bobos in numberland

In the course of promoting his pop psychology treatise, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (Random House, 2011), David Brooks has been disseminating the claim that 94 or 95 percent of professors in America say that they are above average in teaching skills. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc.) The browsing functionality of Amazon.com permits all interested parties to find and read the relevant pages 218 and 397 in his book, which credit page 73 of another specimen of the same genre, penned by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth, The Free Press, 2006. In its turn, endnote 8 on p. 286 in that book credits the statistics of professorial overconfidence to an article by Janet Metcalfe, “Cognitive optimism: self-deception or memory-based processing heuristics?”, published in Personality and Social Psychological Review, 2 (1988), pp. 100-110. The referenced article is available in its entirety from several online sources. (1, 2, 3.) Needless to say, it says nothing that remotely resembles the foregoing claim.

Update: Tracing the notion of Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average” yields a reference to P. Cross, “Not can but will college teachers be improved?”, New Directions for Higher Education, 17, 1977, pp. 1–15, said to describe a study at the three branches of the University of Nebraska, where in responding to questionnaires that asked professors to rate their teaching abilities, 94% of the faculty considered themselves above average in teaching ability and 68% placed their teaching abilities in the top 25%. This likely source of Brooks’ statistic is not nearly as expansive as the countrywide claim that he erroneously credited to Metcalfe. It would be preposterous to claim that a certain percentage of professors in three branches of a single university in Nebraska, a state whose economy depends on delusional overconfidence, can stand proxy for the same proportion of their profession throughout America.

woolly bully

Thus spake this year’s Nobel and Y2K’s Ig Nobel Prize laureate in Physics Andre Geim: “Instant information about everything and everyone often allows an individual opinion to compete with consensus and paranoia with evidence. It is a time when one blunt honest statement can finish a life-long political career, and one opinionated journalist can bully a government or a royal family. […] And we sink deeper and deeper from democracy into a state of mediocrity and even idiocracy.”

Geim is on record taking the side of the Chinese government against fellow Nobel Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, even as Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s office has been heard from nominating Julian Assange for the next Nobel Peace Prize. It remains that one man’s valiant dissident is another man’s cyberbully. Perhaps at 52, bound to evidence by his profession in the natural sciences, the inventor of graphene should not be faulted for identifying with an oppressive consensus. But there is no shortage of reasons to prefer a digital conduit of individual paranoid discontent to the dagger of a François Ravaillac, the infernal machine of an Ignacy Hryniewiecki, the Browning of a Gavrilo Princip or the Carcano of a Lee Harvey Oswald. Our tutelary champion of a new kind of “scientific journalism”, Assange is the only Voltaire we need and deserve for the XXIst Century. We can only hope that neither our Maximilien Robespierre nor our Napoléon Bonaparte will be long in coming.

use and mention

Today’s anniversary tributes are missing the point in addressing Darwin the scientist and Lincoln the politician. In truth, they accrue to “Darwin” and “Lincoln”, the six- and seven-letter alibis for otherwise intelligent and conscientious people wishing to exempt themselves from contemplation of their spiritual infirmities and social rackets.

fresh supplies of sexy beasts

A British zoo announced yesterday that virgin birth of five Komodo dragons does not add up to a quintuplet reptile messiah.

A baby Komodo dragon is held by a keeper after hatching at Chester Zoo in Chester, northern England, January 22, 2007. Flora, a Komodo dragon who has never mated or even mixed with a male, became a mother and father of five this week, British scientists said on Wednesday.
REUTERS/Phil Noble

In unrelated news, science sheepishly pledges to empower identification of embryonic homosexuals, instilling fears that prospective parents hopeful of grandparenthood might abort foeti who are identified as such. Continue reading fresh supplies of sexy beasts