Mostly Harmless Science Blog

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Challenge Accepted

Not that long ago I was reading Sir Arthur Eddington's 'The Nature of the Physical World' (which I can heartily recommend) and came across the following claim :


‘But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference.’

There is nothing more galling than a statement like 'no one can deny X' to someone who is a vehement denialist of X.  I will now demonstrate the falsity of Eddington's assertion that no one can deny the mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience.

I deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience. 

I assert that sense impressions are the first and most direct things in our experience. From these sense impressions, we deduce by a process of non-verbal inference both an external world that generates these sense impressions and an ‘I’ that receives them. These two things are cogenerated simultaneously as the world and ‘I’ are disentangled and cannot be separated from one another as things in our experience. Mind and the external world are equal in primacy and directness in our experience.

I will go beyond the mere fact of denial to rationalise my denial.

I find that very often the ‘I’ that is thinking is a mere passenger on a more fundamental ‘I’ that is acting on the basis of sense impressions without the intervention of mind. I ride a bicycle, for instance, without thinking about what I am doing; I can catch a ball – so long as I do not think about it. As I sit here typing, I do not think about where my fingers are going; if I do, they stutter and fail to go in the right places. I have driven a manual car at some speed on a very complicated path, slowing at certain pre-determined places to throw newspapers in pre-determined directions, without the slightest conscious thought: my mind was entirely consumed in discussing the nature of consciousness with a passenger, and it was another more fundamental ‘I’, the ‘I’ of being and doing, that carried out those complicated actions.

I feel that practice and experience go into improving this more fundamental ‘I’ on which the conscious ‘I’ is a passenger. My thoughts before I get up to talk seem the same halting, bumbling things they were when I was a dreadful public speaker; but the ‘I’ that does, rather than thinks, now does a much better job of carrying out the task.

I find that  ‘mind’ is not associated with being or doing, but with change: with the necessity of doing something different. My sense of consciousness does not flow smoothly; it is strong when I am receiving new sense impressions and need to do something different about them; when I am receiving familiar sense impressions and need only do things I have done before with them, it is much weaker.

When I was young, and much more in my life was novel, I was uncommonly bad at reacting on sense impressions. I could not ride a bicycle; I could not catch a ball. At the same time, my sense of consciousness was considerably stronger than it is now – both mind and the external world were more direct and vivid to me. I was less being, and more becoming. My consciousness did not fade all at once, but neither was it a simple linear process of dulling: it happened in many discrete steps, the first few of which were terrifying, before I became inured to the increasing sense of unreality of myself and the world. The majority of this happened in the few years just before puberty, with additional steps at longer and longer intervals ever since.

When I observe the world around me, I see that I am not the only thing in it that behaves like I do: I am surrounded by animals that react on sense impressions and that are certainly not conscious, that certainly have no mind; by other, ‘higher’ animals that react on sense impressions and may or may not have ‘mind’.  I am surrounded by other people who are generally better at reacting at sense impressions than I am; and who, statistically, are rather worse at conscious reasoning than I am. So when I have to chose between the relative importance and primacy of my inferred mind and the inferred external world, it is obvious to me that the inferred external world is the logical starting point for all my more remote inferences.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Five Myths about MOOCs

Thanks to @Brian_UNE tweeting a link to this article, titled 'Five Myths about MOOCs', I was compelled to drop all the important scientific stuff I was writing and immediately write a screed. So, read the article and then scroll down.



















Five (?) myths about MOOCs in higher education 


1. the idea that “content is free” in education

The idea that ‘content is free’ is not a myth. It is a fact. It is the one unmistakeable fact that is driving all the changes that we see. It is why universities are flailing around like headless chooks. Denial is not an option. Content is free. Accept it and move on.


2. students can support each other

Prof L argues that this won’t work, because universities have always taught with an effective staff student ration of 1:25.

Okay, so we have always taught with a model where a relatively small number of students relied on a tutor to assist them. Where is it written on golden tablets brought down from heaven by the archangel Michael that the way we have always done something is the only way to do it? Consider how our students learn how to play World of Warcraft. One high-level tutor does not shepherd 25 n00bs through instances explaining how to keep aggro off the healer. They learn in small groups, consulting forums and wikis that embody the accumulated wisdom of the community. You can learn anything this way. This is a natural, bottom-up, human way of learning things.


3. MOOCs solve the problem of expensive undergraduate education or educational scarcity in emerging economies

Prof L presents no evidence whatsoever against this so-called ‘myth’. So what if 60% of people enrolled in MOOCs at this moment already have degrees. At one time 60% of the people who owned personal computers were white male uni drop-outs working in their parents’ garages. At one time 60% of the world’s motor cars were made in Germany. Emerging technologies are going to be localised. Early adopters are not the same cohort of people as late adopters. 


Education is a mass customer industry

Now, here I can agree with Prof L. Education isn’t a mass customer industry. It isn’t an industry at all. It is a human activity as natural as eating or playing sport, and a fundamental human right. If the education ‘industry’ as constituted currently is getting in the way of changes that are making it more accessible and affordable, it needs to die in a fire.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow.



I don’t think I can do this. I really can’t. 

I’ve been asked to apply for promotion next year, and one of the mandatory things is to submit at least three ‘Student Evaluation of Teaching’ reports. These are evaluations, not of the unit, but of the lecturer, and they are not compulsory for the students to fill out. 

While there is a process for getting us to do 'Unit Evaluation' surveys as a matter of course, 'Student Evaluation of Teaching' surveys aren’t done automatically: instead, you request the teaching-management-minions-that-be to do them your behalf - by the simple expedient of sending them (the minions) an email. 

I have gotten away without doing any of these for the past nine-and-a-bit years. It isn’t actually because of the excuse I gave my colleagues the other day, that it is too much bother (after all, I just have to send someone an email). I don’t like the whole idea of them. The thought of using them in a promotion application makes me twitchy in a way people who knew me in high school will remember.

Why, you might ask? 


#1. They don’t measure anything relevant. 

With all respect to my students – who are uniformly great people, eminently deserving of HDs and free beer – a student who has just completed a unit is not yet in any position to evaluate the unit or the lecturers who have helped them through it. They don’t know if the skills and knowledge they obtained from it will be useful to them in their career, they don’t know how it fits into the whole body of knowledge and skills they will obtain in their degree, and they can’t judge whether it will have a permanent impact on how they view the world or was just an entertaining intellectual cul-de-sac. They can't judge whether their lecturer has given them a fatally flawed and bogus take on the topic, or has set them up with a solid basis for an ever deepening life-long understanding of it. The immediate impact of the unit or the teacher on the student is not relevant to the desired educational outcome.

Okay, so they don’t measure anything relevant. But I can just about put up with all the rigmarole about citation counts and impact factors – which also aren’t measures of anything relevant. Why can I swallow irrelevant measures of value in my research, but not in my teaching?


#2. They measure the irrelevant thing badly.

With research, the irrelevant indicators are at least reasonably transparent and quantitative measures of something. Okay, forget the goal of measuring how I helped the unit to meet its true educational outcome. How well did I help the students pass tests and keep them entertained in the process?  This is also something that student evaluations of teaching can’t really tell me.

You can’t step in to the same river twice. So a student can judge how they did in my part of a unit compared to how they did in other parts of the unit, or how entertaining my part of the unit was compared to other parts of the unit, but they can only encounter my material for the first time once. The material and the lecturer are inextricably entwined, so on the more modest goal of judging how good I was at getting them to know topic X, or entertaining them while I did it, a student survey is also flawed. They can only compare me with other lecturers teaching topics Y and Z – topics which might be intrinsically easier or harder and more or less entertaining.

And, since these evaluations are not mandatory, the proportion of students who fill them out is always woefully unacceptable by the standards of a poll or any peer-reviewed work in the social sciences. The only students who will be bothered to answer them will be the students who want to drive a stake through my heart and bury me in the crossroads at midnight, and those who want to have my baby. Normal middle-of-the-road representative worked-off-their-feet students will not bother.  

Those first two complaints are almost equally applicable to 'Unit Evaluation' Surveys. Which I don't like doing either, but I do when I have to.

There are two other  irritating things that only apply to these ‘Student Evaluation of Teaching’ reports:


#3. They are open to abuse.

With research, I can’t pick and chose what part of my ouevre to display, unless I want to cut my own throat and look unproductive by leaving a whole bunch of papers out. They are all out there in the public domain anyway, with quasi-empirical quantitative variables attached to them telling you how popular they are. 

But the rules for the promotion application are practically begging me to cherry-pick the very best teaching evaluations I can, with no oversight. That is just bad. Bad! No peer-reviewed journal in the social sciences would accept a methodology where researchers conducted ten surveys and reported on the three that gave the results supporting their theory.


#4. They are an imposition on the students.

I know these surveys don’t measure anything relevant. And any qualitatively useful information about things I might have done badly, or compliments that make me feel warm and fuzzy that I am on the right track, show up on the Unit Evaluation surveys anyway. So I don’t need these Teaching Evaluation surveys to learn anything that might be useful for current students. Or future students. They are only useful for me. I don’t want students to waste their time doing something that is only useful for me. I would rather they spent their time creating new Chemistry Cat memes.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Googling Dr Festus Fabiyi?



At the time of the last papal election, I composed a tweet making the obvious joke that I hoped the new Pope would be Nigerian, both to recognise the demographic shift of Catholicism to the Third World and in hope that his first encyclical, “URGENT AND IMPORTANT” would ask one billion Catholics for their bank account details.

The selection of a Latin American Pope addressed the first of my concerns; and in an ironic twist, it is probable that one of the shortest chains of mutual acquaintances linking me with Pope Francis proceeds through a Nigerian scammer. Since according to the internet, Pope Francis earned an MSc from Buenos Aires University, where my scammer did his PhD work.

Yes, I have been the victim of a Nigerian scam artist. But, in my defense, this was a real-flesh and blood Nigerian scam artist who shook my hand and had dinner at my house. 

I was approached out of the blue by a Nigerian chemistry lecturer keen to come out for a three month sabbatical visit to do some experiments with our First World facilities. I told him it was expensive to live in Australia, and that I didn’t have any funds to support him, but he was keen to come anyways and said he had a little bit of his own funding to pay for chemicals and analyses. His university seemed to be legitimate and he seemed to have some legitimate publications. So I organised the paperwork, cleared some bench space for him, and bought a couple of hundred dollars worth of chemicals he wanted ‘on spec’.

I had made what seemed to me a reasonable assumption, that if you were a Nigerian academic travelling overseas, you would be especially careful not to do anything remotely fraudulent; like a Russian academic in Australia would be especially careful not to get drunk before noon, or a French academic would be especially careful to refrain from making disparaging comments about Macdonalds.

My visitor arrived at the appointed time, looking terribly jetlagged, and he told me that he was in trouble, having lost his wallet in Jo’burg airport on the way over.  I agreed that this was terrible and lent him some money to tide him over. I helped him get all his paperwork sorted out with the University and he got stuck into working in the lab. Everything seemed to be fine. 

But, a week later, he hadn’t managed to get any money sent from Nigeria. He explained to me how currency control regulations made it very complicated. So I lent him some more money.

And a week after that he still hadn’t gotten any funds through, so I lent him some more.

That Friday afternoon I was collecting some stuff from the printer (we have a shared departmental printer that often loses documents in transit for hours, so the people who tried to print them give up and go home; presumably they go via the NSA or something) and I found this:



My first thought was: ‘So that’s why he wanted to come here, he’s got some pre-existing collaboration with some postgrads in biochemistry.’ He hadn’t given me a very clear answer when I asked him how he came to pick my university to visit, and I was a bit disappointed that he had this antimicrobial thing stitched up beforehand and hadn’t told me. I didn’t recognise the names of the co-authors, but they do have quite a few Arab PhD students over there and I assumed they were two I hadn’t met. Then I saw the dates on the paper.

First I thought, wow, that’s a quick turn around time for a journal.

Then I thought, um, today is December 14th. This is a paper from the future.

So I took the paper from the printer and did a bit of googling, and found that the paper was one already published in the same journal, with the same page numbers:




My visitor had carefully expunged all mentions of Zagazig University and replaced them with my university, attributing to us equipment that we didn’t have and acknowledging us for support we didn’t provide.

On Monday morning I confronted my visitor with his bizarre document.

‘WTF?’ I asked, more or less.

The only reason I could think of for making up a paper like this was for internal promotion purposes, at a university that was so slack that they wouldn’t verify whether publications their staff claimed to have written were real, or had such poor internet access that they couldn’t. 

I am a soft touch, and what I expected him to say was something about how hard it was to get promoted at his institution, and how political and rigged it was, and how he wasn’t really going to do anything with this document he had doctored anyway, but had just been fantasising about how  great it would be to have a paper like this with his name on it, and he knew it was wrong and wouldn’t do it again; and then I would have said, ‘Alright then,’ because that is the sort of soft touch I am.

But he didn’t offer any coherent explanation at all, and after a few minutes of stonewalling I more or less ordered him out of my office, and when I went to check up on him later that day he had packed up and left.

I haven’t seen him since.

And I haven’t seen any of the money I lent him.

Update April 2014: I have found that the first half of the tweet I mentioned at the beginning of this entry was picked up by a French women's magazine as a serious vox pop. I love the Internet. :)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Letter to the 'Australian Universities' Review'

The letter below appeared in the 'Australian Universities Review' earlier this year.



Dear Editor,

I found Tony Aspromourgos’ contribution “The managerialist university: an economic interpretation” (AUR 54(2) 44-49) both perceptive and valuable. However, I think it comes to an overly ‘optimistic’ conclusion about the lack of competition between Australian universities facilitating a continuing decline in standards.

This is due to a premise I consider to be one of the symptoms of managerialism, the assumption that university students are ‘consumers’ of a ‘product’ provided by universities.

While this is one basis from which to make an economic analysis of the higher education market, an alternative economic conception is one in which students are not the consumers, but are themselves the product. It then becomes evident that the majority of Australian universities are overwhelmingly dependent on a single customer, the Commonwealth Government, which funds the sector in order to produce skilled citizens for the nation’s requirements.

Ultimately the actions of this dominant customer will depend on all of us, acting collectively through our elected representatives. In aggregate we are relatively well-informed and cost conscious. Just as if we were buying beer, we taxpayers will seek to buy the best product at the best price for each application of higher education for which we see a collective need. If the Australian product becomes uncompetitive in terms of cost or quality, this means we will buy the imported product.

A hundred years ago, we imported most of our professionals, and sent most of our bright researchers overseas to carry out their research. We still do this to a large extent today. As a relatively small country remote from the world’s main centres of economic and intellectual activity, this was (and is) a perfectly rational course of action.

As a nation we might well decide that it would be cheaper to train our professionals overseas; that we would be better off just using the results of research carried out overseas rather than funding it ourselves; and that we could achieve mass tertiary education most efficiently through overseas-based online institutions. I think a cost-benefit analysis based purely on economic arguments would support this decision. And if the behavior of universities has for a generation actively undercut the non-economic arguments for their existence, this decision will be nigh-impossible to challenge.

Australian universities do not form a closed system which can gracefully decline until graduates see no relative benefit in obtaining a degree. The services we provide to the nation are part of a competitive globalised economy. They can be sourced elsewhere. Thus, if we continue along our current path, it is entirely possible that the managerialist mindset will see the entire Australian higher education sector ‘managed’ into irrelevance. 

Yours Sincerely,

                       Chris Fellows