Archive for January, 2010

Cooking the schoolbooks

January 30, 2010

The Federal Government’s My School website, which shows the NAPLAN results of Australian schools (‘to allow greater transparency and accountability for the performance of schools’), went online on Thursday.

It’s transparently a ploy to win public support for so-called performance-based pay tied to purported ‘productivity’ differentials between teachers.

Putting that aside, though, it’s worthwhile taking a quick look at the methodology used.

It’s widely known that much of the variance in education test results is explained by things like household income and parents’ education levels. These variables are clearly beyond the control of our humble educational service providers, so raw test results don’t accurately reflect their competence or effort.

To allow ‘meaningful and fair comparison to be made across schools’,  each school is assigned a scalar value reflecting its ‘socio-educational advantage’, then grouped with schools of similar values.

Ideally, then, a wealthy private school like Scotch College compares test results with others of its kind, while poorer outer-suburban or non-metropolitan schools have their own cohort, within which comparisons can be made.

All fixed then? Not really.

My School supposedly allows readers to see how the various schools performed on NAPLAN, controlling for their respective students’ socioeducational advantage. But the Index of Community of Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA) shows how each school performed controlling instead for the socioeconomic index of the locality from which the students were drawn.

Unless schools draw students randomly from a local population – and the existence of selective government, self-selective private and denominational schools prevents exactly this – these are not the same thing. Scotch College doesn’t enrol a random selection of students from the richest suburbs: it takes the richest kids, while the least-wealthy kids in those rich suburbs disproportionately go the local public school.

My School assumes that each student possesses the demographic characteristics of the average household in their locality. But the process by which parents send their kids to some schools and not others is not random, so there’s a difference between the average characteristics of an area and the average characteristics of students from an area who might go to a certain school.

The flaw becomes most obvious when considering selective entry schools, like Mac.Robertson Girls or Melbourne High, which take the cream of students from all over metropolitan Melbourne.

Behind such official lapses lay the policy goals for ‘reforming’ education provision shared by the state elite.

This project, now pursued by the federal Labor government, was laid out candidly by economist Joshua Gans and Stephen King back in 2004.

Finishing the Job meant supplementing the Labor government’s privatization of state assets between 1983 and 1996 with a new wave of market-based reforms to areas of service provision like education and health:

[There] seems little reason why funding for schools should be distinguished on the basis of ownership. This does not meant that privately-owned and government-owned schools all need to operate in an identical manner. Rather it means that government funding for these schools should be on a symmetric basis, subject to any practical limitations.

Next, consider management. Government-owned schools have traditionally been subject to highly centralised management procedures. While there has been a move to decentralise school management in most states in the past few years, there is no reason why this cannot go further. Recognising that school communities are providing club goods for individual school members, appropriate management will reflect the tastes and preferences of those school members subject to any minimum government requirements.


The starting point for rethinking education funding is a universal per student allowance. In other words every child of school age would be associated with an appropriate level of funding. The school attended by a child would receive the allowance associated with that child. The payment of the allowance would not be based on either the ownership or the management of the school, subject to the school satisfying the relevant minimum requirements set down by the government. Schools would need to be registered to receive the allowance and would be monitored to guarantee that minimum requirements were being met. However beyond these minimum requirements diversity among schools could be encouraged, particularly in urban areas and at the high school level where each child potentially has a number of relevant and accessible schools.

The benefits of such an approach have been shown by overseas experience. By both freeing up schools and providing competition between schools, such an approach can lead to better educational outcomes that are more appropriate and tailored to students’ individual needs than can be achieved through a more centralised system.


[The] proposed allowance is associated with further reform of school management and would not discriminate between the private and public systems.


[An] area based voucher system raises the prospect that richer families might choose to move to poorer areas in order to gain a higher educational subsidy. However to the extent that such a movement occurred this may have good social outcomes.

[A] universal allowance provides families with ‘ownership’ of their children’s education.

Dawn of the dead: timing Australia’s megafauna extinction

January 26, 2010

Dating and explaining the extinction of megafauna in Australia and North America is a controversial pursuit. Research assigning blame either to humans or glacial cycles is felt to have political implications, and is sometimes assessed on these grounds. Onlookers seem to find the former argument more or less congenial according to whether or not they think indigenous peoples were responsible ‘custodians’ of the land, who respected a harmonious ‘balance of nature’, an equilibrium later disrupted by the arrival of European pathogens, agriculture and industry.

There are two basic models whereby hunter-gatherers are said to have caused enough ecosystem disruption to wipe out large mammals. For North America and New Zealand, the proximal cause is said to be a ‘blitzkrieg’ of rapid human predation. In Australia, the ultimate driver is usually claimed to be human burning practices leading to vegetation change. Evidence for the latter is:

  • Many large herbivores became extinct, across a wide range of habitats and climates, around the time humans colonised Australia, about 55 to 45 ka (thousands of years) ago.
  • Megafauna survived longer where human arrival was later (Tasmania).
  • No unusual levels of aridity, or other climatic instability, around this time.
  • Sediment cores show an increase in microscopic charcoal.
  • Sudden changes in the diet of wombats and flightless birds, including the emu, suggest a corresponding change in vegetation. 
  • Specialised leaf-eating herbivores (browsers) were less successful than grazers, implying that undifferentiated scrub replaced a ‘habitat mosaic’ of trees and grasslands.  

The leading alternative view attributes the extinctions largely to climate change. Its case against a human-induced event goes like this:

  • Late survival of megafauna (notably at Cuddie Springs), with fossils dated to about 35 ka, refutes the notion of continent-wide extinction and indicates long-term coexistence between humans and large marsupials.
  • The late-Pleistocene population of Australia was neither dense nor sedentary enough for fire-stick farming to have more than a local effect, or to control the lightning regime. 
  • Beyond the glacial cycle, there was a long-term trend towards greater aridity from 300 ka, along with increased ENSO activity from 60 ka, which produced drying of bodies such as Lake Mungo, and changed fire regimes and consequently vegetation. Accessible water became too scarce for megafauna to survive.
  • Most megafauna were extinct by at least 80 ka, i.e. before human arrival. The extinctions occurring ca 46 ka were thus merely the tail of a staggered process.

Now Science has published a report showing that the Cuddie Springs deposits have been re-dated, and show no ‘late survival’ of megafauna. From the abstract:

Giant marsupials, reptiles, and flightless birds once inhabited Australia (see the first figure). But 23 of the 24 genera of these megafauna disappeared in the late Pleistocene (~125 to ~12 thousand years ago). Most Australian megafauna appear to have survived until 51 to 40 thousand years ago, with human impact by hunting or vegetation change proposed as the extinction drivers (14). Yet, one site has stood out as an anomaly: Cuddie Springs in interior New South Wales. Persistent claims have been made that this site contains megafauna fossils associated with stone tools in sediments deposited 40 to 30 thousand years ago (57), thus indicating prolonged overlap between people and megafauna. These claims have been challenged (2, 8) based on concerns about possible reworking of fossils from older deposits. To resolve this conundrum, Grün et al. (9) have now directly dated the fossils themselves. The results provide no evidence for the late survival of megafauna at the site.

More from ScienceDaily.

This has been received in some quarters as final proof that the theory of human-induced extinctions is correct. Findings are often reported this way. It’s certainly a strong result: there’s now no real evidence of megafauna persisting until the onset of higher aridity around 30 ka. It’s especially compelling when combined with the recent Tasmanian result, which shows that some megafauna did survive later (up to 41 ka, after their extinction on the mainland), until human arrival. Against the hypothesis of ‘staggered attenuation’, there’s not much fossil evidence for decreasing megafaunal diversity once sampling bias is taken into account. The worth of this new paper is that attention can now be devoted solely to the critical interval 50-40 ka, when the extinctions surely occurred. The exact mechanism, however, hasn’t been confirmed.

Real women: The fake body-image debate

January 23, 2010

Is it fair to blame socially ingrained sexism for certain kinds of attitudes and behaviour in young women? On this I’m really not sure; indeed, I’m constantly struggling with my own attitudinal double-standards regarding my feminist beliefs and (what I believe are) anti-feminist practices. For instance, I firmly believe that nobody should feel obliged to live up to any kind of beauty standard, yet, like many women, I routinely remove hair from my body that, frankly, is only offensive to morons whose “minds have been warped by porn.”* If the mainstream media are any indication, it seems that most serious discussions surrounding beauty standards become clouded by puerile feature articles about what constitutes a “real woman,” and how refreshing it is when supermodels/celebrities get naked/forego makeup and/or airbrushing and have their photo taken for a fashion magazine/”cause.” Save for the astute observations of rare columnists like Clem Bastow, the majority of opinion pieces surrounding femininity, body image and beauty standards skirt around pertinent questions regarding the extent to which people’s (women’s) appearances matter in our culture, and trivialise the effects of such a culture on many women’s social status and psychology.

On that topic, I’m again drawn to the idea of socially ingrained sexism and it’s relationship to social and psychological interactions between women. I was once told by one of my peers that particular aspects of her character were a result of  having been raised in a phallocentric society in which women are pitted against each other in competition for the attention of men, resulting in the perpetuation of jealousy, misogyny, self-loathing and a range of other unhealthy insecurities among women. While I’m willing to accept that our culture does generally encourage a range of detrimental attitudes towards and among women, including the ones I’ve listed above, I also believe that it is reductive (and reminiscent of comically pompous letter-writers in tabloid publications) to “blame society,” women’s Ugly Stepsister, for the peccadillos and character-flaws that are part and parcel of, well, being human. To claim that it is all society’s fault that people experience say, jealousy, implies that a) people are entirely subject to their social and cultural environment and b) that they lack agency over their own attitudes. To be sure, I’m not denying that emotions like jealousy, anger, and low self esteem often defy rationality and are incredibly hard to control. But in my view, blaming society’s insidious influence for one’s feelings of resentment and mistrust towards other women is akin to blaming the Bureau of Meteorology for inclement weather. Human emotions are far more complex and entwined with our individual psychological experiences; experiences which encompass the impact of culture on our psyche(s), but are not wholly manipulated by society’s misogyny.

For me, overcoming my negative feelings towards other women will entail the maturity and self-confidence that only comes from experience. While I’m working on that, I’ll continue to rant on this blog, in cafes, at work and to myself about society’s ills in the hope that I am helping to change other women’s experiences for the better.

*Credit to Dr. Bandit for this succinct yet highly evocative observation.

January 21, 2010

Wow, who knew David Deutsch was such a funny, engaging speaker?

Then there’s this:

It is a fact that tidying up is boring. There are so many interesting things to do in life that doing boring things is hardly ever top of my list of priorities. The question here is not whether tidiness is boring, but whether it is necessary, or useful. I think that there are no good practical reasons to be anywhere near as tidy as is conventional in our society. Tidiness is a thing which is foisted upon children, and it results in all sorts of unpleasant things for them like boredom and having their privacy invaded, and so they get nervous and uptight about their personal space, and sometimes this translates itself into hang-ups about tidiness which they then pass on to their children.

And his blog is/was frequently hilarious. Why hasn’t he been given a TV show? Probably because of stuff like this. And everything he says in the above video from about 15:30 onwards. Audience stops laughing.

Everyone for themselves?

January 20, 2010

The idea of the immoral, zero-intelligence ‘mob’ is a very successful meme — longstanding, compact, adaptable. We’ve all heard it so often that it provides a ready, quick-access reference to explain behaviour, like riots or looting, we might otherwise find hard to interpret.

So a picture of ‘mob rule‘ has unsurprisingly dominated the lurid wire reports from Haiti in recent days. This is despite well-reported protestations that ‘there is no insecurity’, little looting and relative calm.

Readers hopefully remember the reporting of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when New Orleans was supposedly beset by looters and predatory rapists stalked the Louisiana Superdome, claims later revealed as exaggerated and often outright false. It turns out that social norms — a sense of fairness, and prohibitions on theft and violence — are very resilient, and can survive even ‘social breakdown’.

Aside from racist contempt for Haitian people, the law-of-the-jungle-style reporting rests on a proposition about human nature, well expressed by the New York Times: ‘Looting Flares Where Authority Breaks Down.’ This states that, in the absence of social controls (i.e. supervision and enforcement), people will revert to their supposed natural state: self-regarding, panicked and lawless.

Behind this lies a belief that we only do the right thing when someone else is looking.  The anonymity of dense crowds, or state breakdown after natural disaster, allow the covert practice of antisocial behaviour to evade public detection and penalty (even if everyone can see you, they don’t know your identity). This favours the emergence of violence, theft and rape. Everyone for himself!

As mentioned here previously, this vision is a staple of disaster movies and anti-social-media denunciations. Conservatives have long used it to argue against popular democracy. Unfortunately their fantasy of a ‘mob’ of selfish individuals, unbound by social constraints, has been refuted by evidence. Multiple experiments show that, even under conditions of anonymity, individuals retain their preference for fairness when dealing with others. Studies in crowd behaviour during emergencies, such as the London bombings of July 2005 or the Hillsborough stadium disaster of 1989, show that people generally don’t behave selfishly or stampede towards the exit. Cooperative, sensible behaviour predominates.

So next time the TV news tells us that certain people have been reduced to an amoral state of all against all, we should probably be suspicious. It seems that people behave improbably well under trying conditions, because they internalise social norms rather than just using them instrumentally for their own benefit.

Look, even sleazy TV anchormen can do it!

CNN silver fox Anderson Cooper in action

‘Race crime’, newspapers and inference

January 13, 2010

From the letters page of Tuesday’s Age newspaper:

Statements by government ministers and police that there is no evidence racism was a factor in Nitin Garg’s murder are to our discredit. India sees through it and is offended. If the spokespeople had been more honest, they would have added there is no evidence that the attack was not racist.


John Murray, former vice-president, Australia-India Society, Hawthorn

Coincidentally, Ray Solomonoff died last month. I’m yet to see solid evidence that John Murray (or Fairfax columnists Gerard Henderson and Miranda Devine) didn’t kill him.

Whenever fallacious arguments are judged fit for newspaper publication, we mustremember to blame their appearance on cynicism rather than stupidity.

It’s not that the poor editors, short on staff and brainpower, can’t detect faulty reasoning. If that were true, their choices would exhibit no systematic error, and over enough time we’d observe no more than the expected amount of rubbish.

Is that what we see? No, we consistently see regular opinion columns granted to provocateurs, contrarians and Catherine Deveny. It’s no accident. The well-known commercial logic is outrage -> page views -> advertising revenue.

The representation of Nitin Garg’s murder as a story about ‘racist attacks against Indian students’, with little evidence, seems to fit this pattern. Just like ‘French sex murder‘, ‘Italy sex murder‘ and ‘rail chaos‘, it is an opportunistic, rather than stupid, bid for our attention.

But this time there’s more to it.

When trying to explain the string of violent assaults and thefts that’s been committed, over the past few months, across Melbourne against young men of South Asian background, we’re performing a search in hypothesis space. The space is vast: there are many possible reasons for this conjunction of events.

In choosing ‘race-hate crime’ as the preferred hypothesis, we pick a single point in that space. I think there’s a good reason we home in on the solution region marked ‘race’  – and it’s not due to overwhelming evidence.

First, we share an unfortunate tendency to attribute the behaviour of other people to some personal characteristic or disposition, rather than the situation those people are in. To an observer, the ethnicity or group identity of an assault victim (or occupation/clothing of a rape victim) may stand out more than, say, that person’s travelling at night through a park, in a taxi or via public transport.

Second, skin colour, for better or worse, is a very salient phenotypic trait. It’s one of the first things we notice about people. Because skin is by far our largest organ, and its pigmentation exhibits a lot of variation across groups of people, it’s probably the most visible distinguishing personal characteristic. So we naturally use it as a criterion of group classification, far more than e.g. height or eye colour. (Though note many Australians’ discomfort and confusion over whether South Asians are to be considered ‘black’ or ‘Asian’.)

With the victims now defined as ‘Indian students’, a motive is readily imputed to their attackers: evidently, racial hatred.

We’re thus led very quickly, by a few cognitive biases (and official encouragement), to privilege unduly (i.e. without sufficient evidence) a certain hypothesis about these violent attacks.

Sure, it could well be true that anti-Indian sentiment is behind the violence, but without evidence there’s no reason to grant the hypothesis any particular attention. That it does testifies to the hold of racial taxonomies on our thinking.

Some of this is induced by media treatment: if we keep hearing about racial violence, we tend to think it more probable, the same way we can’t help but overestimate the frequency of highly reported occurences like homicides, plane crashes and terrorist attacks.

Newspapers thus prompt our irrationality, while having an interest in provoking hysteria.

I leave open the possibility of whether racial violence could be caused by such reporting.

People like John Murray of Hawthorn are, no doubt, well-intentioned (I’m less sure about Gerard Henderson and Miranda Devine).

But their arguments are merely the inverse of talk about ‘ethnic crime’ and ‘ethnic gangs’ (terms which only apply to non-Anglo-Celts – ‘Aussies’ are not an ethnic group, you see) which sparks up any time someone of Lebanese or Vietnamese background gets in a fight.

Until suggested otherwise by the evidence, race shouldn’t be considered a salient factor in any crime or group of crimes.

The alternative leads us to innumerate hate-speech, like Andrew Bolt or Kevin Andrews claiming that Sudanese people are eight times more likely than others to commit crimes.

Too cool for sex

January 4, 2010

Is Jonathan Franzen ‘too cool for sex’? I have my doubts, but Katie Roiphe thinks she’s on to something.

Her New York Times essay observes how attitudes to sex among recent male North American novelists (Franzen, Wallace, Chabon, Kunkel) seem to  differ from the ‘aggressive virility’ of their predecessors (Updike, Roth, Bellow, Mailer). She claims to detect a trend. Whereas the older bunch of writers was obsessed with sex, the younger writers have ‘a deep ambivalence about sexual appetite’. Their works are ‘denuded of a certain carnality.’

Why? Kate Millett + narcissism:

The younger writers are so self-­conscious, so steeped in a certain kind of liberal education, that their characters can’t condone even their own sexual impulses; they are… boys too busy gazing at themselves in the mirror to think much about girls, boys lost in… the noble purity of being just a tiny bit repelled by the crude advances of the desiring world.

Rather than quibble about the purported cause, I question whether the phenomenon itself is real. Roiphe thinks ‘we have landed upon a more conservative time’, suspicious of sex. The latest batch of US male writers are evidence of ‘a certain cultural shutting down, a deep, almost puritanical disapproval of their literary forebears and the shenanigans they lived through.’

Her sample of authors is so small, however, that it can’t legitimately be used as evidence of much at all.

At any given time, the overall preoccupation of writers with sex is difficult to measure. We can understand it as a one-dimensional projection of several vectors: number of sex scenes in each book, length of each scene, level of detail, proportionate weight of scenes in the overall text, etc. Each of these quantities (e.g. number of sex scenes) is in turn a random variable that is approximately normally distributed (bell-shaped). A few books will have extreme values (no sex or lots of sex), and most of the population will cluster somewhere in the middle.

Roiphe’s contention is that these probability distributions (of e.g. the number of sex scenes in novels written by US males) are non-stationary (i.e. the mean of the distributions, their average value, changes over time), and specifically that the distributions are shifting leftwards over time. There’s a trend towards less sex. It is possible to prove or disprove this hypothesis. You’d need to read a lot of books, and do a lot of counting, but it would make for an interesting thesis topic. Unfortunately Roiphe was writing a newspaper article, and she didn’t bother trying to prove her theory using an appropriate sample.

In fact, it’s not at all clear that your average literary novel nowadays is any less concerned with sex than its equivalent 40 years ago, nor that there’s any trend for the overall population distribution. Sure, if you cherrypick a few outliers from the ‘old guard’ — sex-obsessed Philip Roth, John Updike and Norman Mailer — you can show that there are more threesomes in their work than in most contemporary novels. But they had more threesomes in their work than most novels back then, too. Compared to Alexander Portnoy, almost every literary character, before and since, seem to have a  ‘deep ambivalence about sexual appetite.’