Saturday, April 12, 2008

Strange Bedfellows

Senator Andrew Bartlett, one of the star bloggers in my Missing Link portfolio, or case-load, or whatever the hell you want to call it, has been having a little trouble with political allies lately. Twice last week he was embarrassed to find himself agreeing with long-standing opponents or adversaries. First it was Greg Sheridan, then it was Peter Slipper.

After reading this report in Saturday's The Age on Julia Gillard's latest proposals for education reform, I find myself in the unpleasant position of agreeing - at least in part - with education warrior Kevin Donnelly. I suppose it's some consolation that I don't find myself agreeing with Andrew Bolt who has endorsed Gillard's push for parents to get details on school performance. I'm agin it.

The sticking point, for me, is in this section of the story:
The [Federal] Government plans to publish the annual results of individual primary and secondary schools on national literacy and numeracy tests, which begin next month, for students in grades 3, 5, 7 and 9.

It will also talk to the states about measuring how schools "add value" to students, and is keen for a reporting system that reflects the challenges faced by each school, for instance through socioeconomic data, or trends between similar schools. (emphasis added)
Excuse me, but what planet are we on here? What sort of education policy aims to "add value" to school students? Aren't they valuable enough already, as people in their own right? That's why I'm in uncomfortable agreement with Kevin Donnelly right now - because in this piece, about the 2020 summit briefing paper Education, Skills and the Productivity Agenda he's right on the money:

The first mistake is to define education in terms of its economic and utilitarian value.

Education, instead of being dealt with in its own right, is valued for its ability to contribute to “prosperity, productivity and global competitiveness”, completely ignoring the cultural role of learning...
I suppose it's some consolation that after that point Donnelly pretty much drops the money again and by the end of the piece he's implying that the purpose of education is to preserve culture by storing it in students' brains ("And the fundamental question of the purpose of education in an age when many of the young are disengaged and culturally illiterate is not on the agenda."). But that's not that much consolation. When we have the Federal Minister for Education talking about schools "value adding" to students its pretty clear who's captured the education debate and where the debate's headed.

Who benefits when students are treated as commodities and education is about "value adding"? Not the hapless bloody students, that's for sure.

Will It Make Media Watch?

News Limited loyalist, Bernard Slattery, has joined a certain nursery-rhyme cow, thanks to reports in The National Rupert that journalists at The Age are in open revolt against the sale of the newspaper's soul to commercial interests (reports here and here). According to Bernard:
A common but wrong accusation from lefties is that News Corp editors and journalists are commanded from the top to publish the company line. Such a claim is never directed at the luvvies’ preferred news outlets. Thus, there was a certain smugness in News offices this week when the left-preferred opposition was caught disseminating propaganda.
Bernard's first sentence is incorrect - the standard "leftie" accusation against News Limited editors and journalists is that they're a bunch of ignorant, group-thinking sheep whose faith in the company line is so deep-seated that no command from the top is needed to keep their toes where they should be.

The ructions at The Age have been caused, in part, by Fairfax's participation in the promotion of Earth Hour, and the way “Reporters were pressured not to write negative stories and story topics followed a schedule drafted by Earth Hour organisers.” Bernard looks to that other favourite news outlet of "the luvvies" and asks:
Will it make Media Watch, though?
It already has, Bernie. Us "luvvies" knew about it by Tuesday night at the latest. And The Age journalists' grievances about the treatment given to published correspondence from a certain R Walker of Melbourne didn't come as a complete surprise either.


I used to be a big fan of Wire in the Blood, that TV crime drama that regularly turns up on the ABC. Now I'm not so sure.

Yesterday, I got lucky when I was leafing through the old magazines in the waiting room of my personal head care specialist - there were three old New Yorkers in the stack. One of them was the November 12, 2007 edition, which included "Dangerous Minds - Criminal profiling made easy." by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell totally demolishes the "Hedunit" genre of crime fiction and the real-world profilers don't come out looking too flash either.

Wire in the Blood is a good example of the "Hedunit":

We are now so familiar with crime stories told through the eyes of the profiler that it is easy to lose sight of how audacious the genre is. The traditional detective story begins with the body and centers on the detective’s search for the culprit. Leads are pursued. A net is cast, widening to encompass a bewilderingly diverse pool of suspects: the butler, the spurned lover, the embittered nephew, the shadowy European. That’s a Whodunit. In the profiling genre, the net is narrowed. The crime scene doesn’t initiate our search for the killer. It defines the killer for us. The profiler sifts through the case materials, looks off into the distance, and knows ... Profiling stories aren’t Whodunits; they’re Hedunits.

In the Hedunit, the profiler does not catch the criminal. That’s for local law enforcement. He takes the meeting. Often, he doesn’t write down his predictions. It’s up to the visiting police officers to take notes. He does not feel the need to involve himself in the subsequent investigation, or even, it turns out, to justify his predictions... (my emphasis)
Hence in Wire in the Blood we get all those scenes where Tony Hill stands in front of a visual aid with high production value - in the last series that I saw, a large computer touch screen which allowed him to open up crime scene photographs and drag them around the screen with the touch of a finger - saying in an agitated voice: "it doesn't make sense: this is all carefully planned and organised, this is chaotic, impulsive."

Very quickly Tony realises that the crimes are being committed by not one, but two killers. Then the writers add a final plot twist - it's actually one killer with Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Of course Wire in the Blood is fiction. But it's a very persuasive form of fiction - a lot of work is put into the production to give it realism. The effect of the Hedunit genre on our understanding of crime and policing is similar to the CSI Effect. We see Tony Hill, brilliant clinical psychologist, reading a crime scene for insights into the personality of a killer and we are gulled into thinking that things actually work that way - after all, modern writers of crime fiction do a lot of research to make their stories plausible, don't they*?

The problem isn't restricted to fiction where background research is distorted for literary or dramatic effect. Hedunits are also presented as non-fiction, in the memoirs of profilers themselves. It's one such memoir that inspires Gladwell's coverage of the history of profiling and his assault on profiling's inflated reputation:
There is a deeper problem with F.B.I. profiling. Douglas and Ressler didn’t interview a representative sample of serial killers to come up with their typology. They talked to whoever happened to be in the neighborhood. Nor did they interview their subjects according to a standardized protocol. They just sat down and chatted, which isn’t a particularly firm foundation for a psychological system. So you might wonder whether serial killers can really be categorized by their level of organization.

Not long ago, a group of psychologists at the University of Liverpool decided to test the F.B.I.’s assumptions. First, they made a list of crime-scene characteristics generally considered to show organization: perhaps the victim was alive during the sex acts, or the body was posed in a certain way, or the murder weapon was missing, or the body was concealed, or torture and restraints were involved. Then they made a list of characteristics showing disorganization: perhaps the victim was beaten, the body was left in an isolated spot, the victim’s belongings were scattered, or the murder weapon was improvised.
For more on what those psychologists at the University of Liverpool found, you'll have to Gladwell's original article. Just be warned - if you're a fan of Hedunits, it's the biggest spoiler of all. You might even find yourself erupting into uncontrollable laughter next time you see Tony Hill do his shtick with the crime scene photos.

* - That is we assume that screen writers in the US and the UK do. Give Australian TV producers a million dollar budget for a series and they'll want every possible cent of that million up on screen, with Georgie Parker in the lead female role. The writers can produce any old tosh they like , as long as it's at least up to the standard of Neighbours and Home and Away.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Does Don Aitken Take Aspirin?

The blogosphere today resounds with plaudits for Professor Don Aitken, eminent historian and political scientist, and respected academic, after this report in the Opposition Orifice that Professor Aitken doesn't believe that the science of global warming stacks up:
The eminent historian and political scientist said in a speech called A Cool Look at Global Warming, which has received little public attention, that he was urged not to express his contrary views to orthodox thinking because he would be demonised.

He says critics who question the impact of global warming are commonly ignored or attacked because "scientist activists" from a quasi-religious movement have spread a flawed message that "the science is settled" and "the debate is over"...

Although not a scientist, he has brought his critical approach as an experienced academic accustomed to testing theories to a debate he says so far lacks clear evidence.
Aitken hits all the usual "skeptical" talking points - the computer models are crook, it's all a beat-up by those "activist scientists" who silence critics with the threat of Soviet style demonisation then very late in the article declares one of his own misgivings about the science:
[Aitken] says an increase in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide over the past century is agreed, some of it due to fossil fuels, cement-making and agriculture. However, normal production of CO2 is not known, and it makes up only a tiny part of the atmosphere. "How does a small increase in a very small component have such a large apparent effect? The truth is that no one has yet shown that it does." (emphasis added)
Which brings us to the question of aspirin. When I get a headache - a really bad headache - I usually resort to a taking a couple of aspirin tablets, at 250 milligrams to 300 milligrams a tablet. I'm of about average weight for my height - let's say 80 kg. That's 80,000,000 milligrams. How can such a tiny amount of aspirin diffused through all that body mass possibly cure my headache?

A similar question that might trouble Professor Aitken in his sleep is how can he be sure that he will wake up in his bed tomorrow, and not floating around in outer space, when the gravitational constant is so damned small?

The real risk Professor Aitken has taken in declaring his skepticism isn't that "activist scientists" will call him a madman; it's that they'll take him for a fool.