Idiocracy?

I have my browser home page set to del.icio.us, and yesterday top on the hot list was an article from SFGate claiming that “the next generation of kids might be the biggest pile of idiots in U.S. history.” It went on to list the many shocking things that students don’t know and claimed:

We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom. We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.

I tend to discount such articles and claims, believing that they underestimate intelligence or exaggerate ignorance or something must be wrong with the survey questions.

In the evening, I attended a lecture on my campus titled, “Science Under Attack, from the White House to the Classroom: Public Policy, Science Education, and the Emperor’s New Clothes,” by physicist Lawrence Krauss. Krauss made similar claims, this time about adults. Krauss revealed that 50% of Americans believed that the statement, “the earth revolves around the sun and it takes 1 year” was false.

All of this reminded me of the recent but not widely distributed Mike Judge film, Idiocracy. The movie is set 500 years in the future. The premise is that by this time stupid people have reproduced at a far greater rate than the educated elite, and the country is left with idiocracy, rule by the stupid. Language has devolved into a mix of grunts, slang, and valley girl; the most popular tv program is Ow My Balls! As one reviewer put it: “Mike Judge’s future is not the brave new world of Asimov or Clarke. It’s a moronic Jerry Springer hell where the lowest common denominator has become the status quo.”

If you aren’t going to Netflix this second to que up this classic, the kicker is that the lead character (Luke Wilson) is an army librarian from 2005 of average intelligence who is trying to do as little as possible in his job until he can retire. He gets sent to the future (with Maya Rudolph, who plays a prostitute) and even though he’s simply average in 2005 he is the most brilliant person in the country in 2505.

At one point he tells Maya’s character with a mix of faux urgency, irony, and sorrow: “I want you to go back to the past, without me, and tell them to read. Tell them to read a lot of books.”

Spoken like a true librarian. But will it be enough?

Abracadabra: The Magic of Eye Contact

One of the simplest and most rewarding things I’ve done recently to improve my teaching, presentation, and even reference work has been to improve my eye contact. Yeah, eye contact. It’s that simple. If you don’t come by this skill naturally, or if you’ve been spending a lot of time with your eyes glued to a screen or in a book, read on.

I came across this idea in magician Steve Cohen’s book, Win the Crowd: Unlock the Secrets of Influence, Charisma, and Showmanship. In a chapter called “How to Command a Room,” Cohen states that eye contact is critical to establishing trust and making a connection with an audience. You can read all the instructional design you want, but if you don’t establish trust chances are you won’t be reaching as many students as you could be.

Cohen points out some simple tricks to help with this essential skill:

Fanning the Room. When you walk into a room, start by staring intently at the person sitting in the far right of the room, walking in that direction. Then stop and smoothly turn your head toward the left until you reach the person sitting in the farthest seat on the left. Then smoothly turn your head back to the right, reconnecting with people on that side. You have just made eye contact with everyone in the room.

Use imaginary strings. Pretend that imaginary strings connect your eyes to the eyes of everyone in the room. If you feel the strings sagging, make contact and tighten up the strings.

Reestablish eye contact. If you see an inattentive person, walk toward them and direct your speech and eyes to them. Direct your gaze toward others after the inattentives are brought back on board.

Hold longer than expected. Hold your gaze on specific people for longer than they would expect. Talk to them personally for 10 to 15 seconds. The attention makes them feel important, as if no one else is in the room.

Locate key people. With larger audiences locate key people who are attentive and responsive in different parts of the audience. Shift your gaze from key person to key person. The people around those key people will also feel your attention. Don’t just aim at clusters of people as many speakers do.

Check the other person’s eye color. In one-on-one situations, make an effort to check the color of the other person’s eyes. This simple trick forces you to make eye contact. If you start drifting, remind your self about eye color and check again.

I’ve put these simple techniques to work in my teaching and at the reference desk. I’ve noticed a big improvement in rapport and find myself making deeper connections with students. If you don’t make eye contact instinctively, or you’ve forgotten your eye contact skills, try these out and watch your teaching, presentations, and reference work improve like magic!

Anthropological Association Selects Closed

The NY Times may have grasped the new economics of open publishing, but the American Anthropological Association has recently announced a new partnership with Wiley-Blackwell to distribute the Association’s 23 journals, newsletters, and research portal AnthroSource.

Peter Suber has predicted that the open news trend will not spill over into scholarly journal publishing, arguing that scholarly journals cannot raise as much money from advertising even though they have lower costs. Suber also notes, however, that user expectations for free online access and heightened impact may eventually have an indirect effect on scholarly journals.

The AAA has acted in accord with their vested interests, but not necessarily in the interests of their profession or the general public. A comment on the Chronicle notes:

Let’s be clear about what is going on here: the AAA is using a private publisher to extract income from universities through their libraries. The bad news though is that university libraries will not be able to afford these increases. In the end fewer subscriptions will be sold and fewer people will have access to this scholarship. If the AAA really cared about scholarship in anthropology they would be pursuing an open access strategy.

Peer Review Problems In Medicine

For all the commercial publishers’ (fake) crowing about peer review, turns out the peer review process in medicine is not working so well lately. At least that’s the conclusion one comes to after reading Robert Lee Hotz’s interesting article in today’s Wall Street Journal, “Most Science Studies Appear to Be Tainted.”

Hotz references John P. A. Ioannidis, who wrote “the most downloaded technical paper” at the journal PLoS Medicine, Why Most Published Research Findings Are False. Ioannidis claims that one problem is the pressure to publish new findings:

Statistically speaking, science suffers from an excess of significance. Overeager researchers often tinker too much with the statistical variables of their analysis to coax any meaningful insight from their data sets. “People are messing around with the data to find anything that seems significant, to show they have found something that is new and unusual,” Dr. Ioannidis said.

But Hotz also points out that besides statistical manipulation, the pressures of competition, and good ol’ fraud, ordinary human error is also a problem. The peers, it seems, are kind of slackin on the reviewing:

To root out mistakes, scientists rely on each other to be vigilant. Even so, findings too rarely are checked by others or independently replicated. Retractions, while more common, are still relatively infrequent. Findings that have been refuted can linger in the scientific literature for years to be cited unwittingly by other researchers, compounding the errors.

Overall, technical reviewers are hard-pressed to detect every anomaly. On average, researchers submit about 12,000 papers annually just to the weekly peer-reviewed journal Science. Last year, four papers in Science were retracted. A dozen others were corrected.

Earlier this year, informatics expert Murat Cokol and his colleagues at Columbia University sorted through 9.4 million research papers at the U.S. National Library of Medicine published from 1950 through 2004 in 4,000 journals. By raw count, just 596 had been formally retracted, Dr. Cokol reported.

(Aren’t you glad you’re paying all that money for “high quality information?”)

It’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and say “don’t trust anything,” “there are no authorities,” or “evaluate everything for yourself.” But critical thinking by individuals, although important, cannot be the only solution to this problem. In an information saturated hyper-competitive capitalist economy, no one has the time or the expertise to evaluate everything. There has to be a system in place that saves people time and promotes trust in research. Here’s why:

Every new fact discovered through experiment represents a foothold in the unknown. In a wilderness of knowledge, it can be difficult to distinguish error from fraud, sloppiness from deception, eagerness from greed or, increasingly, scientific conviction from partisan passion. As scientific findings become fodder for political policy wars over matters from stem-cell research to global warming, even trivial errors and corrections can have larger consequences.

Hotz points to the US Office of Research Integrity and the European Science Foundation’s sponsorship of the First World Conference on Research Integrity: Fostering Responsible Research as an attempt to begin a search for solutions. Academics, a museum, and med schools are represented, it would be great if librarians get in on this conversation as well.

Use PRISM To Start A Dialogue On Open Access

In a previous post I argued that developing free and open source library systems should be an ethical issue for academic librarians. Promoting open access to scholarly literature is another ethical issue we face.

PRISM, an anti-open access group of the Association of American Publishers, has launched a nasty PR campaign that attempts to demonize open access publishing by using simple slogans to equate open access with lack of peer review, government censorship, and theft of intellectual property. (I know, it’s funny, but they are actually saying this stuff. Good thing librarians know how to evaluate information, right?)

As noted in the SPARC letter to members,

the launch of this initiative provides a timely opportunity for engaging faculty members, researchers, students and administrators in dialogue on important issues in scholarly communications.

Exactly. This is the perfect time to initiate or re-initiate a campus-wide committee on scholarly communication on your campus, start a committee at your local ACRL chapter or statewide consortium, or host a lecture or forum on open access.

Most encouragingly, the Association of Research Libraries has produced an excellent issue brief with talking points that effectively counter the PRISM propaganda. ARL points out:

On peer review-

The peer review system, based almost completely on the voluntary free labor of the research community, is independent of a particular mode of publishing or business model.

On intellectual property-

Researchers themselves write and peer review the articles without receiving any payment from publishers. The federal government provides substantial public funding for scientific research. Existing and proposed policies concerning public access to federally funded research attempt to create balance between the contributions made and benefits received by publishers and allow them to continue to profit tremendously from the pool of content this funded research generates.

In addition, academic bloggers have not been shy taking on PRISM’s distortions. And if you need more ammo or a broader overview of the issue, Open Access and the Progress of Science is a well-written argument for open access to science literature in general and proposes the simple solution that scientists just deposit their papers in repositories as soon as they are peer reviewed.

Peter Suber, of course, is always a good source for debunking anti-open access arguments. One of the anti-open access claims is that open access will result in journal cancellations by libraries and collapse of the whole scholarly publishing system. (Well, how about the collapse of the exorbitant profiteering barrier access scholarly publishing system?) Suber points out, however, that open access in physics has not led to journal cancellations by libraries, and that this is in fact slowing the move from toll access to open access.

The question for librarians, higher ed administrators and scholars then, is why hasn’t open access in physics led to journal cancellations? Do we really want to set up two systems, an open access repository system while maintaining the old system with publisher embargoes so that libraries will have to maintain subscriptions? Do we really want to “partner” with the kind of companies that have launched such a deceptive and distorted PR campaign?

With PRISM, commercial publishers are acting like cornered rats. Maybe this shows that open access is at a tipping point. Let’s make sure it tips the right way.