Skip to content

India, Monsanto, GMO Crops and the Politics of Science

I believe that the world is knowable, and if we are to “know” it, we must measure all that we can measure, and render measurable that which is not (bonus points to anyone who can identify the provenance of that last bit). All of which is to say that I will support positions for which there is strong evidence over those that simply align with a “plank” in a fully formed political or philosophical ideology.

Which brings me to India, GMO crops, and rice, whose nexus has produced one of the more impassioned debates on genetic modification of crops, what the science tells us, and how that intersects with social policy—whose goal should be the greatest good to the greatest number of people, to borrow from John Stuart Mill and Utilitarianist philosophy.

17.5% of the world’s population lives in India making it the 2nd most populous country in the world, although at current birthrates, India will overtake China in the coming decades. And although India has rich farmland and exports a lot of produce, they only have 5% of the world’s potable (drinkable) water, as pointed out in a recent New Yorker article (“Seeds of Doubt” Aug 25th, 2014). All of that makes the exporting of Basmati rice (one of their prize and halo crops) essentially an exercise in shear lunacy. In the words of Deepak Pental, arguably the most prominent and distinguished scientist in the country, “Every time we export 1kg of basmati rice, we export 5 thousand kgs of water.” For India, that is simply unsustainable. He goes on, “We are exporting millions of tons of soy meal to Asia. The Japanese feed it to cows. The nutritive value of what a cow is eating in Japan is more than what a human being eats in India.” Why does he say that? Because white rice is basic starch…empty calories. I’ll quote Dr. Pental one more time with this great line, “White rice is the most ridiculous food that humans can cultivate….but it’s natural, so it passes the Luddite test.”

But there are solutions for India. But the most practical and cost-effective solutions may involve genetically modified crops, along with better irrigation systems, greater economic development, and a myriad of what we could collectively call social justice issues. But any rationale discussion fo GMOs instantly ignites a shit-storm of protest, and that’s where the critics loose me. The most vocal in India essentially dismiss the science on GMO crops….and there’s a lot of science. They argue that the scientists and major journals where these studies are published have been influenced by Monsanto lobbying and money. The problem is, scientists and scientific journals are arguably the LEAST vulnerable to that kind of external pressure. Oil, gas and petroleum companies are among the wealthiest in the world, and have spent millions and millions fighting clean energy mandates and legislation. Companies like BP and Exxon Mobil spends orders of magnitude more than Monsanto, but what’s the scientific consensus on climate change? I think you know. Tobacco companies spent 10’s of millions of dollars fighting tobacco legislation, and continue to spend more on lobbying than Monsanto each year, but you can’t find a scientist who will publish a study that’s anything other than critical of smoking. Scientists and the reputable scientific journals that they publish in are simply very, very difficult to buy off. Never mind, the peer-review process that acts as another bulwark to undue external influence.

And this brings us to the hypocrisy of much of the criticism. Almost every food you buy in a grocery store, including the “all natural” and “organic” varieties, are genetically modified. If the fruit or vegetable you are buying has been cultivated for decades (and that’s almost all of them) let alone for thousands of years, then it has been cross-bred by farmers, which is genetic modification. And those arguing that this type of engineering is somehow more natural because it happens over time as opposed to the kind of genome splicing that Monsanto does, don’t understand how forced and rapid the changes to crops are manifest even in traditional cross-breeding. The previously mentioned New Yorker article also correctly brings up the creation of synthetic insulin that is completely “unnatural” and genetically modified, but that millions of people around the world use to manage Diabetes. You don’t see people protesting that in the streets. In fact, I think one can make the easily defensible argument that in addition to political will to act on best policy, every existential threat to humankind going forward can only be addressed through science.

Are there legitimate criticisms to companies like Monsanto and their business practices, e.g., how they strong-arm farmers or try to enforce patents, yes, but that’s a whole different issue than the merits of genetic modification. Those are questions of science and the science should be left alone to answer those questions. And those answers, and NOT ideological orthodoxies, should be used to guide policies and implementations.

An Ominous Threat to Middle Class Social Mobility- UPDATED

Part I. The Tragedy and Short Sightedness of Strangling the State’s Golden Goose

Let me start by saying that I am not an alarmist, nor a doom-and-gloom type.  Like many scientists, I am kind of neutral on the future. I believe in forecasting good or bad things only insofar as the data is rock solid and the modeling well thought out. Most pop-prognostication is characterized by neither.  However, two clearly accelerating social-economic trends are not only indicative of the current economic strife so many Americans feel, but are also signals of potentially worse scenarios to come.  And they are related.  The income disparity between the executive class and average employees is at an all time high.  Currently for every $1 of average employee pay, executives make $300.  Even in the wild and swinging 1980s (the so called me-decade or “Greed-is-good” decade) it was about 25 to 1. And this is despite the fact that average American worker’s productivity has increased substantially, even through the recession, while their median incomes have stayed flat or declined.  The second reality is somewhat more particular to California, but given the influence, both economic and cultural, that this most populous of the states exerts on the rest of the union, I think that it’s worth paying attention to.  Schools in the University of California system (consistently regarded as the best public university system not just in the U.S., but in the world) are quickly pricing themselves out of the reach of the middle class.  As a product of the UC system (both as an undergraduate and doctoral student) when it was still affordable to my middle class parents, it breaks my heart to think my kids may not have the same opportunity.  The arguments below represent Part I o f my thesis.

Over the last few years the State’s budget allocation to the UC system has been cut by over 1 billion dollars.  A similar thing has happened at the Cal State level.  The cuts have been presided over by both Republican and Democratic governors, although you are more likely to get at least some token resistance by Democratic state legislators during budget negotiations. The cuts always seem to get enough votes to go through.

We are systematically destroying the one proven conveyance of social mobility and economic productivity that was essentially affordable to all.  Study after study has confirmed that CA reaps 3 to 5 dollars for every dollar spent on the UC and Cal State systems.  Poll after poll of the major non-government job creators in CA also report the same thing.  When you ask them what they need from CA’s workforce, somewhere in the top three answers is better educated applicants. In fact, a recent report out of CA’s neighbor to the East, Nevada, makes the case even more clearly. Nevada has among lowest tax burdens on business and corporations in the entire United States.  It also has the lightest regulatory load on business of just about any state in the union.  And yet, Nevada cannot seem to attract business to open up shop there.  In fact, Nevada has the dubious honor of leading the nation in four categories defining economic collapse; specifically the highest unemployment rate, the highest personal bankruptcy rate, the highest home foreclosure rate, and the most severe drop in median family incomes.  What’s going on here? Aren’t low taxes and low regulation the two pillars of business growth that we keep hearing about? The University of Las Vegas decided to try to find out and surveyed businesses that were candidates for relocation or start-up, but ended up not coming to Nevada.  The number one reason cited by these would-be job creators?  The belief that there were not enough college-educated Nevadans to fill the positions that these companies would be offering.

Obviously, this goes beyond Nevada and even beyond the present day circumstances.  We are reducing the entire workforce’s ability to respond to the new jobs and employment sectors that we cannot even predict at the moment.  We can say, with a fair bit of confidence, that a young adult with an engineering degree from UCLA will be in a better position to respond to these changes than someone with a high school GED or an AA from a community college.

Another legitimate question is why the UC and Cal-State appear to be such attractive candidates for budget cuts.  First, and most obviously, they are big outlays for the state (a touch over 3% of CA’s budget), and so cuts simply seem more appropriate to big budget items. But the more important reason may be the implicit sense that the crown jewels will survive.   UCLA could go fully private tomorrow, and still easily enroll over 20,000 students.  We are theoretically half-way there, with UCLA getting more from student tuition than state revenue for the very first time in history.    UCI, UC-Berkley, UC San Diego and perhaps UC Irvine could do likewise. There is more than enough demand among upper middle class and wealthy families to fill those lecture halls even as tuitions continue to rise (by over 90% since 2003).  The reputations, rigor and added value of these universities are more than competitive with even the best of the private universities in California, such as Stanford, Cal-Tech and Occidental.  The working class and poor will also largely escape the consequence of the cuts as they will continue to benefit from financial aid and scholarships.  In fact, if you factor in the increased financial aid, tuition for the poor and working class has remained relatively flat. It is the middle class that will suffer the most.  In fact, it’s already happening.  A recent report out of the UC showed that from 1999 to 2009, the number of students qualifying for financial aid and needs-based scholarships rose by 61%.  The number of affluent students, with family incomes of more than $149,000, went up by 73%. What about students of middle class backgrounds?  While their total numbers did rise by 15% (i.e., at a 4X to 5X slower rate of growth), their representation on the campus dropped from about 50% in 1999 to 41% in 2009.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if the state of CA does not invest in the UC and Cal State system, the regents and trustees will simply keep raising tuition and fees,  while increasing class sizes (because fewer professors will be hired to teach those classes) until the budgets are balanced.  It is as simple as that.

So is this free market capitalism at work?  If a product is desirable, and there are people who can afford it, well then, why shouldn’t it go up in cost?  Let me go out on a limb here and say that just like police service or a fire dept, this is where the tenets of basicfree-market capitalism should not apply.  Education is a SOCIAL GOOD.  It benefits everyone collectively, whether or not you yourself attended or have children/relatives who did.   Even if you manage to maintain a high standard of living for yourself, do you really want to live in a world with ever increasing numbers of uneducated, unemployed young adults?  All you need to do is look to the many countries around the world characterized by that sort of demographic change to see the consequences.   Furthermore, education is among the most efficiently produced social goods we have.  Compare the cost of sending a kid through the 4 or 5 years required for a UC undergraduate degree to that of paying for unemployment, or incarceration, or welfare (all MUCH more likely for those with only a high school education) and you begin to understand the notion that providing an affordable and effective avenue to a baccalaureate degree is much more of an investment than a cost.

Part II–The  increasing income gap between the wealthy and middle class, and what it’s bad for EVERYONE (that includes the wealthly!)

Coming soon….

UPDATED: Supreme court decision reversing CA ban on selling violent video games to children: What does the research tell us as to the effects?

The Supreme Court weighed in (June 27th, 2011)  on the right of states (most prominently California) to ban the sale of violent video games to minors. My interest, particularly in relation to posts on GrecoAmerican, is not with the first amendment rights pertaining to the issue, but on what we know regarding the actual effects of playing violent video games on children’s development. I am in the process of reviewing all the latest empirical, peer-reviewed studies on the topic and will be posting my analysis and commentary soon. As a father of 2 sons who will soon be of the age where attraction to such things begins to seriously manifest itself, I also have a personal interest. 

For Reference, here is the link to the majority Supreme Court Decision:

http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/08-1448.pdf

 And to Justice Breyer’s Dissenting Opinion:

http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/10pdf/08-1448.pdf

UPDATE-JULY 17TH, 2011.

Took me a bit longer than expected, but here is my review and conclusion:

Studies Reviewed:
I examined 5 empirical, peer-reviewed scientific studies examining the effects of violent video games on adolescent children’s (10 to 15 yrs of age). I limited the search to studies conducted in the last 3 years as the sophistication and graphical realism of such games has increased dramatically since these issues were first seriously examined over 10 years ago. I also wanted to capture diverse samples, in terms of gender and nationality.

Review of Results:
The results were clear and consistent. Exposure to violent video games, more so playing than observing, led to greater physical aggression, and greater tolerance of violence and aggression in general.  The results held for samples as diverse as those from the U.S. and Japan (Craig et al., 2008) the Netherlands (Polman, de Castro, & van Aken, 2008) and Germany (Moller & Krahe, 2009) indicating that the underlying causal mechanisms are not cultural or moderated by the particular amount of environmental violent exposure. In other words, the results held in countries with very low actual violence (e.g., Japan) as well as for those with above average interpersonal violence (e.g. the United States).  The findings were also clearly directional.  For example, in a longitudinal (across time) study with samples in the U.S. and Japan, exposure to violent video games at the beginning of the year, predicted greater violence at the end of the year.  In fact this long term association held up to 30 months out in one study.  The association did not work in the other direction however, dismissing one early hypothesis that it is  aggressive kids who were most enticed by or attracted to violent video games, and that therefore the causal association was spurious. In other words, some (video game manufacturers) had argued that violent video games do not cause aggression, it’s just that aggressive kids are more likely to play them.  That does not seem to be the driving force behind the associations found in the research. In fact, a German study showed that greater aggression itself, was not directly associated with greater violent game playing later on.  And more generally, the longitudinal studies clearly show that there is a temporal precedence at work such that it is the violent game play that leads to aggression and not vice-versa.  The role of gender is less clear.  Some studies have shown that the effects occur regardless of gender, even if less so for female adolescents.  However, other studies have shown that the association between violent game play and aggression simply does not hold for females.  The results were also consistent regardless of whether the studies asked participants to rate their own violent video game play or were randomly assigned to violent video game playing vs. non-violent game conditions (i.e., a true experiment).  Finally, the magnitude of the effects across these studies were typically in the moderate range.  To put that into perspective, the strength of these associations are in the range of how well SAT scores predict freshman year GPA, which is to say pretty well.

Summary:  In some respects, all of the above is moot.  The Supreme Court’s decision last June was based upon legal arguments tied to the First Amendment and whether or not state’s could ban the sale of these games to children, and not the scientific evidence as to whether or not such games have negative effects on children’s development.  However, children, including adolescents, have consistently been regarded as a protected class, and when issues of physical harm have been made clear, e.g. tobacco and alcohol consumption, laws have been enacted and have passed legal muster.  I suppose, it therefore comes down to what we consider important as a society and what level of harm, psychological, physical or otherwise we are willing to expose our children to before we take the choice out of the hands of the individual or company.

Personal Conclusion: My personal opinion, as informed by the research, is that these type of video games so clearly cause potential harm to children and increase the risk of an outcome that all civil societies spend significant resources to lessen (specifically interpersonal violence), that it seems to be an acceptable burden on companies to restrict the sales of these games to minors.  Remember, what was called for by the states was not an outright ban, simply an age restriction.  At present, restrictions based on obscenity are in place preventing a 15 yr old from seeing things like full frontal nudity and depictions of sex, however, they can walk into any Big Box retailer and buy a game that photo-realistically shows someone being dismembered, or shot through the head, or beat to death, or run over by a car.  And perhaps even more disturbingly, it is usually the player themselves that directs these actions.

*The full citations of the studies referenced above is available in the References section of GrecoAmerican.

A Rebuttal to Ms. Riley’s LA Times Op Ed “It’s Time to Get Back to Teaching”

When first made aware of Ms. Riley’s June 15th Op Ed piece “Cal State system: It’s time to get back to teaching” in the Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-riley-teaching-20110615,0,3885153.story), I was initially optimistic given the title. Many professors in the Cal State system often bemoan the fact that their many other responsibilities often make focusing on undergraduate teaching difficult.  Not impossible, but difficult.  However, as I read Ms. Riley’s piece my initial optimism turned to bewilderment and irritation.  What could have been a credo and call to arms to put more energy into undergraduate education in the largest university system in the world, instead turned out to be hit-job often aimed at the very people who might have been on her side of the argument.  But that wasn’t the worst of it.  Professors are fairly thick-skinned people.  Anybody who’s been through a Ph.D. program and had to defend their dissertation, or who’s had a paper rejected multiple times for publication, is familiar with criticism, delivered directly and sans sugar.  The worst of it were the egregious—would have taken a 5 minute call to fact check and correct—errors throughout the article.  I suppose Op Ed pieces are not subject to the kind of fact-checking in the other sections, still, every writer has some responsibility to due diligence.  So, what are those errors and how do they effectively undermine Ms. Riley’s thesis?

First, full disclosure, I am hardly an impartial observer.  I have skin in this game, as they say.  However, as tenure-track professor in one of the largest departments in the largest Cal State campus, I also have an insight into the inner workings and can tell you exactly where our efforts go as professionals and how those efforts are assessed and evaluated.

I have linked to the full article above.  What will follow are direct quotes from the Op Ed piece, followed by my comments, affirmations or evidence of the inaccuracies expressed.

“Cal State is a teaching university, as opposed to the University of California schools, which are classified as research universities”.

Ms. Riley is making reference to the Master Plan that basically stipulates what the focus should be of the two California university systems.  However, the focus on undergraduate teaching has never excluded research in the Cal State System.  Research has ALWAYS been done from day one on Cal State campuses.  What differs is the emphasis.  And that difference in emphasis is clear from the different faculty responsibilities. Cal State full time, tenured and tenure-track faculty have higher teaching loads and lower publication and research requirements than their colleagues in the UC system.  It’s never been an either/or thing, it’s always been a more of this and less of that difference.

“The incentives for American professors are the same at every institution. Promotion and tenure decisions are made based on a record of publication, not teaching.”

I literally slapped my forehead when I read that.  A) I do not know how Ms. Riley managed to get her hands on the tenure-retention-promotion documents from every department in every university in the U.S. in order to make that statement to begin with.  And by the way, MOST of those decisions are in fact made at the dept. level, with the consultation of the Dean of the college within which that dept sits, and within the much broader university requirements.  B) It’s patently wrong.  A third of the requirements I have to meet to make tenure are directly related to demonstrating teaching effectiveness.  If you add to those the things that are related to teaching, such as faculty development, it’s over half the requirement.  This is not some vague, nebulous, purely subjective peer evaluation from my colleagues. This is based on metrics that most would agree are face-valid.  Every student in every one of my classes Is given the opportunity to fill out a student evaluation of the course and my teaching.  Those scores are tabulated and averaged by semester. I need to show average scores that put me– in the opinion of my students– in the very good to excellent range. In addition, students are encouraged to leave written comments on these evaluations.  The chair of our department reads every single comment written by every single student in every single course for every single professor in her department. This is just one example.
There are many others that have to do with the kind of courses one teaches, demonstration of a record of working on professional development to improve one’s teaching, and being able to demonstrate that student comments pointing to concerns are addressed with action. It is simply true that I could publish 20 peer-reviewed articles in the top science journals and NOT make tenure if my student teaching evaluations were below the required marks.  This, by the way, is not unusual.  Every dept I am aware of in our College division, at least, has similar policies.

And it doesn’t end there. I also have to demonstrate service to the dept, college and university through committee work as well as service to the broader community. Again, these categories have hard, established metrics that define success. No Dean, Chair or faculty committee looks at the arc of a 5+ year career and with a wave of hands says something akin to “yeah, he’s done a good job, we like him, let’s given him tenure.  How I wish that were true. Counts are made, boxes checked, and every two years enough legal-sized boxes of materials to necessitate a dolly (no joke) are reviewed in order to determine continued employment.

“College professors actually get paid less the more time they spend in a classroom. This is true not only at large research universities but also at teaching universities, and even at small liberal arts colleges.”

Perhaps it’s that way in some universities.  Here’s my personal and unremarkable experience.  The ONLY way I can increase my base salary in the tenure-track process is to take on EXTRA teaching, not less teaching, during the Winter and Summer intersessions between regular semesters.

“On large state university campuses, it is “adjunct faculty” who do the bulk of the
teaching.”

No arguments here. Many of us bemoan this fact. But the reason is not some desire on the tenured/tenure track faculty to shirk their teaching responsibility, it is simple economics.  If State funding is cut year after year after year after year (I could go on) but the number of students who qualify for and want to attend 4 year colleges keeps going up, then we have to hire someone.  It is absolutely true that hiring adjuncts and part-timers is cheaper, so in the short term it appears more cost effective from a budgeting and administrative stand-point.  No one likes the effects of this in the long run.

“Murray Sperber, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, has noted that professors in this situation generally offer few comments on students’ papers because anything more extensive would be too time-consuming. But jotting down “good job” or “needs work” at the end of one or two five-page papers… isn’t going to improve students’ ability to make an argument or organize their thoughts….Most freshmen on Cal State campuses need personalized attention if they are going to learn the reading and writing skills they need to get good
jobs.”

I completely and whole-heartedly agree with this.  But pointing this out, and it’s a problem that is well-known and acknowledged within the Cal State System, does nothing to address the underlying issues.  To begin with, if a high percentage of incoming freshman need remediation in math or basic writing/composition, then this is primarily the fault of high schools on down. A the university level we have a limited number of years to stuff a tremendous amount of specialized knowledge into student brains if that Bachelor’s degree is to mean anything upon graduation.  The ills of the entire American education system cannot be dropped at the feet of universities.  We cannot make up for years and years of poor schooling.  Nevertheless, I can say with pride that many depts. have tackled this head on, including my own. I know a lot about our efforts to improve undergraduate writing as I have been championing the cause from the very start of my career.  I also sit on the university wide Writing Board that oversees the approval of  new courses that must meet certain writing standards. In the writing courses I teach, students write often and revise often. By the time they turn in their final, major papers, they will have written it start to finish 3 times, receiving extensive written comments at each phase.  I am not alone in this.  In fact, written feedback from faculty designed to improve student writing and the ability for students to revise their assignment are necessary for a course to meet the writing requirement and count toward graduation.

“More important, there is little evidence that research and publishing in anything other than biological or physical sciences — in, for instance, the social sciences or the humanities — are adding to a university’s bottom line, let alone to society’s store of knowledge.”

This is such an ignorant statement that it calls into question the quality of education Ms. Riley herself has received.  The social sciences haven’t added to the society’s store of knowledge?  Really? Almost every study pointing the way to improved education, health related behaviors, psychological adjustment, interventions regarding drugs, alcohol, and violence, comes from the SOCIAL science research end.  It is no coincidence that when large medical studies want to have the best methodologies and advanced statistical analyses, they ask social scientists for help. It is widely acknowledged by those in the medical field that the Ph.D. training in experimental analysis, methodology and statistical design that psychology students receive is far superior to any med school graduate.  In fact, the irony (or perhaps I should call it embarrassment) for Ms. Riley is that the only reason we know about the challenges in undergraduate teaching and learning is through the very social science research she criticizes. As for the Humanities, beyond the self-evident fact that I think a healthy society should have people who are exposed to and understand the literary arts, Ms. Riley might find it interesting that a recent national study found that graduates from Humanities programs had among the highest critical thinking and analytic reasoning scores on standardized assessments compared to graduates from other majors.  Perhaps reading
Shakespeare and being able to write a comprehensible essay about it isn’t so “useless” after all.

Before concluding her Op Ed, Ms. Riley pulls one of the oldest, and frankly silliest, stunts when it comes to criticizing academic research.  She lists a number of titles from published articles to show how unimportant such faculty efforts must surely be in the face of taking time from the more noble task of teaching.  This is the equivalent of an ad hominem attack and just as vapid. Ms. Riley seems to think you can tell the merit of an article or study from the title alone. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises must be a damn boring book given the central theme seems to be the obvious nature of the earth’s rotation. So, I decided to try to track down several of the articles whose titles were listed to determine what they were really about.  One immediate problem I ran into was my inability to find the full text versions of 4 of the 5 articles listed even though I was using the University’s full access scholarly search database, from the very university Ms. Riley stated the studies came from.  How exactly did Ms. Riley get them to assess their merit?  Methinks she didn’t. I did find articles similar to the “Auditory systems of opposite-sex twins” title, and they were published in journals covering Neuroendocrinology and Developmental Neuropsychology.  Do those sound like puff-piece sources to you?  Regarding possibly the most dubious sounding title: “A reanalysis of five studies on sexual orientation and the relative length of the index and ring fingers”, it might surprise Ms. Riley to learn that the length of fingers on a human hand have also been significantly associated to things like heart disease. It turns out that finger length is  a possible manifestation of other underlying physical attributes, genotype and in utero development.  Therefore, if the point of the mentioned article was to determine if sexual orientation followed similar lines, how is this not valuable research?

And frankly this brings up another false implication that runs through Ms. Riley’s entire editorial. She seems to be arguing that research is adversarial to quality teaching.  Obviously, if all that Cal State universities really cared about and really evaluated was research production, I could see how that could undermine undergraduate teaching.  As I’ve detailed above, that’s clearly not the reality.  Beyond that, however, is it not obvious that one knows a discipline or field better when actively doing work in that arena, which is what research is all about.
I can predict that people like Ms. Riley would argue that there is nothing preventing a professor from reading all the latest research and incorporating that into classroom instruction.  Of course, that happens as well. I constantly update my lectures to reflect new findings and changing directions. However, who would you rather teach you to fish? Someone who’s read a lot about fishing and can quote from the all the books on the topic, or someone who does all that, but can also, you know, fish?

Should We Be Concerned With the Ranking of U.S. Students in International Standardized Test Scores?

In this post we will explore 3 issues, 2 of which lay the foundation necessary to answer the question above.

1) Are standardized tests valid as a metric of student’s academic knowledge or perhaps even general intelligence?

2) What does the ranking of U.S. students truly represent?  Is it a fair ranking?

3) Should we be concerned?

Let’s get to it…

1) Are standardized tests valid as a metric of student’s academic knowledge or perhaps even general intelligence?

Standardized test scores do a decent job of predicting a students’ grades, particularly near-future grades, e.g. SAT scores do a fairly good job of predicting freshmen year GPA’s.  Further out you go, the correlation begins to drop a bit.  They are also correlated to general IQ tests, like the Stanford-Binet and the Wechsler scales.  In fact, as single measures, there are few tools that are more associated to these academic and IQ outcomes.  Having said that, they explain MUCH less than half the variation in these outcomes, meaning there are a LOT of other factors you have to throw into the mix, such as socioeconomic status, a student’s own academic behaviors, parental academic involvement, teachers, the school, peer influences, etc..

2) What does the ranking of U.S. students truly represent?  Is it a fair ranking?

The ranking is fair insofar as there is no particular test bias that would systematically result in an underestimation of U.S. students’ scores relative to other nationalities, which is often how academics would define fairness. Is the ranking itself fair in a more general sense?  Well, that’s where thing get more interesting.  When U.S. schools are included in these international measures of student achievement and aptitude, there is generally an honest attempt at providing a representative sample that captures the diversity of American public schools.  In other words, you don’t have a situation where only schools from the wealthiest districts participate, or the poorest, or the least ethnically diverse, etc.. This is not always the case with other countries. One complaint made in a recent series of tests that showed exceptional performance among Chinese students was that their sample was grossly over-represented by schools in the one of the wealthiest, most technologically advanced and cosmopolitan cities in the Chinese mainland—Shanghai.  Critics have argued, correctly I’d say, that these schools are hardly representative of all schools in China.

3) Should we be concerned?

Yes and no.  In a general sense, I think we want to be ranked higher.  Why not?  We are the wealthiest country in the world.  Our university system is the envy of every other country. We produce more nobel laureates and our scientists publish more in the top scientific journals, etc…  So why shouldn’t our grade-schoolers and high schoolers also perform near the top on these tests.  Fine, but here are two other things to keep in mind.  Our ranking HAS improved over time. We have gone up several spots and are now signficantly above average on these measures.  There is no reason to believe our ranking won’t continue to improve.  We also do not want the cart pulling the horse.  These test scores should be indicative of better and more effective learning, not the other way around.  To use the old cliché, we should not be obsessed with teaching to the test.  We may end up improving our test scores, but killing a lot of the other great attributes we do a good job of inculcating in our students, such as creativity, autonomous effort, intrinsic motivation, etc.  This is not an empty platitude.  Educational researchers in China are VERY concerned with this very issue and are quite active in trying to import American style of teaching and American theories of child development into their early childhood educational programs.

** As is my practice, I will be adding in-text reference citations to claims I have made above as I find time to track them down and update the blog.

The Snake Oil of Self-Esteem in American Pop Psychology

Why the obsession with self-esteem in American pop psychology is not only misplaced and generally ineffective, but even potentially dangerous.

I’ll be adding to this post in the coming days, but I feel guilty about how long this headline has been up with the “Coming Soon” promise.  So in the spirit of something is better than nothing, I will set down the broad points, to be filled out later with more info and scholarly citations.

1) Self-esteem is a global, self-evaluative metric of the self with both an affective component (feeling) as well as a theory of mind component (judgment and attribution).  In other words, to say I have high self-esteem would implicate both a good/ positive feeling about my self, and the judgment that this is warranted,  and finally the implicit or explicit belief that I am the one responsible for my success (i.e., someone who falls into good fortune, but believes it was undeserved may not have a high self-esteem).

2) There is much research associating positive self-esteem with positive life outcomes (academics, relationships, jobs).  Although this is technically accurate, the results of these studies were grossly misread in the 70s, 80s and early 90s.

3) The results of the mass misreading mentioned above was the attempt by public and private groups to create programs and workshops that attempted to raise self-esteem as a way of promoting positive outcomes in young children, adolescents and adults.  In young children and adults this often took the form of trying to improve academic outcomes or avoid notable forms of delinquency and antisocial behaviors (e.g. gang affiliation).

4) I use the terms “misread” and “misreading”?  because decades of research have failed to show that raising someone’s self-esteem LEADS to signficant improvements in any major adjustment outcomes, such as academic performance. Raising someone’s self-esteem can affect other emotional states, but that is a different story.

5) The reason for pt. 4 is fairly obvious, but seems to have alluded many people who should have known better.  Self-esteem is best understood as an OUTCOME of behaviors and competencies.  Put more eloquently, self-esteem is the result of esteemable acts, and not the other way around.  If you want to help a child do better in math, you don’t raise their self-esteem in math (which, it turns out is actually easy to do).   You can make a child feel great about their math ability without actually improving their abilities in math.  On the other hand, if you do teach them the skills they need to do better in math, then self-esteem in that domain will follow after the child experiences a history of success.

Now let’s look at a  real world and relevant demonstration of how inflating the self-esteem of generations of American children can lead to problems.  The Brookings Institute (BI) (www.brookings.edu) a very well-established, reputable and largely non-political** research institution has been involved in an ongoing research study looking at the academic performance of American kids and comparing them to students in other countries on standardized assessments, but also conducting “experiments” as well to gain some insight into what things are associated with these outcomes. There is a ton of good research on these reports.  Here’s a link for those interested in a more in-depth analysis (http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2009/0225_education_loveless.aspx).  A lot of what has been found is well-know and well-understood, however, what caught my eye several years ago was the consistent finding from a 2006 study that American students tend to be a lot more confident before tests than many of their peers in East Asian and Eastern European countries, but actually perform worse on the actual tests. (http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2006/10education_loveless.aspx) Now you might say, so what?  That kind of unwarranted confidence may be annoying, but how is it responsible?  Other research studies have shown that there is a strong relationship between the amount of effort students put into studying for a test and how prepared they think they are for it.  In other words, a confident student  feels they know enough and studies less than a less confident student who feels unprepared and therefore studies more.  To conclude, we do no favor to our students when we imbue them with unwarranted confidence through this constant drumbeat of the importance of self-esteem, if that in terms creates a distorted sense of their own capabilities and competence.

**a note about that claim–> BI has had a general rep as a liberal-leaning research institute, however, that reputation largely came from some post WWII projects.  Since then I think it is safe to classify BI as moderate and non-partisan, as evidenced by many collaborations with the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation–both considered conservative think tanks, not to mention the mix of people currently serving as fellows)

Commentary on the Tempest over Amy Chua’s “Tiger Mother” Provocation Pt. II

If you managed to get through Pt. I of this 2-part series, congratulations. You just took a mini graduate level course on parenting styles and outcomes.   If you didn’t, well, this post should still prove useful without all the background context.

Final Question: What does Amy Chua get right and what runs counter to what we know from the science?

On the money-

1) Here’s the reality, there is plenty of evidence that for Chinese American mothers a strict style of parenting that focuses on academics absolutely pays off in terms of academic achievement.  By most of the hard metrics of success, including average GPA, Standardized test scores, college acceptance, college completion) Chinese American children tend to outperform their peers from other ethnic groups.  Obviously, not always, but we are talking about averages here.  Just because this wasn’t the case in your school or just because you were class valedictorian and of Scottish descent does not make the general finding any less true.  And by the way, there are no group level differences in IQ scores between European American kids and Asian American kids, which argues for an environmental cause of the better academic performance, and parenting is as good an “environmental” explanation as any…at the group level that is.

2) Professor Chua is also right to argue that the obsession with children’s self-esteem in the West (specifically America, and if you really want to zero in, California) as a kind of “cure-all” to whatever ails them has little to no empirical support.  There has not been a single, well-controled, longitudinal, experimental study that has shown a positive effect of boosting children’s self-esteem, other than boosting self-reported self-esteem scores.  The case here is one of the tail wagging the dog or putting the cart before the horse, if you prefer.  Self-esteem is best viewed as an outcome of competency or mastery or achievement in some domain.  You do well as a student, you will build-up higher self-esteem as a student.  You do well as an athlete, you will build up higher self-esteem as an athlete, etc…  Getting kids to believe they are good students without investing the time and energy to give them the skills to make them better students will not accomplish much other than over-confident kids whose performance doesn’t match up.  In fact, going over-board with this self-esteem thing can produce some rather negative effects, as many studies have shown  (for a good theoretical review of this see Baumeister, Smart, & Boden, 1996).

Missing the boat (forgive the mixed metaphor, but “off the money” didn’t sound right)-

1) While Ms. Chua’s parenting may have produced the desired effects in her children, it certainly not the only path to success.  In fact, there really isn’t one parenting style that can always produce success (loving, warm, responsive parents may end up with a complete screw-up as a kid, just as strict, tough and no-nonsense parents may), so the supreme confidence that Ms. Chau seems to have regarding the “why’s” of her daughters’ success annoy the casual reader.  And in fact, she knows this and having now spoken to people who have finished reading the book and listening to a very recent (Jan 18) interview with Ms. Chua herself (KPCC Airtalk Interview audio: http://www.scpr.org/programs/airtalk/2011/01/18/chinese-mothers/), it is also clear that she had to adapt her style of parenting as it had unintended “dark” consequences for one of her daughters when she hit adolescence.  And she also acknowledges that her book is not a parent ed book, but rather a personal story or memoir.

2) The authoritarian, achievement focused parenting style Ms. Chua describes may also be associated with one particularly worrying outcome beyond grades and mastering the piano and violin.  For example, studies have shown that female Asian American adolescents  ages 15-24 have the highest suicide rate of women in any race or ethnic group.  In fact,  suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Asian-American women in that age range, and this despite the fact that Asians overall have a lower than average suicide rate ( See Dept of Health and Human Services data http://www.hhs.gov/asl/testify/t000208b.html; NIMH data http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/suicide-in-the-us-statistics-and-prevention/index.shtml ;  and for good study from a professor who lost a sister herself to suicide, see Noh, 1997 (full citation in General References section).  Again, the connection between parenting and this tragic outcome is not cut and dry, and we also know that temperamentally and genetically, certain individuals are predisposed to these dark turns.  However, it is also clear from the reports of Asian American adolescents who have attempted or considered suicide, that parenting pressures figured prominently in their depression and considerations to commit this final act of desperation.

Final Thoughts

It is also useful to step back and take the current attention everyone seems to be placing in all things Chinese due to the undeniable rise of this nation as a world power.  We are constantly bombarded with news stories filled with hand-wringing  that the Chinese have figured our the best way to educate their children and to instill the kind of discipline and respect that seems to be but a memory in American life.  And the results are that they are going to get the all the high-skill jobs, and that they are going to overtake us as an economic superpower.   Such panic is nothing new, of course. But remember the ebb and flow of history puts some cultures in the ascendency and some not, and in those moments the country or nation or empire on top always seems to be doing everything right, always seems to have figured out the magic formula of enduring success.  Students of history, of course, know that there is nothing absolute or enduring about it.   This current obsession with China and how so many of their practices lead to success, is due in no small part to the historical artifact that we happen to be concurrently witnessing the dramatic rise of China and its economy and educational achievements of its citizens.  Everything they do is scrutinized as a sign of best practice.  It wasn’t long ago when Japan was the economic boogeyman.  In the late 70s through the 80s, we were obsessed with Japan (we had a small army of American psychologists sitting in Japanese classrooms trying to figure them out!!!).  And before that, many economists believed that the Soviet Union would not only overtake us, but that their brand of communism would become the de facto economic system of the world.  Now, of course, there isn’t even a place called the Soviet Union.  Now, that Japan is in a rut and their own public intellectuals have declared a national existential crisis, we don’t bother obsessing over them, or the USSR, or Germany…or,  you get the picture.  And don’t forget, in the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. educational system was the envy of the world and being exported left and right to other developing countries.  Our college and university system still is.  So, while being concerned about one’s place in the pecking order is natural, and I do believe we can definitely learn from cross-cultural comparisons, it is important to temper our panic and examine things from a grander perspective.  The lesson is always the same. There are many roads to success, but none stay paved forever.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.