Category Archives: Uncategorized

Three cheers for epistemic humility

In response to today’s conflicting jobs reports, David Leonhardt explains:

Any one jobs report contains a fair bit of statistical noise, as Neil Irwin and Kevin Quealy have explained. It’s a mistake to pretend otherwise. The best approach is to take all the evidence — both the household and business survey, as well as multiple months of data — and use it all to tell the most sensible story we can, based on the evidence. [emphasis added]

Right now, that story looks something like this: The labor market appears to be gaining strength. But there are enough conflicting signals that we will need more months of data before we can be sure.

I’m a big fan of epistemic humility, especially in today’s world that values certainty and absolutes. One of my guiding philosophical approaches to life is that since all human sources of knowledge are fallible, the closest any of us can get to Ultimate Truth is obtainable only through taking as wide a sample as possible of as many different perspectives as possible on a particular question or topic, then taking a weighted average of them all to try to come to a tentative (although never final) personal conclusion or belief in some truth, whether empirical or otherwise.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Benjamin Knoll:

Another annual re-post of my St. Patrick’s Day blog post:

Originally posted on Information Knoll:

The following is a re-post from last year’s St. Patrick’s Day post:

Granted, I’m only 15% Irish. The rest of me is German-Russian (35%) and English (50%). But unfortunately, there just aren’t that many German or English heritage holidays to celebrate. So it’s to St. Patrick’s Day that a turn to celebrate my ethnic heritage.

My g-g-g-g-g-g-grandfather, Michael, was born around 1775 in Ireland. He married Marianne and they had a daughter named Mary around 1799. She married Dennis Rogers (b. 1796) and they had a daughter named Margery. They all came to the United States in the 1840s, along with almost two million of their compatriots, to escape the Great Potato Famine. Margery married Michael Murphy in New York City. They moved Wisconsin where they had seven children. One of these children, Alexander Rogers Murphy, was born in 1854. Alexander married Mary Ellen O’Brien in 1884 in Minnesota. Mary…

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Thoughts on “Good to Great” by Jim Collins

I recently read Good to Great by Jim Collins. Actually, I’m a busy person so I read Good to Great Summarized for Busy People by Wilson Publishers.

Here are some of the highlights that I thought were interesting:

  • Successful businesses have leaders who “combine extreme personal humility with intense professional will.”
  • What do successful leaders do?
    • Set up successors who will continue to do great after they leave.
    • They are compellingly modest and share the attention instead of seeking it for themselves.
    • They have unwavering resolve toward a goal.
    • “First Who… Then What” – they pick the best people for the team FIRST then with the team pick the goal. “If you have the right people … the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away.”
    • They’re not afraid to say “I don’t know.” Instead, they get the best people and hash out the question to find the answer.
    • They hire the best people (self-disciplined people who don’t need to be managed) then give them freedom and autonomy within a framework.
    • “Good to great companies tend to have rigorous cultures, cultures in which leadership consistently applies exacting standards at all time and at all levels, especially upper management.”
    • “The moment you feel you need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake.”
    • The world changes. Successful businesses change and adapt or they die off.
    • Great companies encourage debate and dialogue and genuinely take advantage of it. “It is used to engage people in the search for the best answers.”
    • Hedgehogs and Foxes: Foxes “pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity” whereas Hedgehogs “simplify a complex world into a single idea or principle that unifies and guides everything.” In terms of successful businesses, Hedgehogs win and Foxes do not.
    • Find out what you’re best at and focus on that strength. Don’t expend energy trying to become something that you’re not going to be best at.
    • Slow and steady gains are more important than infrequent but flashy gains. The slow and steady gains will speak for themselves and motivate the organization to continue to excel. “Spend little energy trying to motivate or align people; the momentum of the flywheel is infectious.”

Here are some of my thoughts and ruminations on these ideas, specifically in regards to how these principles might apply in the context of higher education:

  • Higher education has an embarrassment of riches in terms of self-disciplined, motivated people to have in an organization. There’s a strong self-selection effect at work: most people become professional academics because they’re self-disciplined and motivated and they would not survive graduate school if they weren’t. In my limited experience, finding the “right people” is not often difficult in higher education settings.
  • Higher education contexts do not do well at encouraging Hedgehog leadership over Fox leadership. By their very nature, academics approach the world like Foxes: they see everything in terms of nuance and complexity and often have multiple goals and frameworks that they perceive the world through. They’re also asked to juggle fifty things at once between their various teaching, service, and research obligations. Expecting a group of academics to “simplify a complex world into a single idea or principle that unifies and guides everything” is borderline insanity.
  • The incentives of the higher education context do not often reward leaders who are “compellingly modest.” Oftentimes, the career success for academics depends a great deal on self-promotion and justifying one’s continued existence (i.e. the tenure and promotion system). Often, the more “headlines” an academic receives, the better his or her career prospects and opportunities for advancement. This seems to be in conflict with the goal of seeking out leaders that are “compellingly humble.”
  • I tend to agree with the “adapt or die” idea promoted in this book. I see many examples of that in higher education. College faculty sometimes seem to be especially resistant to change (or even the idea of change) in a world where change can often be the price required to avoid irrelevancy. 

Summary of “College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Our Students” by Jeffrey J. Selingo

I recently read College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Our Students by Jeffrey J. Selingo who is the Editor-at-Large for the Chronicle of Higher Education. All in all this was a very interesting book and provided a number of interesting questions about the way that college is delivered and experienced by today’s Millennial generation.

What follows is a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book that highlights the parts that I thought were important or interesting. Thus, this summary reflects my personal biases and interests.


  • Only about half of students who start college actually finish. (ix)
  • A college education is still the best ticket to “get ahead” in today’s world, especially for disadvantaged students. (ix)
    • That being said, college is increasingly expensive, leading to an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. as the rich get college degrees and the poor do not. (xv, 17)
    • The higher education “industry” is can be very resistant to change. (xii)

Ch 1: The great credential race

  • “Colleges now view students as customers and market their degree programs as products.” (5)
  • The BA has become the new high school diploma, the MA has become the new BA, and the PhD the new MA. Getting degrees is highly valued in today’s economy. (8)
  • Students want to customize their college experience as they have learned to expect customization in other aspects of their life (= technology). (10)

Ch 2: The customer is always right

  • “Colleges are turning into businesses where customers –in this case, students—expect to be satisfied.” (20) “… course evaluations now look eerily similar to customer satisfaction surveys” (21)
  • Students expect their professors to be like performers. They “want to be engaged, persuaded, and entertained.” (21)
  • Grade inflation is occurring and will continue to occur. Students now tend to think that they “deserve an A because they did all of their assignments.” (24)
  • Why does college cost so much? One big reason: “state governments slashing budgets to higher education” (27)
  • Many college campuses are trying to appear like resorts and hotels to become more appealing to students. (30-34)

Ch 3: The trillion-dollar problemC

  • This chapter discusses the finances of tuition and financial aid.

Ch 4: The five disruptive forces that will change higher education forever

  • 1: “A sea of red ink” – college budgets were hit hard with the economic crisis of 2008 (58)
  • 2: “The disappearing state in public higher education” – state legislatures had no money either and so no money to pass along to universities (61)
  • 3: “The well of full-paying students is running dry” – this is one reason that colleges like to recruit internationally. International students can often pay full tuition. (64)
  • 4: “Unbundled alternatives are improving” – “unbundling” refers to the classes, degrees, credentials that up until recently came “bundled” with a college education. Now it’s getting easier to learn a skill in one place, take a class at another place, pick up a certificate from one institution, transfer credits to another, etc. The experience is getting more fragmented and customizable. (67)
  • 5: “The growing value gap” – the widening rich/poor gap is only being exacerbated by college affordability issues (70)

Ch 5: A personalized education

  • “Flipped classrooms” = students watch online lectures outside of class on a topic and then use class time to do projects or work through problems together. This becoming increasingly popular. (77)
  • “Big Data” is being used increasingly to predict student success and to recommend which classes/majors a student should sign up for (78-86). This is to help improve chances of graduation.

Ch 6: The online revolution

  • While technology has changed drastically over the last several years, professors today “teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago” (89).
  • Many courses are now being putting online and content available for free through open course software and websites. This content is customizable, portable, and cheap.
  • Research has shown that students usually learn “just as much in the hybrid [online + face to face] format as they would have in the traditional course” (101).

Ch 7: The student swirl

  • Students are increasingly moving from institution to institution throughout their higher education experience. Transfers are becoming more common.
  • Students earn credit for each “credit hour” they take, which is defined by the government as “one hour of directly faculty instruction and two hours of work outside of the class during each week of the semester” (112).
  • As instruction becomes more customizable and technology makes education more portable and fragmented, what if we tried some different ideas? Example: what if degrees were granted based on skills/knowledge demonstrated instead of time spent in classrooms? (113)

Ch 8: Degrees of value

  • How do we measure the value of a college education?
  • We often measure this based on the average earnings of graduates. (124) Is this the best way to measure the “value” of an education? No, but it’s harder to quantify intangibles that we might prefer.
  • Do college majors matter? (130) He argues “no, not really” but instead critical thinking skills and competencies matter more. Although, STEM fields still earn more than humanities and social science majors on average.
  • Does the institution matter? He argues “more or less, yes” (131). Those who go to more selective schools tend to make more than those who go to less selective schools. Also, being a “B” student at a better school is better than being an “A” student at a poorer school in terms of post-graduate opportunities. (132-133)

Ch 9: The skills of the future

  • Double-majoring is on the rise because students are demanding it, not because educators think it’s a good idea (143).
  • Again, critical thinking skills, ability to solve problems, ability to be self-motivated, ability to get along with others, effective written/oral communication skills, etc. is more important that specific content or skills (145-147).
  • What should a student do in college to be successful afterwards? (149)
    • “Seek passionate faculty mentors” to take classes from and work with.
    • “Dive deep into a research project” – do undergraduate research projects.
    • “Go on a transformative learning experience” by studying abroad.
    • “Be creative, take risks, learn  how to fail”

Ch 10: Why college?

  • College prices are going up, in part, because of the demand for services from staff to “help students mature” (= student life, counseling, career services, etc.) “In many parts of the world, the maturing experience is provided before college by a mandatory national or military service.” (165)
  • As education and income are highly correlated and the economic gap is widening, we’re also geographically self-sorting and concentrating the best-educated into urban and metro areas of the country. (167)
  • Ultimately, college graduates are better able to “make sense of the world around them” (170).


  • Five ways higher education will change in the future
    • A personalized education (175): education will become increasingly personalized and customizable for each individual student, including course content, major requirements, semester start/stop schedules, etc.
    • Hybrid classes (177): online courses will continue play a more prominent role in our education.
    • Unbundling the degree (178): colleges will be forced to start unbundling their products (courses, certificates, skills, experiences, content, etc.) so that students can mix and match in more diverse ways.
    • Fluid timelines (179): why must college be a four-year experience? Why not let students go at their own pace, either faster or slower?
    • College moneywise (180): encourage saving for college and making it more affordable.

Finally, here are some of my personal ruminations on this book’s content:

  • I like that the four recommendations that the author makes to students are four of the things that Centre College does very well: 1) hires passionate faculty, 2) promotes undergraduate research, 3) promotes study abroad, and 4) provides opportunities for creativity.
  • I’m more interested in looking into ways that I could possibly incorporate more online content for my courses in an effective manner.
  • Personalization and “unbundling” of products sounds great from the students’ perspective, but I wonder how this would look from the instructor perspective. How in the world would a professor be able to create 30 different syllabi for 30 different students who all want a personalized education experience with their own customizable content, assignments, deadlines, etc.? This is an extreme form of the concept, admittedly, but I wonder how practical this would be in terms of implementation.
  • It seems that doing something to address the widening gap between the educated and un-educated should be made a much higher priority on the part of lawmakers and policymakers.
  • I’m part of the camp that is leery about measuring the value of a college experience based on potential post-graduate earnings. To me, the most valuable part of my seven years of higher education was learning the cognitive skills to be able to critically analyze the world around me and be able to make better judgments and decisions about how I interact with others and what I want to prioritize in my life. It’s hard to put a price tag on that.

Economic stability needed to promote family stability

Simply improving the job market for young adults, especially men, would do wonders to stabilize families — particularly those just starting out, Cherlin said. Experts have been surprised by the real drop in divorce among the college-educated, who still can get good jobs. He said young people need more job training opportunities and apprenticeships, especially if they’re not college-bound. Making sure tax policy doesn’t discourage marriage and providing a modest earned income tax credit for disadvantaged childless young adults would also encourage formation of stable relationships, he added.

Full article available here:

“Next Generation Science Standards”

Given that we have members of the U.S. Congress who say things like this about the American Community Survey:

“In the end this is not a scientific survey. It’s a random survey.”

I’m therefore generally supportive of efforts like this:

…[T]he guidelines were intended to combat widespread scientific ignorance, to standardize teaching among states, and to raise the number of high school graduates who choose scientific and technical majors in college, a critical issue for the country’s economic future.

The focus would be helping students become more intelligent science consumers by learning how scientific work is done: how ideas are developed and tested, what counts as strong or weak evidence, and how insights from many disciplines fit together into a coherent picture of the world.

I especially like that these science standards are not mandates from the government, but rather recommendations from science teachers from around the country.

And I suppose this means that I have to reveal my pro-science bias (if it was not already evident). I see the scientific enterprise as a legitimate and more-or-less reliable way to establish “truth” at this point in human history. (Although I do not exclude other methods as more-or-less reliable means for establishing other types of “truth” – but that starts to become a philosophical question…)

How my political science training helped me be a better parent

Yesterday my wife and I took took my (almost) 4-year-old daughter to a specialist for a consultation on a certain medical procedure. This procedure is minor and fairly routine for young children, but I didn’t know very much about it going into the appointment. The physician did a few checks and made a preliminary diagnosis and recommendation, depending on the outcome of another particular test, which we were told could be completed in a few minutes from then. We all went back out into the waiting room until we could go back for the additional test. I will admit that I felt a bit of anxiety. I didn’t really understand what the doctor had explained to us and I didn’t have the knowledge base to judge the preliminary recommendation.

While in the waiting room, I whipped out my smartphone and began Googling about the particular procedure. The search terms I used brought up a lot of hits, some from professional medical associations and others from individuals sharing their opinions on the matter (some informed, some not) and others from professional associations representing alternative views on the procedure. 

Within about ten minutes, I had about a dozen opinions and perspectives on the matter. These included reports of empirical studies on the procedure, which described experiments with terms like “random assignment,” “double-blind,” “statistically significant difference,” “treatment group,” “control group,” etc. Due to my academic training in political science, I was able to critically evaluate and understand the “gist” of these reports even though they were reports of medical studies, which I have no formal training in.

After just a few minutes reading through all this material, I had a much better understanding the procedure in question. I also better understood the basis for the physician’s recommendations. I also felt like I had a clearer picture of the pros/cons of the procedure and the extent to which my daughter’s symptoms matched up against those that the procedure is designed to address. I then understood the objective of the follow-up test that we were awaiting and what the implications of the results would mean in terms of the necessity of the procedure. During the meeting with the physician following the test, I was much more confident in my understanding of the situation and was able to ask appropriate follow-up questions to help my wife and I make an informed decision on the matter.

All in all, I came away from this experience with a few key insights:

  1. I think technology is amazing. In a matter of minutes in a doctor’s waiting room, I was able to independently access a universe of information related to a particular question that I had.
  2. Even though I could access a “universe of information,” I still needed tools to be able to make sense of it. Because of skills that I have learned in my academic training, I was able to quickly sift through the dozens of Google search returns and separate them out into “credible sources,” “non-credible sources,” and “potentially credible, but with a distinct bias/agenda/perspective.” I was then able to apply that categorization to give different “weights of credibility/importance” to each particular viewpoint. I also was able to recognize which organizations would be more likely to have  credible information because of previous experience looking up credible information in other domains (for me, political science).
  3. Because of skills that I have learned in my academic training, I was also able to critically evaluate reports of academic studies related to the procedure. I understood what it meant when an article reported whether or not there was a “statistically significant difference between the control and treatment groups” and what that might imply for my daughter receiving the particular treatment.
  4. Yes, my academic training enables me to be a better political scientist, but it also has equipped me with skills that are easily transferable to other issue domains. Thus, I was able to make a more informed, evidence-based decision about how to best care for my daughter. Yesterday, my academic training directly helped me be a better parent.

What is the point of all this?

To my students: the skills you learn in higher education have widespread and important applicability in almost every facet of your lives. This is why it’s important to get an education that teaches you how to “think critically” and evaluate evidence. Sure, it helps you better understand the political (economic, sociological, physical, etc.) world, but it also helps you to better interact with the world around you and make a positive contribution to it.

But on a more practical level, this is why I make you learn how to read academic research articles, compute levels of statistical significance between variables, and do your own empirical studies of political data. Even though most of you won’t go on to be professional political scientists, you will always be able to use these skills, whatever your responsibilities or opportunities may be.

What am I doing this summer?

I tend to get this question a lot now that the semester is over. Contrary to popular perception, college professors do manage to stay busy even when classes are out for the summer. For those of you who are curious what a liberal arts professor does in the summertime, here’s my list:

  • Write a paper to present at a conference in September. (This includes doing a literature review, data analysis, and about 30+ pages of writing.)
  • Composing an outline for a research project that might take place this fall in collaboration with one of my colleagues here at Centre.
  • Doing a literature review for another paper that I might be writing later this fall (assuming no one has already written on the topic!).
  • Reviewing textbooks, drafting assignments, and putting together a syllabus for three different classes that I’ll be teaching in the fall.
  • Reading a series of books that might make their way into syllabi for the courses I have scheduled in the winter and spring terms.
  • Making preliminary arrangements for the field trip in my winter term class.
  • Grading AP American Government exams for a week in June.
  • Prepping for the next Boyle County Exit Poll project this November (drafting questions, meeting with the County Clerk, organizing schedules, etc.).
  • Helping organize the fall “faculty retreat” that will take place in August here at Centre.
  • Reviewing and drafting revisions to the GOV program assessment and curriculum documents.

That’s about it for now! Fortunately, I have a talented undergraduate student helping me with some of the research projects.

Will the president’s big announcement affect his odds for re-election?

Probably not. If so, not by very much.

Generally-speaking, those who are opposed to same-sex marriage were likely not going to vote for him anyways and those who support same-sex marriage were already in his camp. More details here:

The Misinformant: Jose A. Rodriguez Jr. and CIA Torture

The following is another guest-post by my colleague Dr. Rob Bosco:

Jose Rodriguez Jr. talks a pretty tough game, but readers shouldn’t be taken in.  If you really believe in torture, at least have the guts to admit it.

Jose A. Rodriguez, Jr., former Director of the CIA’s Clandestine Intelligence Service and co-author of a new book entitled Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives wrote an opinion piece for CNN yesterday (5/10/2012) called “Harsh Terror Interrogations Were Necessary, Legal, and Effective.”  Ostensibly the piece concerns the trials of the terrorist masterminds at Guantanamo Bay.  I would write “alleged” terrorist masterminds, but according to Rodriguez, we are not supposed to use the word “alleged” in reference to men who have never been tried or convicted of any crime.  Why this is he does not say.  He does however offer up the incontrovertible evidence that one of the accused “previously gleefully accepted” the label of terrorist.  We don’t know when “previously” was, why that particular second or third-hand shred of information is of any legal significance whatsoever, or even whether Rodriguez is making it up.  Anyway, according to Rodriguez, that proves it.  There is no “allegedly” in Guantanamo Bay.  In effect, Rodriguez is arguing that the defendants are already guilty.  It is unclear whether he realizes this.

At any rate, Rodriguez’ opinion piece is dangerous because it deliberately misinforms.  For example, he summons as anecdotal support for his position that the military trial process at Guantanamo Bay has been described in the media as a “circus.”  He then pretends that what the media was referring to by “circus” was the “antics” of the alleged terrorists.  First of all, Rodriguez never bothers to tell us what the “antics” were.  Turns out, the “antics” in question refer to the fact that the accused refused to speak to the judge out of protest concerning their treatment (treatment which, contra Rodriguez, the commission has already conceded invalidates some of the evidence) and the fact that they are guilty until proven innocent (which Rodriguez in fact maintains.)  But don’t take my word for it.  Read the public comments by the detainees’ defense counsel. 

Let’s look at who in the media did call the Guantanamo trials a “circus.”  Checking the major international media outlets, in the 4 May 2012 edition of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, “circus” was indeed used to describe what is happening at Guantanamo.  However, it was not used in reference to the “antics” of the alleged terrorists as Rodriguez claims, but to the military commission system set up to try them.  Now what gleeful terrorist sympathizer dared to use the word “circus” to describe the military commissions?  It was Rear Admiral Donald Guter, Former Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Navy. 

In his opinion piece Rodriguez also refers to the treatment of detainees in the CIA’s Black Sites.  Rodriguez claims that what the CIA was doing was “legal” and not torture.  What is his source?  It is none other than one of the infamous “Torture Memos.” In fact, it is the torture memo, written by Jay Bybee to the CIA on August 1, 2002.  What we did was not torture, Rodriguez claims, because the Justice Department said that it wasn’t. 

We could just roll our eyes at Rodriguez, but to allow his little arguments to pass unchallenged would be irresponsible on the part of those of us who don’t pretend to have just woken up yesterday from a ten-year sleep.  In 2009 the International Committee of the Red Cross established uncontroversially that the Bybee memo—that precise Bybee memo—authorized what every civilized nation—and signatory to the Geneva Conventions, the UN Declaration on Human Rights, the Rome Statute, and the Convention Against Torture, among others—would consider torture.   Many in the CIA and FBI agreed (see Stephen Grey, 2006.)   It would also be inconvenient for Rodriguez if the readers of his opinion piece should happen to recall that Bybee’s successor Jack Goldsmith declared the Bybee memo dangerous, “legally defective,” and fit to be immediately withdrawn.   

What would be even more inconvenient for Rodriguez’ system of willful deception is if a bipartisan Congressional Committee issued a report that mentioned that precise Bybee memo and concluded that what it justified hampered our ability to collect information, made our enemies stronger, and compromised the country’s moral authority.  It would indeed be unfortunate for Rodriguez’ argument if a report like that should ever be released, say, by the Senate Armed Services Committee, on, say, 20 November 2008.

But Rodriguez insults his reader’s intelligence by pretending none of this ever happened.   His one rebuttal to the ICRC report quibbles that waterboarding happened only a few times, not lots of times, so there.

And here is Rodriguez’s argument for why waterboarding is obviously legal and does not constitute torture: when U.S. military instructors waterboard their own personnel for training purposes in boot camp, we don’t court-martial them, do we?  Therefore waterboarding can’t be torture and must be legal. 

I will pause for a moment while you read that again. 

Moving on, Rodriguez claims that there is no possible way that the treatment of detainees in CIA custody could have amounted to torture because the enhanced interrogation techniques were not designed to cause physical harm but only to “get the attention” of the detainees and perhaps “scare” them.  Rodriquez should actually read the UN Convention Against Torture that the U.S. signed and ratified and incorporated into our domestic law.  There are a number of interesting points there that bear directly on his arguments.  Here are a few: physical harm is not necessary for an act to rise to the level of torture.  Cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment is also prohibited.  Whether torture “works” or yields useful information is totally irrelevant to its illegality.  And as a former official of the CIA, Rodriguez may wish to read the section on rendition. 

In conclusion, Rodriguez can offer no evidence whatsoever that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were legal because there is none.  Nor can he argue that what he defensively describes as “a short period of enhanced interrogation” yielded information that saved lives because if it did, we will never know whether torture was necessary to get the information, and if it didn’t, what idiot would admit it?