Monday, July 30, 2012

Escalator to Hell

I have been planning to break my blogging hiatus sometime in the fall, as I have been going through a transformation of sorts and this blog is the place I want to muse about that in public.
But one of the topics I used to blog about, back when I posted more-or-less regularly, was the internal workings of science and how we scientists can communicate that better to the lay public, and how badly the press reports on science and medicine (arguably the most conspicuous areas among many other subjects the press seems to get wrong).
The shootings in Colorado brought this topic rather forcefully to my attention lately.
The perpetrator (there is absolutely no need to say “accused” or “alleged” in this case) was a first-year graduate student in Neuroscience, and I noticed the pundits and journalists paying special attention to his training and intelligence, playing up the “wasted potential” story of one of America’s top budding scientists going off the rails in such a spectacular fashion.
It is very interesting to note, in the wake of the missed calls on the Supreme Court Obamacare vote, some quiet retractions have taken place.
If you Google the phrase “ a young man recognized as one of the nation’s “outstanding neuroscientists and academicians” ,   what do you see? The first hit I get is to this page, which has obviously been abandoned.
If you Google the title, you get this page, which is a pastiche of updates to several older stories, including the titular story, and the phrase does not appear anywhere in that story.
But the Internet never forgets, does it? Look at the Google cache of the first link, and you find something like the story I remembered reading and rolling my eyes at the day after the shooting:
Investigators spent a day and a half working to gain access to the booby-trapped Aurora, Colo., apartment of James Holmes, hoping to discover there clues to what would make a young man recognized as one of the nation's  "outstanding  neuroscientists  and academicians" unleash a storm of terror in a packed movie theater.
I came away from those first few days shaking my head at the characterizations of Holmes.  The term academician to a scientist sounds both pretentious (and somewhat European) and prestigious – a well-known member of the academy. Usually that term refers to an assistant professor or above, I’ve never even heard of granting that form of address to a post-doctoral fellow and usually not to anyone below the rank of associate professor , to say nothing of a first-year graduate student.  That was the first alarm bell that went off indicating that the journalists covering this story were less than well-informed about, well, pretty much everything.
The program at Colorado Denver was  described as “one of the most competitive neuroscience programs in the country”.  Now, I’m not a neuroscientist by any means, but my job spills over into that arena, and I work with some of the top neuroscientists in the academic world. Not a single one holds a degree from Denver. In fact, U Colorado - Denver is most definitely not one of the most competitive programs in the country,  it is ranked number 63 out of 94, not even making the top 2/3 . To add insult to injury, another Colorado program ranks higher than Denver:  U Colorado - Boulder rings in at number 47, putting that department at least at the top of the bottom half of all US programs.
As far as I can tell, the phrase “one of the most competitive” has now been replaced with the less meaningful  and arguably more accurate “highly competitive” (whatever “highly competitive” means at a #63 ranked institution, though I’m sure the competition is very intense for the best of the second and third tier students who didn’t go to better programs to make sure that the institution does not slip any further in the rankings) in the national news feeds and websites, in exactly the same manner as the characterization of Holmes as an outstanding neuroscientist and “academician” has been edited out, but not marked as an update or correction.  We have always been at war with Eastasia.
You can still see the source in that local story above, though, just as you can see the original ABC news story ripped off word-for-word by a plagiarizing English-Language Chinese news site. Unfortunately for ABC, the internet never forgets.
Alongside the inflation of the relative importance of his neuroscience program was the inflation of the NIH grant he was studying under.  “Holmes was awarded a prestigious grant from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.”  After all the other foolishness surrounding the initial reports of Holmes’s background, I decided to look into this one, too. Because at first blush, it did sound pretty prestigious to me.
In Chemistry, the National Science Foundation funds grants for promising first year graduate students  in a nationwide competitive process, and while not all professors push students to apply to those grants, the pool is still pretty large and obtaining one of those awards is quite prestigious . After the first year or two of taking classes, trying to decide which advisor to choose (and praying the good ones will take you) all the while being paid to teach weed-out courses of students under-prepared by their high schools for a career in the sciences, a Chemistry student is supported on grant money his or her advisor obtains from the funding agencies, hence many of us refer to our advisors as our “boss”. This grant-funded status is true for upper level graduate students in almost all of the sciences, in fact.
From the glowing praise the press heaped on the NIH award in the reporting on Holmes, I assumed that he had, indeed won a national competition for the stipend similar to the NSF awards I was familiar with from Chemistry.  However, once I discovered the exact nature grant, the luster came off of the award and the press came off with egg on their faces. Color me unsurprised.
The NIH Neuroscience grant is specifically earmarked for first and second year  students. It takes the place of those non-existent Neuroscience 101 teaching jobs that fund Chemistry graduate students. This grant is from the NIH to institutions.  The institution then decides who among its students will get the grant. Competition is then restricted to the students matriculating at the institution in question – a much smaller pool, and in the case of Colorado, a pool of students willing to attend or forced to settle for the #63 program. And the bare minimum requirements for an institution to enter the program are not tied to quality, merely to the breadth of the Neuroscience program (which, to be fair, ensures some minimum level of quality).
The fact, however,  remains that this is an institutional grant.  Colorado Denver is a small program - about 35 students total – and the average time to complete a Ph.D is about 6 years.  That means that there are about 6 students in each year. This “prestigious” grant, the one that Holmes was “one of six students” to obtain, is, upon further investigation the normal and standard way in which Colorado Denver funds its students in the first and second years who have not yet joined a lab to be supported by their advisor’s grant monies.
Colorado Denver itself supplied the verbiage around “neuroscientists and academicians", but at least some other institutions participating in the NIH program use the same language , so it may be that the language comes from the NIH itself, it certainly sounds like the kind of verbal smokescreen a government officer would use to shield a program from funding cuts. But it’s the kind of verbiage a trained reporter should spot as hype and follow up on with facts, such as the easily Googlable rankings of Ph.D. Neuroscience programs.
I don’t know how Colorado administers its grants. If they supply 2 year grants, then running the numbers indicated that every one of their six first year students is supported by this NIH program in their first and second years. If the grants are distributed among the roughly 12 first and second year students, then Holmes is in the top half of his class. I don’t know about you, but even in the best case scenario of being in the top half of a #63 program, the NIH stipend is not all that prestigious to me.
Let’s not be too hard on Colorado Denver, here. It is not a bad program, just not as good as its PR hype would indicate, a fact that any experienced journalist should have noted right away – given the time to research a thorough story. And to be honest, Ph.D. from any reputable research program in the US is pretty impressive.  As an accepted student at such a program, it’s likely Holmes is smarter than any of the reporters writing about him, but I’m reminded here of an article from the humor column of my undergraduate Engineering and Science program newspaper. It had a quote from some coach saying that “hyperintelligent” people were too aware of the risks of injury to be good at sports – they shy away from large opponents and fast moving objects instead of running at them. The Chem. E. major who was the columnist took the coach’s point as valid, but also noted that the coach’s definition of “hyperintelligent” and an engineer’s definition were likely to be light years apart.
Speaking of hype that should be taken with a grain of salt, the pompous phrase used by the press: “outstanding neuroscientists and academicians” comes from the UC program’s description of itself , in that it seeks to develop those people from among the pool of fundees, not that everyone who participates will deserve those adjectives.  And looking at the list of participating institutions , one wonders how U Colorado Denver got into the program in the first place – along with even more securely Podunk  programs at Iowa, Maryland and Michigan State, for example.
The reason for the lower ranking institutions’ inclusion is likely to be due to a variety of factors. Some prestigious programs may opt out of the NIH funding because it places an administrative burden on at least one professor designated as the institutional program director, and richer programs may not find the opportunity worth the cost. Some of the lower ranked institutions may also be up-and-comers program that the NIH decided to gamble on, or they may simply have one or two top professors with some influence at the NIH. In any case, participating in this institutional grant does not mean that Denver is a first choice school of the top budding neuroscientists in this country. Not even close.
One suspects several factors went into this. The self-aggrandizing press releases of UC Denver, which inexperienced reporters probably took at face value.  Programs sitting that low on the totem pole tend to over-exaggerate their importance, just as small companies tend to play up minor advances to stimulate the stock price. The desire of the press to put Holmes up on an intellectual pedestal, the better to knock him off of it also played its part. I suspect various reasons for that, as well – a super-intelligent  killer plays into the latent anti-intellectualism of much of the American public and  makes for a juicier story, perhaps even for a morality tale of sorts.
I came away from the first few days of reporting with the distinct impression that the press thought that Holmes was a whiz kid.  Of course, in the back of my mind was that quote from my college humor paper, and the odd impression made by the characterization of a program I had never heard of as one of the best in the Nation. Because of my background, I started digging into the program rankings right away, and my first impressions were discarded in short order. I think most lay people did not hear these warning signs. And I am pretty sure that most lay people still have the impression from those early but quietly retracted statements, that we are dealing with someone whom nearly everyone in the national Neuroscience community knew as an up-and-comer. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The story I now read between the lines is not the story – or the lingering impression of the story – that I got from the press initially. What I gather from snippets hastily and unintentionally reported in the filler quotes to the main narrative of super-scientist gone bad is the kind of big-fish-in-a-small-pond-dropped-into-the-ocean mentality I expected to see based on some rather scary past experience.
Holmes was, of course a loner in high school.  No surprises there. His pastor noted that “the shy boy he knew “wanted to go out and wanted to be the best,” but he never saw Holmes interacting with kids his age.”  Beyond that lack of friends, in high school “ Holmes was “the kind of person that if you teased him, he would sit there and smile and really not do anything about it” according to a high school classmate. One wonders what was going on behind that smile.
Although his undergraduate chancellor described him as “the top of the top” , and a friend noted that he apparently cruised through his classes:    “ ‘Everything came easy for him,” Duong said in a telephone interview Saturday. “I had one college class with him, and he didn’t even have to take notes or anything. He would just show up to class, sit there, and around test time he would always get an ‘A.’” One wonders why such a gifted student settled for Riverside.
Oh yes, I went there. As soon as some of my Asian friends from California heard “Riverside”, they immediately and snidely remarked “oh yes, so gifted, he couldn’t even hack it with the Chinese at Berkeley or UCLA”. That’s a bit harsh, since the Asian population of 40% at Riverside is only slightly lower than Berkeley’s incoming Freshman Asian student contribution of 43% . But they are spot on in noting that Riverside is at the very bottom of the UCal heap (with the exception of the brand new and tiny program at Merced). If the academics were so easy at Riverside, why did the whiz kid matriculate at a more prestigious (and difficult) UCal school?
But the real point of pointing out that Riverside is the safety school in the UCal system is that our boy who was at the “top of the top” in his school could not gain admission to Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona, the #43 ranked graduate institution in Neuroscience.  We’re not talking MIT, here, we’re talking about a middle-of-the-pack school, the bottom of the upper half of all US programs.  I think that more than anything points to some potential academic deficiencies that could stem from either Holmes or Riverside, or more probably, both.
Since Arizona requires a GRE (although not a subject test) and a CV as well as transcripts it is pretty reasonable to speculate that it was not the honor student’s GPA that got him rejected. More than likely it was a combination of an applicant from lower-ranked school without a spectacular GRE score or significant undergraduate research on his CV. A upper-percentile GRE score could have made up for the lower tier undergraduate school, as could a top flight research experience. The fact that a “top of the top” honors student did not have either speaks volumes about Riverside’s Neuroscience program.
I would dearly love to know which of those factors (and by what weights) were involved in the rejection by Arizona, because they would shed more light on his character and state of mind than any number of “he was so quiet I hardly knew him” interviews with neighbors in Colorado.
Yet despite his firm hold on the lower tiers of the American scientific establishment, he struck new acquaintances as a kid who “ seemed smart, with a "swagger."” That’s a little piece of information that bears following up on.
He, unusually not just for a scientist, but for any young person, did not have an Internet presence, except, of course on and  Adult Friend Finder, where he actively contacted, and was rejected by, three women in the days before the attack, though his high school friend indicated that he did not seem to have trouble with women before college. The approaches on AFF were not, apparently creepy, or even that overtly sexual.
I’m starting to get a picture, here, and it’s not the tale of a murderous latter-day Linus Pauling going off the rails before his brilliance had time to be recognized with a Nobel. 
This is pure speculation on my part, but it begins to look to me like a tale I’ve seen many times in science- a tale of a kid who was one of the smartest in High School, a loner who put all of his ego into the concept that he was smarter than everyone else. That allowed him to sit and smile when the taunts that come every nerds way were hurled at him. They’ll see someday. They’ll be back here working shit jobs while I’m a famous professor.
He wanted to be the best, but he could not accept that even the best get beaten sometimes. I wonder what his first defeat was?  Was it not scoring a perfect SAT and discovering that being the best student in High School doesn’t mean being the best in every high school and that the college world was not his oyster? Or did he instinctively shy away from a UCLA or a Berkeley because of the subconscious fear of defeat, of not being the counted as the best among those fabled genius Chinese kids?
At any rate he shied away from competition. He went to the least selective UCal school to preserve the facade. He coasted because he was slumming, and the competition was not up to his level. But the real world was waiting, and he got another defeat (or maybe this was his first):
 “The bookish demeanor concealed an unspooling life. Holmes struggled to find work after graduating college, Tom Mai said.” 
I’m not sure what job Holmes hoped to get with a degree in Neuroscience. It’s one of those degrees that, while rigorous, does not translate well into the entry-level workforce. It is a degree designed for continuation into graduate study.
So in the time-honored tradition of jobless recent graduates everywhere, Holmes did what he should have done in the first place with his particular degree – he applied for graduate school. Hot on the heels of the bitter realization that a Riverside degree in a highly specialized field did not mean employers would beat down his door, came another defeat  in the form of the rejection from Arizona and possibly other schools. The carefully constructed facade began to crumble more than a little bit, but still, he was going into a Ph.D. program straight out of college. That had to impress the rubes back home.
Then came the fatal blow.
Graduate school actually has very few classes. There are some basic core classes, and a few electives required for everyone, but most programs only require one to two years of classes, the rest are taken on an as-needed or as-interested basis. Most of a graduate student’s career is spent in the laboratory, learning on his or her own actually doing science. It is very similar to a medieval apprenticeship.
But that doesn’t mean that those classes are not important. Failing them means you are not quite Ph.D. material after all. Before Colorado Denver went mum about the whole thing, they let it slip that Holmes had failed his preliminary written exams.
The quoted official went on to add that a failure shouldn’t send a student over the edge, as there was a mechanism to bone up and pass a second, oral exam in this program. But university officials have stated that Holmes had already voluntarily withdrawn from the program.  At approximately that time, he had also begun his plans for the rampage.
This fits with my amateur profiling here. I’m not sure how much the sexual rejections in his life played into this. While they certainly didn’t help, I am sure the press will blow them out of proportion. I believe that the ego bruising of washing out of his graduate program did more damage than a polite “no thanks” on Adult Friend Finder. And I wonder where I've seen that pattern before?  I will be watching the news with some interest in the coming months to see how many of my guesses prove to be correct. I’m willing to bet a substantial amount that mine will be closer to the mark than the media’s initial speculations.
Though this story is a footnote in history compared to the press failure after the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare, the media pattern of hasty reporting and quiet retraction illustrated here is a serious problem in information warfare.
And that problem can be illustrated with with escalators.
Or rather, with a study about escalators that came to the conclusion that shoppers riding up an escalator were more likely to give to a charity bell-ringer. That study has been cited and repeated multiple times since its publication. There’s only one problem with that:  it’s complete bollocks. Well, there are two problems with that. It’s not only complete bollocks, but even though it’s been publicly exposed as complete bollocks,  people -scientists - continue to cite it:
But retracting the paper doesn’t mean it will go away. It will probably continue to pop up in Google Scholar searches, just like the papers of the disgraced psychologist Diederik Stapel. Those news articles will still get stumbled on, forwarded, Tweeted. Unsuspecting readers will pick up those books and read aloud the passage about the incredible escalator trick to their spouses. There may be Salvation Army bell ringers standing hopefully at the tops of escalators next Christmas season, counting on the magic of science.
Maybe that isn’t a big deal in this case. It was a harmlessly interesting study. But it goes to show how once a study leaves journal-land for the wider world, there’s really no erasing it. A nifty finding takes on a life of its own, even if it’s flawed or fraudulent.
It may not be a big deal in this case, either. Or it may be. Security guards and authority figures on campuses nationwide will think, rightly or wrongly, that they need to pay attention to people who fit the shooter’s profile.
But over time, this pattern of press behavior is a big deal. Despite a quite apparent liberal bias in the press, certain widely-held, pernicious conservative and liberal notions are pandered to quite regularly. In this case, the largely conservative anti-intellectualism that I believe was pandered to in the initial characterizations of Holmes. The idiocy even extended to questioning his right, as a graduate student, to earn a stipend and do with that money what any other wage-earner may legally do. OF COURSE Holmes “pocketed” the money he received from his employer for showing up to work (repeat after me – graduate studies are a full time job). James Holmes was not an “unemployed college student”. Don’t you “pocket” the money your employer pays you?
OF COURSE taxpayer money indirectly  purchased the weapons that devastated that movie crowd. Where the fuck do those reporters think Academic science money, including salaries, comes from? Private donors?  Just because Holmes or any other first or second year science graduate student is being paid to spend two years training in a job that second rate internet new gathering website authors (who drank their way through college majoring in the easiest subject  they could find) could never hope to be considered for does not mean he was “pocketing” federal money.
When post office employees so famously shoot up their places of employment, where are the internet pundits crying that taxpayer money funded those massacres? I’ll tell you why they are absent. Because the blue collar guy at the Postal Service does not fit any narrative beyond “going postal”.
At least one major news blog site published a rebuttal  to those idiotic notions that Holmes, or any other scientific trainee, is not entitled to a stipend. Thank you LA Times for at least printing the letter, but that missive by a real subject matter expert should have been on the front page of the newspaper, not stuffed in the back of your science coverage. And those headline-generated impressions of the taxpayer-teat-sucking super-egghead gone bad will linger like the lingering lie of gender-based lexical budgets , and enter the subconscious decision making of millions of voters.
Even if the press is engaging in this sloppy reporting out of reflex, laziness and a desire to play in Peoria, i.e. not out of malice, those on the right who like to use this sort of misinformation are happy that the press reliably engages in it.
Not for the first time, nor I suspect sadly, for the last, do I view the press as less of a Fourth Estate and more of a Fifth Column for the ignorant and those who would manipulate them.