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.

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

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Brian Martin's "Healthy dissent: resisting attacks on alternative medicine"

I was going to retweet a link to this article critical of skeptic attacks on anti-vaccine loons, saying that we should be careful not to step beyond reiterating “these ideas are dangerous, stupid, and wrong” into outright harassment or censorship. Then I realised, first, that was too long to fit into a tweet; and second, that I was still kind of conflicted and needed to make a more nuanced statement.

As someone who has plenty of idiosyncratic ideas myself, I don’t want to be harassed or censored. But I am also pretty far along the free speech continuum. I don’t have any problem with ‘behead those who insult Islam’, for instance.  Because I am pretty far along this free speech continuum, I also don’t have any problem with the techniques labelled ‘Disruption of Discussions’ and ‘Verbal Abuse’ in Brian Martin’s article. I have been on both ends of these techniques on numerous issues in the past, and think the Internet would be a dull and listless place without them. 

Boycotting advertisers, and applying moral pressure to venues and media outlets that provide platforms for your opponents. are also time-honoured methods of grass-roots protest.  These techniques are disingenuously shoehorned in Brian Martin’s article into the categories ‘Threats’ (together with some actions that are truly vile and beyond the pale) and ‘Censorship’ (I don’t think that word means what you think it does). I think it is well and good that you just have to be prepared to suck these up if you are in the public arena.

Where I am conflicted is the technique ‘Complaints’. On the one hand, trying to use the power of the state to silence your opponents is something I find repugnant.  On the other hand, lives are at stake. Someone you know is far more likely to die due to the activities of an anti-vaccine activist than a terrorist. If we are justified in using the power of the state to nip potential terrorists in the bud while they are still probably just wannabes and haven’t actually blown anything up, why shouldn’t we use the state to stop anti-vaccine loons from gaining traction before their actions lead to mass casualties?  On balance, I don’t think we should, and would disavow the techniques described under ‘Complaints’; but I think this is mostly for the selfish reason that I wouldn’t like to have them used against me, and because I have an ideological aversion to government meddling, rather than on any proper moral calculus about the public good.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Common Misconceptions About Electric Circuits

  • What do I believe? 

  •  Is what I believe sensible and logical or simply a set of ideas which I acquired without a lot of thinking about it?

  • Does what I believe explain the world which I observe?

  • Are there any inconsistencies in my thought processes? Does belief A logically contradict belief B?

  • Are there sensible and logical alternative beliefs that better explain the world which I observe?

  • From “Common misconceptions about electric circuits”,

    But applicable to EVERY BLOODY THING.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Things I won’t include in my First Year Chemistry Textbook (except as cautionary historical episodes)

1. Negative electron affinities

How can you force something that doesn’t want an electron to accept an electron? How would you measure the energy in doing that? Okay, in an ionic lattice you can get the energy back somehow and do some algebra to get a number. Maybe this exercise gives you a number that is negative. Is that a number we should be confusing first year students with? I think, no.  Meaningfully, things that don’t like forming anions should be listed with a first electron affinity of ~0. Why? This would be consistent with what we tell students later about intermolecular forces, where electrons move to give transient dipoles giving attractive forces between anything and anything.

2. Hybridisation

Atoms have atomic orbitals. When you combine atoms in molecules, the resulting molecules have molecular orbitals. These things have physical significance and their properties can be calculated using quantum mechanics and group theory.  ‘Hybrid orbitals’ are a non-physical halfway house with no real explanatory power.  The labels sp, sp2, and sp3 are useful shorthand for motifs that recur in molecular orbitals. Nothing more.

3. Crystal Field Theory

We teach this theory and then immediately segue to the spectrochemical series, which is the opposite way around to what the theory predicts. This is okay if you are the kind of student who just memorises things for the exam without thinking about them, but if you are the kind of student who wants to make logical connections between the things you learn, you will just go: ‘WTF? Coordination chemistry is stupid.’ I suggest the handwaving explanation ‘d-orbital electrons go in MOs with antibonding character’ as a substitute introductory-level model.

4. Intermediate Stability as an Explanation for Selectivity

All first year organic chemistry textbooks will tell you that you get substitution of hydrogen in addition of HX to a double bond at the place where there are more hydrogens already because the intermediate is more stable. They will trot out this same kind of explanation for all sorts of other things. This is a bogus argument because it reverses causality. The reaction can’t go a particular way because it will form something that is more stable; how can it possibly know what it is going to form until it forms it? This ‘explanation’ is lazy shorthand for something that everyone ought to be taught in first year but isn’t.

Formation of an intermediate is endothermic by definition. The transition states of endothermic reactions usually resemble the products (Hammond’s Postulate). So the structure of the intermediate is important as a pointer towards the structure of the transition state. A stable intermediate implies a low energy transition state; that is, a lower activation energy.

Note that Hammond’s postulate is not called Hammond’s Law. And note that this is only going to be worth invoking for kinetically-controlled reactions; for thermodynamically-controlled reactions, we just have to tally up the bond enthalpies of the possible products... and that is a full and complete explanation for observed selectivity.

Friday, March 8, 2013

For the Love of God, Montresor

Of course, evolution is not the only thing I argue about on the Internet. My other old pal winstoninabox is dissecting Lennox’s “God’s Undertaker” on a website made especially for the purpose.

To clarify where I am coming from in this argument, I thought I should do one of those Pyramid of Logic things, like I did for Anthropogenic Global Warming.

1. The Universe is not a Self-Existent Thing.
The “known universe”; this thing of things that seems to have started 15 billion years ago and obeys certain very complicated rules, is not all there is. It is dependent on some greater reality. Something must exist without having developed from something else: but the “universe” of the cosmologists is not it.

2. The Self Existent Thing is something beyond our comprehension. Look how mind-bogglingly incomprehensible we find things like quantum electrodynamics and black holes, only a few orders of magnitude away from the reality we evolved to comprehend.

3. We can't get there from here. The chain of causation between the mind-bogglingly incomprehensible Self Existent Thing and ourselves is likewise too complicated for us ever to figure out.

(These three points seem more or less self-evident to me, and were very ably outlined by the 14th century Arab historian Ibn-Khaldun)

Which brings us to points 4:

4. With respect to our universe, this Self-Existent thing may be:

a. Omniscient, in the sense of knowing everything about it.

b. Omnibenevolent, in the sense of being favourably disposed towards everything in it.

c. Omnipotent, in the sense of being able to do whatever it wants to it. Which obviously includes:

i. Personal, in the sense of being able to interact with transient epiphenomena within it as if it were one of them, and

ii. Interventionist
, in the sense of actually doing what is in its power to do.

(Postulating any of these points 4 is not irrational, and is not a priori stupid, any more than postulating that the Self-Existent Thing does not have these qualities is irrational or a priori stupid. You are perfectly free, as far as I can see from the facts accessible to us, to believe either way on any of these. Since I agree with Peirce that to “believe” in a thing can only mean “behave as if such a thing were true”, I would say that I believe in point 4.)

5. We can't preemptively dismiss revelation as bogus. Now, if 3 is true, the only way we can have any information about this Self-Existent Thing is what it communicates to us using 4.c.i/ii. So we have no grounds for a priori rejecting the statements about God from any revealed religion as mere “fairy tales”. We can only compare them to the facts we have gleaned about the universe on our own and judge whether they make sense or not on a case by case basis.

(I think, though I often wish I didn’t, that they all fall down rather badly on the details. But that’s just me.)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Yes, natural selection on random mutations is sufficient

My old pal Marco has begun a quixotic crusade against Ockham’s Razor, claiming that it has been used unfairly to browbeat dissenters and prop up flimflammery. Exhibit #1 in his crusade is the hypothesis that natural selection on random mutations is sufficient to explain the staggering diversity of the natural world. 
Okay, so there are such things as horizontal gene transfer and the intriguing symbiotic relationship at the beginning of eukaryotes. And trivially, some stretches of DNA will be less stable than others, and some cellular environments will be more exposed to mutagens than others, so mutations are trivially “non-random”. He insists this is not what he means. There must be some “non-random” mechanism to generate “good” mutations. I said, no, this is bogus. I said this at great length through a long rambling argument in the comments on his blog before I got tired of saying it, but having a pretty good stamina for argument I recovered after a few weeks and thought I would come back and say it again here.  

1. Heritable random mutations happen all the time. The environment of cellular replication is rife with things that can cause mutations, the mechanisms intended to pick these up don’t always work, and if you irradiate living things it is easy to generate non-viable mutant offspring, because most change is bad.  This is the basis for every post-nuclear-holocaust movie ever and my political philosophy. And yet:

2. Changes that are good happen all the time. There are lots of examples of this unfolding in real-time as we speak. Of course, these good changes might not have anything to do with random mutations. But there is no *clear and pressing need* to postulate any mechanism beside random mutation. If there is no clear and pressing need to introduce a new parameter, we don’t do it, because then we are off chasing will-o’-the-wisps all the time. This is why Ockham’s Razor is good. On the off chance a random mutation makes an organism that isn’t non-viable, the random change will propagate through the population.

3. The 747 argument is bollocks. Marco is (I think) convinced for a need for non-random mutations by the dodgy statistical arguments of various creationists and steady-state-universists that random changes are insufficient to explain dramatic changes in speciation, because there isn’t enough time in the universe for little changes to add up to the big complicated changes we see. This is assuming an oversimplified linear y = mx + b of what living systems are like and how changing them works. Living systems are complex systems where arbitrarily small changes on the molecular level can have arbitrarily large effects on the macroscopic level. Think of all those genetic diseases that can be traced back to one little residue on one protein being skew-iff. The butterfly effect is the explanation for butterflies. And any arbitrarily large change that is not too large to make an organism unable to reproduce is allowed. 

4. You can only find out what the programme does by running the programme. There is no way for a system to know in advance that a change is going to be good. You don’t know for sure when you add a new ingredient to your omelet, no matter how many other foods you’ve added dried cranberries to and it worked out fine. The Vice-Chancellor doesn’t know for sure when he brings in a midnight to dawn teaching period, no matter how many highly-paid consultants recommend it. To find out what changing a line of code does, you need to run the programme. To find out what changing the genotype does, you need to generate the phenotype. There are no shortcuts.

So, there is no need (points 1-3) for “non-random” mutations and there is no conceivable mechanism (point 4) for “non-random” mutations.

This may seem like a series of disconnected ex cathedra pronouncements. Very well, it is a series of disconnected ex cathedra pronouncements. That is just for brevity. I am prepared to defend them all to the death with copious citations and ninja logic.

Blog Archive