‘Fake research’ comes under scrutiny

By Helen Briggs

The scale of “fake research” in the UK appears to have been underestimated, a BBC investigation suggests.

Official data points to about 30 allegations of research misconduct between 2012 and 2015.

However, figures obtained by the BBC under Freedom of Information rules identified hundreds of allegations over a similar time period at 23 universities alone.

There are growing concerns around the world over research integrity.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee has begun an inquiry into the issue to reassure the public that robust systems are in place in the UK.

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Opening a Window into the Minds of Language-Impaired Children

By Larry Greenemeier

Imagine if every conversation you had was like speaking with someone in a foreign language that you only partially understood. Your conversations—to the extent they could be called that—would be filled with an exasperating combination of confusion, frustration and even embarrassment at being unable to comprehend many of the words and phrases that native speakers take for granted. That’s what it feels like for the nearly 8 percent of U.S. kindergartners who suffer from a developmental disorder called specific language impairment (SLI), except that instead of struggling with a foreign language they find it difficult to communicate verbally in any language.

Children with SLI—also called developmental language disorder—can hear just fine but have difficulty processing the meaning of spoken words. It takes them longer than other children to learn to speak. When they do start to form words and sentences they tend to leave off the grammatical endings of verbs that indicate past tense, and their words do not always come out in the right order. These difficulties affect their ability to read, and thereby their ability to learn in general. Researchers have struggled for years to understand the disorder, challenged by their communication barrier with the children they study. In recent years scientists have begun to realize that their best source of information about SLI is visual rather than verbal—a child’s gaze speaks volumes when words fail.

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Big data renews fight over animal origins

By Amy Maxmen

Evolutionary biologists have battled for years over which animal lineage came first — sponges or comb jellies. The answer could transform how scientists understand the evolution of the human nervous system, digestive system and other complex traits.

A study published on 16 March in Current Biology, sides with the sponges, using an unprecedented array of genetic data to deduce that they were the first to branch off from the animal tree of life1. Sponges are simple creatures that lack a head, nerves and guts, so the conclusion makes intuitive sense. But big data doesn’t necessarily lead to better answers, some researchers warn.

“They’ve got a large data set, but almost certainly this is not the final word,” says David Hillis, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Texas at Austin who was not involved with the project. “This is just such a tough problem to solve.”

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Shaking Up the Dinosaur Family Tree

By Nicholas Wade

For more than a century, the placement of dinosaurs on the branches of their family tree has been based on the shape of their hips.

This classification has now been radically challenged by proponents of a new tree which, if accepted, swaps large subfamilies around, sheds new light on dinosaurs’ evolution and suggests they may have originated not in South America, as widely assumed, but perhaps in some Northern Hemisphere locality such as Scotland.

A Victorian paleontologist, Harry Seeley, declared in 1888 that dinosaurs should be divided into the bird-hipped (Ornithischia) and the lizard-hipped (Saurischia) categories that have been accepted ever since.

Under this system, the heavily armored stegosaurs and ankylosaurs are placed on the Ornithischian branch of the family tree. The Saurischian branch includes both sauropods like the herbivorous diplodocus, and theropods like the meat-eating tyrannosaurs.

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More money than sense

Take one terrible NY Times pundit who lives on an alien planet of her own, and toss her into the esoteric hothouse world of Silicon Valley, and all you’re going to get is a hot mess, a weird dive into the delusions of very rich smart people with no reality brakes to check out the truth. Maureen Dowd talks to Elon Musk and other pretentious luminaries. It’s painful if you prioritize critical thinking.

They are two of the most consequential and intriguing men in Silicon Valley who don’t live there. Hassabis, a co-founder of the mysterious London laboratory DeepMind, had come to Musk’s SpaceX rocket factory, outside Los Angeles, a few years ago. They were in the canteen, talking, as a massive rocket part traversed overhead. Musk explained that his ultimate goal at SpaceX was the most important project in the world: interplanetary colonization.

Hassabis replied that, in fact, he was working on the most important project in the world: developing artificial super-intelligence. Musk countered that this was one reason we needed to colonize Mars—so that we’ll have a bolt-hole if A.I. goes rogue and turns on humanity. Amused, Hassabis said that A.I. would simply follow humans to Mars.

In a world overpopulated with billions of people, where climate change is a looming threat, where all those people are a petri dish for cultivating new diseases, where the majority live in poverty, where in many places clean water is a struggle to find, where the most militarily powerful nation has just elected an incompetent, narcissistic clown to be in charge, two men sit down to talk. One says the most important project in the world is to put a tiny number of people on a barren rock. The other says the most important project is to create more powerful computers that can think on their own.

And then the two of them start arguing over the threat of artificial intelligences enslaving, or liberating, humanity. These intelligences don’t exist, and may not exist, and will definitely not exist in the form these smart guys are imagining. It is the grown-up, over-paid version of two children arguing over who would win in a fight, Darth Vader or Magneto? The Millenium Falcon or the Starship Enterprise? Jesus or Buddha?

And then Ray Kurzweil shows up.

Fuck me.

Dowd just parrots these absurd conversations and doesn’t offer any critical perspectives, and lord help us, the participants certainly don’t. Can we just lock them all in a well-padded room with an assortment of action figures and tell them to get to work to resolve the most important dispute in the universe, which toy is powerfulest?

Or could we at least have one skeptic in this mess to try and focus the discussions on something real?

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‘Children in illegal religious schools being failed’, says BHA

Significant action by local and national authorities is required to ‘secure the rights, well-being, and education of the children’ trapped in illegal religious schools, the British Humanist Association (BHA) has told Hackney Council as part of its inquiry into unregistered schools.

The inquiry is being run by the Council’s Children and Young People’s Scrutiny Commission and comes in response to ‘a number of articles in the national media, in the spring and summer of 2016, that questioned the safety, safeguarding and quality of education’ provided in unregistered schools predominantly serving the strictly Orthodox Charedi Jewish community. The BHA has been responsible for almost all of that coverage, and in recent years has been working closely alongside former pupils of these schools to pass on information to the authorities and highlight the experiences of the children within them.

The BHA’s response notes:

  • On the well-being of pupils: ‘the testimonies of former pupils suggest that children in unregistered schools are neither safe nor sufficiently safeguarded. One former pupil recalls the following, for instance, about his time at school: “Physical punishment was commonplace and the atmosphere was one of perpetual fear”. Whistleblowers have frequently reported physical abuse by staff in the schools.
  • On the curriculum taught at unregistered schools:there is almost no effort to teach children about other cultures, religions, or ways of life, or certainly not in a positive light, and as a result pupils gain only a very limited understanding of the society that exists outside of their own community… By the time they reach their teens, most Charedi boys are unable to communicate effectively in English.’
  • On Hackney’s historic inaction: ‘the Council has failed to deal with the presence of unregistered schools in the borough for a number of decades. Many of these illegal settings have been open for as long as 50 years, and it is simply unacceptable that in all that time nothing meaningful has been done to tackle them, nor secure the rights, well-being, and education of the children within them.’

In addition, the BHA makes three recommendations aimed at addressing the problem. First, it calls for the registration and inspection of out-of-school settings, which many full-time illegal schools claim to be, in line with proposals consulted upon by the DfE last year. Second, it recommends that a mandatory register of home educated children be introduced so as to identify which children are being legitimately home educated and which are actually enrolled at illegal schools. And third, it calls on Hackney Council to properly use its powers to ensure the education and safety of children in unregistered schools, specifically through the use of school attendance orders and education supervision orders.

BHA Education Campaigns Manager Jay Harman commented, ‘The children trapped within illegal religious schools are isolated, indoctrinated, and denied their right to a broad and balanced education. They are denied the freedom to speak freely and for themselves or to engage with the society outside of their immediate communities, and it is therefore on their behalf and on behalf of those who have managed to escape that we have submitted our evidence to Hackney Council.

‘The rights of these children to a happy, healthy, and safe upbringing and to any education at all have been neglected and ignored by the authorities for far too long, and it is vital that this inquiry finally represents a genuine commitment to dealing with the problem.’


For further comment or information please contact the BHA’s Education Campaigner Jay Harman on jay@humanism.org.uk or 0207 324 3078.

Read the BHA’s full response: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/20170315-Final-BHA-response-to-Hackney-Council-consultation.pdf

Read the BHA’s previous news item ‘Hackney Council launches consultation on illegal religious schools following BHA campaigning’: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/02/19/hackney-council-launches-consultation-on-illegal-religious-schools-following-bha-campaigning/

Read the BHA’s previous news item ‘BHA reveals illegal Jewish school allowed to stay open for years despite repeated Ofsted warnings’: https://humanism.org.uk/2016/01/15/bha-reveals-illegal-jewish-school-allowed-to-stay-open-for-years-despite-repeated-ofsted-warnings/

Read the BHA’s previous news item ‘BHA exposé: unregistered “faith” schools enjoying charitable status despite operating illegaly’: https://humanism.org.uk/2016/03/31/bha-expose-unregistered-faith-schools-enjoying-charitable-status-despite-operating-illegally/

Read more about the BHA’s work on ‘faith’ schools: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/schools-and-education/faith-schools/

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.

Dumbass Douthat and the clueless conservative perspective

Good god, but the most appalling morons can find a comfortable sinecure on the opinion pages of that blithe harbor for the right-wing tropes of the bourgeois, the NY Times. The latest is some nonsense from the routinely nonsensical Ross Douthat, “Break up the liberal city”. You got the gist from the title — he’d like to somehow rip apart all those big cities, because they’re hotbeds of liberalism.

We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies — not as growth-enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good. And instead of trying to make them a little more egalitarian with looser zoning rules and more affordable housing, we should make like Teddy Roosevelt and try to break them up.

Right. Because, like monopolies, big cities are artificial constructs built by violating rules of organic growth and evading regulation. Oh, wait: the opposite of that. He doesn’t seem to consider that maybe it’s not that liberals created cities, but that the diversity and richness of life within a city creates liberals. He also doesn’t have a proposal for how he’s going to disrupt this property of cities. Perhaps he’s going to model it after Mao’s down to the countryside movement? But you know how it goes: scratch a conservative, find an authoritarian.

But I have even greater contempt for his next proposal:

Which is why we’ll go further, starting with the deep-pocketed elite universities clustered around our bloated megalopolises. We’ll tax their endowments heavily, but offer exemptions for schools that expand their student bodies with satellite campuses in areas with well-below-the-median average incomes. M.I.T.-in-Flint has a certain ring to it. So does Stanford-Buffalo, or Harvard-on-the-Mississippi.

HAS THIS ASSHOLE NEVER HEARD OF LAND GRANT UNIVERSITIES? Every state has a network of them. I work in a satellite campus of the University of Minnesota; this branch is located in rural western Minnesota, 3 hours from Minneapolis. The University of Minnesota system has five branch campuses in the Twin Cities, Duluth, Crookston, Morris, and Rochester. We also have MNSCU, which grew from the old system of normal and agricultural colleges, and consists of a parallel network of 30 colleges, 7 universities, and 54 campuses (how can you have more campuses than colleges? Ridgewater College, for instance, has two campuses, one in Willmar and another in Hutchinson). There are 142 colleges in this state, counting all the private colleges, the community colleges, the tribal colleges, the vocational colleges, etc.

Where, exactly, does Harvard-on-the-Mississippi fit into this diverse ecosystem of educational institutions? What advantage would it have over, say, St Cloud State University or the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, which are all located on the banks of the Mississippi already?

I guess if you are a NY Times pundit, you never need to look at how the world actually works to criticize it. Or if you’re a Harvard graduate, like Douthat, you can’t imagine a university that isn’t Harvard.