Thursday, April 18, 2019

Brains, not brawn, for college!

It has long been a secret--not!--that American football is not compatible with having any brains left to do college work.  Now there is yet another story, in the New York Times, this time about this in regard to the University of Colorado's football brain-injured.  This sport is as savage as the Roman Coliseum 'sports' were two thousand years ago, and, yes, humans may be slow learners, but that is far too long for us to get the message.

We here at Penn State have the world's third largest football stadium, a grand stage on which to observe brain damage (not to mention various other breaks and bruises) of our 'students'.  Of course, some of these players actually are students in a serious rather than technical sense of the term.  How many leave here with fewer IQ points than when they came, is not known.  At least some do major in actual college-level subjects, and many are very fine students (as I can say from direct personal experience).

But it is time to change, NFL or not.  Let those who want to gladiate for money in the NFL get their brain-damaging preparatory experience elsewhere.  We are supposed to be universities, places of classroom and lab learning, not brute brain bashing.  Football may have been safer decades ago before training methods improved to make these guys huge monsters in size and strength.  It's not their fault, of course, but ours--the adults at universities.  We brought this about, and there is one reason: we wanted money from attendees, alums, TV networks, and so on.  But  universities should not operate on the greed metric, but should stand for something higher, something better.

Indeed, we can have it both ways:  If we moved soccer 'football' to the stadiums, there would be a lot of grumbling from alumni, and maybe a few years of lower donations (mainly to the athletic department, one can surmise) and lower beer and hot dog sales, but eventually they'd all be back, cheering their lungs out for the Nittany Lion soccer team.  And they could have many more games--and for men and women--in a season.  It would eventually pay out.  Well, TV revenues might drop a lot for a while, but if other actual 'universities' followed suit, everything would recover, except the players.  They would not have to recover, since they'd have far fewer injuries (and protective headbands could be used to protect from damage during headers).  And they could take more, and more substantial, college courses while doing this.

It's worth thinking about, for those readers who still have their brains intact to do such a thing.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Copy cat!! How 'bourgeois' we've become!

In the sad way that science has become ever more bourgeois, Nature, itself now largely a checkout- counter mag, has a feature editorial on plagiarism (p 435, 28 March 2019).  The author, Debora Weber-Wulff, seems to specialize in sleuthing academic verbal cheaters, as if it is a new profession in itself.  She goes over the various software developed to detect plagiarism in professional and student papers, and evaluates them and the detection problem itself.  Commercial, profiteering, competing software--more than one--to detect academic cheaters!

The commentary mentions strategies that authors use to get multiple pubs on the same subject, and even seems to suggest that publishing an article from or part of your doctoral dissertation is a kind of plagiarism (who in recent memory has searched for or found, much less read doctoral theses after the defense?).

And now, the most bourgeois thing of all, in my opinion, is that there are conferences on academic integrity, and even they have their own plagiarism as the author relates!  And as part of the new class system even in esoteric academia, she notes that those that were detected were "demoted" to mere posters.  Surely I've mis-read this commentary.  Surely!

Somehow, this seems just another routine story about academic life.  Since it's basically gossipy, it takes place of honor in Nature.  It's a kind of 'how-it's-done' review, as if cheating was as common as, say, making espresso.  Can you imagine that such a thing would largely have been unthought of not many decades ago?  It's true.  I was there (and I didn't plagiarize!).

There must always have been some plagiarism, since there are always rogues.  There have long been rewards to publish much the same paper in several different places, to reach different audiences in the days before web-searching.  But it was likely much easier to detect real plagiarism, which was doubtlessly far less prevalent in the old days.  At least that was my experience in my particular old days.  There was no need for competing companies to profiteer by selling plagiarism-detecting programs!  That almost institutionalizes cheating as a cat-and-mouse part of modern careerism, and a commentary like Weber-Wulff's that describes plagiaristic ploys almost helps one do it!

One, if not the main, reason for this situation is that far less was being published, less often, in fewer journals, and by far fewer players in a given academic arena.  The players were much better known to each other, far fewer published more than an article now and then, and most readers knew the relevant literature (and each other). The pace was less.  The Malthusian academic overpopulation didn't exist, so the competition was less (even if there were of course Big Egos competing).  Publishers were mainly non-profit, careers less intensely grant-dependent (and grants were easier to get).  The competition was more about ideas and actual substantive impact, and far less about academic score-counting (citations, publication counts, impact factors).  Less pressure to survive, and less pressure to cheat.  No first-semester graduate seminars on 'grantsmanship'.

....and no need for Nature to  have a feature commentary on how to catch academic cheaters.

Just after this was posted, a commentary appeared in Nature on a major academic fraud case:

If we really want to encourage honor and honesty in science, we need to look not at the science but at the science culture, the money-driven, competitive, frenetic area--and Nature and its proliferating for-profit satellite publications is a culpable part of the problem.  We need to cool down the temperature of the research industry.  But to me that requires reducing the amount of selfish gain available--to investigators, journals, universities, equipment suppliers--the academic-industrial complex to pick up on Dwight Eisenhower's long-ago warning about military's similar excesses.

But where is the will to do this?