Sunday, April 22, 2018

New NAS Report on the Irreproducibility Crisis of Modern Science

The National Association of Scholars has published a report on the irreproducibility crisis in modern science.  The report is written by David Randall and Christopher Welser. As well, NAS president Peter Wood has coauthored a Wall Street Journal op-ed with David Randall on the topic.  Irreproducible research is another term for junk science.  Wood and Randall point this out:

In 2012 the biotechnology firm Amgen tried to reproduce 53 “landmark” studies in hematology and oncology. The company could only replicate six. Are doctors basing serious decisions about medical treatment on the rest? Consider the financial costs, too. A 2015 study estimated that American researchers spend $28 billion a year on irreproducible preclinical research.

As the Randall and Welser report emphasizes:

Incompetence and fraud together create a borderland of confusion in the sciences. Articles in prestigious journals appear to speak with authority on matters that only a small number of readers can assess critically. Non-specialists generally are left to trust that what purports to be a contribution to human knowledge has been scrutinized by capable people and found trustworthy.  

The glorification of peer review by wide-eyed, incompetent journalists contributes to the junk science problem.  The problem is probably worse in the social than in the physical sciences, but the report suggests that it has become increasingly worse in the physical sciences too.  

Much research involves fishing for significant correlations that may be statistical artifacts and then playing them up. He who plays up best is most pleasing to the elite journals and is hence best at getting published in those journals.  

Many years ago, with respect to the management field (related to my own field of industrial relations), Lex Donaldson wrote a book American Anti-Management Theories of Organization, in which he describes how the gamesmanship associated with the publication process had led to junk management theories.  The Randall and Welser report is a broader discussion of the same problem.

 Here are the first few of Randall and Welser's recommendations: 

1. Researchers should avoid regarding the p-value as a dispositive measure of evidence for or against a particular research hypothesis. 

2. Researchers should adopt the best existing practice of the most rigorous sciences and define statistical significance as .01 rather than as  .05. 

3. In reporting their results, researchers should consider replacing either-or tests of statistical significance with confidence intervals that provide a range in which a variable’s true value most likely falls.  

4. Researchers should make their data available for public inspection after publication of their results. 

5. Researchers should experiment with born-open data—data archived in an open-access repository at the moment of its creation, and automatically time-stamped.

These recommendations are sensible to anyone who has done research in the social sciences, and I assume the same is true of the natural sciences. 

Astonishingly, tendentious left-wing bloggers (see Cory Doctorow's blog here and Michael Schulson's piece on Wired here) aim to turn these recommendations into a smear campaign against the National Association of Scholars.  

Indeed, the reactions of tendentious "progressives" like Doctorow and Schulson offer evidence as to why university science has deteriorated in quality.  

Friday, April 20, 2018

Homogeneity: The Political Affiliations of Elite Liberal Arts Faculty

My new article just published in Academic Questions  looks at 51 of the top-66 liberal arts colleges. The findings may be unsurprising, but they are startling. The paper extends and amplifies an earlier paper by Dan Klein, Tony Quain, and me.  
If the military colleges (West Point and Annapolis) are excluded, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans in elite liberal arts colleges--including places like Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, Colby, and Trinity--is 12.7:1, even higher than the social science departments at elite research universities. If the two military colleges are included, the ratio falls to 10.4:1. 

However, the fields differ sharply. The hard science fields like engineering, chemistry and math; the professional fields like business; and the hard social science fields of economics and political science have D:R ratios closer to the baseline of a Democratic-to-Republican ratio of 1.6:1 than do the soft social sciences and humanities. The interdisciplinary studies fields (women’s studies, Black studies, gender studies, and so on) have a ratio of 108:0.

78.2 percent of the academic departments in the liberal arts colleges have 0 Republicans; that is, only 21.8 percent of the academic departments among the top liberal arts colleges include one or more Republican. As well, zero falls within the margin of error in 20 of 51 or 39.2 percent of the colleges. In other words, in 39.2 percent of the 51 colleges, there is no statistical difference between the proportion of Republicans and zero.

Besides sharp differences across fields of study, there are sharp differences among colleges. Bryn Mawr and Soka, a Buddhist college in California, have D:R ratios of 72:0 and 20:0. The military colleges have ratios of 2.3:1 and 1.3:1. For one small, conservative Catholic college, Thomas Aquinas, I could find no Democrats. In other words, institutional differences in the forms of the field and the college make a big difference as to how left-slanted college faculties are.

Quoted in Insurance News.Net

Brian O'Connell quotes me in Insurance News.Net in this piece about government intervention with respect to retirement plans.  

'Government has considerable experience with administration of employee benefits, and the public has ample evidence of its track record, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, state public sector pension plans, and various state insurance funds,' said Mitchell B. Langbert, a business instructor at Brooklyn College Koppelman School of Business.
Langbert worked for the New York State Legislature in the 1990s. Political leaders would regularly use the workers' compensation State Insurance Fund and state pension funds to manipulate the state budget.
“That is a national pattern,” he said. “Pew reports that the average public sector pension fund is only 72 percent funded.”

Poor History

The history of Social Security is similarly subject to political risk, Langbert said. “Benefits were raised in the early 1970s, then they were reduced in the early 1980s,” he said. “As of today, future liabilities are expected to be underfunded in 16 years.
Medicaid and Medicare have had repeated fraud problems, Langbert said.
“Given this record, why would you expect that the public would be eager to have government entities manage employee benefit money?” he asked. “Do France and Greece offer better examples? Or does the USSR, which devalued the ruble and destroyed its citizens' savings?”
Suffice to say, Langbert echoes what many Americans are feeling about the ability of U.S. political leaders to be effective.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

An Honorary Degree for Sacco and Vanzetti?

I am reading Stephen Edward Epler's book Honorary Degrees, published in 1943. Epler wrote the book after finishing his doctorate at Teachers College; he was working at Southern Oregon College of Education when he wrote it. Epler went on to found Portland State University.
The book offers a window into the history of American colleges, and there is much of specialist interest, but one quotation caught my eye.
Epler points out that through the 1930s, honorary degree recipients tended to be conservatives. In that regard, he notes that in 1838 Harvard gave an honorary degree to James T. Austin, who as Massachusetts attorney general praised a lynch mob that had murdered the abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy. He adds that 100 years later, in 1938, Smith College gave honorary degrees to two of Lovejoy's descendants. Ex-president Herbert Hoover spoke at the occasion. Epler concludes this:

In 1922 Harvard gave an LL.D. to a Massachusetts attorney who soon after aided in the conviction of Sacco and Vanzetti. It may be wondered if, in 2022, a college will honor descendants of these men at a celebration memorializing the struggle for freedom of speech.

Epler could not have conceived the extent to which the left would have subsequently triumphed on campus or its future opposition to freedom of speech. His prediction, though, is perspicacious. I'm surprised Harvard hasn't erected a memorial statue to Sacco and Vanzetti.