“Correlations tell the researchers the degree of relationship between factors; no more, no less. They prove useful in understanding which factors are related and in generating hypotheses for further experimental testing. Our discussion of a recent report attributing beneficial effects to chocolate consumption shows the peril of over-interpreting correlations. In nutrition research, such erroneous inferences may have dramatic effects, as they may lead to attributing beneficial (or harmful) effects to a wrong cause, hence representing a real danger for health.”
Maurange, P.; Heeren, A.; Pesenti, M. “Does Chocolate Consumption Really Boost Nobel Award Chances? The Peril of Over-Interpreting Correlations in Health Studies”. Journal of Nutrition 2013, doi: 10.3945/jn.113.174813.A
Its easy to laugh at these absurd examples but surprisingly hard to catch yourself when the correlation supports your existing view of the world.
Vinegar is made by a secondary bacterial fermentation of ethanol to acetic acid. A range of delicate flavors can be found in vinegars made by the careful fermentation of different sources of alcohol (e.g., beer, wine, cider, sherry). On the other hand if you ask for “vinegar” at a British chip shop you get this.
Legally this isn’t vinegar and the chip shop shouldn’t even imply that it is. It’s “non-brewed condiment” - a solution of industrially produced acetic acid (almost certainly from a fermenter somewhere in China if you’re a stickler for terroir), caramel colorings and salt. It is a completely synthetic food lacking any of the subtlety of a malt, let alone a balsamic, vinegar. And it is completely perfect for its purpose. The harsh acid cuts through the grease of the chips without imposing any other tastes. Non-brewed condiment is to malt vinegar as the Buzzcocks are to Pink Floyd.
Modern manufactured foods are the evolved products of capitalism. The unprofitable are weeded out while the successful brands extend and mutate while striving to reduce cost. Almost every food you see in a supermarket has at least one direct competitor in the same store. If you look closely though, you may come across a solitary “living fossil” of a product still finding a niche. A good example is Gentleman’s Relish.
Gentleman’s Relish is a grey paste consisting mainly anchovies with salt, butter and some herbs made in one small plant in the south of England. It comes in tiny, very expensive plastic jars (42 g for about 3 GBP) and is spread on toast. I like it a lot but perhaps the nicest thing you could say is that it’s not for everyone.
The wonderful thing Gentleman’s Relish and products like it is they shouldn’t exist. The modern process of product development would reject the concept, the business model, the consumer analysis, the branding - everything about it, but still it is sold for profit and is enjoyed. Finding this product in your local supermarket is a bit like finding breaded coelacanth at the fish and chip shop. Learn to recognize and enjoy these unique foods.
“Nothing looked more impervious to revolutionary change than Brezhnev’s Soviet Union in 1980, yet just over a decade later it was gone. The hegemony of the Catholic Church in Ireland looked unshakable in 1990, but two decades later it was gone. Lehman Brothers seemed a good option for top graduates in 2007. Just a year later, it too was gone.”
MOOCs, massive open online courses, have the potential to transform higher education. They provide a mechanism to deliver something traditional universities do rather poorly, large lecture sections, and do it probably as well over the internet for free. I’ve speculated previously on the effects of MOOCs on a big university like mine but in their recent report Barber, Donnerly and Rivzi go much further. They argue that a modern university is a set of people (students, administrators, faculty), doing a set of things and generating a set of outputs. They then systematically go through each of these and argue they could be done. Perhaps better, by other institutions, for example:
- “Big” research done by private institutions like Merck or the Institute for Genomic Research.
- Students and faculty members need no longer be physically present in the same place. While on sabbatical I have taught a class and given PhD exams from the other side of the Atlantic.
- Companies specializing in student assessment already exist (e.g., College Board)
- Universities still enjoy a legally protected monopoly on awarding degrees but other institutions (like Pearson, the textbook publisher and employer of the authors of the report) are building a case that they too deserve that privilege.
So what remains? What is it that cannot be replaced is “a fascinating truth about the traditional 20th century university, which is this: above all, it is a place, a collection of buildings.” Building and maintaining buildings is an obsession of university administrators but they are surely a means rather than the end?
Universities had traditionally regarded other universities as their main competitors – if a prospective grad student accepted a place at Ohio State or a star faculty member was poached by Berkley we felt we had somehow lost. What this report shows is many, many other types of organization can now compete for parts of our business and consequently the enterprise of higher education is becoming unbundled. What we recognize a university is open for debate.
“It is in the nature of markets in periods of transformation that successful enterprises find themselves competing not just with traditional rivals in their own market, but with entirely new kinds of competitors – as, for example, early 19th century canal owners found when railways developed, or traditional post offices have found with the advent of email and other forms of instant communication.“
Unbundling is clearly disruptive but needn’t be a bad thing. The report offers paths forward for different types of institution but we must be brave enough to define our own mission; at the moment “the vast majority of universities in the US are, from however distant a baseline, seeking to become Harvard.” For Penn State, our mission is grounded in the land grant tradition and the particular needs of the state of Pennsylvania. Different campuses should be free to tailor their definitions of excellence to local need. We should look for ways to better achieve our mission by combining the things we are and do with external MOOCs and other disruptions.
[Image “A bundle of sticks” uploaded by the Flickr user TamnLu Productions]
I am not a huge fan of Michael Pollan. He says sensible things but mixes in a lot of silliness. In particular I find him too willing to dismiss the advantages of efficiency in a food system and too dismissive of science as a way to evaluate risk and benefit. Having said that, I find this almost-agrarian defense of cooking from his forthcoming book rather wonderful. Although he connects cooking to wider social benefits, his argument is fundamentally a moral one - mindfully performing these actions makes us better people. Forgive the long quotation:
Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: We’re producers of one thing at work, consumers of a great many other things all the rest of the time, and then, once a year or so, we take on the temporary role of citizen and cast a vote. Virtually all our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to the food industry, our health to the medical profession, entertainment to Hollywood and the media, mental health to the therapist or the drug company, caring for nature to the environmentalist, political action to the politician, and on and on it goes. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves — anything, that is, except the work we do “to make a living.” For everything else, we feel like we’ve lost the skills, or that there’s someone who can do it better. (I recently heard about an agency that will dispatch a sympathetic someone to visit your elderly parents if you can’t spare the time to do it yourself.) It seems as though we can no longer imagine anyone but a professional or an institution or a product supplying our daily needs or solving our problems. This learned helplessness is, of course, much to the advantage of the corporations eager to step forward and do all this work for us.
One problem with the division of labor in our complex economy is how it obscures the lines of connection, and therefore of responsibility, between our everyday acts and their real-world consequences. Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon. Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.
Perhaps what most commends cooking to me is that it offers a powerful corrective to this way of being in the world — a corrective that is still available to all of us. To butcher a pork shoulder is to be forcibly reminded that this is the shoulder of a large mammal, made up of distinct groups of muscles with a purpose quite apart from feeding me. The work itself gives me a keener interest in the story of the hog: where it came from and how it found its way to my kitchen. In my hands its flesh feels a little less like the product of industry than of nature; indeed, less like a product at all. Likewise, to grow the greens I’m serving with this pork, greens that in late spring seem to grow back almost as fast as I can cut them, is a daily reminder of nature’s abundance, the everyday miracle by which photons of light are turned into delicious things to eat.
The BBC filmed a documentary in North Korea. To get access they posed as members of a London School of Economics student trip to the country. LSE is furious and demands the programme be withdrawn but the BBC argues the students were informed of the risk and gave their consent (although some students deny this). The reporter justified his actions in terms of the evil of the North Korean regime.
Even accepting the BBC’s story, this is a mockery of “informed consent”. The BBC staff that stood to benefit the most from the trip going ahead were the ones who had to assess and explain the risk. The university itself was not consulted, although any future programs they may run are put in jeopardy. Other academic visitors to the country must now be under greater scrutiny – they were also not consulted.
There are clearly risks and benefits associated with any action but the process for weighing them here was very wrong.
Edit: Comments from the director of the LSE.
Edit: Apparently this wasn’t an “official” LSE trip. That certainly reduces but doesn’t eliminate the university’s interest in the subterfuge. I wonder how clear it was to the students or the North Koreans that this was a private group?
- The differences between observational and intervention studies and how you weigh evidence from scientific evidence. Doing good interventional trials in nutrition is hard or even impossible and the results we do have are often less convincing than predicted from observational studies.
- The media’s (and our) love for detailed prescriptive advice about food and health (“X causes/cures cancer”).
- It is easy to do harm while genuinely believing you are doing good, particularly when you are giving advice to a whole population. Dr. Spock recommended babies be put to sleep on their stomachs. We now know, by doing scientific studies, that that is a risk factor for cot death. Gary Taubes has made a similar argument that the drive in the 1970’s to lower fat intake (“what harm could that possibly do?”) could plausibly be related to a rise in carbohydrate consumption and obesity.
- The tendency to cherry pick scientific data to support a strongly held belief. The interview with the representative from the British Association of Nutritional Therapists towards the end of the second episode on how she uses science is very telling.
There are clearly relationships between the environment and health and we instinctively want to believe that specific foods will either do us great good or great harm. We use science methods to start to investigate the relationships between food and disease but the experiments are hard and the data is limited. Despite this, our “need to believe” allows food and supplement companies, therapists and the media to make very concrete recommendations wrapped in a veil of sciencyness. The people making the recommendations often passionately believe they are doing good and through the power of placebo they actually can. Their recommendations aren’t scientifically based though, and the series of fads undermines the rather bland nutritional advice given by governments and experts.
“The nutritional therapists are feeding on the detritus that comes from the scientific community” – Tom Sanders, King’s College London.
[Image from flicker user Stephen Burch]
[Bellatti]: “The term “processed food” is ubiquitous these days. The food industry has attempted to co-opt it by claiming canned beans, baby carrots, and frozen vegetables are “processed foods.” Can you help explain why a Pop-Tart is years away from a “processed food” like hummus?”
[Warner]: “You have to ask yourself, could I make a Pop-Tart or Hot Pocket at home, with all those same ingredients listed on the package? I don’t know anyone who could do that in their home kitchen. How would you even go about procuring distilled monoglycerides and BHT, for instance? These are highly processed food products loaded up with sugar and sodium, subjected to abusive processing conditions, and assembled with a litany of additives, many of which nobody ever consumed prior to a hundred years ago.
Yet it is possible to make your own black beans at home by soaking and then cooking them. You could even attempt a rudimentary canning operation to preserve them. You can also make hummus by grinding chickpeas with a few other ingredients like lemon juice. The same goes for frozen vegetables and even baby carrots, though homemade baby carrots wouldn’t look as pretty as the ones you buy at the story. The “processing” these foods go through is minimal and not disfiguring. The end result still looks like a food that once grew on a farm.”
I’m interested Bellatti felt the food industry co-opted the word food processing. I’ve been in these conversations with food scientists; when Pollan and others started saying processed foods are bad our reaction was – really? ALL processing? I can appreciate that critics of food processing and the food industry might have meant something more nuanced, but that was what was said and that’s what we responded to. Some level of processing is essential.
However, in her answer Warner recognizes there are some acceptable forms of food processing and some unacceptable. This is a important step because now we can begin to argue about where to draw the line – what is “minimal” and what is “disfiguring”? Warner suggests “can I make this at home” as a distinction but is that the best one? You could certainly make something like a Pop Tart or a Hot Pocket at home and perhaps that’s the only “processed” food we should eat. But then as you try to make it freezable, microwavable, transportable, cheaper or whatever other potential benefits you might want to introduce, then the ingredient list and processing steps are going to get more complex and approach the store-bought product we have now. We could draw a line anywhere along this continuum and say here but no further but how do we decide? I don’t see whether my Grandmother would have eaten it or if it looks like something that comes from a farm takes us to a useful place to make policy decisions or personal choices. I would instead argue that some sort of scientifically based manufacturing and regulatory system, although perhaps not the one we have now, is the best way to decide what is safe, nutritious and appropriate.
In his recent Guardian piece, Mike Taylor used this as the basis for an argument that scientists were morally obliged to publish in open access journals.
As a premise, this is nonsense. There, I said it.
Scientists are people who practice science; a set of methods for finding things out about the world around us. Just because you used scientific methods to find something out puts no special compulsion on you to do anything with that information. I can’t imagine a corporate scientist keeping her job for long if she published everything she discovered, open access or not. The clearer moral imperative is to advance the interests of the people paying you to do the work. Dr. Taylor could have built a better case if he had confined his argument to scientists paid largely from public funds to do their research, people like me.
The case that my papers should be freely available is a strong one. It would hard to explain to any taxpayer why they couldn’t read results they even partially paid for. However, I think the best argument for publishing in existing pay walled journals is that they represent an established scholarly community. I’m not interested here in a society that might publish the journal for profit, Taylor is correct in dismissing that as tail-wagging-dog, but the community of people interested in an a set of problems, theories or methods is important. If I can engage that community with my work and change their practice it will have greater impact than allowing casual readers to engage freely. It might be better if the community moved to an open access model but the fact it exists now, even in a closed form, means it has value. Revolutionary attempts to remake societies often just succeed in breaking them; Burke vs. Paine in narrow scholarly worlds.
This isn’t a perfect argument. My selection of the relevant scientific community depends on my own narrow and biased perspective and makes the process of discovery closed, elitist and cliquey. The “relevant people” might read my work even if I published in a less-familiar open access journal and by doing that I can help gradually move the community. There is certainly scope to spread results between open access, blogs and closed but pre-existing communities. However, labeling scientists who favor the conservative argument over the radical one as immoral is overblown.
George Orwell (The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937).
The parallels to modern debates on poverty and obesity are striking.
On Tuesday, the American Council on Education, the leading umbrella group for higher education, and Coursera, a Silicon Valley MOOC provider, announced a pilot project to determine whether some free online courses are similar enough to traditional college courses that they should be eligible for credit.
The council’s credit evaluation process will begin early next year, using faculty teams to begin to assess how much students who successfully complete Coursera MOOCs have learned. Students who want to take the free classes for credit would have to pay a fee to take an identity-verified, proctored exam. If the faculty team deems the course worthy of academic credit, students who do well could pay for a transcript to submit to the college of their choice. Colleges are not required to accept those credits, but similar transcripts are already accepted by 2,000 United States colleges and universities for training courses offered by the military or by employers.” —“College Credit for Online Courses” by Tamar Lewin. New York Times, Nov 13 2012
The development of free, very high enrollment online courses are often described as disruptive of higher education. I agree, but disruption is too generic a term to be useful; what does it actually mean for a big US institution like mine? Obviously no one can know the future and I have nothing to do with Penn State policy making on these issues but the following seems a reasonable guess. I keep my focus relatively near-term, perhaps five years out, and rather selfishly on what it means for the institution. The actual changes will be larger, broader and less predictable.
Most universities will accept a certain number of courses earned at another institution towards a degree. If you take an introductory composition course at Iowa State it will meet the requirement for introductory composition if you transferred to Penn State as well as providing some of the credits needed to graduate. What happens when someone who has an introductory composition course from one of the free, on-line operations requests to transfer credit? We can’t object on the grounds that the course was delivered on-line; we don’t do that for current transfers and we don’t distinguish between courses on the basis of mode of delivery. We certainly can’t object on the ground it was free! The only reasonable grounds left to object, are if we can demonstrate the learning outcomes achieved by the on-line course are demonstrably worse than those of the transfer courses we already accept. Learning objectives, particularly for general education courses, are hard to pin down. I don’t know if this measurement can even be made, but I doubt there will be a strong enough evidence to make the distinction. Perhaps it takes some lawsuits, but eventually the free on-line courses will claim a place in the curriculum of the established universities.
Once students can get some of their credit from an external institution how much will they choose to take? For the first few years the limit of the number of transfer credits allowed as part of a Penn State degree (no more than 36 of the last 60 credits earned) will hold, but we will lose the revenue associated with delivering the transferred credits. This will be felt most severely in World Campus, the unit responsible for delivery of on-line courses. It will be hard to convince students to pay for an on-line Penn State course when a free version is available. (I’m sure there will be some argument that the Penn State version is somehow better; people defending Encyclopedia Britannica against Wikipedia made similar arguments. To get a sense of how that plays out, bear in mind that younger readers will now be using Wikipedia to look up what Britannica was.) The second place the loss of tuition revenue will be felt is in the units that deliver the courses replaced. I suspect the effects will initially be greatest in general education - English, math, general biology and chemistry. A lot of the course delivery in these units is by graduate students so expect fewer PhD students in these fields. This effect will be felt most acutely in places that depend most on tuition dollars and cater more to low-income students; in the case of Penn State, many of the smaller campuses. Expect campuses to close.
The courses that won’t be replaced that benefit from face-to-face interaction or working with specific physical objects. The need face-to-face interaction is the weaker argument. Many great professors aren’t familiar with on-line interaction so argue their mode of discussion and enquiry cannot be achieved online. This might be true in some cases, but often the real limitation will be the communication style used by the professor. Thoughtful interaction with physical objects is not easily replicated online. In my own unit, students learn about thermal destruction of bacteria, fluid flow, and protein denaturation then work with a commercial-scale HTST pasteurizer to understand how milk is processed safely. There is unlikely to be a free online alternative anytime soon. The trouble for the university is the courses that will be replaced first will be the courses that are cheapest to deliver. A student in a 100-seat lecture hall is paying the same as a student working in a small group around a pasteurizer but the costs to the institution are much less. As students replace the “cheap” courses with free, online course they university will have to meet the costs of delivering the remaining “expensive” course by raising the tuition for them and perhaps charging different rates for different courses.
There is a tendency to see disruption as either good (“the whole world will get great free education”) or bad (“institutions essential to our culture will be destroyed”) but really disruption is just disruption. The Internet has disrupted many features of our society and will transform higher education too. Other institutions have responded to imminent disruption by first ignoring the challenge then by offering fruitless arguments about the societal benefits provided by the existent organization. The arguments may be true, but they never sufficient and the institution emerges from disruption changed and diminished. Changed is inevitable but diminished is not. A better response is to identify the things essential to our mission that that cannot be done by anyone else and putting all our efforts into doing those. For my institution I hope this is the nurturing of a scholarly community accessible to the citizens of Pennsylvania where everyone is engaged in the process of world-class knowledge generation and evaluation. Now that would be disruptive…
The US does a great job of funding fundamental research. While everyone would like more, NIH and NSF have a lot of money and a robust history of peer-evaluation that targets the resources to the best ideas. This science changes the world in big ways. The US could do a better job in funding smaller-scale applied research.
On my recent visit to Germany I toured a program looking at improving the efficiency of sausage manufacture. They had built a novel mixer-chopper and transformed a slow batch process into a continuous operation. Not curing cancer or stopping global warming certainly but this research fits in the great tradition of applied science making a process better. German meat processors can apply the technology to drive down costs. German equipment manufacturers can export the technology and grow their business.
This sort of thing would be much harder to do in the US. In Germany the professor develops a proposal but needs to get some financial investment from companies before submitting it for review. If it is accepted the government adds several times the original industry commitment. A $50k commitment of industry (perhaps enough for a student for a year in a US university) might become $300k in Germany and for a much more substantial impact. Canada has similar programs based on government-industry partnership.
The key feature of these programs is using a cash investment from industry as a way of identifying relevant programs. Peer-review is good at recognizing the best science but a cash investment from industry is a great way of showing the question has pressing practical importance. A combination of both should be part of a program of applied science funding.
Applying science to solve real-world problems is not somehow the “shallow end” of academia. The US got this when it built a Land Grant system in the 19th century rather than trying to replicate the Ivy League and should reaffirm that commitment now.
The difference between “learning” and “learning” is important to understand.
A professor in the UK or US means senior member of the faculty; in Germany it is more like a mini-department head. There are a small group of them responsible for the programs of each school. Along with their salary they are responsible for significant funds: some research and teaching money, staff (perhaps a PhD level assistant, a couple of technicians, an admin and a few graduate students) as well as significant research and teaching space. If you can get someone good in a position like that they have some resources to make strategic investments and are freed from some of the lower-skilled work that often consumes a professor’s time (fix equipment, book plane tickets). The downside is if you get someone bad they are effectively permanent and can really drag the program down for a generation. Having said that I was impressed by everyone I met on my recent visit to the Department of Food Science at the University of Hohenheim; all the professors had active research programs attracting substantial external funding.
I was recently completing a recommendation form for a former student and was asked to “rate the candidate on a scale of 1 to 10 for his Honesty & Integrity”. What meaningful answer can I hope to give? What level of honesty earns a 8? How much do you have to steal to earn 3? What will they even do with the numbers when they get them? I propose the following scale anchors - 10: Likes big butts; cannot lie. 5: Does their taxes on time; doesn’t cheat on deductions, 1: Has hacked the system and is evaluating themself.
I enjoyed visiting colleagues at AgroParisTech in Paris and Massy. APT is the premier French agricultural university and I visited their food technology center.
I was struck by the different “shape” of higher education in France compared to the US. Students at 18 take two years of “preparation” before a competition to be admitted to universities. The APT degree is three year with a much stronger focus on project work (6 months) and internships (1 year total) than would be expected in the US. It wasn’t clear to me the level of hands-on work in the lab and pilot plant was expected of students. After 5 years of higher education the graduates have a training beyond perhaps most comparable with a taught-MS in the US.
Projects and internship require a certain surrender of control of the curriculum by the faculty in exchange of a richer experience for the students. You can’t know exactly what each student will do so you can’t insist they know certain facts or meet certain learning objectives. Against that, the opportunity to think critically and independently about a real problem in a hallmark of higher learning.
This mural has been a feature of downtown State College since forever; a grouping of the luminaries and “heroes” of the community, the leaders who made us proud to claim that “we are Penn State”. It served in some ways as an icon for the town. Obviously the Sandusky scandal put a needed dent in our self-image and led to editorial changes by the artist.
The first to go was Jerry Sandusky; he used to have a pride of place a few seats to the left of Coach Paterno but after he was arrested he was painted out to leave a blank seat. A few months later he was replaced by Dora McQuaid, a Penn State alumna and artist noted for her work with abused children. The chair also bears two handprints, one of Sandusky’s victim and one of a juror. Next, Joe Paterno died, and as was apparently the tradition for the deceased, was given a painted halo. Next, the Freeh report came out and the Coach lost his halo.
On one level, all of this editing of history is like Stalin editing his ministers out of official photographs as they fell from favor. On another you can see the artist reflecting the changing mood of a community searching for its best self. Sandusky earned his place on the high table as a standout coach and founder of the Second Mile charity. His arrest turned the town against him and cost him his chair. Dora McQuaid offers a model for a community trying to redirect its attention towards the victims of abuse. Paterno’s halo grotesquely reflects the changing image of the coach from an innocent victim of the administration to a flawed man involved in the cover up.
With all respect to Ms. McQuaid I would prefer to see Sandusky’s seat remain empty. I can see no more worthwhile memorial of the failure of our community and of its heroes.