A politician, a linguist and a mathematician walk into a bar

Or at least I wish they did, because they’d have interesting stuff to talk about.

This being the political convention season, I came across an article at Smart Politics evaluating the grade level of convention speeches, based on numerical analysis of data such as the length of sentences and usage of multisyllabic words. According to the analysts, Michelle Obama delivered a speech at 12th grade level, the highest ever by a wife of a presidential nominee in convention history and several grades above all of Obama’s State of the Union addresses so far. Ann Romney, by contrast, clocked in at 5th grade level. Here’s an Ann Romney sample from the article:


“This man will not fail. This man will not let us down. This man will lift up America! … Look into your hearts. This is our country. This is our future. These are our children and grandchildren. You can trust Mitt. He loves America. He will take us to a better place, just as he took me home safely from that dance. Give him that chance. Give America that chance.”

For comparison, here’s a sample from Michelle Obama’s speech:


“He’s the same man who started his career by turning down high paying jobs and instead working in struggling neighborhoods where a steel plant had shut down, fighting to rebuild those communities and get folks back to work, because for Barack, success isn’t about how much money you make, it’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”

It’s actually quite stunning to see Barack Obama’s SOTU speeches rated at 8th grade level, considering his high reputation for eloquence and intellectual accomplishment. I have not read “Dreams From My Father” (and I already have a long reading list, thank you very much), but Michiko Kakutani professes high regard for Obama’s “ability to use words in his speeches to persuade and uplift and inspire”, his “appreciation of the magic of language and his ardent love of reading”, and praises his book as “the most evocative, lyrical and candid autobiography written by a future president”. Obama’s writing, successful or not, has never been short on either ambition or complicated words. Famously, he wrote this appreciation of The Waste Land in a letter to a girlfriend back in his college days:


I haven’t read “The Waste Land” for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements — Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he’s less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there’s a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism — Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance.

Clearly, the guy can hazard statements, maintain dichotomies and perceive choices with the best of them when he wants to. So, what gives?

Continue reading “A politician, a linguist and a mathematician walk into a bar”

Joe, meet Pavlik

Joe Lieberman on the need for vigilance:

[Lieberman] urged Americans to be especially vigilant in reporting any leads to authorities in the coming days.

“This is a classic ‘If you see something, say something’ moment,” he said. “If you see suspicious behavior, call the police immediately — and that includes if you see suspicious behavior by someone who is a friend or family member.”

Mr. Lieberman, I think you might have enjoyed meeting Pavlik Morozov.


Pavel Trofimovich Morozov (Russian: Па́вел Трофи́мович Моро́зов; November 14, 1918 – September 3, 1932), better known by the diminutive Pavlik, was a Soviet youth glorified by Soviet propaganda as a martyr. His story, dated to 1932, is that of a 13-year old boy who denounced his father to the authorities and was in turn killed by his family. It was a Soviet morality tale: opposing the state was selfish and reactionary, and loyalty to the state was a higher virtue than family love. His story was a subject of compulsory reading, songs, plays, a symphonic poem, a full-length opera and six biographies. The cult had a huge impact on the moral norms of generations of children. There is very little original evidence related to the story, much of it hearsay provided by second-hand witnesses. According to modern research, the story (denunciation, trial) is most likely false, although Pavlik was a real child who was killed. Morozov’s story was the basis of Bezhin Meadow, an unreleased film from 1937 that was directed by Sergei Eisenstein.

Truth, images and consequences

If you haven’t checked out the link in my last post, I will have to spoil the surprise for you. The link goes to a Weierstrass Institute webpage promoting its successful bid to host the permanent office of the International Mathematical Union; the item of interest is the photo gallery of 12 distinguished mathematicians who supported the bid. All 12 are male, white, probably in their 50s or 60s.

My point was that such imagery could have alienated part of the constituency that the institute was addressing. The IMU Executive Committee for 2007-2010 includes two women (Cheryl Praeger and Ragni Piene), Ingrid Daubechies has just been elected President for the 2011-2014 term, and Christine Rousseau has been elected one of the two Vice-Presidents. As for race, it must be said that Germany is an overwhelmingly white country and Berlin an overwhelmingly white city, but then it might be added that the IMU mandate specifically includes reaching out to developing countries and its office will have to be able to support that mandate. I wonder if anyone at IMU flagged that photo gallery. Maybe they did, but other considerations prevailed in the end.

I would have left it at that. It was a PR misstep, easy fodder for a quick blog post but ultimately not that consequential. But then the commenters came up with reasons why, perhaps, the pictures should have been all male. They argued for “truth in PR”: if the reality were all male, it would have been wrong to falsify the image by including women who clearly didn’t belong. This, I believe, deserves a longer response. It’s not merely a question of “lying is bad”. You have to think a bit harder, consider the context, look past the easy templates to find alternatives.
Continue reading “Truth, images and consequences”

The less than friendly skies.

I’m not deluding myself that anyone in the Obama administration is actually reading this blog. Still, the more of us speak up the better, so here it goes.

You did say, Mr. President, that you would support science. “Restore it to its rightful place”, if I remember correctly. You have put a good deal of money behind that promise, and we’re very grateful for that.

You must know – if not as a President then as a former academic – how much we depend on international collaboration, including travel and movement of people across borders.

The new TSA regulations, if they stay in place, will make our travel to the U.S. just about impossible.

Right now, it’s mostly affecting the holiday travellers who have to get back home from their Christmas holidays. They have no choice but to shut up and put up with it. But come January, you might see a drop in the attendance of international participants at professional meetings. Some of the NSF panelists might not show up, or institute board members, or many others who volunteer their time and expertise without compensation and expect to be treated like the decent human beings that they are. And the research stars that your top universities would like to recruit might pass on that interview because they don’t want to have to fly in diapers.
Continue reading “The less than friendly skies.”

Paint it red

I grew up in a socialist country.

I’m reminded of it every time I hear that public health care is socialist, or that financial regulation is socialist, or that regulating the auto industry is socialist, or that taxation is “spreading the wealth” and therefore socialist. I don’t get the impression that this refers to the “socialism” of the Scandinavian variety. More likely, it refers to the Soviet Union and its then-satellite countries – exactly where I was born.

I suppose I should recognize those various socialist things – oppose them, even – as marks of the failed system that I grew up with. But I don’t. Instead, I try to find a way to explain life under socialism to someone who doesn’t know it and I come up short every time. It’s not just explaining why apples are not like oranges. It’s explaining why apples are not like hockey and oranges are not like patio furniture.

Yes, we did have more political repression and government regulation. Yes, we had censorship, rationing and fewer consumer articles. People understand that. But then you mention to someone the high prevalence of tooth decay, and they respond, “sure, I bet you didn’t have fluoridated water”, and then you don’t know if you’ll be able to answer that in less than half an hour, so you smile, say that it was actually a little bit more complicated, and change the subject.

Take for example taxation. Do you think it’s socialist? If so, you’ll be interested to know that neither my parents nor I had ever filed a personal tax return before I left Poland at the age of 23. Continue reading “Paint it red”

Conferences, peer review, and political interference

Our science minister Gary Goodyear is getting involved with organization and funding of scientific conferences. Last week he asked the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to reconsider funding for an upcoming conference at York University. Specifically, he recommended conducting a “second peer review”. Here is an excerpt from his official statement:

It has come to my attention that following a recommendation of a peer review board earlier this year, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council provided $19,750 under its Aid to Research Workshops and Conferences Program to a conference at York University entitled “Israel/Palestine: mapping models of statehood and prospects for peace”.

Approval of this funding was based on an initial proposal that did not include detailed information on the speakers at the conference. Since funding was provided, the organizers of the conference have added a number of speakers to their agenda.

Several individuals and organizations have expressed their grave concerns that some of the speakers have, in the past, made comments that have been seen to be anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic. Some have also expressed concerns that the event is no longer an academic research-focussed [sic] event.

The SSHRC did request an update from the conference organizers, then issued a statement to the effect that everything is in fine order, thank you very much, and the conference will be funded as planned.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers has called on Goodyear to step down:

“It’s unprecedented for a minister – let alone a minister from the department that funds the granting councils – to intervene personally with a granting council president to suggest that he review funding for an academic conference,” said CAUT executive director James Turk. “This kind of direct political interference in a funding decision made through an independent, peer-reviewed process is unacceptable and sets a very dangerous precedent.”

This blog is not an appropriate venue to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian situation, for more reasons than I could list here (and please keep that in mind if you would like to comment). Neither do I want to discuss the “hate speech” accusations such as those quoted in this article. The conference abstracts are over here. If any of them qualify as hate speech under Canadian law (see here), then there are appropriate procedures in place. Intimidation by political interference in the peer review process isn’t one of them.

I do want to repeat what I said in an earlier post: that academic freedom applies to all views expressed in the context of academic dialogue, including those we disagree with. Especially those we disagree with. That’s pretty much the point of it. And ultimately, academic freedom leads to better science. The correctness and significance of scientific ideas isn’t always clear right away and we’re better off if all such ideas are allowed to compete on their merits.

Of course, if an academic conference became a political event instead, then that would be a problem. However, a political science conference does not become a political event just because opinions about politics are being expressed. After all, that’s what political scientists do for a living. Political action – now that would be another matter. I don’t think, though, that we’ve seen any evidence of that.

But the main purpose of this post is to clarify several aspects of the organization and funding of academic conferences for those readers who have never been involved with that.

Continue reading “Conferences, peer review, and political interference”

Don’t stop believin’

From The Globe and Mail:

Canada’s science minister, the man at the centre of the controversy over federal funding cuts to researchers, won’t say if he believes in evolution.

“I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate,” Gary Goodyear, the federal Minister of State for Science and Technology, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

A funding crunch, exacerbated by cuts in the January budget, has left many senior researchers across the county scrambling to find the money to continue their experiments.

Some have expressed concern that Mr. Goodyear, a chiropractor from Cambridge, Ont., is suspicious of science, perhaps because he is a creationist.

Sure enough, that response got him in hot water. Here he tries to walk it back:

“We are evolving every year, every decade,” Mr. Goodyear said on the television program. “That’s a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else, whether it is running shoes or high heels – of course we are evolving to our environment.”

Actually, if that’s the type of evolution we’re talking about, then here’s a better example, courtesy of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the worst opening sentence of an imaginary novel.

As she watched the small form swing backwards and forth from the crystal chandelier – hands on hips, sniffing the air and squeaking inaudibly – it suddenly became clear to Madame de Pompomme that she had done the wrong thing asking Jacques to find and bring back her long-lost sister: for, whilst her coterie would doubtless be enchanted for a short while, the novelty of Janine having been raised by bats since the age of two in caves of the North-west Congo would soon wear off in seventeenth-century France.

Do click on that link and read the other winning entries. I’m happy to wait.

Here’s CBC reporting on further developments. No, not women swinging from chandeliers in high heels. The Goodyear story.

On Wednesday, following a speech at the Economic Club of Toronto outlining the government’s incentives and funding for science and technology, Goodyear refused to clarify further, insisting his personal views aren’t important.

When asked whether there was a conflict with someone with his portfolio being a creationist, he responded: “Absolutely not. How ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous. That’s why I didn’t answer the question — because it has no relevance.”

As a teacher with 15 years of experience, I would very much like to tell you, Minister, what happens when a professor tells students that their questions are irrelevant and ridiculous. On second thought, there’s no need for me to explain it, really. Just go to the RateMyProfessor website and browse through it at random. And you thought, Minister, that we were tough on you?

Back to CBC:

He added that decisions about what areas of science should be funded are mostly made by scientists themselves through organizations such as granting councils, not by him.

Goodyear again, in the Globe and Mail:

“My view isn’t important. My personal beliefs are not important. What’s important is that this government is doing the right thing for science and technology – to support science as we have in every single budget,” he said during a brief scrum after a speech to the Economic Club of Canada.

Ah, but the government is not doing the right thing. The Globe and Mail articles mention the cuts to research funding that will leave many of us scrambling. I wrote about it here at length. This government’s science policies were not designed by scientists. Had scientists been involved and given more than a token voice, they would have pointed out that the best equipped labs are useless without top quality personnel. That graduate school is not just like undergraduate college, only with more advanced classes. That basic curiosity-driven research – even though it can produce extremely high returns in the long run – isn’t likely to attract industrial funding and must be supported by the government. From the Discover Magazine some time ago:

So who knows what else we’re working on that might well be in everybody’s back pocket one day? This puts me in mind of one of my favourite quotes from the great Michael Faraday, one of the giants that helped shape our modern understanding of electricity and magnetism (see a nice BBC History website about him here). He was asked by the British Chancellor (Gladstone at the time) about what was the use of this electricity he was working on. His reply was “I do not know sir, but I wager that one day you will put a tax on it”.

There, Mr. Goodyear. You do believe in taxes, don’t you?

Stephen Harper: not good for science, not good for Canada

From the Globe and Mail:

At a time when U.S. President Barack Obama has pledged to “restore science to its rightful place” with billions in new investments, leaders in the Canadian research community were left scratching their heads over Stephen Harper’s response to what many fear will become a widening funding gap.

The headline numbers offered Tuesday drew praise from university leaders. There is $2-billion for colleges and universities to fix their aging buildings, $87.5-million for new graduate scholarships and $750-million for the Canada Foundation for Innovation, which funds research infrastructure. […]

But more than 250 pages back in the budget are figures that point to cuts to the three federal granting councils, the bodies that hand out the money to support continuing research. Over three years, the base budgets of the three agencies will be reduced by $87.2-million; the government says this money will be directed to other spending programs in higher education.

More here. A further clarification from the Educational Policy Institute:

The new money is meant to pay for 500 doctoral scholarships valued at $35,000 annually over 3 years and 1,000 one-time scholarships for students at the Master’s level valued at $ 17,500 each. Scholarships in science and medicine are unrestricted in terms of subject area; SSHRC scholarships, on the other hand, will be restricted to students in programs related to business studies. This, again, is consistent with earlier Conservative policies, which have specifically avoided providing SSHRC with new funds for areas apart from business and economics.

However, the granting councils will not see an overall budget increase as a result of these scholarships. This is because the three councils, as a result of regular Program Review, will see a cumulative decrease in their funding over the next three years of $87.2 million. Thus, the new graduate scholarships are effectively being paid for as-yet unspecified reductions in other areas of research spending. Moreover, while the increase in scholarships is temporary (after two years, spending is supposed to revert back to present levels), the cut in budgets is meant to be permanent.

Evidently, Mr. Harper, Mr. Flaherty, and their advisors don’t know or care much about either science or graduate education.

Continue reading “Stephen Harper: not good for science, not good for Canada”