greatly from there (thankfully, if you ask me). Hazarding a guess, I suppose the rumor spread as a way of legitimizing one’s own tastes, particularly against parents and other adults like high school English teachers (“fascists” that they are, at least in the minds of high school students).

Of course, this is far from uncommon. By no means comparing Peart’s literary talent—I think Neil would remote-choke me from a distance Darth Vader style if I did—the longstanding debates about whether William Shakespeare actually wrote his plays are similar, the thought being essentially “How could a lowly commoner have written what he did?” Well… let’s just say that thirty years of writing, directing and acting in plays is a pretty strong education on what makes a good play. Mark Twain went through a similarly sordid set of careers, including deserter from the Confederate Navy, before finding success as an author, though no one doubts his existence or authorship. Again, no formal education. Writing is one field where credentials count for relatively little, it turns out.

(2) Marilee Jones was obviously good at her job and it turned out she had a degree, just not the ones she claimed (bizarrely enough she didn’t list the one she did have…). Fraud, at least when it’s been aired in public is something that MIT seems to be unable to deal with. Rather than let it turn into a circus, she did the honorable thing and resigned (possibly with help). I have to concur: for someone in the position of an admissions director, —even if you’re good at your job and have a good message—lying about your credentials is a pretty serious thing. It undercuts your authority to check on students’ credentials. If there was a real remedy for it short of termination, maybe, but I just don’t know what. In this day and age, an honorable resignation seems to be relatively rare. “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.” —Voltaire, Candide Translation: In England it is good, from time to time, to kill an admiral to encourage the others. It refers to the death by firing squad of Admiral John Byng in 1757. (If only George W. Bush and his cronies would get the message.)

This seems to be the object of some disagreement, with very well-reasoned opinions like this arguing for something short of termination for dishonesty nearly three decades ago. Unfortunately, universities aren’t very consistent on this point. I recall reading a quote from someone at MIT basically saying “integrity is what we’re about.” I’m not so sure. Unfortunately, MIT has somewhat of a dark reputation among us researchers for being a place where you have to watch your back among your colleagues, who frequently appropriate your ideas for themselves. True? I don’t know since I’ve only interacted with a few people from MIT, but I definitely watch my back around people I don’t know aren’t thieves. This isn’t something I’m entirely happy about since the free exchange of ideas is thereby hampered. I do know from personal experience that cheating and plagiarism are rarely punished. Instructors know better than to take a plagiarizer or cheater to discipline committees, where the instructors get the third degree as often as not—we usually solve the problem by finding a way to give the offender a nasty grade, which is easier than you might think, since plagiarists and cheaters (at least the ones we find out about) aren’t usually top students. A co-author and I were plagiarized by someone (a faculty member at another institution) who copied about a page from one of our articles without quotation or attribution. When called on it, he said essentially “well I can’t be bothered to get my citations right.” (My co-author pursued it but I can’t recall the final outcome.) I know of another case of faculty plagiarism of a student’s thesis that eventually lead to a retraction in the journal. Student and former advisor no longer speak. So universities have no special claim to being ethical… welcome to the human race.

(3) The Super College Admissions Grind What Marilee Jones had become famous for was her stand—as admissions director of MIT—that the college admissions process was overheated and that students needed to cool it. Simply put, it’s not the end of the world to go to a “lesser” university like, oh, U of I, compared to an Ivy, or to go to ISU rather than going to U of I. A lot of what you get out of your education comes from what YOU put in, and finding a school that matches you is the best way to make that happen. Lots of small liberal arts colleges give first rate undergraduate educations, but aren’t on students’ minds because they’ve got their eyes set on Harvard (or U of I). Unfortunately for most high schoolers, college admissions is a time fraught with parental sticker shock and lots of pressure from peers, teachers, family, etc., for whom the success of the prospie becomes a vicarious personal success having more to do with parents’ and high schools’ bragging rights than what’s a good fit for students. It’s also the first real decision that most high school students make and many of them think it’s irrevocable (it’s not), which doesn’t help. Universities often ratchet up the pressure, too, with things like early admissions. So I applaud Jones for trying to cool it down, but still stand by my statement that she had to go for her decades-old fraud and thus did the right thing by stepping down.

(4) Degrees In a very real sense, it’s funny that a college degree is required for many jobs that require them. This is probably going to seem strange to many readers, but it’s true. The vast majority of jobs requiring college degrees do so for no really good reason that relates directly to job performance. So why is it the case that degrees are required? There are a few reasons. One was aptly analyzed by the 2001 Nobel laureate in Economics, Michael Spence, in his dissertation(!). Spence essentially attributes it to the asymmetry of information between employer and employee. Basically, it’s in the incentive of employees to lie about themselves to employers. (Employers, alas, also have incentive to lie to employees about the state of their organization and how well they treat their employees.) As a consequence, prospective employees need to send an expensive signal to prospective employers that they’re serious about the job, so serious they went into debt for a non-trivial amount of money and spent several years of their lives. A college degree also demonstrates some basic educability and stick-to-it-iveness, which is useful. They can’t just talk about how committed they are, because “talk is cheap,” but spending time and money demonstrates it. In all areas of human endeavor the rite of passage is different, but it’s there. Nowdays, a humble Bachelor’s degree ain’t much, since so many people have them, which devalues their role as a signal. Of course, we should expect degree creep. Intelligent organizations will find ways to avoid this treadmill by figuring out ways to let prospective employees regardless of their backgrounds “try out” for a while.

The second big reason is that credentials are used as a barrier to market entry in industries like secondary school teaching or psychotheraphy, just to name two. Here’s where credentialism comes in. There are good reasons for requiring a demonstration of proficiency, but the credentialing system gets hijacked by professional organizations operating as craft guilds and the state being pointlessly bureaucratic (what’s new about that?). Our culture is unhealthily ambivalent towards those of us with advanced degrees: it grants those of us with them an undue amount of respect and deference (why else would fraudsters append the title “Doctor” to their name? why else would there be degree mills letting you get a doctorate for some Benjamins?) but also devalues what we do know when we are seen not to be infallible. There doesn’t seem to be a happy medium (well except here and here). It’s amazing how many people try to “gotcha” those of us with alphabet soup after our names, not realizing that relatively trivial knowledge at the top of our heads isn’t what a PhD is about. It’s a research degree that (hopefully) demonstrates one’s ability to undertake an independent line of inquiry, which is harder than most people understand but also requires less raw intelligence than many expect, too. Certainly it doesn’t make one universally competent, though there are plenty of people with (and without) PhDs who think so.

The Chief debate at good old U of I is finally over and I can’t bring myself to much past a yawn, but I suppose I’ll rise to the occasion with yet another sarcastic essay about what I think the real issues are. While I do not speak for anyone but myself, I think this is a reasonably accurate representation of what many faculty do think, though they might not be brave/stupid enough to say so in public.

In short, the Chief was retired, not without acrimony. There is, no doubt, a hard core of loyalists who will be offended to the end and will doubtless declare firm intention to send their children to that great, unrequited rival, Michigan (where, despite what some people at Illinois desperately want to believe, they don’t actually give a rat’s solid waste orifice about Illinois, reserving the real hate juice for Ohio State). There are also many more people who weren’t exactly Chief boosters before who have suddenly discovered—for the time being, anyway—a certain romantic, I don’t know, je ne sais quoi? about the Chief. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?” indeed. This is not unlike the losing side in an election, combined with the inherent and understandable dislike of having someone else be “The Decider.” The first few months afterwards are often a bit dark for the losers, but most people end up moving on after the initial sting abates. (Maybe fans who feel their favorite band “sold out” is a better analogy?) In the event the football team is actually good in the fall, all will be forgiven. Unfortunately vociferous partisans don’t move on. Heck, entire societies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) form their identity around decades- or centuries-old grievances.

The entire “debate”—I hardly feel this extended pathetic episode deserves the appellation, but I guess it will have to do—was started by a bunch of “new left” types playing the current national pastime, identity politics. (See also.) Identity politics used to be primarily a pastime of the new left, but has metastasized to other areas of the body politic, e.g., demands for ideological balance in the academy through affirmative action of… you guessed it, “certified conservative” professors. (Naturally such a demand could only come from a a former new leftie turned neocon who swapped one extreme for another.) Intellectually, I understand identity politics (perception being part of experienced reality, after all) but essentially loathe it on an emotional level. By no stretch of the imagination am I a Marxist, but I think the Marxist critique of identity politics, stripped of verbiage and boiled to the essence as “a waste of time,” is fundamentally correct. You always have to look at the opportunity cost. There is only so much room in the political sphere at any one point and only so much political capital to spend. You have to choose wisely. Here is a very nicely written piece by veteran civil rights leader Joe R. Hicks about exactly why constantly playing “the race card” doesn’t lead to productive outcomes.

The opportunity costs of the Chief debate were high. There are many things the administration and Board of Trustees (who certainly didn’t ask for the debate) could have done to make U of I better. Most important on my list is trying to deal with the constant pressure turning the University into essentially a private school due to chronic—and borderline unconstitutional—underfunding from the state that has left buildings on the Quad to rot, caused tuition to increase dramatically while cutting financial aid, which lead to the recent drop from 8 to 29 in Kiplinger’s rankings of best buys in public colleges, and so forth. The “upgrade” to the university-wide IT system which worked out spectacularly well—picking the pockets of many campus units in the process in mass quantities of lost staff time—is perhaps another. Instead they were forced into wasting a bunch of expensive time and effort on the Chief issue. It is a counterfactual to speculate whether either outcome could have been changed, but I sure as hell know that the many hours spent on the Chief issue weren’t going elsewhere.

Way to go, new leftist whiners, you win: You won a pointless symbolic victory and left the real problems behind, pretty much just like you always do. Let me give you a hearty “F— you very much” for it.

My guess is the administration decided to bite the bullet and get out of the whole sordid business while the getting was good. That’s because, like administrators everywhere, they’re first and foremost interested in peace, quiet and a steady cash flow, not justice (whatever that is—it’s so hard to decide, much like truth). Alumni donations are important but I’m not sure that canning the Chief is going to affect big donors the likes of Beckman, Grainger, Krannert, Siebel, etc., at all, or the big corporate money that gets their attention. And if these guys don’t want to pony up, UIUC can look to its most famous alum. I’m betting that even current students and recent grads will forget their resentments by the time they make enough money to start donating. Furthermore, new students—more and more of whom are from other states or are international and have no preexisting attachments to the University—won’t really know or care.

Given the correlation of forces (Marxist language, again? what is the world coming to?) in this debate, once the NCAA ruling came down, it is hard to say how else it would have gone. Lest we forget, the pro-Chief people—who weren’t exactly fantastic at playing their cards, unlike some other schools such as Florida State—managed to hold off the anti-Chief people for a long time, but once the University administration felt the wind blowing in the direction of “we’re not going to be able to partake in the big bucks of college sports fully anymore,” it was over. The NCAA is horridly inconsistent about application of their policies and I have a hard time discerning any rhyme or reason to what they do or fail to do but, ultimately, that doesn’t matter. Big money college sports has become a scam corroding the mission of the academy many ways. Consider how distance learning has been abused to keep money sports players in uniform. The connection between alcohol sponsorship and college sports isn’t trivial, either, and don’t think for a minute that bucks coming from the likes of Anheuser-Busch doesn’t affect decisions made by school administrations. As we saw with the Don Imus dustup, advertisers like controversy, but only controversy they manufacture or, at least, can control.

Honestly, I’m just glad l’affaire Chief is over. It went the way it went and ultimately it won’t mean a hill of beans, but the institution’s lost a bunch of time forever to this ridiculous issue. I’m even happier that I’m departing the whole school spirit/athletic department gravy train environment, so, very soon, it’ll be NMP… not my problem.

(I fully anticipate the hate mail. If I’m really lucky, I’ll get some from both pro- and anti-Chief people!)

Our motto here at the 12 Angry Men Blog is “Through angry words, civil discourse”. While we pride ourselves on being nattering nabobs of negativity, we also realize that sometimes people disagree with our many varied, and admittedly arrogant, opinions. We respect this quite a lot. Freedom of speech is one of the things that makes this country the great place it is, and as patriots we believe in the right of anyone to tell us what they think, no matter how stupid and ignorant their opinion might be.

In celebration of Freedom of Speech and civil discourse it is our plan to bring you some of the best hate mail we receive each week. We promise to dredge the bottoms of our inboxes to bring you the most trollish, flaming, piles of ignorant opinion we have received each week. So please, send us hate mail. We want you to! We’ll even post it if we feel you’ve done a particularly good job. We feel every one of our readers deserves the chance to see us respond to your mail in the most public and humiliating way possible.

This Week’s Winner: Margaret King

This week we’re in luck! We get a special feature, not one but two hate mails from Ms. King!

Stem cell research is a priority for thousands of disabled Americans and their families. Bill Richardson is a Godsend to them.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that potentially helping “thousands of disabled Americans” outweighs the moral evil of killing thousands of genetically distinct members of the species homo sapiens in the context of ESC research. That appears to be your assumption, so let’s go with it. In that case, Bill Richardson is a cheapskate who wants to piss away $10 million dollars on a half-rate institute at a crappy university. States like New Jersey and California who are whole hog into this ESC thing are pouring metric buttloads of money into ESC research. By comparison, Mr. Richardson looks like he’s handing out petty cash. To me this sounds like Mr. Richardson is more of a “man trying to become president, by throwing bones to key constituencies” than a “Godsend.”

The writer of the above piece has little or no insight into Governor Richardson’s intelligence and his ability to apply that intelligence to the development and implementation of many needed ideas and programs.

If you replace the phrase “insight into” with “confidence in,” I agree with the above statement wholeheartedly.

Compared to the billions that GWB has squandered waging war, stealing resources for corporations of his cohorts, and putting the United States in peril both economically and politically, $10 million dollars to begin to find help for thousands of disabled Americans, is the epitomy of decency.

Yes, and compared to Satan himself, even President Bush’s utterly pointless war in Iraq looks like “the epitomy (sic) of decency.” Compared to Mr. Bush, spending $10 million on the “Angry New Mexican’s Bahamas Retirement Fund” sounds great too. But who cares? That’s no argument for Mr. Richardson. He’s still pissing away our tax money on something that, even discounting moral issues, won’t amount to a hill of beans. Now that is no godsend.

Long live Bill Richardson.

Indeed. And may he have a long, productive, and happy retirement from politics!

Our children will pay for GWB and his supporters for the rest of their lives.

So? This has what to do with Mr. Richardson? Oh yes, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!

At least, New Mexico is doing something caring and rational to help the citizens.

No, it’s half-assed (not to mention morally bankrupt). If Mr. Richardson actually gave a rat’s bottom, he’d pony up serious cash. As things stand, Mr. Richardson’s plans won’t make an iota of a difference. Now, perhaps “half-assed” and “rational” have a similar meaning to you. Perhaps you went to Rio Grande High School, which would explain many things. However, in my world “half-assed” and “rational” are about as far apart as the “east” and the “west.”

Aggressive stem cell research and the need for implementation is long over due.

If you replace “due” with “hyped,” I agree with the above statement entirely.

You must be from an island in the Southern U.S. Are you related to Strom Thurmond, or do you just have difficulty helping the disenfranchised, disabled people in New Mexico and in the United States? Hooray for Governor Bill Richardson.

Ah yes, the ad hominem the last refuge of someone who has run out of arguments for their indefensible point. Mmmmm… I savor its sweet flavor. Please be sure to have the “disenfranchised” disabled people talk to a good lawyer about how Strom Thurmond wanna-bes like me have been depriving them of voting rights. I hear that David Iglesias is looking for business these days…

Editor’s note: As usual, the spelling mistakes of the original poster are left intact for the reader’s pleasure.