Category Archives: Academia

Charts of the day: Global democracy’s sad decline


The Varieties of Democracy [V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg. Sweden, tracks the status of liberal democracies around the world, charting their progress with the aid of a large poll of international experts, using a system that evaluaties each country on the basis of whether or not their governments are electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian.
https://pol.gu.se/english/varieties-of-democracy–v-dem-

As their website notes, “V-Dem disaggregates these five principles into dozens of lower-level Components of Democracy such as regular elections, judicial independence, direct democracy, and gender equality.

V-Dem’s latest annual assessment, Democracy for All? V-Dem Annual Democracy Report 2018, contains two charts dramatically illustrate the rapid decline of democracy.

First, a global look at changes across the world:

Number of countries with significant changes on Liberal Democracy Index [right index population-weighted]

And a look closer to home at the rapid decline of American democracy in the Age of Trump:

The United States’ ranking on the V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index fell from seven in 2015 to 31 in 2017. There is clear evidence of autocratization on several indicators. The lower quality of liberal democracy stems primarily from weakening constraints on the executive.

Now get out and vote, dammit!

After climate changes, will crows rule the world?


Back in 1963when we began the formal study of anthropology, we were taught that only humans made tools, a talent, we were told, that evolved from our unique combination of opposable thumbs, stereoscopic vision, and our big brains.

As decades passed, chimps and bonobos joined the short list.

But in recent years, critters with notoriously small cranial capacities and devoid of thumbs altogether have soared in the estimates, proving that the slut “bird-brained” may someday become a compliment.

We’ve become fascinated by the uncanny tool-making capacities of crows and ravens, and a new study had just raised the bar.

From the University of Oxford:

An international team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the University of Oxford has revealed that New Caledonian crows are able to create tools by combining two or more otherwise non-functional elements, an ability so far observed only in humans and great apes.

The new study, published today in Scientific Reports, shows that these birds can create long-reaching tools out of short combinable parts – an astonishing mental feat. Assemblage of different components into novel functional and maneuverable tools has, until now, only been observed in apes, and anthropologists regard early human compound tool manufacture as a significant step in brain evolution. Children take several years before creating novel tools, probably because it requires anticipating properties of as yet unseen objects. Such anticipation, or planning, is usually interpreted as involving creative mental modelling and executive functions.

The study demonstrates that this species of crow possesses highly flexible abilities that allow them to solve complex problems involving anticipation of the properties of objects they have never seen.

Watch Tumulte, Jungle and Mango create and use compound tools:

‘The finding is remarkable because the crows received no assistance or training in making these combinations, they figured it out by themselves,’ said Auguste von Bayern, from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the University of Oxford. The New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) from the South Pacific are of the same species as Betty, who became famous in 2002 as the first animal shown to be able to create a hooked tool by bending a pliable material.

Researchers had already been able to show how this remarkable species was able to use and make tools in the wild and in captivity, but they had never previously been seen to combine more than one piece to make a tool.

Alex Kacelnik, from the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology, said: ‘The results corroborate that these crows possess highly flexible abilities that allow them to solve novel problems rapidly, but do not show how they do it. It is possible that they use some form of virtual simulation of the problem, as if different potential actions were played in their brains until they figure out a viable solution, and then do it. Similar processes are being modelled on artificial intelligences and implemented in physical robots, as a way to better understand the animals and to discover ways to build machines able to reach autonomous creative solutions to novel problems.’

The researchers presented eight New Caledonian crows with a puzzle box they had never encountered before, containing a small food container behind a door that left a narrow gap along the bottom. Initially, the scientists left some sufficiently long sticks scattered around, and all the birds rapidly picked one of them, inserted it through the front gap, and pushed the food to an opening on the side of the box. All eight birds did this without any difficulty. In the next steps, the scientists left the food deep inside the box but provided only short pieces, too short to reach the food. These short pieces could potentially be combined with each other, as some were hollow and others could fit inside them. In one example, they gave the birds barrels and plungers of disassembled hypodermic syringes. Without any help or demonstration, four of the crows partially inserted one piece into another and used the resulting longer compound pole to reach and extract the food. At the end of the five-step investigation, the scientists made the task more difficult by supplying even shorter combinable parts, and found that one particular bird, ‘Mango’, was able to make compound tools out of three and even four parts.

Experimental setup in construction test: 1. Upper panels: test box without [A] and with [B] front cover. Notice the food track and side opening in A, and the narrow slot for tool insertion in the front in B. [C] Presentation of tool components. Some details of scale modified for presentation.

Although the authors explain that the mental processes by which the birds achieve their goals have not yet been fully established, the ability to invent a tool is interesting in itself. Few animals are capable of making and using tools, and also in human development the capacity only emerges late. While children start using tools reliably when they are about 18 months old, they only invent novel tools suited to solve a given problem reliably when they are at least five years old. Archaeological findings indicate that such compound tools arose only late in human cultural evolution (probably around 300,000 years ago in the Middle Palaeolithic) and might have coevolved with planning abilities, complex cognition and language. The crows’ ability to construct novel compound tools does not imply that their cognitive mechanisms equal those of humans or apes, but helps to understand the cognitive processes that are necessary for physical problem solving.

Read the full paper ‘Compound tool construction by New Caledonian crows’ in Nature Scientific Reports [open access].

We can only wonder what other natural skills may vanish as species after species dies out before the relentless drive of of we “higher” humans and our seemingly boundless hunger for power and profit.

Quote of the day: A scientist who loved his weed


The late Cornell University astronomer Carl Sagan was a phenomenon.

As a 2014 retrospective in Smithsonian Magazine described him:

No one has ever explained space, in all its bewildering glory, as well as Sagan did. He’s been gone now for nearly two decades, but people old enough to remember him will easily be able to summon his voice, his fondness for the word “billions” and his boyish enthusiasm for understanding the universe we’re so lucky to live in.

He led a feverish existence, with multiple careers tumbling over one another, as if he knew he wouldn’t live to an old age. Among other things, he served as an astronomy professor at Cornell, wrote more than a dozen books, worked on NASA robotic missions, edited the scientific journal Icarus and somehow found time to park himself, repeatedly, arguably compulsively, in front of TV cameras. He was the house astronomer, basically, on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” Then, in an astonishing burst of energy in his mid-40s, he co-created and hosted a 13-part PBS television series, “Cosmos.” It aired in the fall of 1980 and ultimately reached hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Sagan was the most famous scientist in America—the face of science itself.

A mutually flattering encounter

We had the great pleasure of meeting him more than 40 years ago, when we were both attending a conference at Cal Tech.

We were seated at a dinner when we heard Sagan’s very distinctive voice from the next table. Turning to confirm that, yes, it was indeed the famous astronomer himself, we were seized by an impulse.

In our decades of journalism, we interviewed a fair number of celebrities and famous folk from all spheres of life, but when on our own time when we encountered famous folk in public, we left them alone, respecting their privacy.

But something that evening made us break the rule, so we got up and wandered over to Sagan.

“Excuse me, Dr. Sagan,” we said, “I just want to say that, as a writer, I am I am in awe of your work.”

Then the tables were abruptly turned.

“Richard Brenneman. . .are you the fellow who writes Psientific American?”

The publication in question was a monthly newsletter I then wrote for the Sacramento Skeptics Society, a group of scientists, academics, and lay folk devoted to the pursuit of critical thinking. The publication also featured a lengthy column I assembled monthly of idiotic headlines from major newspapers uncritically reporting pseudoscientific claims, enhanced by some satirical commentary.

We confessed that we were, indeed, the author in question.

Sagan broke out in a huge grin.

“Wonderful!,” he said. “I can’t wait to read it every month. It’s wonderful.”

Imagine that, we thought, Carl Sagan and yours truly, a mutual admiration society.

We exchanged a few more compliments, then we headed back to our own table.

That was our first and only encounter with Carl Sagan, but it’s a moment we’ll always treasures.

It wasn’t until years later that we found out that we shared another fondness with Dr. Sagan, and that for something illegal.

Carl Sagan loved his cannabis

Lester Grinspoon is one of the nation’s leading experts on psychiatry, and now serves as Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, where he taught for more than four decades, and known for, among his decades of research dispelling myths about marijuana and advocating for liberalization of laws limiting research and use of the herb.

In an 25 September 2015 interview with MintPress News, Grinspoon explained how he came to be interested in the subject one day in 1966:

During my anti-Vietnam activism I met Carl Sagan and he and I became very good friends. When I met Carl Sagan I was convinced that cannabis was a very harmful drug. Going to his house one day I discovered that he smoked cannabis and so did many of his friends. Now these were not unsophisticated people and I tried to tell Carl how harmful marijuana was but he responded in a joyful manner that it wasn’t harmful at all.

With this experience came the idea of writing a paper which would summarize the medical scientific basis for the marijuana prohibition. At that time marijuana prohibition was leading to the arrest of 300.000 people, mainly young people, a year of which 89% for simple possession. For me it became important that this prohibition was justified.

It was in the library of the Medical School that I found out that I was completely wrong about the harmfulness effects of marijuana. Not only was it not harmful it was remarkably nontoxic, and the drug itself was not causing harm to the user but the policy of arresting people did. Some went to prison for having it and others saw their career goals compromised.

One result of Grinspooon’s work was the 1971 publication by Harvard University Press of his book, Marihuana Reconsidered, which included a number of fascinating essays, including by a a rousing paean to pot by a mysterious “Mr. X,” penned two years earlier for the book.

Only after Sagan’s death in 1996 did Grinspoon reveal that “Mr. X” was Carl Sagan.

And that brings us to our quote of the day

From Carl Sagan, writing as “Mr. X” in Marihuana Reconsidered:

When I’m high I can penetrate into the past, recall childhood memories, friends, relatives, playthings, streets, smells, sounds, and tastes from a vanished era. I can reconstruct the actual occurrences in childhood events only half understood at the time. Many but not all my cannabis trips have somewhere in them a symbolism significant to me which I won’t attempt to describe here, a kind of mandala embossed on the high. Free-associating to this mandala, both visually and as plays on words, has produced a very rich array of insights.

There is a myth about such highs: the user has an illusion of great insight, but it does not survive scrutiny in the morning. I am convinced that this is an error, and that the devastating insights achieved when high are real insights; the main problem is putting these insights in a form acceptable to the quite different self that we are when we’re down the next day. Some of the hardest work I’ve ever done has been to put such insights down on tape or in writing. The problem is that ten even more interesting ideas or images have to be lost in the effort of recording one. It is easy to understand why someone might think it’s a waste of effort going to all that trouble to set the thought down, a kind of intrusion of the Protestant Ethic. But since I live almost all my life down I’ve made the effort – successfully, I think. Incidentally, I find that reasonably good insights can be remembered the next day, but only if some effort has been made to set them down another way. If I write the insight down or tell it to someone, then I can remember it with no assistance the following morning; but if I merely say to myself that I must make an effort to remember, I never do.

I find that most of the insights I achieve when high are into social issues, an area of creative scholarship very different from the one I am generally known for. I can remember one occasion, taking a shower with my wife while high, in which I had an idea on the origins and invalidities of racism in terms of gaussian distribution curves. It was a point obvious in a way, but rarely talked about. I drew the curves in soap on the shower wall, and went to write the idea down. One idea led to another, and at the end of about an hour of extremely hard work I found I had written eleven short essays on a wide range of social, political, philosophical, and human biological topics. Because of problems of space, I can’t go into the details of these essays, but from all external signs, such as public reactions and expert commentary, they seem to contain valid insights. I have used them in university commencement addresses, public lectures, and in my books.

Likely Trump science pick a climate change skeptic


And he calls colleagues who believe in it “glassy eyed cultists.

Oh, and he also favors censoring federal scientists.

From the Guardian:

The man tipped as frontrunner for the role of science adviser to Donald Trump has described climate scientists as “a glassy-eyed cult” in the throes of a form of collective madness.

William Happer, an eminent physicist at Princeton University, met Trump last month to discuss the post and says that if he were offered the job he would take it. Happer is highly regarded in the academic community, but many would view his appointment as a further blow to the prospects of concerted international action on climate change.

“There’s a whole area of climate so-called science that is really more like a cult,” Happer told the Guardian. “It’s like Hare Krishna or something like that. They’re glassy-eyed and they chant. It will potentially harm the image of all science.”

Trump has previously described global warming as “very expensive … bullshit” and has signalled a continued hardline stance since taking power.

>snip<

Happer also supports a controversial crackdown on the freedom of federal agency scientists to speak out about their findings, arguing that mixed messages on issues such as whether butter or margarine is healthier, have led to people disregarding all public health information.

Trump’s climate war evokes shades of a dark past


When science stands opposed to the greed of the powerful, witch hunts can result.

To understand the threat posed by the Trumpsters, a look at past conflicts provides some informative and thoroughly chilling insights.

From Paul N. Edwards, Professor of Information and History at the University of Michigan, writing for the open source academic journal The Conversation:

President-elect Trump has called global warming “bullshit” and a “Chinese hoax.” He has promised to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate treaty and to “bring back coal,” the world’s dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuel. The incoming administration has paraded a roster of climate change deniers for top jobs. On Dec. 13, Trump named former Texas Governor Rick Perry, another climate change denier, to lead the Department of Energy (DoE), an agency Perry said he would eliminate altogether during his 2011 presidential campaign.

Just days earlier, the Trump transition team presented the DoE with a 74-point questionnaire that has raised alarm among employees because the questions appear to target people whose work is related to climate change.

For me, as a historian of science and technology, the questionnaire – bluntly characterized by one DoE official as a “hit list” – is starkly reminiscent of the worst excesses of ideology-driven science, seen everywhere from the U.S. Red Scare of the 1950s to the Soviet and Nazi regimes of the 1930s.

The questionnaire asks for a list of “all DoE employees or contractors” who attended the annual Conferences of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – a binding treaty commitment of the U.S., signed by George H. W. Bush in 1992. Another question seeks the names of all employees involved in meetings of the Interagency Working Group on the Social Cost of Carbon, responsible for technical guidance quantifying the economic benefits of avoided climate change.

It also targets the scientific staff of DoE’s national laboratories. It requests lists of all professional societies scientists belong to, all their publications, all websites they maintain or contribute to, and “all other positions… paid and unpaid,” which they may hold. These requests, too, are likely aimed at climate scientists, since most of the national labs conduct research related to climate change, including climate modeling, data analysis and data storage.

On Dec. 13, a DoE spokesperson told the Washington Post the agency will not provide individual names to the transition team, saying “We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department.”

Energy’s interest in climate

Why does the Department of Energy conduct research on climate change? A better question might be: How could any Department of Energy fail to address climate change?

Established in the 1940s under the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the US national labs’ original assignment was simple: Design, build and test nuclear weapons and atomic energy. Since nuclear bombs create deadly fallout and reactor accidents can release radiation into the air, weather forecasting and climate knowledge were integral to that mission. Therefore, some labs immediately began building internal expertise in “nuclear meteorology.”

When high-flying supersonic transport aircraft were proposed in the late 1960s, the labs used climate models to analyze how their exhaust gases might affect the stratosphere. In the 1970s, the labs applied weather and climate simulations developed for nuclear weapons work to analyze urban smog and the global effects of volcanic eruptions. Later, the labs investigated whether nuclear war might cause dangerous climatic effects, such as catastrophic ozone depletion or “nuclear winter.”

The newly formed Department of Energy took over the labs in 1977. Its broadened mission included research on all forms of energy production, efficiency, pollution and waste. In the late 1970s, for example, Pacific Northwest Lab sampled aerosol pollution with research aircraft, using instruments of its own design.

By the 1980s, when man-made climate change became a major scientific concern, the labs were ready for the challenge. For example, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has run the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center since 1982, one of many DoE efforts that contribute crucially to human knowledge about global climate change.

An ideologically driven purge?

The Trump questionnaire harks back to the McCarthyist “red scare” of the early 1950s, when congressional committees and the FBI hounded eminent scientists accused of communist leanings.

A principal target of suspicion then was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who led the Los Alamos atomic bomb project, but later opposed nuclear proliferation. Oppenheimer chaired the General Advisory Committee to the AEC, direct ancestor to the DoE – and saw his security clearance unjustly revoked following humiliating hearings by that same AEC in 1954.

Many other physicists were also “repeatedly subjected to illegal surveillance by the FBI, paraded in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, charged time and again… with being the ‘weakest links’ in national security, and widely considered to be more inherently susceptible to communist propaganda than any other group of scientists or academics,” according to a history by author David Kaiser, on suspicions of atomic scientists in the early days of the Cold War.

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Forensic criminal science based on very few facts


If you watch American television, you know one thing for certain: The wonks and wizards in the nation’s crime labs employ that latest infallible scientific tools to find and incarcerate serial killers, arsonists, and other doers of dastardly deeds.

Reassuring, no?

Especially if you’re sitting on a jury a deciding on the fate of the man or woman in the dock, a decision that could, perhaps, lead to a lethal injection.

But you would be wrong to place unquestioning faith in those crime lab wizards, for unlike the televised version of forensic science, the realty is a shabby simulacrum of the glib screenwriter’s version.

And while wealthy criminals can afford their own forensic guns for hire, poor defendants relying on cash-strapped public defenders stand little chance of rebutting the men and women in the white coats, adding yet another element of injustice to American criminal jurisprudence.

We witnessed the process first-hand in our years of reporting on the courts.

We offer two dissections of forensic science from two leading legal scholars.

First up, a Young Turks interview with the the dean of the UCLA Law school:

Is Some Forensic Science “Junk” Science? Jennifer Mnookin Interview With Malcolm Fleschner

Program notes:

Malcolm Fleschner of The Young Turks interviews Jennifer Mnookin, Dean of the UCLA School of Law. Malcolm and Dean Mnookin discuss why hopelessly faulty forensic science is going unchallenged in courtrooms across the country and being used to put countless innocent defendants in prison.

Bite marks are bunk, even fingerprints questionable

Another detailed debunking comes from Jessica Gabel Cino, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Law, Georgia State University, writing in the open source academic journal, The Conversation:

Forensic science has become a mainstay of many a TV drama, and it’s just as important in real-life criminal trials. Drawing on biology, chemistry, genetics, medicine and psychology, forensic evidence helps answer questions in the legal system. Often, forensics provides the “smoking gun” that links a perpetrator to the crime and ultimately puts the bad guy in jail.

Shows like “CSI,” “Forensic Files” and “NCIS” cause viewers to be more accepting of forensic evidence. As it’s risen to ubiquitous celebrity status, forensic science has become shrouded in a cloak of infallibility and certainty in the public’s imagination. It seems to provide definitive answers. Forensics feels scientific and impartial as a courtroom weighs a defendant’s possible guilt – looking for proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

But the faith the public and the criminal justice system place in forensic science far outpaces the amount of trust it deserves.

For decades, there have been concerns about how the legal system uses forensic science. A groundbreaking 2009 report from the National Academy of Sciences finally drew the curtain back to reveal that the wizardry of forensics was more art than science. The report assessed forensic science’s methods and developed recommendations to increase validity and reliability among many of its disciplines.

These became the catalyst that finally forced the federal government to devote serious resources and dollars to an effort to more firmly ground forensic disciplines in science. After that, governmental agencies, forensic science committees and even the Department of Defense responded to the call. Research to this end now receives approximately US$13.4 million per year, but the money may not be enough to prevent bad science from finding its way into courtrooms.

This fall, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its own report on forensic science. It’s a more pronounced acknowledgment that the discipline has serious problems that require urgent attention. Some scientific and legal groups are outraged by or doubtful of its conclusions; others have praised them.

As someone who has taught forensic evidence for a decade and dedicated my legal career to working on cases involving forensic science (both good and bad), I read the report as a call to address foundational issues within forensic disciplines and add oversight to the way forensic science is ultimately employed by the end user: the criminal justice system.

Is any forensic science valid?

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recognized ongoing efforts to improve forensic science in the wake of the 2009 NAS report. Those efforts focused on policy, best practices and research around forensic science, but, as with any huge undertaking, there were gaps. As PCAST noted, forensic science has a validity problem that is in desperate need of attention.

PCAST focused on what’s colloquially termed “pattern identification evidence” – it requires an examiner to visually compare a crime scene sample to a known sample. PCAST’s big question: Are DNA analysis, bite marks, latent fingerprints, firearms identification and footwear analysis supported by reproducible research, and thus, reliable evidence?

They were looking for two types of validity. According to PCAST, foundational validity means the forensic discipline is based on research and studies that are “repeatable, reproducible, and accurate,” and therefore reliable. The next step is applied validity, meaning the method is “reliably applied in practice.” In other words, for a forensic discipline to produce valid evidence for use in court, there must be (1) reproducible studies on its accuracy and (2) a method used by examiners that is reproducible and accurate.

Among the forensic science they assessed, PCAST found single-sourced DNA analysis to be the only discipline that was valid, both foundationally and as applied. They found DNA mixture evidence – when DNA from more than one person is in a sample, for instance from the victim and the perpetrator, multiple perpetrators or due to contamination – to be only foundationally valid. Same with fingerprint analysis.

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Israeli shapes a U.S. law enabling campus purges


How would Americans like it if, say, North Korea dictated a law barring criticism of that country on U.S. campuses.

We imagine lots of folks would get righteously upset.

But an Israeli propagandist and former Deputy Prime Minister has done just that.

From the Intercept:

After Donald Trump’s election emboldened white supremacists and inspired a wave of anti-Semitic hate incidents across the country, the Senate on Thursday took action by passing a bill aimed at limiting the free-speech rights of college students who express support for Palestinians.

By unanimous consent, the Senate quietly passed the so-called Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, only two days after it was introduced by Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Tim Scott, R-S.C.

A draft of the bill obtained by The Intercept encourages the Department of Education to use the State Department’s broad, widely criticized definition of anti-Semitism when investigating schools. That definition, from a 2010 memo, includes as examples of anti-Semitism “delegitimizing” Israel, “demonizing” Israel, “applying double standards” to Israel, and “focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations.”

Critics have pointed out that those are political — not racist — positions, shared by a significant number of Jews, and qualify as protected speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

According to the draft, the bill does not adopt the definition as a formal legal standard, it only directs the State Department to “take into consideration” the definition when investigating schools for anti-Semitic discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

Now why do we say that the law is the creation of an Israeli propagandist?

That’s because those key words — demonizing, delegitimizing, demonizing — are the formula created by Israeli political propagandist, Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs and a good friend of Sheldon Adelson, the zealous Ziocon and Las Vegas casino magnate, and newspaper publisher who poured $25 million into a Trump-supporting PAC and sits on Trump’s inauguration committee.

Sharanksy,’s formulation is a brilliant semantic coup, employing words of such vagueness that they can be applied to virtually any critic of Israeli policies.

We know that, because they have been applied to us, repeatedly, first when reporting on the actions of a campaign launched against the Berkeley Daily Planet, a paper that came under fire from a motley crew of militant Ziocons angry because the paper published letters critical of Israeli government policies toward its Palestinian population.

Hillary Clinton lead the way

Attesting to the brilliance of Sharansky’s word-spinning is the fact that it was adopted as the adoption of that very definition of antisemitism by the State Department under Hillary Clinton.

Surely it’s legitimate to criticize the actions of a government which clearly applies double standards by seizing land and homes of non-Jewish citizens while not taking the same actions toward the property of its Jewish citizens.

Similarly, one could question’s Israel’s legitimacy, given that the state was created as the result of an accord between by the British and French governments without the consent of those who lived their, the majority of them not Jewish.

As for demonizing, what word could be more vague?

A call for immigrant sanctuary on Cal campuses


With the Trumpster promising immediate mass deportations on taking the presidential oath, one California elected official is calling for a declaration of sanctuary for the state’s college and university campuses.

From the East Bay Times:

California’s public colleges and universities should be declared “sanctuary campuses” and protect law-abiding students from the threat of deportation, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote in a letter to leaders of Cal State, UC and the community college system.

“We must take urgent stock of current policies and vulnerabilities pertaining to the personal data held and processed by the University of California, to shield students from federal agencies under a Trump administration,” he wrote.

Newsom, who is running for governor, met with students Thursday at a UC regents meeting in San Francisco to discuss their concerns about President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to deport millions of people who entered the country illegally.

Calls for sanctuary campuses are mounting across the state. Cal State Chancellor Timothy White announced at a CSU board meeting this week that unless forced to by law, Cal State “will not enter into agreements with state or local law enforcement agencies, Homeland Security or any other federal department for the enforcement of federal immigration law.”

Chart of the day: Univ. of Calif. workers go hungry


From Food Insecurity Among University of California Employees, a report from the Occidental College Urban & Environmental Policy Institute

blog-foof
The Los Angeles Times reports:

Seven in 10 University of California workers in clerical, administrative and support services struggle to put adequate food on the table, according to a new Occidental College study.

The study, set for release Monday, found that 45% of 2,890 employees surveyed throughout the 10-campus UC system went hungry at times. An additional 25% had to reduce the quality of their diet.

The problems persisted even though most of those surveyed were full-time employees with college degrees and average earnings of $22 an hour.

Peter Dreier, an Occidental professor of politics who conducted the study with two colleagues and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 2010, said the results were startling.

“This is a systemwide problem; it exists on every campus,” Dreier said. “This is not a handful of people who happen to be down on their luck. They need a living wage so they can afford to feed their families.”

Studies reveal music’s big impacts on growing brain


We’ve always been passionate believers in the value of music and art ecducation starting at the earliest years.

Gowing up in Kansas in the 1950s, we were the beneficiary of musical education that started in elementary school, where we participated in both singing and band programs, acquiring a love of music that has lasted throughout these last seven decades.

Our paternal grandmother was an elementary school teacher in Abilene, Kansas, and music was a critical part of her daily teaching. After her death in 1959, we received a letter from one her colleagues, telling us that one of her students had written that he still found inspiration in songs he had learned in her first and second grade classes.

The pupil was Dwight David Eisenhower, then serving as President of the United States.

Music and fine arts programs slashed as testing rises

But today, in classrooms across the country, education is music and the fine arts has fallen prey to a combination of budget cuts and the relentless imperative of the standardized test, a regime designed to turn out cogs in the machine rather than well-rounded, independent-minded individuals.

As the journal of the National Education Association reported in 2014:

Across the nation, the testing obsession has nudged aside visual arts, music, physical education, social studies, and science, not to mention world languages, financial literacy, and that old standby, penmanship. Our schools, once vigorous and dynamic centers for learning, have been reduced to mere test prep factories, where teachers and students act out a script written by someone who has never visited their classroom and where “achievement” means nothing more than scoring well on a bubble test.

“NCLB [No Child Left Behind] has corrupted what it means to teach and what it means to learn,” explains NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “Teachers have to teach in secret and hope they don’t get into trouble for teaching to the Whole Child instead of teaching to the test.”

A Google search for the words “music education elementary schools eliminated” turns up more than a million hits, a tragic litany of stories reporting slashed programs across the nation and throughout much of the Western world.

Musical training improves standardized testing scores

Ironically, music education actually improves children’s test scores, as the Children’s Music Workshop notes:

Music education programs increase children’s cognitive development. Also, research shows that “preschoolers who took daily 30 minute group singing lessons and a weekly 10-15 minute private keyboard lesson scored 80 percent higher in object assembly skills than students who did not have the music lessons,” as reported in a 1994 study by Frances Rauscher and Gordon Shaw at the University of California, Irvine (Harvey, 1997). It is clear that music education programs dramatically stimulate a child’s learning capacity, as shown in drastic increases in the scores of children who participated in music programs. Music education programs can begin as early as preschool and should continue for the greatest results.

When music education is sustained throughout the elementary years, children continue to learn better through the clear connections between music and other areas of study. For instance, a 1999 study presented in Neurological Research reveals that when second and third-grade students were taught fractions through basic music rhythm notation, they “scored a full 100% higher on fractions tests than those who learned in the conventional manner.” This study shows that the students who learned about the mathematical concept of fractions related their music knowledge of the relationships between eighth, quarter, half and whole notes in order to fully understand the material.

Students in music programs consistently score better on tests, as also exemplified in the 2001 study compiled by Music Educators National Conference, which exhibits that “SAT takers with coursework/experience in music performance scored 57 points higher on the verbal portion of the test and 41 points higher on the math portion than students with no coursework/experience in the arts.” It is obvious that when students have experience in music education in both the elementary and high school level, they perform considerably better in other important subjects as well. Music education programs in the elementary school level are necessary for the future success of students in all subject areas.

Musical training reshapes the brain

A major study by scientists from Harvard and McGill University and published in the Journal of Neuroscience [open access] used brain imaging to map changes in children’s brains resulting from musical study concluded with this summary:

M]usical training over only 15 months in early childhood leads to structural brain changes that diverge from typical brain development. Regional training-induced structural brain changes were found in musically relevant regions that were driven by musically relevant behavioral tests. The fact there were no structural brain differences found between groups before the onset of musical training indicates that the differential development of these brain regions is induced by instrumental practice rather by than preexisting biological predictors of musicality. These results provide new evidence for training-induced structural brain plasticity in early childhood. These findings of structural plasticity in the young brain suggest that long-term intervention programs can facilitate neuroplasticity in children. Such an intervention could be of particular relevance to children with developmental disorders and to adults with neurological diseases.

And yet another study proves the power of music. . .and dance

And now comes yet another study revealing the direct impact of education in music and dance on the brains of growing children.

From Concordia University in Montreal:

Endless hours at the barre. Long afternoons practising scales. All that time you spent in piano lessons and dance classes as a youngster may have seemed like a pain, but new research now confirms what your parents claimed: it’s good for mind and body.

In fact, a recent study published in NeuroImage ($35.95 to access] by a team* of researchers from the the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research, proves that dance and music training have even stronger effects on the brain than previously understood — but in markedly different ways.

The researchers used high-tech imaging techniques to compare the effects of dance and music training on the white matter structure of experts in these two disciplines. They then examined the relationship between training-induced brain changes and dance and music abilities.

Continue reading

UC Berkeley purge: The chancellor has resigned


University of California Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks has handed in his academic robes, the victim of campus sexual harassment and other scandals as well as a petition campaign by faculty members.

And that’s after the spent $200,000 trying to polish his image [below].

From the Washington Post:

UC-Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas B. Dirks announced his resignation Tuesday, a week after Linda Katehi stepped down as UC-Davis chancellor. Both leaders had been embroiled in multiple controversies.

Dirks faced questions about whether Berkeley was too lax in response to sexual harassment allegations against faculty and how the school would surmount steep budget troubles. The Los Angeles Times disclosed last month that he was under investigation for possible misuse of public funds for travel and the personal use of a campus fitness trainer without payment. The Daily Californian student newspaper also reported that the university had spent $9,000 for an emergency exit near Dirks’s office as a security measure in case of protests. All of this undermined the three-year tenure of a historian and anthropologist who sought to rejuvenate undergraduate education at Berkeley and boost public support for higher education’s great public flagships.

“Definitely a significant number of faculty had lost confidence in him,” Robert Powell, a political scientist and chair of Berkeley’s faculty senate, said Wednesday. “The reasons vary depending on different people you talk to.”

Dirks, who took office in June 2013, said he plans to step down when a successor is ready to take his place. When he exits, his tenure as chancellor is likely to have been the shortest at UC-Berkeley in a half century. Edward Strong served in the job for four years, from 1961 to 1965, and Glenn T. Seaborg for three, from 1958 to 1961.

UPDATE: More details from the Los Angeles Times:

In recent weeks, however, pressure for Dirks to resign has escalated. A petition expressing loss of confidence in his leadership was recently signed by more than 45 distinguished professors, including former Academic Senate leaders, members of the National Academy of Sciences, department chairs and heads of research units.

“There was a whole series of really bad steps which shows he’s cut himself off and is unresponsive to the campus community,” said Michael Burawoy, co-chairman of the Berkeley Faculty Assn., who signed the petition.

However, Judith Butler, a professor of comparative literature, expressed concern that maneuvers like the petition occurred among a small group without open discussion by the full faculty. “The real question is who was this small group working in the summer and do they really represent the faculty?” she asked. “I’m not convinced.”

She declined, however, to give an assessment of Dirks’ effectiveness.

Former Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau called the news of Dirks’ resignation “a sad day for Berkeley.”

Butler, a faculty member we respect, raises an interesting point.

Who were the faculty members who wanted Dirks gone?

Dirks came from the humanities, unlike his predecessor Birgeneau, a physicist.

The University of California has been reshaping itself in the corporate model, which is why we have dubbed it Global Corporate University. The priority has been on seeking ways to create revenue by funding research for corporations to buy, both in the hard sciences [witness the Amyris debacle] and in the business school.

Was Dirks, who traditionally emphasized the importance of the humanities, a field that doesn’t produce all that lucrative intellectual property or churn out tomorrow’s business executives, a man out of place at Cal?

It’s worth pondering.

The university’s costly image spinning

We can’t read the full story in the subscriber-only San Francisco Chronicle story, but they do let you read the first paragraph, to which we’ve added another paragraph from the story we found in a news aggregator:

As UC Berkeley prepared to eliminate hundreds of jobs and take millions of dollars in loans to help balance its flagging budget, the campus also paid more than $200,000 to “improve the chancellor’s strategic profile nationally and internationally,” The Chronicle has learned.

The decision to pay outside consultants of the last year to burnish Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’ global image is seen by some faculty as the latest in a series of missteps — including his kid glove treatment of star employees who sexually harassed students and colleagues and his uneven handling of the campus; $150 million budget deficit — that led to Dirks’ decision to step down. The companies agreed to “increase exposure and awareness of Dirks’ vision for higher education, elevate the chancellor as a “key thought leader” and “form key partnerships” so that potential donors would understand his philosophy.

The news about the image polishing confirmed suspicions we raised in a blog 16 March post, reprinted in full below [emphasis added]:

The curious case of the missing monobrow. . .

Coming to Berkeley from Columbia University, where Nicholas B. Dirks had served as executive vice president and dean of the faculty of  Arts and Sciences, the new chancellor of the flagship campus of the University of California underwent an amazing transition.

Here’s the image the folks at Cal’s PR department sent out when 8 November 2012 when announcing his appointment:

BLOG Dirks

And here’s an image of Dirks captured from the apology video just posted:

BLOG Dirks after

So what happened to the monobrow, a furry feature evident in countless photos [for instance] taken before his transplantation to the Golden State from the urban wilds of the Big Apple?

And then there are the eyeglasses. In all but two of the images we found doing a Google image search, Dirks wore his specs at a genial, approachable half staff, yet in the apology video he gazes out from behind glass, the lenses interposing themselves between seer and seen.

And what’s the deal with the flowers, the white blooms often associated with funerals and death?

Maybe its our old anthropological training kicking in, or simply the observation skills honed during five decades of journalism, but our sense is that in coming to image-conscious California Dirks fell into the hands of media handlers.

Chart of the day: Bernie, the sanest candidate


We take remote psychiatric diagnoses with a large grain of salt, but have to agree with the conclusion of the latest such effort, which compares today’s U.S. presidential candidates with political figures from the past.

But when the diagnoses comes from a researcher at one of the world’s leading universities, they deserve some attention.

The effort was conducted by Kevin Dutton, a postdoctoral research psychologist at Oxford University. Dutton is also conducting research for Britain’s Defence Ministry and the U.S. Air Force “to investigate the effects of both covert and overt surveillance on behaviour, especially within the context of promoting prosocial action.”

But his basic research area is on how psychopathic traits can draw people into specific professionals, politics among them.

So in a report for Scientific American MIND, he examined the American presidential candidates, including the two top runners-up, and compared them to political leaders of the past, with academic biographers and scholars examining leaders of the past and a political journalist evaluating the candidates using the standardized Psychopathic Personality Inventory assessment:

-BLOG Psych

The explanation of the numbers and what they mean from the Scientific American MIND blog:

The table reveals each subject’s scores for psychopathy’s eight component traits. The first three traits—social influence (SI), fearlessness (F) and stress immunity (STI), known collectively as the Fearless Dominance traits—tend to be strong in successful leaders. The next four qualities, collectively called Self-Centered Impulsivity, can be more problematic: Machiavellian Egocentricity (ME), Rebellious Nonconformity (RN), Blame Externalization (BE) and Carefree Nonplanfulness (CN). The eighth trait is Coldheartedness (C), which can be helpful in making tough decisions such as sending a nation’s youth to war but is dangerous in excess.

While there is no set score that officially renders someone a psychopath, it’s revealing to see who scores in the top 20 percent of all people who have been evaluated with the PPI-R. The table highlights those with scores in this upper quintile, which are somewhat lower for women than for men.

The verdict on the candidates: Trump, Clinton and Cruz all scored in the upper quintile in Self-Centered Impulsivity and Coldheartedness. Trump landed in the top 20 percent across the board on psychopathy traits, with a total score that placed him between Idi Amin and Adolf Hitler.

Admittedly, remote assessment can be highly subjective, but we’d have to agree with the journalist who ranked the candidates: Bernie really was the only relatively sane one in the bunch.

H/T to Undernews.

UC Davis Chancellor resigns after ethics probe


The chancellor of the University of California, Davis [previously], has quit her job in the wake of a scathing ethics investigation report.

In addition to enriching herself while serving on the public payroll, Linda Katehi was also the campus boss when one of her police officers, subsequently dubbed the “Pepper Spraying Cop,” unloaded an industrial sized can of pepper spray on peaceful; protestors during the Occupy movement days, earning her endless ridicule in the media.

From the Los Angeles Times:

UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi resigned Tuesday after a three-month investigation into whether she violated University of California rules on nepotism, misused student fees and lied about her role in social media contracts.

Her attorney, Melinda Guzman, announced the resignation, which UC President Janet Napolitano has accepted. Katehi will stay on as chancellor emeritus and a university faculty member.

Guzman said the investigation cleared Katehi of all charges.

“Linda Katehi and her family have been exonerated from baseless accusations of nepotism, conflicts of interest, financial management and personal gain, just as we predicted and as the UC Davis Academic Senate found within days of this leave,” Guzman said.

But a UC spokeswoman said the investigation found the chancellor had “exercised poor judgment, not been candid with university leadership, and violated multiple university policies.”

As the Times reported last month, “Katehi had taken paid board positions with the DeVry Education Group, which is under federal investigation for allegedly defrauding students, and John Wiley & Sons, a college-textbook publisher. Katehi had received permission for the textbook company position but not the DeVry board seat from the former and current UC presidents.”

UC Davis Police Lt. John Pike resigned after another scathing investigation, headed by William Bratton, the former police chief of both New York City and Los Angeles, but not before becoming a meme, complete with his own website, Pepper Spraying Cop.

Here’s one of our favorite offerings from the site:

BLOG Pepper

A story about sex & academic publishing’s raptors


Regular readers know that esnl loves to publish reports on the findings of academic researchers, covering everything from the latest climate science to the adverse health effects of plastics, the latest research on mind-altering drugs, and more.

Readers will have also noticed that we’ve taken to including in those reports just how much it would cost a reader to look at the full report as published in those scientific journals, sums that we find simply staggering.

We’ll begin today’s report with new findings about sex [how better to get your attention?], then leap into a lacerating report on the evils of academic publishing, an issue that impacts us all, right in the wallet.

Sex: Younger Americans are doing it less

From San Diego State University:

Since time immemorial, older generations have fretted over the sexual habits of young people. In today’s world, however, elders might just be wondering why young people are having so little sex, according to a new study by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean M. Twenge.

A research team also including Ryne Sherman from Florida Atlantic University and Brooke Wells from Widener University analyzed data from 26,707 respondents to the General Social Survey, a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults that includes members of the current millennial generation and its predecessor, Generation X. The researchers found that today’s young people are less likely to have had sex since turning 18.

According to Twenge, author of the book “Generation Me,” 15 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds born in the 1990s reported having no sexual partners since age 18, compared to only 6 percent of Generation X’ers when they were young adults. This sexual inactivity stands in stark contrast to the so-called “hookup culture” reportedly pervasive among Millennials: More are not having sex at all, much less hooking up with multiple partners.

“Online dating apps should, in theory, help Millennials find sexual partners more easily,” she said. “However, technology may have the opposite effect if young people are spending so much time online that they interact less in person, and thus don’t have sex.”

Concerns over personal safety and a media landscape saturated with reports of collegiate sexual abuse might also contribute to millennials’ sexual inactivity compared to previous generations, Twenge continued.

“This generation is very interested in safety, which also appears in their reduced use of alcohol and their interest in ‘safe spaces’ on campus,” she said. “This is a very risk-averse generation, and that attitude may be influencing their sexual choices.”

Other factors contributing to fewer millennials having sex could include the widespread availability of pornography, the historically high number of young adults living with their parents, the later age at first marriage, and increased access to instant entertainment online. The researchers published their findings this week in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. . .

On the utterly evil, thoroughly despicable academic journal cartel

If you want to read or download the article, the extortionate folks from Springer [publishers of the Archives of Sexual Behavior] will charge you the gasp-inducing sum of $39.95. They do, however, allow you to read the abstract for free, from which this is excerpted:

Online and in-person sexual behaviors of cisgender lesbian, gay, queer, bisexual, heterosexual, questioning, unsure, and youth of other sexual identities were examined using data from the Teen Health and Technology study. Data were collected online between August 2010 and January 2011 from 5,078 youth 13–18 years old. Results suggested that, depending on sexual identity, between 4–35 % of youth had sexual conversations and 2–24 % shared sexual photos with someone online in the past year. Among the 22 % of youth who had oral, vaginal, and/or anal sex, between 5–30 % met one of their two most recent sexual partners online. Inconsistent condom use was associated with increased odds of meeting one’s most recent partner online for heterosexual adolescent men. For gay and queer adolescent men, having an older partner, a partner with a lifetime history of sexually transmitted infections (STI), and concurrent sex partners were each significantly associated with increased odds of having met one’s most recent sex partner online. None of the examined characteristics significantly predicted meeting one’s most recent sexual partner online versus in-person for heterosexual; bisexual; or gay, lesbian, and queer women. The Internet is not replacing in-person exploration and expression of one’s sexuality and meeting sexual partners online appears to be uncommon in adolescence across sexual identities.

So just how evil is the academic publishing cartel?

Well, to begin with, their profit rations dwarf those of such lucrative corporate giants as Apple, Google, and any of the Big Pharma and Big Agra giants.

And like all true cartels Big Academia is swallowing up its smaller competitors to consolidate its grip ensure those extortionate profits just keep coming in, with students and their professors paying all the freight.

Consider the profits of just one publisher, Elsevier.

From “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era,” a review of the evils of the academic publishing cartel, by Vincent Larivière, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon, published in the open access joural PLOS One in June, 2015:

Operating profits (million USD) and profit margin of Reed-Elsevier as a whole (A) and of its Scientific, Technical & Medical division (B), 1991–2013.

Operating profits (million USD) and profit margin of Reed-Elsevier as a whole (A) and of its Scientific, Technical & Medical division (B), 1991–2013.

A second chart from the same article show how the cartel is swallowing up smaller publishers, consolidating their grip on academic publishing:

Number of journals changing from small to big publishers, and big to small publishers per year of change in the Natural and Medical Sciences and Social Sciences & Humanities.

Number of journals changing from small to big publishers, and big to small publishers per year of change in the Natural and Medical Sciences and Social Sciences & Humanities.

An academic license to steal

In a 3 November 2015 report report, Bloomberg looked at the anomaly that is academic publishing and came up with a withering verdict:

Publishers of academic journals have a great thing going. They generally don’t pay for the articles they publish, or for the primary editing and peer reviewing essential to preparing them for publication (they do fork over some money for copy editing). Most of this gratis labor is performed by employees of academic institutions. Those institutions, along with government agencies and foundations, also fund all the research that these journal articles are based upon.

Yet the journal publishers are able to get authors to sign over copyright to this content, and sell it in the form of subscriptions to university libraries. Most journals are now delivered in electronic form, which you think would cut the cost, but no, the price has been going up and up:

This isn’t just inflation at work: in 1994, journal subscriptions accounted for 51 percent of all library spending on information resources. In 2012 it was 69 percent.

Who exactly is getting that money? The largest academic publisher is Elsevier, which is also the biggest, most profitable division of RELX, the Anglo-Dutch company that was known until February as Reed Elsevier. Here are its results for the past decade:

BLOG Academic publishing profits

A classical case of outsourcing to workers on the public payroll

Really.

How else do you expect them to make those 40 percent profit margins?

George Monbiot added his voice to the growing chorus of dissent in a critical essay in the 20 August 2011 edition of the Guardian:

In the past financial year, for example, Elsevier’s operating profit margin was 36% (£724m on revenues of £2bn). They result from a stranglehold on the market. Elsevier, Springer and Wiley, who have bought up many of their competitors, now publish 42% of journal articles.

More importantly, universities are locked into buying their products. Academic papers are published in only one place, and they have to be read by researchers trying to keep up with their subject. Demand is inelastic and competition non-existent, because different journals can’t publish the same material. In many cases the publishers oblige the libraries to buy a large package of journals, whether or not they want them all. Perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the biggest crooks ever to have preyed upon the people of this country – Robert Maxwell – made much of his money through academic publishing.

The publishers claim that they have to charge these fees as a result of the costs of production and distribution, and that they add value (in Springer’s words) because they “develop journal brands and maintain and improve the digital infrastructure which has revolutionised scientific communication in the past 15 years”. But an analysis by Deutsche Bank reaches different conclusions. “We believe the publisher adds relatively little value to the publishing process … if the process really were as complex, costly and value-added as the publishers protest that it is, 40% margins wouldn’t be available.” Far from assisting the dissemination of research, the big publishers impede it, as their long turnaround times can delay the release of findings by a year or more.

What we see here is pure rentier capitalism: monopolising a public resource then charging exorbitant fees to use it. Another term for it is economic parasitism. To obtain the knowledge for which we have already paid, we must surrender our feu to the lairds of learning.

University libraries gutted for cash

This March 12 the New York Times noted the phenomenon in as report noting that Harvard University can’t even afford the cost of subscribing to the journals its students need:

Journal publishers collectively earned $10 billion last year, much of it from research libraries, which pay annual subscription fees ranging from $2,000 to $35,000 per title if they don’t buy subscriptions of bundled titles, which cost millions. The largest companies, like Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Springer and Wiley, typically have profit margins of over 30 percent.

>snip<

Legally downloading a single journal article when you don’t have a subscription costs around $30, which adds up quickly considering a search on even narrow topics can return hundreds if not thousands of articles. And the skyrocketing cost of journal subscriptions, which have unlimited downloads, is straining library budgets.

“The prices have been rising twice as fast as the price of health care over the past 20 years, so there’s a real scandal there to be exposed,” said Peter Suber, Harvard’s director of the office of scholarly communication. “It’s important that Harvard is suffering when it has the largest budget of any academic library in the world.”

So can online publication help cut the costs?

Well, consider this from an abstract of an article entitled “On toxic effects of scientific journals” by French academicians Antoinette Molinié and Geoffrey Bodenhausen, published in the June 2013 edition of the Journal of Biosciences:

The advent of online publishing greatly facilitates the dissemination of scientific results. This revolution might have led to the untimely death of many traditional publishing companies, since today’s scientists are perfectly capable of writing, formatting and uploading files to appropriate websites that can be consulted by colleagues and the general public alike. They also have the intellectual resources to criticize each other and organize an anonymous peer review system. The Open Access approach appears promising in this respect, but we cannot ignore that it is fraught with editorial and economic problems. A few powerful publishing companies not only managed to survive, but also rake up considerable profits. Moreover, they succeeded in becoming influential ‘trendsetters’ since they decide which papers deserve to be published. To make money, one must set novel trends, like Christian Dior or Levi’s in fashion, and open new markets, for example in Asia. In doing so, the publishers tend to supplant both national and transnational funding agencies in defining science policy. In many cases, these agencies tend simply to adopt the commercial criteria defined by the journals, forever eager to improve their impact factors. It is not obvious that the publishers of scientific journals, the editorial boards that they appoint, or the people who sift through the vast numbers of papers submitted to a handful of ‘top’ journals are endowed with sufficient insight to set the trends of future science. It seems even less obvious that funding agencies should blindly follow the fashion trends set by the publishers. The perverse relationships between private publishers and public funding agencies may have a toxic effect on science policy.

Want to read the full essay?

Well, it’s in a journal published by Springer, one of the Big Five in the cartel, so it’ll cost you $39.95.

So what, exactly, is Springer?

From a 22 December 2015 report by communications scholar Jason Schmitt in Medium:

Heather Morrison, a professor in the School of Information Studies at the University of Ottawa, unpacks the business model behind academic publisher Springer and says, “If you look at who owns Springer, these are private equity firms, and they have changed owners about five times in the last decade. Springer was owned by the investment group Candover and Cinven who describe themselves as ‘Europe’s largest buy-out firm.’ These are companies who buy companies to decrease the cost and increase the profits and sell them again in two years. This is to whom we scholars are voluntarily handing our work. Are you going to trust them? This is not the public library of science. This is not your average author voluntarily contributing to the commons. These are people who are in business to make the most profit.”

So it’s not only Republican-spawned tax cuts that are raising students tuition rates at America’s universities and forcing generations of young people to take on onerous debt burdens.

It’s also the rapacity of a newly empowered cartel.

It’s time for us all to cry out Aux Barricades!

Venezuelan program brings agroecology home


We’ve had a long fascination with agroecology, the practice of growing food with the use of environmentally damaging synthetic fertilizers and corporatized seeds and pesticides.

Giving the ever-growing corporate domination of the American university, it’s no surprise that the best-paid academic scientists are busily churning out highly profitable patented pesticide, veterinary drugs, and plants and animals for the Big Agra and Big Pharma.

UC Berkeley, which once had one of the country’s finest agroecology programs, has dropped it ad huge Big Agra bucks have flooded the campus, most notably in the form of a half-billion-dollar BP-funded program to create cellulose-chomping bacteria designed to poop out the basic ingredient of clean-burning, high-energy fuel.

So far, with all the original cash spent, there’s still no superfuel, but, golly, there was all that cash, and all those wobnderful corporate connections.

To paraphrase an old and very sexist joke, they know what UC Berkeley is, and they’ve already established the price.

So it’s up to countries like Cuba [previously] and Venezuela [previously] to give backing to agroecological programs.

And that brings us to this report on one Venezuelan agroecology program, via teleSUR English:

Agroecology: A Latin American Movement

Program note:

Is Agroecology a viable option for Latin America? This small Venezuelan institute may have the answer.

The urge to purge nets thousands in Turkey


The chaotic Turkish coup failure has been followed by what usually happens when coup;s fail [or succeed for that matter]: a massive purge.

And as usually happens when strong men rule, the urge to purge has spread to academia.

Call it political bulima.

From BBC News:

At least 45,000 people have been rounded up, sacked or suspended from their jobs by Turkey’s government in the wake of last week’s failed coup.

The purge of those deemed less than loyal to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan widened on Tuesday to include teachers, university deans and the media.

The government says they are allied to US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who denies claims he directed the uprising. PM Binali Yildirim said the preacher led a “terrorist organisation”.

“We will dig them up by their roots,” he told parliament.

Turkey is pressing the US to extradite Mr Gulen and the issue was raised during a phone call between US President Barack Obama and President Erdogan on Tuesday, the White House said.

Spokesman Josh Earnest said a decision on whether or not to extradite would be made under a treaty between the two countries.

Headline of the day: They once called it payola


Back when esnl was knee-high to a grasshopper, the recording industry was rocked by a scandal: Record companies were paying DJs to air their tunes.

In the argot of the music biz, they called it payola.

Headlines and congressional hearings ensued, all sparked by the naive assumption that decisions should be made based on merit, not outright bribery.

Now the University of California has its own payola scandal, and the regents are finally making a move.

From the Los Angeles Times:

UC Davis chancellor’s outside activities prompts UC regents to consider tightening moonlighting rules

The proposal was prompted by disclosures this year that UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi had taken paid board positions with the DeVry Education Group, which is under federal investigation for allegedly defrauding students, and John Wiley & Sons, a college-textbook publisher. Katehi had received permission for the textbook company position but not the DeVry board seat from the former and current UC presidents.

Fecal transplants the cure for immune disorders?


The dramatic increase in scientific studies of fecal material and the microbial components in feces in numbers per gram. (Seth Bordenstein / Vanderbilt University)

The dramatic increase in scientific studies of fecal material and the microbial components in feces in numbers per gram. (Seth Bordenstein / Vanderbilt University)

Following up on the previous post linking the populations of our gut bacteria to multiple sclerosis and a host of other diseases, another new report asks whether fecal transplants much offer hopes for a cure.

And, yes, you read that right: Fecal transplants. Kinda adds a whole new spin to the notion of “getting your shit together.”

From Vanderbilt University:

These days fecal transplantation is no joke.

Fecal transplants are increasingly being used as the treatment of last resort for certain infections in the human gut and have had remarkable success treating the nursing home and hospital-acquired scourge, Clostridium difficile colitis, an infectious diarrhea that often follows antibiotic treatment. There is also preliminary evidence that the transplantation of stool from healthy individuals can be effective in treating multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.

At the same time, there has been a major increase in animal experiments involving fecal material. In one study, for example, researchers found that fecal transplants from lean mice turned sterile mice into lean mice, while fecal transplants from fat mice turned sterile mice into fat mice.

“This research is just getting started. It is driven by the new paradigm of the microbiome which recognizes that every plant and animal species harbors a collection of microbes that have significant and previously unrecognized effects on host health, evolution and behavior,” said Seth Bordenstein, associate professor of biological sciences and pathology, microbiology, and immunology at Vanderbilt University.

In an article titled “Fecal Transplants: What is Being Transferred” just published in the journal PLOS Biology, Bordenstein reviews the growing scientific literature on the subject.

“There is no doubt that poo can save lives,” said Bordenstein. Take the case of the use of fecal transplants to treat Clostridium difficile infections. According to the literature, it has a 95 percent cure rate. “Right now fecal transplants are used as the treatment of last resort, but their effectiveness raises an important question: When will doctors start prescribing them, or some derivative, first?” Bordenstein asked.

There’s more, after the jump. . . Continue reading

Big Pharma’s bribes control research, reports


Two stories summarize everything that’s wrong with corporate science, exposing the corruption at the heart of the most profitable business on earth.

First, consider this graphic, accompanying a fascinating Der Speigel interview of a British physician who has done more than anyone else to expose the infection that’s driving up drug prices and filling pharmacies with patent medicines of little or no value:

BLOG POharma

And a brief excerpt from the interview itself, via Der Spiegel:

Semi-retired British cardiologist Peter Wilmshurst — described in 2012 by the British Medical Journal as a “successful and cheerful whistleblower” — began his crusade against dishonesty in medical research in 1986. In the course of the 66-year-old’s career, he conducted studies for pharmaceutical and medical devices companies, and unlike many of his colleagues, never hesitated to publish negative results. He’s been the subject of multiple cases of legal action and risked bankruptcy and his reputation to expose misconduct in the pharmaceutical industry. Today he advises and supports other whistleblowers with the organization “Patients First.”

He sat down with SPIEGEL to discuss mistruths and fraud in medical research and why he decided to challenge the pharmaceutical industry.

SPIEGEL: In your early years as a researcher, a pharmaceutical company offered you a bribe equivalent to two years of your salary: They wanted to prevent you from publishing negative study results. Were you disappointed that you weren’t worth more?

Peter Wilmshurst: (laughs) I was just a bit surprised to be offered any money, really. I was a very junior researcher and doctor, only 33 years old, so I didn’t know that sort of thing happened. I didn’t know that you could be offered money to conceal data.

SPIEGEL: How exactly did they offer it to you? They probably didn’t say: “Here’s a bribe for you.”

Wilmshurst: No, of course not! Initially we were talking about the results that I’d obtained: That the drug that I had been testing for them did not work and had dangerous side effects. Then the company representatives asked me to leave some of the patients out of the data analysis. Without these patients, the study result would have been positive. When I said I couldn’t do that, they asked me not to publish the data. And to compensate me for the work I had done in vain, they said, they would offer me this amount of money.

SPIEGEL: What went through your head at that moment?

Wilmshurst: Well, I thought it was wrong. If you’ve got the data, you have got to publish it. That’s the imperative. I mean, that’s one of the big issues in pharmaceutical research, that the data we’re basing our treatments on are actually only part of the data, because industry conceals the unfavorable bits.

And when you can’t buy the research, buy the university

Hell, you can even buy one of the most prestigious universities on earth — or try to, until some nosy reporters ask the wrong questions.

The source of the funds in question is a foundation created and owned by Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH, a German pharmaceutical company controlling 146 affiliates.

From Science:

In a surprise move, the president of the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany. . .announced plans to overhaul controversial contracts governing the use of a €150 million donation from a philanthropic foundation. Critics have charged that the agreement gives the donor, the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation in Mainz, too much control over publishing decisions and faculty appointments at the school’s Institute of Molecular Biology, which the foundation helped create in 2009.

The move, which could eventually influence similar funding arrangements at other German universities, only partly satisfies critics. They are pushing for greater transparency from universities and donors.

In a 4 July meeting with journalists, university President Georg Krausch conceded that contract provisions give the foundation the authority to veto faculty appointments made by the university, but said that was not the intent of the agreement, and that the foundation had never blocked an appointment. And he said language requiring the university to get prepublication consent from the foundation for press releases and “publications,” which could include research papers, was an “error.” The intent of such language, he said, was to ensure that research products were of good quality, not to give the funder control. Still, Krausch admitted that the provisions created a perception that the university was not free to act independently. “Throughout all these issues … you can interpret it as quality assurance or exercise of influence,” he said.

Krausch said the university will now work with foundation officials to revise the problematic language.

It’s enough to give you a headache. . .

And we’re sure they have just the prescription you need.

If you can afford it.

Rising seas may trigger atmospheric carbon rise


Map of global peatlands (black shading) lying at or below 5 m elevation.

Map of global peatlands (black shading) lying at or below 5 m elevation. From the study, link after the jump.

In life, few things are purely linear. Complications invariably arise, adding complexity.

Consider the case of rising seas induced by global climate change.

A new study from Britain reveals how those sea level rises may actually increase atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by unexpected means.

From the University of Exeter:

Rising sea-levels linked to global warming could pose a significant threat to the effectiveness of the world’s peatland areas as carbon sinks, a new study has shown.

The pioneering new study, carried out by Geographers at the University of Exeter, examined the impact that salt found in sea water has on how successfully peatland ecosystems accumulate carbon from the atmosphere.

The researchers studied an area of blanket bog – a peat bog that forms in cool regions susceptible to high rainfall – at Kentra Moss, in Northwest Scotland.

They discovered that the rate at which the peatland area accumulated carbon was significantly impacted as the concentration of salt rose.

The results indicate that rising sea levels, linked to predicted climate change, could pose a serious threat to the future security of the peatlands because they would inundate areas and deposit more salt, further inland.

The findings feature in respected scientific journal, Scientific Reports, on Wednesday, June 29 2016.

Dr Angela Gallego-Sala, co-author of the paper and a Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography at Exeter said: “Peatland areas play a crucial role in taking carbon from our atmosphere and storing it”.

“We know that rising sea levels through global warming can have catastrophic effects on many areas across the globe, and this study shows just how vulnerable some peatland areas are to the same phenomenon.

“The effects of global warming are already being observed, but the longer we wait to act, the quicker changes to our environment, which would have a devastating impact on many regions around the world, will take place.”

There’s more, and a link, after the jump. . . Continue reading