29 September 2012

Exams: the fake certificate of knowledge

University courses are typically accompanied by exams. Exams are supposed to test the students' knowledge and are accompanied by a grade given to the student. When a student gets a good grade, they are happy they have learnt the subject. The university is also happy that it has managed to provide the knowledge to the student. The funding body of the university (e.g., the government) is also happy. Everybody is happy.

My experience, however, in several countries shows that exams are not doing what they are supposed to do. (With rare exceptions, of course). The funding bodies of universities put pressure to the universities to maximize the number of students graduating per year. Therefore, it is to the interest of the university not to have failures. Exams are designed in such a way that the students pass. In fact, they do not even test the students' knowledge. Instead, whole courses are being taught in a way that the students pass the exam.

What is absolutely incredible is that, in several countries, like Greece for instance, the student can take a resit exam as many times as they desire, until they pass! This creates an enormous pressure to the teachers to pass the students because they cannot have a growing number of students taking the same exam again and again. In many universities in the UK, students are allowed to take the exam twice per year. In Sweden, they are given three chances per year, and each exam is 5 hours long. Students realize that universities are under a lot of pressure to pass them in the exam and to give them good grades, that they now do not even care about learning the subject properly. Rather, they demand that they be taught material that is examinable. In the US, the problem is solved by grading on a curve. That is, it is predetermined that, say 20% of the students must get an A, 30% a B, and so on, and, regardless of the absolute marks, the scale is adjusted accordingly. A practical solution, actually. Many European countries do even worse things (like multiple resit exams), and often they pretend that exams are flawless testing of students' abilities. Whereas, in reality, it is often a fraud.

Students who want to learn should be aware that exams are designed so that the average student passes immediately. Therefore, those students who feel the need to learn should be aware that exams are not designed for them and should seek alternative routes. Very hard, indeed, but it's much better to tell good students the truth, rather than fictitiously boost their egos by giving them good grades, when the grade inflation is so high, that only an idiot can fail to realize what is going on.

In Scotland, grade inflation starts early on. At early elementary school. Here is a first-hand incident, happened to the son of a friend of mine in a good public school. The kids are given a multiple choice test. After taking the test, the teacher provides the students the answers and asks them to have a second go, without taking the original papers back. In other words, the teacher hints to the students that they can correct their mistakes, based on the answer sheets he gives them. My friend's son found this so hilarious, and, despite his age, he understood the fraud. In this way, the teacher makes sure that the kids in the class (well, those who get the hint that they can cheat) get very good grades. He then goes to the principal and boasts about his class's performance. The principal presents the results to the board of education. The board of education concludes that everything is very good and keeps funding the school. The students' parents are proud of their offspring's performance. Everybody is happy. And the fraud goes on.

This is how ridiculous the whole exam system has become. It is a failed currency, something which does not represent anything real. In fact, I maintain that there is often little correlation between one's grades in exams and one's abilities. Even if things were better (without several resit exams, ad infinitum, without exams that last as long as students like), writing an exam which actually tests what is supposed to test is difficult. And who has the time, or cares, to do so? And why should the teacher care? After all, no university will give such a diligent teacher an award. Awards are only given based on students' impression. If a teacher actually tries to design an exam which will test students' knowledge, then the students will be unhappy, the university will be unhappy with the teacher (who may punish him or her--real cases of this nature do exist), the government will be unhappy, and so on. The teacher who wants an easy way out, will teach the students how to pass the exam, will write exams so that students pass at the first attempt with good grades, will, as a result of this, get a teaching award, and, probably, his salary may even go up.

The story, as I have described it, is quite generic. One may ask if it applies to this or that place. My answer is that it applies much more frequently than not. So frequent and widespread is the fraud, that if one picks a country at random and a university in this country at random, one has a high chance of seeing the phenomena I described above. Notable exceptions do exist, fortunately, but they are becoming rarer and rarer.

The more widespread the fraud is, the more likely it is for a university to have thought through cover-ups, ways of  "proving" that everything works perfectly. For this reason, pedagogical bodies have been formed, which are supposed to test the quality of teaching and education. Endless bureaucrats have designed pedagogical rules which, if followed--they claim--then, undoubtedly--they claim--the education provided will be of first rate.

But the problem remains the same: no matter how many awards are given, no matter how many pedagogical controls are applied, making the exams disjoint from learning is a disgusting practice which is only paralleled by the Catholic Church's cover-up of its pedophile priests.

Pope's ex-butler vs. Pope's sex cover-up

It is quite remarkable that the reaction of the Vatican to the stealing of confidential documents by Paolo Gabriele, the Pope's ex-butler, was so quick. In almost no time, the Pope decided that it was illegal to have documents revealing corruption be stolen, and reacted by sending Gabriele to the justice. He may face a few years' imprisonment in an Italian prison (because the Vatican is not a State and has no prisons).

Now, compare this with the sex cover-up by the Pope. For decades, one could molest children from his position as a priest in the Catholic church, without fearing any legal prosecution.  The Pope, particularly when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 to 2005, protected the abusers through the Church’s Canon Law and ignored the victims. It took years and years for him to say a lukewarm sorry, without ever acknowledging that he actually protected the sex abusers and, therefore, without facing the legal implications. For a great description of the Pope's involvement in the sex scandals, I recommend Geoffrey Robertson's, The Case of the Pope.
For stealing of documents, one faces the law. For abusing children, thousands are protected by the Church. I don't think more should be said.

As for the argument that the Pope is the head of a State, and that he has immunity from the law, this is wrong. According to international law, the Vatican is not a State. Here is a quick explanation for this, by  Anthony Aust, international law expert on statehood and sovereignty.

11 September 2012

William Lane Craig and “Intellectual” Apologists

Recently, I was disgusted, once again, by the pretentiousness and silliness of the sophisticated-wannabe apologist, John Lennox. First, because he pretends to be totally independent of creationist jerks (he claims that the creationistic beliefs are nonsense), but nevertheless he accepts an award from Phillip Johnson, one of the most despicable creationists. Second, because he, like so many other religious bloggers, has disabled comments on his website and he does not respond to messages. Below is an excellent posting about Lennox-type apologists, namely those who (mis)use science in order to "prove" their point. It is taken verbatim from aNadder.

Different apologists have different styles. One style is to be an academic apologist who is often associated with rigour and intellectualism in the eye of their audience. They often have academic posts and might have a reasonable and decent collection of published work, usually in philosophy. The best examples are probably William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga and possibly (as highlighted by a recent post) John Lennox.
I find this type of intellectual style of argument a lot more annoying in the end because I see it as nothing more than marketing/branding. The vast majority of arguments I’ve seen from such apologists are just as bad as any other apologist’s argument. But because of the marketing involved in stating your argument formally, or citing academic references, people often fall for it. This includes atheists, for instance Luke of CommonSenseAtheism often fawned over just how rigorous William Lane Craig is compared to his unprepared and scrappy atheist debate opponents*.
The best antidote to this is Chris Hallquist’s several extended takedowns of William Lane Craig. In 2007, Chris wrote a chapter-by-chapter review of Craig’s book Reasonable Faith. It’s long but I can’t recommend it enough since it goes through loads of techniques common to these apologists. In the last month, Hallquist has also been busy with short blog posts on specific aspects of William Lane Craig’s arguments, which I also recommend (it covers things extensively):
  1. Next up: Everything I have to say about William Lane Craig
  2. A note on my sources for Craig’s arguments
  3. The Leibnizian cosmological argument
  4. Kalam I: Why the Big Bang isn’t evidence for God
  5. Kalam II: Philosophical arguments for the beginning of the universe
  6. Kalam III: The very brief part that actually argues for God
  7. Two more revealingly bad cosmological arguments from Craig’s debates
  8. The fine-tuning argument
  9. The moral argument
  10. Craig’s case for the resurrection of Jesus
  11. Jesus’ resurrection: was Paul hallucinating?
  12. Why is Craig so dishonest?
  13. On Dawkins’ refusal to debate Craig
The bottom line is that the intellectual arguments are being given disingenuously and these apologists admit it. As Hallquist documents extensively, William Lane Craig’s actual Christian belief stems from the testimony of the Holy Spirit. He considers unbelief to be a wilful denial of the Holy Spirit and explicitly states that his use of reason is ministerial only (ie. that reason is subservient to the gospels and should only be used as a tool to draw people to Christianity). Similarly, Alvin Plantinga’s hallmark argument is that belief in a Christian God should be considered “properly basic”, meaning at the same level as our other beliefs that we don’t need to justify (eg. that we and the external world both exist).
In the end, the intellectual theatrics of these apologists are a mere tool. They’re meant to convince people of beliefs the apologists themselves admit don’t stem from reason. A good litmus test for this is evolution: Lennox, Craig and Plantinga all have seriously misguided views on evolution that border on creationism. I think they tend to play this down as this would undermine their intellectual branding. This might be a good litmus test for one of those apologists: probe their views on something like evolution a bit more. They may continue to spout the same refuted canards, just using prettier language.
The bottom line is that these are all very smart people. There’s also no denying that they have had legitimate academic careers and have contributed to secular philosophy in various fields. But when they’re arguing for Jesus, they’re not being intellectual at the base level. Which means there’s no reason to give their views more respect than the “obviously ridiculous” apologists like Ray Comfort (aka bananaman).

*I agree that Craig has usually been better prepared and better structured than his opponents. He’s also better at debating tricks and misdirection. But these two things do NOT mean that he has the better argument even in a single instance.

4 September 2012

London Metropolitan University: the real question

We recently read in the news that London Metropolitan University has had its right to sponsor students from outside the EU revoked, and will no longer be allowed to authorise visas.


The UK Border Agency found that some students did not fulfill the residence requirements, that some did not speak proper English and some did not attend classes.

Having worked in the UK, at Heriot-Watt University, I'm all too familiar with the situation: universities (now in Sweden too) would like to attract as many non-EU students as possible, because they bring real income.

Of course, the problems identified by the UKBA may very well be significant. However, the real question, is: are the students qualified to study the field they choose? My experience from Heriot-Watt University is  that many of the students admitted there were not qualified. Obviously, they could pay the tuition, and, most likely, they did have the proper visas. Moreover, they did attend classes because they were asking us, teachers, to monitor attendance (last time I saw this happening was in high school). So, even when all formalities (visa, language, attendance) are satisfied, why is it that nobody asks the real question: do the students qualify? And when I say "qualify" I am using the verb with its proper meaning. Do they have the background (and abilities, of course) to study a particular field in a university?

Once, in Austin, TX, someone had phoned me and told me he wanted to do PhD with me. I asked him to apply. He said he could pay his way through because he had a million dollars. So what? A million, or a billion, dollars should not be a sufficient condition for getting a PhD. He was not happy with what I told him and somewhat threatened me. I told him to go elsewhere.

Obvious question should be, obviously, asked. But I don't see this happening.

The question should be asked by the admitted students themselves: "Did they admit me because I paid a hefty fee, or because I actually am able to study and have the requirements?" At the minimum, it should be asked by those students who both want to get a degree (i.e., a piece of paper) and learn. (The two, unfortunately, seem not to be entirely equivalent.)

The ex-minister of Economics and Technology of Germany, Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg, paid someone to write (parts of) his PhD thesis. When that was found out, he had to resign. 

It's not nice to go ahead by paying only. Money should correspond to something real too and this is a contract between the University and the student: the former is obliged to provide the latter a proper education, and the latter must have the intellectual abilities and/or skills in order to attend the course of studies proposed by the former. They should both agree on checking those abilities and skills as a vital part of the contract.


What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant