Could blind analysis of data — meaning that an investigator or computer program obscures data values or labels, or both, and that, more generally, as much analysis as possible is done “in the dark” in relation to expected results — help decrease bias towards certain research findings? Robert MacCoun, a professor of law at Stanford University, and Saul Perlmutter, the Franklin W. and Karen Weber Dabby Chair in physics at the University of California at Berkeley, say yes in a new essay in Naturethat’s getting a lot of attention, including on Twitter. The authors say that blind analysis is commonplace in several physics subfields but that it holds lots of potential for the biological, psychological and social sciences, as well — the latter two of which especially have weathered recent data legitimacy scandals.
“Many motivations distort what inferences we draw from data,” say MacCoun and Perlmutter, who is the 2011 Nobel Prize winner in physics. “These include the desire to support one's theory, to refute one's competitors, to be first to report a phenomenon, or simply to avoid publishing 'odd' results. Such biases can be conscious or unconscious. They can occur irrespective of whether choices are motivated by the search for truth, by the good mentor's desire to help their student write a strong Ph.D. thesis, or just by naked self-interest. …Working blind while selecting data and developing and debugging analyses offers an important way to keep scientists from fooling themselves.”
Friends and colleagues of Tomas Lindahl, a professor of microbiology at Sweden’s Linkoping University, rushed to congratulate him on winning the Nobel Prize in chemistry earlier this week, but it was a case of mistaken identity. The real winner was another Tomas Lindahl, also Swedish, who works at the Francis Crick Institute and Clare Hall Laboratory in London. (His prize-winning research centers on how cells repair their DNA.)
The two have been mixed up by fellow scientists for decades, but the confusion reached its peak when friends of the Sweden-based Lindahl deluged him with emails and the local government in Linkoping sent out a congratulatory press release before quickly withdrawing it, the Associated Press reported. The mistaken winner reportedly was in good spirits, telling a local newspaper that “it's sort of fun actually. To be mixed up with a Nobel Prize winner when I'm doing research in chemistry myself.” Referring to December’s Nobel banquet, he added, “But it would be really nice to go to the party.”
The independent part-time faculty union at Columbia College in Chicago voted no confidence in President Kwang-Ku Kim, Provost Stanley Wearden and the college’s Board of Trustees after a campaign lasting several months.
“The vote by our members illustrates the extremely low level of support Dr. Kim and Provost Wearden have among the adjunct faculty at Columbia,” Diana Vallera, president of Part-Time Faculty at Columbia College (P-fac), said in a statement. “This administration has only taken steps to erode the trust of the faculty.” The union says that the college unilaterally moved to eliminate its first-year seminar department in favor of larger, university-style classes, for example, and that it’s generally moving away from its traditional model of offering small classes taught by working professionals. The union, which voted to disaffiliate from the National Education Association earlier this year, also has accused the college of refusing to honor elements of the collective bargaining agreement it signed in 2013.
Not all faculty groups believe the vote of no confidence was the right move. James Nagle, an adjunct instructor of English at Columbia, and a member of Columbia Adjuncts United -- another part-time faculty association loyal to the NEA -- referred requests for comment to an editorial in the student newspaper, The Columbia Chronicle, which he said summed up his own thoughts about the vote.
“Increasing class sizes, top-down decision making and abrupt program eliminations are issues affecting the entire college community, but the vote of no confidence only reflects P-fac’s opinion of the administration,” reads the editorial. “If P-fac wants the Board of Trustees to acknowledge its grievances, it needs to show that the vote is a strategy to make constructive change, not a tactic to shame the administration. The vote can only be effective when the union proves its outlined concerns affect the greater college community and will eventually have ripple effects collegewide.”
Gregory Foster-Rice, an associate professor of the history of photography and president of the Faculty Senate, a body representing full-time faculty, said in a statement that the senate had never considered a vote of no confidence. “I would rather work at the table to which we have been invited and help change the college based on our expertise rather than dismiss this process or the administration,” he said. “We need to work together to build on our achievements and establish positive change at the college.”
The college has raised numerous concerns about the accuracy of P-fac’s public statements and the validity of the no confidence voting process. For example, the college says that the voting period was extended twice, over several months, and that the average class size went up just 6 percent this year over last. More generally, the college said in a statement that it values its part-time faculty, and that its new strategic plan -- developed last year in consultation with the faculty -- was a source of the controversy. “The plan sets forth key initiatives that support student success and academic excellence while continuing to strengthen the college’s prominence in arts and media education,” reads the statement. “To that end, hard choices must be made and, inevitably, there are those who will disagree.”
A well-known sociologist is boycotting a scholarly meeting at Brigham Young University based on the institution’s policy regarding students who enroll as Mormons but change their beliefs while on campus. “My decision not to participate is an act of conscience based on BYU’s policy of expelling any Mormon student who leaves the faith or converts to another religion,” Mark Juergensmeyer, a professor of sociology and director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, wrote in a letter to organizers of the International Law and Religion Symposium now under way in Utah. “I have decided that it would be hypocritical of me to participate in a conference in which the issue of religious liberty is paramount when the institution sponsoring it fundamentally violates this principle in its policies towards Mormon students.”
Juergensmeyer said he was unaware of BYU’s policy regarding Mormon students until last weekend, when he was notified by a group called Free BYU, which opposes the university’s policy and has called on other scholars to boycott the conference. Juergensmeyer said that he’s been criticized by some for his decision, and has since released a follow-up statement to his letter saying that there may be “legal acceptance of such discrimination, but it is discrimination all the same, and I suspect that if a university in a Muslim country were to expel a student who wanted to become a Mormon, BYU administrators would regard this as a violation of religious freedom. And they would be right.”
Carri Jenkins, a BYU spokeswoman, said via email that prior to enrolling, all students agree to uphold the BYU honor code, and that “a student who is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who formally rejects his or her beliefs can no longer be in good honor code standing.” Regarding Juergensmeyer’s decisions, Jenkins said that “institutional diversity is highly valued in American higher education and is protected by federal law. BYU is very open and clear about its mission as a religious institution. We also strive for academic excellence in an environment of intensive learning and rigor, where students and faculty on a daily basis are exploring, developing and creating ways to make our world a better place.”
Immigrants to the United States are making up a larger share than in the past of the science and engineering workforce, according to a new report from the National Science Foundation. Among the data points in the study:
From 2003 to 2013, the number of scientists and engineers residing in the U.S. rose from 21.6 million to 29 million. A key subset of that increase was a rise in the number of immigrant scientists and engineers, which went from 3.4 million to 5.2 million.
Immigrants went from making up 16 percent of the science and engineering workforce to 18 percent.
The number of immigrant scientists from India increased 85 percent from 2003 to 2013. Other countries of origin and their increases include: the Philippines at 53 percent and China (including Hong Kong and Macau) at 34 percent.
The Anna Stubblefield case captivated academics when news first broke. But with her conviction of sexual assault of an intellectually disabled man, scholars disagree as to significance of case for disability studies.