Sunday, February 19, 2012

Soundbites: Presidential edition

I highly recommend this article on "animates" in the French Enlightenment. One can think of them as an early type of robot. After a couple of centuries of thinking about this stuff, you would think we would have progressed more in our thinking!

"I think the educational system has become a major factor stopping people from thinking about the future."


"You can’t just write checks to the thirty smartest scientists in the United States. Instead there are bureaucratic processes, and I think the politicization of science—where a lot of scientists have to write grant applications, be subject to peer review, and have to get all these people to buy in—all this has been toxic, because the skills that make a great scientist and the skills that make a great politician are radically different. " Peter Thiel

A great article on the future of cognitive enhancement in The Atlantic.

Speaking of enhancements, Slate wonders how life will change when, through drugs or engineering, our memories are perfect.

How to translate academic-ese.

Increased undergraduate debt increases the probability of attending graduate school.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Research Works Act - seriously?

I am not a fan of the academic publishing industry, and have written before on the need for more openness in the publishing process. My position is very simple: it is not ethical for taxpayers to be forced to buy access to scientific articles whose research was funded by the taxpayer.

I am very dismayed at the introduction of the Research Works Act, a piece of legislation designed to end the NIH Open Access policy and other future openness initiatives.

Sigh... even in academic publishing, we're socializing the risks and privatizing the gains. Here, I agree completely with Michael Eisen's statement in the New York Times:
 "But the latest effort to overturn the N.I.H.’s public access policy should dispel any remaining illusions that commercial publishers are serving the interests of the scientific community and public."

As this bill was written by representatives taking money from the publishing industry, perhaps we should include lawmakers in that group as well.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Soundbites: Surfin' Santa edition

Cool tool: Cross Validation is the Stack Overflow for statistics questions.

The utility of using neuroscience to understand art (e.g. "neuroaesthetics") is considered.

Cool: the Wounded Warrior Bill mandates cognitive testing of soliders before and after deployment. This can help screen for brain injuries and (in theory) get wounded soliders needed treatment. Not cool: this is not actually happening.

Ireland is considering a proposal to add lithium to the drinking water as a method for reducing crime. Lithium is a standard treatment for bipolar disorder. The proposal cites studies in Texas and Japan showing reduced crime in locations where lithium is present in drinking water (though it's not clear whether it was added on purpose, like fluoride).

Mind Hacks follows a new amendment to the US Controlled Substances act, adding a number of chemically synthesized cannabinoids.

"...the raison d’ĂȘtre of a college is to nourish a world of intellectual culture; that is, a world of ideas, dedicated to what we can know scientifically, understand humanistically, or express artistically. "

A beautiful critique of statistical cut-corners in the Freakonomics empire.

The Neurocritic discusses an interesting case: a child with a malformation in the prefrontal cortex and extreme behavioral problems. Can we assign a causal relation?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Who takes the responsibility for quality higher education?

This gives me chills: a professor denied tenure for using the Socratic method of teaching. Of course, there are two sides to every story and this article is rather one sided - I have been in classes where so-called Socratic methods are thinly veiled excuses for hurling insults at students - but if we are to take the article at face value, this is another story in a disturbing educational trend.

The Socratic method is challenging for students and requires preparation and engagement with the material. It requires being able to effectively communicate under pressure. However, I feel that learning involves a certain amount of discomfort. Learning means pushing past the boundaries of what we already know, and what we can already do. Most undergraduate courses I took were of lecture-style, teaching students to expect to be a passive audience in class. It's a much easier route and the student can hide lack of preparation, misunderstanding or having a bad day. However, these students cannot hide forever, and this under-preparation often comes back to haunt them at exam time.

As a TA in graduate school, I saw many freshmen having harsh wake-up calls when the first midterms came back. The typical story was "But I came to all the classes, and I read the book chapters twice! How could I have gotten a C on the exam???" The unfortunate answer is that the student mistakes being able to parrot back a section of textbook or lecture for understanding the material. When an exam forces the student to use this information in an analytic or synthetic way, the facade of learning crumbles. 

I don't know any instructor who wants to give a student a poor grade, but the integrity of the educational system depends on accurate assessment of mastery. If an instructor is fired, demoted or denied tenure due to the rigors of his/her course, this could spell the end of education. Sadly, this story is reminiscent of this case: a professor denied tenure for not passing enough students. I highly recommend reading this page because, if we are to take the author at his words, he took every reasonable action to enable his students to succeed.

Who is responsible for student success in higher education? Professors, of course need to be responsible for presenting learning opportunities to students in a clear manner, and to be available for advice and guidance at office hours. However, university students are adults and need to take responsibility for the ultimate learning outcomes. I am concerned by a culture of entitlement that has conditioned students to expect top marks for simply showing up. The expectations of the "self-esteem generation" and the incentives of professors to earn high student evaluations both play a role, I suspect.

I wonder sometimes whether the cost of attendance at American colleges and universities partially drives this phenomenon. Paying for education turns students and their families into customers, and "customers are always right". Perhaps subsidizing higher education would create a culture that divorces education from "service", leading to more honest evaluations and better learning.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Soundbites: Thanksgiving edition

It was my birthday this week. Turns out my brain is just about done maturing. (Tell that to my behavior...)

Not really news: tenured faculty members bring in twice as much money to universities as they cost.

Funny titles for scientific studies.

You know how I'm often griping about the lack of published negative results and replication attempts? Some people are trying to solve both. Very cool.

From Nature: improving understanding of statistical arguments.

EEG can be used to predict conscious awareness in vegetative patients.

Wanna take some computer science courses at Stanford? Several courses will be open to the public virtually next quarter!

The results of another self-reported survey on the use of cognitive enhancing drugs.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Soundbites: Spooky edition

Should we give all surgeons cognitive enhancers to improve performance?

The "smart phone brain scanner". This could either be the best thing ever, or the worst thing.... I still have not decided.

The Royal Society has made 60,000 articles freely accessible. W00t!

... happy birthday, dear fMRI. Happy 20th birthday to you!

New ADHD guidelines allow for diagnosis in children as young as 4. (Which to me begs the question of what a "normal" 4 year old is supposed to act like).

What counts as a person in an era where some states are proposing laws to define a fertilized egg as a person? Neuroethics Canada has some intelligent commentary.