transitioning out of freelancing

Hey gang, I’m back from vacation and excited to get back to work here on this project. Lots of cool stuff in the works for here, including hopefully some audio and video content soonish. (Not a podcast, don’t worry. The world has enough podcasts already.)

I wanted to take a moment and explain why I’m going to be moving away from freelance writing. I’ve had a pretty good run lately; I was in the print Los Angeles Times a couple weeks back and the print Washington Post last week. (You can always check out my published writing by clicking the My Work tab above.) I know we’re all supposed to be too cool to care about print these days but, well, I do care. And I have a couple of heavily-researched pieces coming out in some longer form journals in the next several months, and it looks like I might have a regular column-type thing to indulge my political side. But beyond that, I’m not really interested in freelancing anymore. The truth is that I just find the process so aggravating and dispiriting at this point, and the money so bad, that it’s simply not worth it to me.

I just find, at this point, that the process of pitching, composing, shepherding through edits, promoting, and trying to get paid sucks the life out of me. The commercial interests of publications require editors to ask for things that are tied to the news cycle in the most facile way imaginable. I get it, and I don’t blame them personally. But I’m opting out. And it’s increasingly hard for me to explain to editors what I want a piece to do and say without writing the piece. I’m just really not interested in the “beats” of a piece of nonfiction anymore; the argument, in the sense that people traditionally mean, is just about the least interesting aspect of nonfiction writing. So when asked to reduce my own prospective writing to a series of explicit moves, I’m forced to fixate on the parts that I find least interesting or valuable. What I want is to write in a way that is free of precisely the kind of paint-by-numbers literalism that editors require. Again, not a knock on them. It’s just not in my interests anymore.

Meanwhile, the money generally sucks. I am very grateful for the LAT publishing me in their print edition, for example, and I knew what the rate was going in. But writing and editing a thousand-plus word piece for one of the biggest newspapers in the country got me $200. So many younger writers I know think that the higher profile, more established places are where the money is, but often that’s not true. Not anymore. And if I don’t enjoy it and the money’s not good, what’s the point?

I also don’t have a lot of hills to climb anymore in terms of places I want to be published. At this point even my (many) dogged critics can’t really claim that I can’t get published in major magazines or newspapers. And it’s not like they changed their tune once I did, anyway. I started writing for big pubs in part as a way to prove to my detractors that, contrary to what they said, I could get published in respectable places. When I did, they didn’t retract their old insults. They just switched to new ones. So there’s little appeal there, at this point.

And, finally, I’m just exhausted by people not reading. I’m just exhausted. The WaPo piece is an expression of 100% straightforward left-wing values; it’s a critique of corporations and an endorsement of the idea that only the left can guarantee true freedom. I do write my fair share of left-on-left critiques, but this piece really is not that. It’s simply an articulation of basic left principles in a frame designed to make them more appealing to the unconvinced. But the piece has predictably attracted criticism from the left, people insisting that I’m a reactionary even though I’m making a standard left critique of corporate power. Some have claimed that it’s a defense of the Google memo writer, when in fact I explicitly justify Google’s actions in the very first paragraph. The great bulk of the piece was written six weeks ago, before that memo existed, and that situation is tangential to my larger point. Meanwhile, others saw the headline and immediately assumed that this was a defense of the Charlottesville protesters – which would have been remarkable, given that the piece had come out on Friday, before the event. Either of these misconceptions could have been cleared up simply by reading the piece. But this is, increasingly, a bar that many refuse to clear.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I’m happy to have this outlet, where my audience is small and sympathetic and where I can avoid so many of the headaches involved in professional freelancing. Never say never, obviously, and I’ll pop up here and there. But what was always a bad bet has only gotten worse since I started doing this and I just don’t really have it in me to continue the slog. I need to focus on academic writing, book projects, and this website. Thanks for coming along.

Syllabus: Public Writing in de Tocqueville’s America

We’re in an interesting political era, to put it mildly. I don’t just mean “Trump’s America,” or the specific partisan aspects of our contemporary situation. I mean also that we’ve been publicly grappling with broader issues of how individual people can feel empowered and engaged in the work of deliberative democracy, when so many of our digital tools have made us seem further away from those we disagree with than ever before. We’ve been grappling with this broad idea called “populism,” a curious debate given the basic definitions of democracy; we’ve argued over the proper role of experts and expertise; we’ve worried over bubbles, fake news, and the death of the commons.

We’ve also asked for decades how the liberal arts can be made relevant and important again. These seem to me to be two questions that answer the other. It is precisely the humanities that has long concerned itself with these questions, and it is the humanities that is best suited to answer them. We should look beyond our narrowly vocational interests in education, and recognize that STEM-mania and the obsession with technical skills have something to do with our unhealthy public discourse. A healthy deliberative democracy requires work. It requires people to go out of their way to foster discursive spaces where we can have a truly democratic conversation. Dismantling the humanities, despite what you’d read in the average magazine article, has consequences, and we’re living with them.

A college class, obviously, is a little thing, and doesn’t have much impact on the national conversation. But I am naive enough to believe that teaching and learning still matter, and so I’m laying out a vision for a class I thought up that is designed to address precisely the crisis of conversation we’re seeing today. The liberal arts are constantly based for their supposed impracticality, but it’s hard for me to imagine a task more practical than that of teaching young people how to be engaged, involved citizens.

Seminar in Public Writing: de Tocqueville’s America

The class I’m proposing here I envision as a 400-level seminar in English or Writing programs, entitled “Seminar in Public Writing: de Tocqueville’s America.” The class will be a seminar revolving around Alexis de Tocqueville’s seminal text Democracy in America, and using the text as a lens to consider public writing, public formation, and deliberative democracy.

Public writing is a field concerned both with writing objects designed for public consumption and with the theoretical and practical structures within public writing. It foregrounds the role writing plays in various types of political power structures, with an emphasis on its generative potential within a deliberative democracy. Public writing is ideally designed to produce effects within the world. Those effects may be as passive as mutual understanding or as active as generating concrete expression within the political process. In every case, public writing looks out from the individual or small group concerns of the creator of the writing onto a larger public to which it is addressed.

Dr. Linda Shamoon, Professor Emeritus at the University of Rhode Island, once described the process of public writing creating social change as such:

In our democratic society we ordinary citizens (as well as professional writers and those in leadership positions) who encounter a problem we consider to be public in nature may use many kinds of writing to arouse the concern of others in our community. Some in our society say we are obligated to speak out—or write—about such problems or issues. Initially,  we may get little or no response to our demands for a remedy to the problem, but those of us who track an issue and seek or develop forums for our voices to be heard may find ourselves involved in many different kinds of public writing in support of our cause and working with others for solutions we had just begun to understand when we started.

Public writing assumes various stages of success. Generally, we see public writing succeeding in four stages:

Recognition— the work of public writing is read/heard; the argument is recognized as having been made.
Inclusion— the person or persons who produced the writing are recognized as valid members of the public, permitted to make public statements.
Discussion— the piece of public writing is legitimately and openly debated in good faith.
Action— the public writing produces those effects it was designed to produce.

Note that any piece of public writing need not be successful at any of these stages for it to be considered worthwhile by the person or persons writing it. Political dissidents and other out-group members often participate in public writing with no expectation that their writing will be recognized, included, discussed, or will generate the action they desire. We should still see the effort involved in public writing as beneficial and worthwhile even if it satisfies none of these stages. Democracy involves failure as well as success.

The tendency for public writing to be created but to be denied entry into the space of public discourse concerns the second stage of success, inclusion. Public writing is deeply concerned with the question of who has the right to speak— that is, who is allowed entry into a particular public sphere. Publics formation is one of the key theoretical areas of public writing, and it is here that we intersect with Alexis de Tocqueville and Democracy in America.

De Tocqueville’s text is one of the seminal works of early political science and a definitive statement on early American democracy. De Tocqueville, a traveling French nobleman, was deeply intrigued by the still-young American republic of the 1830s. Commissioned to examine the American prison system, de Tocqueville and his traveling companion sojourned across the United States and into parts of Canada, documenting many aspects of early American life that were in contrast to the practical and political norms of continental Europe. De Tocqueville’s text is a useful historical account, but it is must valued today as one of the most important evolutions in the history of political science.

A pressing question animates de Tocqueville’s text: why had republican representative democracy succeeded in America when it had seemingly failed in many other parts of the world? As an intrigued and sympathetic observer, de Tocqueville catalogs the unique elements of American democracy and civic participation. Concerned particularly with the intersection of religion, citizenship, and democratic duty, Democracy in America attempts to understand the particular American equation for successful repesentative democracy.

Of course, the success of 1830s America was success predicated on a system of brutal and oppressive inequities in power and quality of life, which de Tocqueville does not ignore. (It is relevant to point out that de Tocqueville’s view on American democracy grew much darker in his later years.) Indeed, the question of slavery haunts the book. De Tocqueville does not ignore the fact that slaves, women, and native peoples were written out of the very democratic processes he praised, and neither should we. Rather, who is included and who is excluded from democracy is of central importance to the theories of public writing. De Tocqueville’s text remains relevant to a 21st century audience in part because it is so insightful about how democracies have always excluded as well as included, with the backdrop of 19th-century America providing a host of examples of how a public is formed and how marginalized people are excluded from it.

The following syllabus describes the course, its readings, and its goals. Students will learn basic theories of publics through philosophers like Habermas, discuss what it means to write for a public, consider the impact of the internet on publics formation, and read through Democracy in America, using the text to give the course shape and structure. They will participate in creating a journal of their own writing, to be hosted online as well as bound, printed, and distributed on campus – because it’s still a thrill to see your words in real print, especially for young students.

public writing and DIA syllabus (editable Word document)

public writing and DIA syllabus

throwing out the individual differences baby with the group differences bathwater

Group-level differences in cognitive ability are in the news again, thanks to the quickly-notorious Google memo on the company’s diversity efforts. You can find a lot of stuff written about these differences from qualified people already and I’m not gonna add to the pile, other than to say that from where I’m sitting, if there are any sex differences in intelligence or math ability, they seem not to exist in early childhood and there are plausible cultural and social reasons that they would appear by high school. The science on personality trait differences seems less clear to me but then those constructs are also less concrete. In all of this I’m pretty much in keeping with the liberal mainstream.

But I do want to voice a caution, here, because there’s a natural but unfortunate tendency to make an unjustifiable corollary to arguments of these kind. Regular readers will know that I reject the idea of biological or genetic explanations for academic differences between races. Instead I follow most progressive people in thinking that the differences are socioeconomic and environmental in origin. There, too, I’ve often seen people make the same bad leaps: they tend to reject the idea of innate or genetic differences in individual academic ability or intelligence too. It’s not hard to understand why; talking about genetic differences in intelligence at all may seem like fruit from a poisoned tree, and why not just reject the whole idea altogether? But understanding the difference in group-level claims and individual-level claims is hugely important, both analytically and morally. It’s the difference between contributing to stereotypes that have contributed to marginalization and injustice of vulnerable groups, and accepting the reality that not all individual people are equally gifted in all areas.

And the data here is really, really clear: there are profound differences in individuals in academic or intellectual ability; these differences are generally quite durable over the course of one’s life, although of course there is some variability, as there is in any measurable psychological trait; and there is very strong evidence that a major portion of this difference comes from genetics. I don’t think that boys are smarter than girls or that black kids are less intelligent than white. I do think, and think both the empirical record and common sense shows, that not all people are equally talented in different intellectual domains, and that if you believe that the brain is the product of evolution, we should expect a significant amount of that difference to be genetic in origin, which is in fact what twin studies, adoption studies, and GWAS data show. I’ve written about all this in this space many times before.

You can think about this clearly if you just eliminate the comparison between groups that are supposedly different and look only at within-group distribution. So, for the purposes of this debate, look at women and their various metrics for intelligence and academic success, whether generally or in math/STEM/computer science. Forget about comparisons to men for a moment: within that group, on any properly validated intelligence metric, we find a normal distribution of ability. That is, there’s a mean, and there’s a distribution of about two thirds of the data points within a standard deviation from that mean, and about 95% of the data points within two standard deviations, and the distribution is just about symmetrical. Some women are better than other women on the SATs, IQ tests, quantitative reasoning tests, etc., and in predictable ways. The same exact condition applies when looking at distributions of black students, Asian students, students from Turkey, students who attend public schools, students who are left-handed, students who play Little League, etc. – real, persistent, and predictable differences of ability between individuals.

Now these individual differences don’t have much to tell us about diversity efforts like those at Google, which for the record I support, other than to say that Google is probably looking for those in the very top reaches of these distributions no matter what. But they say a hell of a lot about how we should approach education from a policy level. Policy has to reflect our empirical understandings of reality, and right now, ours doesn’t, as it is based on the false notion that all students can be brought to meet arbitrary performance standards, that there are no intrinsic limits to how well any individual student can perform, and that the purpose of schooling should train every student to be a Stanford-education Silicon Valley superstar. That’s the kind of cheery, optimistic, utterly-unachievable policy goal that comes from thinking that, because there aren’t genetic differences in intelligence between men and women or between races, there are no such differences between individual people either. That’s wrong and destructive and we can’t allow our necessary efforts to oppose bigotry to lead us in that direction.

For a lot of great thoughts on how to ethically consider genetic influences on individual intelligence, I recommend the work of the brilliant Paige Harden.


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on vacation!

Hey gang, I am officially on vacation for the first time since I started my job last September. Posting this coming week will be light, though I expect to have at least a couple pieces up. Thank you for your continued support of the ANOVA. I’m having lots of fun and hope you all are too.

I can teach you regression discontinuity design in two images

Like so. (Fake charts I made with fake data, btw.)

No Treatment Effect
Significant Treatment Effect

You already get it, right?

Typically, when we perform some sort of an experiment, we want to look at how a particular number responds to the treatment – how blood pressure reacts to a new drug, say, or how students improve on a reading test when they’re given a new kind of lesson. We want to make sure that the observed differences are really the product of the treatment and not some underlying difference in observed groups. That’s what random controlled trials are for. So we randomly assign subjects to test and control groups, look at what the different averages are for the two different groups, note the size of the effect, and determine whether it is statistically significant.

But sometimes we have real-world conditions that dictate that subjects get sorted into one group or another non-randomly. If we then look at how different groups perform after some treatment, we know that we’re potentially facing severe selection effects thanks to that non-random assignment. But consider if we have assignment based purely on some quantitative metric, with a cutoff score that sorts people into one group or another. (Suppose, for example, students only became eligible for a gifted student program if they score above a cut score on some test.) Here we have a non-random distribution that we can actually exploit for research purposes. A regression discontinuity design allows us to explore the impact of such a program because, so long as students aren’t able to impact their assignment beyond their score on that test, we can be confident that students just above or just below the cutoff score are very similar.

Regression analyses will be run on all of the data, with subjects below and above the cut score combined but flagged into different groups. Researchers will run statistical models to determine whether there is a difference between groups who receive the treatment and those who don’t. As you can see in the scatterplots above, a large effect will be readily apparent in how the data looks. In the above scenario, the X axis represents the score students received on the test, the cut score is 15, and the Y axis represents performance on some later educational metric. In the top scatterplot, there is no meaningful difference from the gift students program, as the relationship between these two metrics is the same above and below the cut score. But in the bottom graph, there’s a significant jump at the cut score. Note that even after the intervention, the relationship is still linear – students who did better on the initial test do better on the later metric. But the scores of everyone have jumped right at the cut score.

There are, as you’d probably imagine, a number of potential pitfalls here, and assumption checks and quality controls are essential. All of the people tested would have to be able to be sorted into the gifted program solely on the basis of the test, the cutoff score has to be near the mean, and you need sufficient numbers to see the relationship on either side of the cut score, among other things. But if you have the right conditions, regression discontinuity design is a great way to get near-random experimental design quality in situations where you can’t do that for pragmatic or ethical reasons.

The Academic “Success Sequence” – Get Lucky at Birth, Mostly

Matt Bruenig critiques the concept of the “Success Sequence” quite convincingly here. There are a lot of just-so stories in our culture about what it takes to be a success. Typically, these stories are confusing the lines of causation all over the place, failing to see that confounds and covariates are doing most of the explaining.

I sometimes get anxious emails from parents, wondering what they need to do to make sure their children are going to be OK academically. And because of networking effects and the nature of who reads this small-audience education blog, I can mostly tell them accurately that they don’t really have to do much of anything; they’ve already set up their children to succeed simply by virtue of having them. Here’s the real Academic Success Sequence:

  1. Be born to college-educated parents.1
  2. Be born to middle-class-or-above parents.
  3. Be born without a severe cognitive or developmental disability.
  4. Don’t be exposed to lead in infancy or early childhood.
  5. Don’t be born severely premature or at very low birth weight.
  6. Don’t be physically abused or neglected.

If you are one of those lucky enough to tick off these boxes, congratulations. You’ve got the vast majority of the accounted-for variance breaking in your favor. Is everything accounted for? No. We’ve got a lot of variance in cognitive and educational outcomes that never seems to be systematically explainable. I actually think that’s a good thing – perfect determinism is contrary to the fight for human meaning – but it’s important to say that this variance is not only not currently accounted for, it is likely never-to-be accounted for. This is what the behavioral geneticists call the “gloomy prospect“: the possibility that large portions of unaccounted-for variation in psychological traits like intelligence are the product of truly non-systematic events, like particular psychological traumas, getting a concussion, meeting the right person, having the right conversation at the right time….

Thus it’s the case that some people can “win” in all of the above categories and still suffer from real hardship in life, just as some can be on the wrong side in many or all of them and flourish. Still: if you’re an educated, employed parent raising a healthy child in a stable home environment, the odds are strongly in the favor of that child’s eventual academic success. Of course, none of this stuff is stuff that individuals can control, and much of it is not stuff that parents can control either – particularly given that the parents were once the children whose outcomes were similarly conditioned….

Now many people will say, well yeah, of course these things matter. But what do we do beyond that stuff? How do we set our kids up to succeed? I’m not going to say that nothing you do matters. But in terms of moving the quantitative indicators that people are, sadly, most fixated on are stubborn and hard to move. Some things appear to work – intensive one-on-one or small-group tutoring seems to me to have the most promising research literature – but we’re playing with small effect sizes here, particularly in comparison to the influence of the factors listed above. Of course you want to bend as much of the variance in a positive direction as you can. But the effects tend to be so small, and thus so subject to being offset by minor random fluctuations in uncontrolled variation, that it’s just not worth worrying about them. The best thing you can do for your kid is to be present and kind and supportive and then stop stressing out.

The great irony is that we’ve seen this growing culture of panic on the part of bourgie parents about their child rearing practices at the exact historical moment that we’ve learned conclusively that these practices just don’t mean very much.

In particular, the Baby Einstein stuff, trips to museums, violin lessons, edutainment software – my understanding is that there just is little to no rigorous research that shows that this stuff works to move the needle on SAT scores or GPA or similar, once you control for the kinds of confounds listed above. Does that mean that this stuff doesn’t matter, that you shouldn’t do them? Of course not. Children should all have the opportunity to lead intellectually enriched, challenging, and varied lives. I’m very grateful that I had that chance myself. But you need to appreciate them for their own sake and on their own terms, not as a means to goose test scores. And obsessing over getting your kid into the right preschool is pointless too, as is worrying over selective high schools. It may make you feel like the right kind of parent to fixate on this stuff; it may, more cynically, help you feel competitive with other parents. But extant evidence suggests it just doesn’t matter. What does matter is giving your child commitment, love, structure, and a moral education, because life is about so much more than where you go to college.

Of course, many people in our society are not lucky enough to have been born into the kind of advantaged position described above. Given that fact, you’d think that our system would be set up to minimize the impact of these unchosen factors. Instead we work to maximize their impact and call the resulting system “meritocracy.”


 

for lack of what is found there

Louis Menand in The New Yorker: 

The funny thing about the resistance all these writers put up to the idea that poems can change people’s lives is that every one of them had his life changed by a poem. I did, too. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I found a copy of “Immortal Poems of the English Language” in a book closet in my school. It was a mass-market paperback, and the editor, Oscar Williams, had judged several of his own poems sufficiently deathless to merit inclusion. But he was an excellent anthologist, and I wore that book out. It changed my life. It made me want to become a writer.

I had an almost identical experience, with an anthology put together by XJ Kennedy, a poet, essayist, translator, and all around man of letters. That’s my copy pictured here. In sophomore year of high school my old Latin teacher Mrs. Montgomery (gone, now, but never forgotten) had wanted to share a poem with me, and had dug around in her closet to find this old, little-loved and forgotten literature collection. It was divided into three sections: fiction, poetry, and drama. In time I would read the whole thing cover to cover, but at the time I obsessed over the poetry section. Growing up in a arts- and literature-obsessed home, I had gotten plenty of exposure to poetry, but this was the first time I really felt like I had the time and inclination to truly explore the form on my own. I got a real poetry education from that book, and learned not just Keats and Housman but Linda Pastan’s “Ethics” and Chesterton’s “The Donkey” and Amiri Baraka’s “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” I read it under my desk during algebra class and in the cafeteria and on the bus rides home from cross country meets, and today the cover is held on with masking tape, because I wore the damn thing out. When high school was over, I stole it.

I am, as you know, skeptical of the degree to which quantitative educational metrics like test scores can be changed by teachers and schools. But this carries with it the essential qualification: that test scores are not the measure of education’s value. Because I read and talk about quantitative research, and because I acknowledge that these tools are broadly predictive of all manner of eventual academic outcomes, I am often in agreement with those who view education in a reductive light. But my objections to that reductive thinking are as real and important as my objections to those who think that all individual students can be brought to the same levels of achievement on standardized tests. Indeed, precisely because differences in academic ability are real, we must take seriously all the things that education can do which are not expressible in a test score. I doubt that this book made the slightest difference to my SAT scores. Yet like Menand’s, my life was forever changed.

To the Muse
by XJ Kennedy

Give me leave, Muse, in plan view to array
Your shift and bodice by the light of day.
I would have brought an epic. Be not vexed
Instead to grace a niggling schoolroom text;
Let down your sanction, help me to oblige
Him who would leash fresh devots to your liege,
And at your altar, grant that in a flash
They, he, and I know incense from dead ash.

yes, campus activists have attempted to censor completely mainstream views

This past week, the Los Angeles Times was kind enough to run a revised version of an argument I had made here in the recent past – that Republican support of colleges and universities has collapsed, likely because of constant incidents on campus that create a widespread impression of anti-conservative bias, and that since our public universities are chartered and funded as non-partisan institutions, and because Republicans control enormous political power, our institutions are deeply threatened. I stand by that case.

I have gotten the usual grab bag of responses, most of them unmoored from specific principles about who should be able to say what on campus, and some of them directly contradictory with each other. As is typical, the number one rhetorical move has been to insist that student activists are only targeting the worst of the worst, Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer and the like. The idea is that people with mainstream views are entirely free to say whatever they want without issue because they don’t directly threaten marginalized people. That idea is factually incorrect, as anyone with the barest grasp on the facts should know.

  • Student activists at Amherst University demanded that students who had criticized their protests be formally punished by the university and forced to attend sensitivity training.
  • At Oberlin, students made a formal demand that specific professors and administrators be fired because the students did not like their politics.
  • The Evergreen State College imbroglio involved students attempting to have a professor fired for criticizing one of their political actions.
  • At Wesleyan, campus activists attempted to have the campus newspaper defunded for running a mainstream conservative editorial.
  • A Dean at Claremont McKenna resigned following student backlash to an email she sent in response to complaints about the treatment of students of color.
  • Students at Reed College attempted to shut down an appearance by Kimberly Peirce, the director of Boys Don’t Cry, removing posters advertising her talk and attempting to shout her down during her presentation.
  • At Yale, students called for the resignation of Erika Christiakis for an email she wrote about culturally insensitive Halloween costumes and for the resignation of her husband Nicholas Christiakis for defending her.
  • At the University of California Santa Barbara, the student government voted for mandatory trigger warnings, which would enable any student to skip class material that they decided was offensive.
  • Laura Kipnis, a feminist professor at Northwestern, was the subject of a literal federal investigation because she published an essay students didn’t like.
  • Mount Holyoke canceled the Vagina Monologues on campus under student pressure.
  • American Sniper, a perfectly mainstream American blockbuster, was temporarily pushed off campus by student activists.
  • Activists are Western Washington demanded the creation of a 15 person panel that would engage in surveillance of students, professors, and administrators in order to monitor everyone involved on campus for any expressions or actions that body deemed “racist, anti- black, transphobic, cissexist, misogynistic, ablest, homophobic, islamophobic, xenophobic, anti-semitism, and otherwise oppressive behavior.” That body would have the ability to discipline campus community members, including firing tenured faculty.
  • A yoga class for disabled students at a Canadian university was canceled after students complained that yoga is a form of cultural appropriation.

There are more. You are free to support any or all of these student actions. But you are not free to pretend there is no trend here. Exactly how many of these incidents must pile up before people are willing to admit that many campus activists pursue censorship of ideas and expressions that they don’t like?

The obsession with Milo and Richard Spencer makes this conversation impossible in left circles. Those people are discussed endlessly because leftists believe that doing so makes it easy to argue – “what, you want Milo to be free to harass POC on campus?!?” But in fact because most conservatives on campus will simply be mainstream Republicans, this side conversation will be almost entirely pointless. What really matters is the way that perfectly mainstream positions are being run out of campus on a regular basis. And of course with a list like this we can be sure that there are many, many more cases that went unnoticed and unreported in the wider world.

You would think it would be easy for progressives and leftists simply to say “I support many actions that campus protesters take, but these censorship efforts are counterproductive and wrong.” But that almost never happens. That’s because in contemporary life, politics has almost nothing to do with principle, or even with political tactics. Instead it has to do with aligning yourself with the right broad social circles. To criticize specific actions of campus activists sounds to too many leftists like being “the wrong kind of person,” so they refuse to criticize students even when their actions are minimally helpful and maximally counterproductive. That in turn ensures that there’s no opportunity for the students to reflect, learn, and evolve.

There have, of course, been many leftist professors who have been the subject of censorship too. I have written about these cases and fought for those professors over and over again. They come not from student pressure but from administrative fecklessness, which is to be expected, as the administrators that sometimes accede to student censorship demands and those who silence leftist professors are working under the same philosophy: a corporate desire to avoid controversy and to protect the campus as a neoliberal institution. That students so often petition these same administrators to silence on their behalf speaks to the failure to truly grapple with the nature of administrative power.

Awhile back I laid out my frustrations with this conversation. In particular, almost no one who defends campus activist attempts to censor has ever articulated a coherent policy about who is and is not allowed to say what.

Whatever else, defenders of activists attempting to censor opinions they don’t like have to stop claiming that these censorship efforts only target the most extreme cases. Because that is simply, factually false. Stop obsessing about the most extreme cases and grapple with the clear and growing attempts to censor mainstream views on campus. It’s an important conversation to have. Or you can keep shouting “Milo!” over and over again because that’s easy and doesn’t force you into any difficult choices or conversations. That will ensure that we have no coherent defense against bias claims while the Republican party sets out to dismantle our institutions, brick by brick.

Study of the Week: Hitting the Books, or Hitting the Bong?

Today’s Study of the Week, by Olivier Marie and Ulf Zölitz, considers the impact of access to legal marijuana on college performance. (Via Vox’s podcast The Weeds.) The researchers took advantage of an unusual legal circumstance to examine a natural experiment involving college students and  marijuana. For years now, the Netherlands has been working to avoid some of the negative consequences of its famous legal marijuana industry. While most in the country still support decriminalization, many have felt frustrated by the influx of (undoubtedly annoying) tourists who show up to Dutch cities simply looking to get high. This has led to some policies designed to ameliorate the negative impacts of marijuana tourism without going backwards towards criminalization.

In the city of Maastricht, one such policy involved only selling marijuana to people who had citizenship identification from the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium, and not from other nationalities. These specific countries seem to have been chosen as a matter of geography – look at Maastricht on a map and you’ll see it’s part of a small Dutch “peninsula” wedged between Germany and Belgium. Importantly for our purposes here, Maastricht features a large university, and like a lot of European schools it attracts students from all over the continent. That means that when the selective-enforcement policy went into effect in 2011, one group of students still had access to marijuana, while another lost it, at least legally. That provided an opportunity to study how decriminalization impacts academic outcomes.

This research thus does not amount to a true randomized experiment, although I suppose that’s one that you could really do, given the long-established relative safety of marijuana use. (“Dude, I’ll slip you $100 not to end up in the control group! No placebo!”) Instead, like a couple of our Studies of the Week in the past, this research utilizes a difference-in-difference design, comparing outcomes for the two different groups using panel data, with a lot of the standard quality checks and corrections to try and root out construct-irrelevant variance between the groups. Ultimately they looked at 4,323 students from the School of Business and Economics. Importantly for our purposes here, there were about equivalent dropout rates between the two treatment groups, which can potentially wreak havoc on this kind of analysis if they are not closely matched.

There’s a couple obvious issues here. First, not only are these groups not randomly selected, they are deliberately selected by nationality. This could potentially open up a lot of confounds and makes me nervous. Still, it’s hard to imagine that there is a distinct impact of smoking marijuana on brains of people from different European nationalities, and the authors are quite confident in the power of their models to wash out nonrandom group variance. Second, you might immediately object that of course even students who are not legally permitted to smoke marijuana will frequently do so, and that many who can won’t. How do we know there aren’t crossover effects? Well, this is actually potentially a feature of the research, not a bug. See, that condition would be true in any decriminalization scheme; there will inevitably be people who use under a period of illegality and who don’t when decriminalized. In other words, this research really is looking at the overall aggregate impact of policy, not the impact of marijuana smoking on individual students. Much like the reasoning behind intent-to-treat models, we want to capture noncompliance because noncompliance will be present in real-world scenarios.

So what did they find? Effects of legal access to marijuana are negative, although to my mind quite modest. Their summary:

the temporary restriction of legal cannabis access increased performance by on average .093 standard deviations and raised the probability of passing a course by 5.4 percent

That effect size – not even a tenth of an SD – is interesting, as when I heard this study discussed casually, it sounded as if the effect was fairly powerful. Still, it’s not nothing, and the course-passing probability makes a difference, particularly given that we’re potentially multiplying these effects across thousands of students. The authors make the case for its practical significance like so:

Our reduced form estimates are roughly the same size as the effect as having a professor whose quality is one standard deviation above the mean (Carrell and West, 2010) or of the effect of being taught by a non-tenure track faculty member (Figlio, Shapiro and Soter, 2014). It is about twice as large as having a same gender instructor (Hoffmann and Oreopoulos, 2009) and of similar size as having a roommate with a one standard deviation higher GPA (Sacerdote, 2001). The effect of the cannabis prohibition we find is a bit smaller than the effect of starting school one hour later and therefore being less sleep-deprived (Carell, Maghakian & West, 2011).

This context strikes me as mostly being proof that most interventions into higher ed are low-impact, but still, the discussed effects are real, and given that marijuana use is associated with minor cognitive impairment, it’s an important finding. Interestingly, the negative effects were most concentrated in women students, lower-performing students, and in quantitative classes, suggesting that the average negative impact of legalization would be unequally distributed. One important note: these findings were consistent even when correcting for time spent studying, suggesting that it wasn’t merely that students who had access to marijuana were less inclined to work but actually performed less well on their tasks on a minute-per-minute basis.

What do we want to do with this information? Does this count as evidence supporting continued marijuana criminalization? No, not to me. Part of what makes achieving a sensible drug policy difficult lies in this shifting of the burden of proof: things that are already illegal are often treated as worthy of decriminalization only if they can be proven to be literally harmless. But all number of behaviors that are perfectly legal involve harms. Alcohol and tobacco use are obvious examples, but there are others, including eating junk food – which is not just legal but actively subsidized by our government, thanks to a raft of bad laws and regulation that provide perverse incentives for food production. Part of freedom means the freedom to make bad choices. The question is when those choices are so bad that society feels compelled to prevent individuals from making them. Even if you aren’t as attached to civil liberties as I am, I think you can believe that marijuana use simply doesn’t qualify.

As for myself, I actually mostly stopped smoking when I got to grad school. In part that’s because I didn’t enjoy it anymore the way I once did. But it was also because I knew I simply couldn’t read and write effectively after I had smoked, and graduate study required me to be reading and writing upwards of 12 hours a day. That’s by no means universal; some people I know find it helps them concentrate. Likewise, I am useless as a writer after more than one beer, though of course there are many writers who famously wrote best when soused. Still, it seems to me entirely intuitive that habitual marijuana use would have minor-but-real negative impacts on academic outcomes. Marijuana, as safe as it is, and as ridiculous as its continued federal illegality in the United States is, does tend to cause minor cognitive impairments, and it would be foolish to assume there’s no negative educational impacts associated with it.

I’d still rather have college kids getting stoned than binge drinking constantly. And ultimately this is a question of pluses and minuses that individual people should be able to weigh for themselves, just as they do when they decide on a cheeseburger or a salad. That’s what freedom is all about, and one part of college is giving young people a chance to make these kinds of adult decisions for themselves.

restriction of range: what it is and why it matters

Let’s imagine a bit of research that we could easily perform, following standard procedures, and still get a misleading result.

Say I’m an administrator at Harvard, a truly selective institution. I want to verify the College Board’s confidence that the SAT effectively predicts freshman year academic performance. I grab the SAT data, grab freshmen GPAs, and run a simple Pearson correlation to find out the relationship between the two. To my surprise, I find that the correlation is quite low. I resolve to argue to colleagues that we should not be requiring students to submit SAT or similar scores for admissions, as those scores don’t tell us anything worthwhile anyway.

Ah. But what do we know about the SAT scores of Harvard freshmen? We know that they’re very tightly grouped because they are almost universally very high. Indeed, something like a quarter of all of your incoming freshman got a perfect score on the (new-now-old) 2400 scale:

Section Average 25th Percentile 75th Percentile
Math 750 700 800
Reading 750 700 800
Writing 750 710 790
Composite 2250 2110 2390

The reason your correlation is so low (and note that this dynamic applies to typical linear regression procedures as well) is that there simply isn’t enough variation in one of your numbers to get a high metric of relationship. You’ve fallen victim to a restriction of range.

Think about it. When we calculate a correlation, we take pairs of numbers and see how one number changes compared to the other. So if I restrict myself to children and I look at age in months compared to height, I’m going to see consistent changes in the same direction – my observations of height at 6 months will be smaller than my observations at 12 months and those will in turn be smaller than at 24 months. This correlation will not be perfect, as different children are of different height and grow at different rates. The overall trend, however, will be clear and strong. But in simple mathematical terms, in order to get a high degree of relationship you have to have a certain range of scores in both numbers – if you only looked at children between 18 and 24 months you’d be necessarily restricting the size of the relationship. In the above example, if Harvard became so competitive that every incoming freshman had a perfect SAT score, the correlation between SAT scores and GPA (or any other number) would necessarily be 0.

Of course, most schools don’t have incoming populations similar to Harvard’s. Their average SAT scores, and the degree of variation in their SAT scores, would likely be different. Big public state schools, for example, tend to have a much wider achievement band of incoming students, who run the gamut from those who are competitive with those Ivy League students to those who are marginally prepared, and perhaps gained admission via special programs designed to expand opportunity. In a school like that, given adequate sample size and an adequate range of SAT scores, the correlation would be much less restricted – and it’s likely, given the consistent evidence that SAT scores are a good predictor of GPA, significantly higher.

Note that we could also expect a similar outcome in the opposite direction. In many graduate school contexts, it’s notoriously hard to get bad grades. (This is not, in my opinion, a problem in the same way that grade inflation is a potential problem for undergraduate programs, given that most grad school-requiring jobs don’t really look at grad school GPA as an important metric.) With so many GPAs clustering in such a narrow upper band, you’d expect raw GRE-GPA correlations to be fairly low – which is precisely what the research finds.

Here’s a really cool graphic demonstration of this in the form of two views on the same scatterplot. (I’m afraid I don’t know where this came from, otherwise I’d give credit.)

This really helps show restricted range in an intuitive way: when you’re looking in too close at a small range on one variable, you just don’t have the perspective to see the broader trends.

What can we do about this? Does this mean that we just can’t look for these relationships when we have a restricted range? No. There are a number of statistical adjustments that we can make to estimate a range-corrected value for metrics of relationship. The most common of these, Thorndike’s case 2, was (like a lot of stats formulas) patiently explained to me by a skilled instructor who guided me to an understanding of how it works which then escaped my brain in my sleep one night like air slowly getting let out of a balloon. But you can probably intuitively understand how such a correction would work in broad strokes – we have a certain data set restricted on X variable, the relationship is strong along that restricted range, its spread is s in that range, so let’s use that to guide an estimate of the relationship further along X. As you can probably guess, we can do so with more confidence if we have a stronger relationship and lower spread in the data that we do have. And there is a certain degree of range we have to have in our real-world data to be able to calculate a responsible adjustment.

There have been several validation studies of Thorndike’s case 2 where researchers had access to both a range-restricted sample (because of some set cut point) and an unrestricted sample and were able to compare the corrected results on the restricted sample to the raw correlations on unrestricted samples. The results have provided strong validating evidence for the correction formula. Here’s a good study.

There are also imputation models that are used to correct for range restriction. Imputation is a process common to regression when we have missing data and want to fill in the blanks, sometimes by making estimates based on the strength of observed relationships and spread, sometimes by using real values pulled from other data points…. It gets very complicated and I don’t know much about it. As usual if you really need to understand this stuff for research purposes – get ye to a statistician!