OCPA carries my latest, on a bill in Oklahoma that would enact the truly extraordinary reform of holding school board elections on Election Day. The edu-special-interests hate the idea, because of course public schools are “the cornerstone of democracy” but not, like, the kind of democracy where schmucks like you and me get a vote:
It goes without saying that they consistently oppose, in the name of democracy, everything that might make education actually accountable to the people it’s supposed to serve. Whether it’s transparency about what is being taught or school choice policies or legal protection for parental rights, actual democracy is always somehow anti-democratic. Education schools have even invented elaborate political theories to justify defining “democracy” as their unaccountable rule over us.
One of the cornerstones of this strange kind of democracy is holding school board elections at extremely unusual times—generally in the spring. Surprising as this is to ordinary people who are blessedly unfamiliar with the techniques of political rent-seeking, it’s actually quite rare for school board elections to be held on Election Day. This ensures that only the most highly motivated voters participate – the special interests who profit by governing the system for their own advantage. So school boards, who are the front-line party responsible for negotiating terms with school employees, mostly represent the interests of the employees, not the public who pays for the system and is supposed to be served by it.
It was a very light year for Higgy nominations. I suspect that this is not because we have a shortage of (un)worthy nominees. Perhaps instead our team of regular nominators is just a bit worn out by all of the Higginess (to coin a new term) that surrounds us. But we must soldier on.
Greg submitted Steven Novella and David Gorski for consideration. These two academic doctors run a web site that claims to promote science in medicine. Unfortunately, under intense pressure from bullies, they abandoned that mission to erase and repudiate a positive review of Abigail Shrier’s book on the excesses of the transgender craze among young people, Irreversible Damage, that had been published on their web site. These actions by Novella and Gorski were cowardly and intellectually dishonest, making them (un)worthy nominees for The Higgy.
In addition, while Novella and Gorski’s behavior was deplorable, giving inhumanitarian awards to every academic who displayed cowardice and intellectual dishonesty would be like handing out speeding tickets at the Indianapolis 500. Besides, those who really deserve condemnation in that saga are the bullies who torment people for saying eminently sensible things about the excesses of the transgender craze among young people and the academic institutions and organizations that should be protecting scholars against such abuse.
The recipient of this year’s William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year Award is Abraham Flexner. Flexner’s promotion of the false notion of an expert as someone with a credential is a perfect example of PLDD. He imagined that he could reshape the world for good with his controlling plans, but his righteous good intentions blinded him to the damage that would be done by paving the way for the certification of professions and occupations of almost every sort. This marks the first time that my nominee for The Higgy has been selected.
The announcement of winner (loser) of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year Award has been delayed until Monday, April 18. The Higgy and taxes are due at the same time and both are being extended due to the observance of Holy Week and Passover holidays.
Get your nominations and filings in so that you don’t have to pay a penalty!
The word “expert” shares the same root as the word “experience.” Both are derived from the Latin past participle for “try” — having tried. This origin reflects the long held understanding of what makes someone an expert. It is having done something for a long time so as to have attained mastery of the skill and wisdom from the experience.
Our current understanding of what makes someone an expert is having received a credential that certifies expertise. Someone is an expert in public health because they have a degree from a prestigious institution and hold a high office with responsibility over public health. There is no need for them to have had a long record of experience or demonstrate any wisdom. In fact, they can be relatively young and demonstrably foolish, but they have the credential and position and are therefore expert. If the gross malpractice of our public health response to the pandemic revealed anything, it is how destructive our modern notion of expertise has become.
The false and harmful substitution of credential and position for experience and wisdom in defining expertise has spread to almost every occupation. Teachers are deemed expert because they are certified, not because they have learned from practicing their trade and demonstrated effectiveness. Academics are thought to be experts in their areas because they have written on the topic and are faculty in that field, not because they have done relevant things and shown themselves to be wise. The confusion of credentialing for expertise has spread occupational licensing as a barrier to a whole host of careers, from braiding hair to making floral arrangements.
Abraham Flexner played a major role in creating this modern understanding of what makes someone an expert. Flexner earned a BA in classics from Johns Hopkins University at age 19 after only two years of study. He also briefly studied psychology at Harvard and University of Berlin without earning a graduate degree from either institution. He then returned to his native Louisville and opened a private prep school to promote his ideas about education. As Wikipedia describes it, “‘Mr. Flexner’s School’ did not give out traditional grades, used no standard curriculum, refused to impose examinations on students, and kept no academic record of students. Instead, it promoted small learning groups, individual development, and a more hands-on approach to education.”
In 1908 he wrote a book critiquing higher education for its use of lectures and outdated pedagogical techniques. This book impressed the Carnegie Foundation, which commissioned Flexner to investigate medical education and and make recommendations for how best to prepare doctors. The resulting Flexner Report is heralded for having reshaped and remarkably improved the training of doctors. That may be true (although there have been some serious, negative side-effects), but Flexner’s model for training doctors also negatively shaped how we train almost every profession and the associated notions of expertise.
When Flexner wrote his report, doctors were largely trained by a combination of apprenticeship and lectures. Prospective doctors were not required to have attended college. They were not expected to have studied basic sciences. They simply paid existing doctors to shadow them and/or enroll in one of the 155 medical schools, most of which were unaffiliated with a university and owned by doctors who gave lectures.
While condemning almost all of the existing institutions, Flexner praised Johns Hopkins, his alma mater. The correct approach according to Flexner was to require students to have attended college prior to medical education, have medical schools there were attached to universities and licensed by the state, and to emphasize hands-on learning, including laboratory-based science instruction.
These practices, which were quickly and widely adopted, may have been sensible but they may have been unnecessary to mandate and came at a significant cost. Raising the bar for entry into medical school by requiring that students first attend college and raising the expense of medical education by replacing cost-efficient lectures with laboratory science instruction drove almost all of the institutions training black doctors out of business. The quality of medicine may have improved overall but the sudden disappearance of newly trained black doctors and the difficulty of black patients to access white doctors had a negative effect on healthcare in the black community. In addition, state licensing of medical schools with the intentional goal of limiting the supply of newly trained doctors dramatically increased the costs of healthcare.
But the worst part of Flexner’s model for training doctors is that every profession insisted that they should adopt the same approach even if there were no improvements in quality to compensate for the discriminatory and financial costs of raising the barriers to entry through credentialing. The argument was that if you want to have high quality professionals you have to adopt Flexner’s approach. Now teachers, dental hygienists, optometrists, pharmacists, accountants, lawyers, and every other profession needed to be trained like doctors. In all cases, apprenticeship models where people could acquire experience in a professional, master its skills, and demonstrate wisdom were replaced with systems of credentialing.
Credentialing may be warranted in certain circumstances, but the burden of proof for requiring credentials should be on the profession wishing to raise barriers to entry given the discriminatory and financial costs that necessarily follow. We are also weakened in resisting these unwarranted calls for increased credentialing because we have broadly accepted Flexner’s modern understanding of expertise.
It is particularly ironic that Flexner was the champion of this modern notion of expertise as credentialing given how he lacked both the credential and experience as a doctor. Flexner reshaped medical education without ever having studied or practiced medicine. His claim to expertise, such as it was, was in pedagogy, having run a prep school. Lacking experience and wisdom from the practice of medicine, Flexner asserted a false expertise in medical education that made it easier for him to be foolish about the negative side-effects of his recommendations.
The crucial role of science is to provide logically and empirically rigorous tests, in cases where such testing is possible and methodologically appropriate, of our beliefs about the world we live in. We need these tests because for the most part, our beliefs are shaped by social forces that are not strongly (or at all) influenced by the question of what is actually true. As Jonathan Haidt has evocatively put it, reason rides belief not like a human rides a horse but like a human rides an elephant – for the most part, the elephant goes where it wants. The ability of one isolated individual to control their elephant is very limited, and so we are mostly at the mercy of social systems that seek to manipulate and exploit our beliefs for their own interests. Social systems that instead force us to hold one another accountable for being true and responsible in our beliefs are the only effective countermeasure – and science, which is at bottom a social system defined by mutual adherence to an agreed-upon set of methodological principles, is one of the most valuable of these systems.
Unfortunately, as the tragic example of William Higinbotham himself proves so pungently, scientists themselves are only human – elephant riders, subject to all the pressures of manipulation, exploitation and conformity. And the very success of science in providing reliable tests of belief has made the capture of “science” as a label socially valuable. Everyone wants to be able to claim that their policy is “evidence based,” so suborning the scientists has become one of the most important paths to political power.
Thus we have seen the rise of new institutions, created by scientists for the purpose of resisting these pressures.
And, inevitably, the subversion of these new institutions by the pressures they were created to resist.
Steven Novella and David Gorski run a website called Science Based Medicine. There are only three names on the SBM masthead: Novella (founder and executive editor), Gorski (managing editor) and Harriet Hall, who has the title “editor.” Stick a pin in that fact, we’ll come back to it.
As the About page of SBM puts it: “Online information about alternative medicine is overwhelmingly credulous and uncritical, and even mainstream media and some medical schools have bought into the hype and failed to ask the hard questions. We provide a much needed ‘alternative’ perspective – the scientific perspective.”
Novella and Gorski regularly draw a distinction between “evidence based” and “science based” medicine. “Evidence based” means you can point to some kind of superficially plausible piece of evidence supporting your view. This is the cheap and corrupt standard by which science is subverted. “Science based” means all available evidence that meets scientific standards is taken into account, with awareness that each individual piece of evidence is subject to ambiguity and uncertainty.
They blame “online information,” “mainstream media” and “some medical schools” for bowing to hype and pressure from merely evidence-based approaches, making a science-based approach impossible in those venues.
But when they themselves came under similar pressure, they folded. Faster than . . .
They made the mistake of publishing a review of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage, which calls out the many claims in transgender medicine that are evidence-based without being science-based. In such a brand-new area of study, how can we know much of anything yet?
Unsurprisingly given the mission of SBM, the review was positive. And it was not by some fly-by-night outside contributor, but by Hall, editor of SBM and the only other name on the masthead besides Novella and Gorski. In fact, independent journalist Jesse Singal, who was instrumental in bringing the subsequent SBM shenanigans to light, went to Hall’s SBM archive page and counted 700 articles she had contributed to the site before this review.
Why do I have to post Singal’s count of how many articles Hall contributed? Because I can’t count them myself. The SBM archive pages for Hall and Novella are mysteriously not available to the public any more. (Gorski’s works fine, which may have to do with the fact that he is listed as the person who manages the author information pages.)
You know what else you can’t read at SBM any more? Hall’s book review. But you can read it at Skeptic magazine, which has reprinted it.
Now, as you read the account below of of Novella and Gorski’s actions, to grasp their true Higgyworthiness you have to set aside not only your opinions on transgenderism and more specifically the merits of Shrier’s book, but even the merits of Hall’s review.
Assume in Novella and Gorski’s favor – in the teeth of all indications to the contrary – that transgenderism is great, that Shrier’s book is awful, and that Hall’s review is likewise awful.
Now, even on that set of assumptions, try to read this series of events without laughing:
Novella and Gorski pull down Hall’s review and post a statement explaining that the review did not meet SBM’s editorial standards, but not explaining how or why it did not meet their editorial standards; the statement blusters angrily, across several paragraphs, about “false accusations” that the review was removed for political reasons, but without specifying any other reason the review was removed.
This having mysteriously failed to alleviate anyone’s doubts, Novella and Gorski write and publish a lengthy article in which they repeat a series of false and anti-scientific activist talking points about gender science. Singal has the lengthy tale of the tape, but to take a few examples, they falsely claim that the DSM-IV treated all people who self-identify as another gender as mentally ill; they claim there is overwhelming evidence that the officially endorsed but nonbinding professional standards of youth transgender treatment are widely adhered to, while citing no such evidence and ignoring clear and convincing evidence to the contrary; and they apply extremely high methodological standards to studies whose findings they don’t like while ignoring even more serious methodological problems in studies whose findings they do like.
SBM then publishes two articles by transgender activists that are equally full of false and anti-science activist talking points, including an impressive number of provable factual lies about the contents of Shrier’s book – even some made-up quotations that aren’t in the book! – as well as false statements about the underlying studies and news stories. One of the authors, in the course of attempting to discredit a set of studies, actually misrepresents the studies in a way that makes them look better than they are, presumably out of ignorance. Singal again has the lengthy tale of the tape.
As Singal and others point out these errors, SBM corrects some and lets others stand.
After having officially issued corrections of made-up quotations and other lies from the author of the second follow-up article, SBM proceeds to publish an additional article by that author – in case any shred of SBM’s credibility remained undemolished.
The walls of enforced silence around unscientific but “evidence-based” claims related to transgenderism seem now to be collapsing, partly because of this and this.
The effort to stop people from asking questions about science is, on the face of it, futile and Higgyworthy.
Which of course means such efforts are now going to be redoubled. Singal is still on the case; the headline on his latest article about this topic: “Researchers Found Puberty Blockers And Hormones Didn’t Improve Trans Kids’ Mental Health At Their Clinic. Then They Published A Study Claiming The Opposite.”
However, few people beclown themselves as obviously as Novella and Gorski. They are truly worthy of The Higgy.
OCPA carries my latest, which compares the government push to get more and more kids into pre-K with the recent (additional) dismal research findings on pre-K’s effects:
The study followed students through sixth grade and found negative outcomes lasting all the way through the study period. Students who attended pre-K had lower test scores than those who did not. A negative pre-K effect was also found for disciplinary infractions, attendance, and receipt of special education services.
Nor is this the first study to question the benefits of pre-K, at least for most students. A few years ago I published an OCPA report going over the issues in pre-K, including the results of decades of empirical research on its effects.
But the finding that pre-K is neutral or negative on the whole doesn’t mean pre-K is bad for every child; it just means the negative effect on some children outweighs the positive effect on others. Instead of trying to get all kids or no kids into pre-K, we might try getting the right kids in:
In fact, I serve on the board of a private school that offers a pre-K program. We don’t do that because we enjoy hurting kids. We do it because in the community where we serve, there are kids who will benefit from this program. It doesn’t matter how many other kids there are who wouldn’t benefit from it, as long as there are at least enough who would benefit to justify offering a pre-K classroom.
But we aren’t using the power of the state to shove families into pre-K indiscriminately. We know our community, and we work with parents to identify the students who would benefit from our program. No child walks into our doors unless both our staff and the parents agree that the child will benefit from being there—and nobody is applying political pressure to that decision.
Parents should be empowered with school choice, and then the state should back off and let them decide.
Your humble Higgy correspondent apologizes for the tardiness of the opening bell for this year’s William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year Award. He was at a conference. He apologizes for the crime of prioritizing anything above JPGB.
You’d think he’d take this responsibility more seriously, given the weighty impact of The Higgy on world events. Last year’s winner, hobbled by the public humiliation of Higgy dishonor, has already been defenestrated from her position by a San Francisco electorate that was just too rabidly right-wing, too hidebound in Philistinish conservatism, to appreciate the fine performance art of her PLDD governance. (Among the troglodyte Frisco reactionaries organizing the recall election effort that removed her was Gaybraham Lincoln.)
We’re not technically late, because April 1 was still the last business day. But you’re free to nominate your humble correspondent for The Higgy anyway!
Yes, with the arrival of April Fool’s Day, it’s time once again for the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian of the Year Award – “The Higgy.” Each year, we (dis)honor the most (un)worthy candidate from your nominations of people afflicted with PLDD (not BSDD, note the difference).
Get your nominations in by April 15, Tax Day – definitely a day to discountenance petty little dictators!
To inspire you to greatness in discerning pettiness, we carry on immemorial Higgy tradition and reproduce below the text of Jay’s original post launching The Higgy. Good hunting!
As someone who was recognized in 2006 as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, I know a lot about the importance of awards highlighting people of significant accomplishment. Here on JPGB we have the Al Copeland Humanitarian Award, but I’ve noticed that “The Al” only recognizes people of positive accomplishment. As Time Magazine has understood in naming Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Ayatullah Khomeini as Persons of the Year, accomplishments can be negative as well as positive.
Where were we? Oh yes. It is important to recognize negative as well as positive accomplishment. So I introduce “The Higgy,” an award named after William Higinbotham, as the mirror award to our well-established “Al.”
Just as Al Copeland was not without serious flaws as a person, William Higinbotham was not without his virtues. Higinbotham did, after all develop the first video game. But Higinbotham dismissed the importance of that accomplishment and instead chose to be an arrogant jerk by claiming that his true accomplishment was in helping found the Federation of American Scientists and working for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. I highly doubt that the Federation or Higinbotham did a single thing that actually advanced nonproliferation, but they sure were smug about it…
I suspect that Al Copeland, by contrast, understood that he was a royal jerk. And he also understood that developing a chain of spicy chicken restaurants really does improve the human condition. Higinbotham’s failing was in mistaking self-righteous proclamations for actually making people’s lives better in a way that video games really do improve the human condition.
So, “The Higgy” will not identify the worst person in the world, just as “The Al” does not recognize the best. Instead, “The Higgy” will highlight individuals whose arrogant delusions of shaping the world to meet their own will outweigh the positive qualities they possess.
We will invite nominations for “The Higgy” in late March and will announce the winner, appropriately enough, on April 15. Thanks to Greg for his suggestions in developing “The Higgy.”
As always, we like to avoid the really hot, controversial issues here at JPGB.
OCPA carries my latest, in which I argue that parents worried about how schools handle sexuality and gender issues should fight for school choice, not for a futile new command-and-control regulatory regime:
We could adjudicate the merits of all these individual cases. In some I think the traditionalists’ concerns are valid; in others I think the traditionalists go too far. I’m never shy about stating my views on sexual morality; if you want to find out what they are, be my guest. For now, though, I’m more interested in why this is happening—and, in particular, why a century of fighting about sex in schools seems to have produced nothing but more fighting about sex in schools….
Like it or not, the modern world is persistently pluralistic. We can no longer assume that our neighbors believe the same way we do about the things that matter most in life. Partly that’s a direct result of the American experiment in religious freedom; people who disagree about God are going to disagree about many other things as well—about sex perhaps most of all, since sex has been closely tied to the sacred in all human cultures. And partly it’s a side effect of economic and technological development, which makes it much faster and cheaper to make radical changes in how we see ourselves and how we live. In a world where teenagers literally carry a phone-shaped window to the entire world around with them in their pockets all day, it’s unreasonable to expect the same kind of homogenous communities that used to be normal.
Choice would be more effective (more than zero definitely counts as “more”) in giving parents real control over education, and would have other benefits as well:
Above all, this would restore the bond of trust between parents and schools. Parents would know that their children were receiving an education they support. Schools could finally get a break from being constantly torn to shreds by culture warriors trying to seize control of them, and get back to teaching.
And—don’t miss the importance of this—students would know that the messages they hear about sexuality in the classroom are also supported at home, and vice versa. They would grow up in a morally coherent social world, instead of growing up amid constant fighting between competing authority figures over which morality is right. I’m a traditionalist on sexual issues, but in my opinion, children are much more harmed by growing up in an environment of moral incoherence and conflict between authority figures than in an environment of stable, coherent progressivism.
In its big new paper on bold post-pandemic state policy reforms, OCPA includes my case for ESAs:
Of course, it is always the right time to do the right thing. But during a crisis, it is especially important to think carefully about first principles. A crisis is the time when we will be most sorely tempted to compromise our most important commitments under the sway of special interests and specious fashions. Let’s hold on tight to what is good.
And our first principle for education should be to put parents first:
Human beings are not generic units, interchangeable and automatically functional, like the dollars in a teacher union’s bank account or the bubbles on a standardized test or the ones and zeros in a computer program. Human beings are unique creatures with unruly minds, hearts, and wills that are made to become mature, responsible, and free in a just community of equals. And it is obvious to anyone who knows the natural “facts of life” that the process of preparing a human being for mature freedom rests with families, since that is where human beings originally come from (the exact processes involved being a subject outside our current scope). To say that schools exist to educate is to say that they exist to help families rear their children.
I get into why choice should be universal, especially after the disruption of the pandemic, and why ESAs are the best policy design.