Wednesday, March 31, 2010

TGIE - Thank God It's Easter.

Just a few hours left before I'll have a couple of days off, so I thought I'll post a little funny bit. Actually, there are some really good bits in there about homoepathy/ pseudo-science and science ("Science know it doesn't know everything. Otherwise it would have stopped")

Have a nice Easter, everybody.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Ballad of Harald and Jørgen

When I was a kid, I read Superman comics up until the point where I found Marvel to be a much better, if not more realistic, purveyor of superhero tales. Much of the premise of the Superman comic depended on the Man of Steel's ability to uphold his "secret" Clark Kent identity. Even for a seven year old kid, this required more suspension of disbelief than I was willing to put up with. While tons of Marvel characters relied on the same premise, Spiderman at least wore a mask. With Superman, a pair of ordinary reading glasses was all that kept his peers from recognizing that Clark Kent and Superman were one and the same. Take this fact and add that Clark Kent was never seen together with Superman yet claimed to be his close friend, and it's pretty obvious that the journalistic talent and investigative qualities of the staff at whatever newspaper Kent worked at sucked worse than a toothless vampire.

Still, Jimmy Olsen might have claimed that Superman at least put on a pair of spectacles to conceal his true identity. In my book, that puts him one notch over the soft science schnucks currently lamenting how Harald Eia and the TV series "Hjernevask" make them look bad by showing viewers parts of interviews where the "scientists" are "tricked" into giving pretty much the exact same quotes as they have given in earlier interviews. Moreover, they agreed to appear on the show under the premise that it would be science journalism involved, and thus a serious show wherein they would bask in the glory of their doctorates in what asymptotically approaches science from below.

When the program was announced, some of the interviewees already started their public outcry of having been misled - some six months before the show was supposed to air. Not having seen any of the episodes, but having seen the teasers and followed the subsequent debates in other media, this still struck me as odd. From what I've seen in the teasers - which mirrors what I've read in the ensuing debates - an episode goes a li'l something like this:

  • Eia inerviews some Norwegian "scientist" and appears to ask some critical question.
  • Norwegian "scientist" inevitably provides aa absolute, definitive answer for which he or she has no scientific basis.
  • Eia appears sceptical.
  • Eia asks some foreign (preferably American) scientists the same question and presents them with the comments from the Norwegian soft-science schnuck.
  • Foreign scientist give a different answer, invariably in less bombastic and absolute terms than the Norwegian "scientists"
  • Eia nods in approval like a bobblehead doll in a car with bad suspension during an earthquake.
  • Repeat ad nauseam with different topic.

There's no doubt that Eia appears to be severely biased in his interviews, so that does warrant a fair deal of criticism. Favoritism aside, here's what I really don't get. Harald Eia is a very talented comedian, and has parlayed this into national celebrity and probably significant wealth. Eia's style of comedy can hardly be characterized as sophisticated, and to my knowledge, he has never displayed any public interest in science journalism until this show. Moreover, I notice from the teasers as well as from the ensuing public debate that Eia does the interviews himself, without any form of disguise. Not even a pair of glasses. This means that one out of two scenarios must have taken place prior to the interviews:

Scenario 1: Soft-science schnuck is contacted by Eia directly.
SSS: Yello?
Eia: Hello - this is Harald Eia calling. You might remember me as a TV-comedian famous for showing his private parts on television, for making fun of people from other parts of Norway than himself, and for having skits wherein dogs lick various food items off of Kristoffer Schau's balls. I'm currently working on a science journalism project where I endeavour to elucidate different aspects of human behavior based on nature versus nurture. Would you be interested in appearing on such a program to talk about things pertaining to your research?
SSS: So I'll be on TV, right?
Eia: You most certainly will.
SSS: Sign me up.

Scenario 2: Soft-science schnuck is contacted by some staffer assigned to Eia:
SSS: Yello?
Staffer: Hello there. My name is of no consequence and I am calling because NrK is planning a TV series based on the premise of elucidating different aspects of human behavior and determining whether certain traits can be more strongly linked to nature or to nurture. Being that you have been a vocal proponent for nurture over nature, that you have published several articles on the subject and that you own a sports jacket, we'd like to interview you for the program.
SSS: Who's gonna be doing the interview?
Staffer: Harald Eia.
SSS: The TV comedian famous for showing his private parts on television, for making fun of people with a different dialect than himself and for having skits wherein dogs lick various food items off of Kristoffer Schau's balls?
Staffer: That'd be the one.
SSS: Would I have to lick anything off of Schau's balls to be on TV? I'm allergic to nuts..
Staffer: You'll only be required to give an interview where you repeat the exact same inane statements you have gone on record giving earlier.
SSS: Sign me up.

So assuming the soft-science schnucks weren't contacted under the premise of making a science journalism spoof, where's the deception? At the end of the day, unless the interviews were edited to the level where words from different parts of the interview were combined to form quotes the interviewee never intended to give, they need to STFU. If they really thought that a program designed and executed by Harald Eia would be an unbiased piece of BBC-like science journalism, I've got a piece of land with a tower on it in central Paris to sell them real cheap.

Of all the soft-science schnucks getting their undies in a bunch over the resluting TV show, none have appeared more indignant than one Jørgen Lorentzen. Lorentzen appeared in a televised debate Thursday the 18th of March and claimed that the interview contained lots of footage of him putting over biology and biologists left and right, only that dastardly Eia cut those parts out, leaving him looking like a government-sponsored moron. He luv'd him sum biologists, but he also knew for a fact that the foreign expert Eia had used to counter his eloquent arguments in favor of nurture had done some critical error in his experiment design, thus invalidating the studies and any conclusions derived from it. Eia had actually done his homework and upon asking Lorentzen to state the flaws in the study, was able to counter and negate the two or three points made by Lorentzen. Following this, Lorentzen sulked and argued "well; there were several other critical flaws" before the host mercifully ended Lorentzen's self-burial. Moreover, the statements Lorentzen deemed to have been taken out of context, i.e., not being shown following Lorentzen putting over biology, were shown to have been given in earlier interviews with Lorentzen, where he apparently had no problems with Dagens Næringsliv printing such quotes. Or maybe the problem was that DN never put his quotes next to counterarguments by other experts, and so he only appeared to be caught in a cul-de-sac of his own self-righteousness. On Hjernevask, however, he appeared arrogant AND clueless. Not to mention that he got owned in a debate in a subject where he clearly considers himself an Harald Eia.

While I'm not saying that all the Norwegian soft-science schnucks interviewed by Eia only to have all kinds of issues later are idiots, there's no question that the quotes from the foreign scientists come across as more level-headed. This was especially clear for the Norwegian "expert" and waste of human flesh that on a direct question from Eia answered that each individual was free to choose his or her sexuality.

Tell that to a teenager from a strict religious background in rural Norway who would have to break any ties to family and friends and endure bullying and ridicule from peers if he or she chooses to come out of the closet.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Philip Morris lawsuit

It seems that Philip Morris is taking Norway to court, due to the country's display ban of tobacco (an English article here). PMI claims that the ban has no health effect, and suing to lift the ban.

Since it's a well know fact that reduced smoking does have an health effect, we can safely equal PMI's claim with of "no health effect" to "no reduced sale". Which brings up the following question:

- If there are no reduced sale, why would PMI sue?

Seeing how PMI is taking Norway to court, I assume their sale is affected and thus the ban actaully work as planned. Tobacco companies does have a grim history of "research" on health effect, and this lawsuit and the "research" behind it proves to me that very little has changed.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Haves and the Have Nots of Common Sense

As a general rule of thumb, students are to be evaluated using portfolio assessment, wherein the final grade is determined by more more than a single performance so as to get a better measure of student performance, as well as to avoid "bad luck" singularities. The most common forms of portfolio assessment are either a midterm or mandatory hand-in assignments (typically pass/fail) in addition to a final exam.

If you were in charge of implementing a change in the way the portfolio assessments are being used, would you: a) Announce the changes in time for the new regime to be defined in the study catalogue, which is the binding document outlining what form the course will have. b) Announce the changes the semester prior to changes taking effect, thus enabling the subject teachers to make the changes necessary to make the (mandatory) portfolio assessment work. c) Announce the changes in mid-semester, just before the midterms, with a three working-day time limit to implement the necessary changes.

If you answered c) - congratulations. You just might possess the tridefecta of lack of common sense, inability to understand the linearity of time, and a sociopathic streak which would qualify you for a position in central university administration.

I just received an email the effects of which is that I need to convert from giving midterms to assigning mandatory problem sets. The midterm is Thursday. In order to comply with rules and regulations, these changes should have been announced (i) in the study catalogue and (ii) at the first day of class if any extraordinary events occurred which warrant changes to the course description. While my course does indeed use problem sets, they're not presently mandatory in that students don't have to hand them in and have them graded. Of course; if they want to actually pass the course, solving and understanding the problem sets is mandatory, but that's another can of worms. Being that this is March, we've already gone through three problem sets, and we've also gone through the solutions. As an added bonus, I don't have a TA in this course, owing to administration missing (their own) deadline for approval, leaving me high&dry also in this regard.

My choices are the following: 1) Skip midterm and let the "portfolio" consist only of the final exam, thus breaking the rules. 2) Change the portfolio assessment from midterm to mandatory problem sets, thereby breaking the rules and causing myself tons of hours of extra work. 3) Find a way to comply with the new rules for midterm and keep the system approximately as it stands.

Option 3) is the only one that technically is legal, and also the one which is the hardest to implement. Partly because the midterm is going to take place between 5 and 7 PM, a time frame where no administrators and thus official inspectors are at work. Also because this alternative requires me to bring student information I'm not privy to.

I'm really not a fan of the central university administration.