Field of Science

Maryland puts football ahead of academics - again

It's holiday season, and here in the U.S. that means one thing: football!  Right?  I mean, what could be more important than football? 

At least that's what the president and regents of the University of Maryland seem to think.  This week, they announced that after 60 years, UMD is leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference, to join the Big Ten.  (Note to non-football fans: the Big Ten has 12 teams.  Yes, I know.)

The president of UMD, Wallace Loh, announced the deal just after the Board of Regents approved it a few days ago, in a secret meeting.  "Today is a watershed moment for the University of Maryland," he said.

Wallace Loh is an accomplished academic, but he is turning out to be a disaster for the University of Maryland.  His first action, just a month after joining the University in 2010, was to announce a wasteful $2 million buyout of the football coach, who had another year left in his contract. Eager football boosters couldn't wait to replace him, so Loh went along with that deal, spending over $2 million to bring in a new coach who, I should mention, has had two lousy seasons so far.  Not that it should matter.

Then, less than a year later, President Loh announced that he was eliminating 8 other sports teams to save money for football, basically doubling down on his big-time football bet.  Well, there goes any pretense that he's doing this for the student-athletes.

To see how deeply confused UMD's Loh is, consider what he said in his press release announcing the move to the Big Ten:
"We wanted to join this athletic conference because we also wanted to join its associated academic consortium. The extensive opportunities ... for collaborations with our peer AAU and flagship universities in education, research, and innovation will boost the University of Maryland's ascendancy in academic excellence."
Oh really?  Let's look at the evidence, shall we?  The ACC has 12 schools including UMD, and has just added 3 more.  Using the U.S. News rankings of national universities, we can calculate that the average ACC school is ranked 48th in the country.  The average Big Ten school is ranked 58th.  (UMD is tied for 58th nationally.)  So although the Big Ten isn't bad, a move to the Big Ten from the ACC is clearly a move down academically.

Dr. Loh is a smart man, and I doubt he truly believes that joining the Big Ten will help Maryland academically.  But he does claim it will help the athletes.  He claimed that:
 "We will have the capability to support better our student-athletes -- in the classroom and on the field -- and compete successfully at the highest levels."
Never mind that the Big Ten schools are, on average, much further away from Maryland than the ACC schools, which will require more travel from the athletes. But travel is educational, right?  

Obviously this is all about the money.  USA Today's headline got it just right: "Maryland leaves ACC for more money."

Here's a question for Dr. Loh: since Maryland will make more money in the Big Ten, will you pay your athletes higher salaries?  Oh right, these are "student-athletes": they mustn't get paid!  Never mind that their coaches make the highest salaries in the university. 

Why does no one seem surprised that a university president, a highly educated scholar with both a Ph.D. and a law degree, is spending so much time on football?  Why is a university spending any time at all running a big-time sports entertainment system?  As I wrote last year:
The football-industrial complex has too much power over our universities. Nothing else can explain how we spend so much money and time on football, which contributes almost nothing to students' education, while academic departments are cutting faculty and staff. The culture of football worship has gotten so out of control that I think the only solution is to get rid of it entirely.
It's not just UMD.  For instance, just last spring the University of Florida proposed to eliminate its Computer Science department to save $1.4 million, while simultaneously increasing its athletic budget by $2 million.  After my article about this plan went viral, UF's president reversed that decision.

Stated simply, football has corrupted America's universities.  Top administrators have completely lost sight of their academic mission, and instead seem to believe that their primary job is to provide sports entertainment for the TV-watching public.  There is only one way to fix this: get rid of football.

But wait!  Football fans don't have to lose their beloved teams.  I have a better proposal.  Each university can spin off its football program as a for-profit, separate enterprise.  The team can pay license fees for the use of the university's name and pay to rent the stadium.  Then it can pay its coaches whatever it wants; after all, they won't be university employees.  More important, these minor-league professional teams (which is what they already are) will have to pay their athletes.  We should get rid of the current system, where the athletes are basically indentured servants. (For more on this problem, see Taylor Branch's remarkable piece, "The Shame of College Sports", which sportswriter Frank DeFord called "the most important article ever written about college sports".)  

Let's remind university presidents, and boards of regents, and everyone else involved in running a university that their mission is to provide education, research, and training for their students and the world. They should get out of the business of providing television entertainment.  And they should most certainly put an end to the practice of profiting off the labor of unpaid student athletes while neglecting their education.

How to predict an election? Ask the math geeks.

Mark Newman's rendering of the 2012 U.S. election,
 weighted by population

It's time for a bit of gloating.  No, not for Democrats over Republicans, though I'm sure that's going on.  It's time for the math geeks to throw a bit of scorn at those insufferable, over-confident frat boys who call themselves political prognosticators, and who spent most of the past two years telling us that they knew how the election would turn out.  They bloviated endlessly on talk shows, explaining why their favored candidate would win, and how he would do it.  

Politicos behave just like promoters of quack treatments when things go wrong: they always have a ready answer, and somehow their "theories" can never be proven wrong.  It seems that the only thing these guys are really expert at is getting themselves onto talk shows. Now that the election is over, let's hope that happens a bit less often.

Instead, pay attention to the math geeks.  The statisticians and analysts who build mathematical models based on multiple polls and other data absolutely nailed this election.  Nailed it!  Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight blog predicted the winner of the presidential election in all 50 states.  So did Sam Wang , a biophysics professor at Princeton, over at the Princeton Election Consortium blog.  And so did Simon Jackman, a political science professor at Stanford who writes for HuffPo.  Nate Silver first drew everyone's attention in the 2008 election, when he correctly predicted 49 out of 50 states.  Last week's success shows that this is not an anomaly, although it has the mathematically challenged pundits in a tizzy.

Hopkins statistics professor Jeff Leek wrote a nice explanation of how these models work over at Simply Statistics, so I won't explain it here.  Suffice it to say that mathematical models don't work by chattering with their buddies at political rallies.

Mathematics delivered the goods.  And make no mistake, this is the way of the future.

That hasn't stopped the punditocracy yet.   On election night, Republican hatchet man Karl Rove was sputtering on Fox News that Romney could still win, after Fox News itself - which is little more than a media arm of the Republican party -called Ohio and the election for Obama.  Rove, who predicted that Romney would win with 285 electoral voites, also orchestrated the spending of over $127 million on Romney, not to mention his spending on 12 Senate candidates, 10 of whom lost.  Has he admitted he did anything wrong?  Nope.

Rove wasn't the only one wrong.  As Techcrunch pointed out
"every single major pundit was wrong - some comically wrong."  
The Atlantic created a detailed score sheet listing all the pundits and their predictions of the overall winner, the electoral college total, and the winner in all the swing states.  And indeed, even those who predicted correctly that Obama would win got most of the swing states wrong.

Here's what needs to happen.  The television networks need to realize that political expertise is meaningless when it comes to making statistical predictions.  Let's treat political forecasting just like weather forecasting, using models that are demonstrably accurate (such as Silver's).  Television stations can hire attractive political "forecasters" (because physical appearance matters on TV, like it or not) who will describe the latest forecasts just like today's weather forecasters do.  Now that I think of it, why not let the weather forecasters do both jobs?  We already have them in place at every local TV station in the country.  Think of all the money the networks will save.

But what about all that air time they need to fill with talking heads arguing about who will win elections?  Well, this makes about as much sense as having two self-proclaimed experts arguing about whether it's going to snow this weekend.  Maybe they can find real experts who will argue about issues rather than about who's ahead in the polls.

Ha ha, just kidding!  Who wants to hear about issues?  But if you must know how the race is going, ask the math geeks.

Why we want to believe chocolate makes us smarter

Eat chocolate, win Nobel Prize?

The New England Journal of Medicine published a study two weeks ago showing, amazingly, that eating chocolate might make you smarter.  To be precise, the author, Franz Messerli, was wondering if chocolate consumption might be correlated with the overall cognitive function of a population.  He couldn't find any data on national intelligence, so instead he used the total number of Nobel prize winners per capita.  The correlation between chocolate consumption and Nobels is remarkably strong, with a p-value less than 0.0001, meaning that the odds that this is due to chance are less than 1 in 10,000.

Ha ha! Dr. Messerli was just kidding.  Or was he?

The article itself reads like almost any science paper.  It includes a straight-faced presentation of the data and scholarly references suggesting that the brain-enhancing effect of chocolate might be due to flavanols, which may be "effective in slowing down or even reversing the reductions in cognitive performance that occur with aging."

In fact the entire article appears to be dead serious until the end, where Messerli makes the wry comment that
"The cumulative dose of chocolate that is needed to sufficiently increase the odds of being asked to travel to Stockholm [where the Nobels are awarded] is uncertain."
And then, in his disclosure of conflicts of interest, he reports "daily chocolate consumption, mostly but not exclusively in the form of Lindt's dark varieties."  Hmmm, this doesn't seem like a serious science paper after all.

Word of this article swept through the halls of academia the day after it was published.  I heard it being discussed among my colleagues, who were concerned that NEJM had published yet another example of misleading statistics.  It took a couple of days for us to realize that it was a joke - based on real data, but a joke nonetheless.

The media reported the story widely, and a few reporters figured out the ruse, but the parody was just too subtle for most.  Reuters wasn't fooled, as reported on their own site and on Fox News. They reached Messerli by phone, who confessed that
"the whole idea is absurd, although the data are legitimate and contain a few lessons about the fallibility of science."
The Associated Press reporters were slightly suspicious, opening with "take this with a grain of salt." But they went on to report it as straight news, and their story appeared on CBS News, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere.

Larry Husten, my fellow columnist at at Forbes, reported it as straight news with the headline "Chocolate and Nobel Prizes Linked in Study." Time magazine fell for it too.

Two medical websites, Medical News Today and WebMD, not only took the story seriously, but also bought into the explanation that the effect is caused by flavanols, which are found not just in cocoa, but also in red wine and green tea.  Sounds like an ideal diet to me.

Slate's Brian Palmer had an interesting angle. He reported the story as straight news, but then investigated why the Swiss eat so much chocolate.  (Answer: innovation in chocolate-making, and wealth.)

Why do we want to believe chocolate makes us smarter?  Well, obviously because we'd love for it to be true.  And as Messerli points out, there have been some serious studies linking flavonoids to better health and cognitive function.  But the notion that chocolate leads to Nobel prizes is a little too good to be true.  I'm reminded of the study that I wrote about back in April that claimed chocolate would help you lose weight - which was little more than wishful thinking masquerading as science.

Still, with Halloween just past, many parents are probably wondering how much to let their kids eat.  Those Nobel-champion Swiss consume about 11 kilograms per year, about 30 g (1 ounce) per day.  That's 3 of those little mini-chocolate bars.  And parents, maybe you should have a few too - just in case Messerli is right.