Monthly Archives: November 2011

How to teach vaccines

In response to my failure to adequately teach two of my students to rationally assess vaccine risk, SC200 student Rachel Tedesco suggested I do it the South Park way.

Somehow I feel the need to add that Rachel is physically tiny with a blog personality as big as the sun (12, 3). And that she could not believe she said Ass Burger twice in her email to me. I also think that despite initial claims, she does find science interesting. She’s exactly the sort of student I want to influence. When she is a PR executive running the western world, I want her thinking positively – and critically – about the science that affects her job and her life. Let’s hope.


During the class session with the Dean on the Penn State scandal, one of the students asserted that professors with tenure teach less well.  

I was a bit shocked. I had never thought about it much, but my instinct was that the reverse would be true: faculty striving for tenure would put less effort into teaching because they have other things to do. It’s very hard to get tenure if you haven’t got serious grants, but grant success has become the hardest task in the business. To teach well, you just have to be better than the gal/guy down the corridor. To get a grant, you have to be among the best in the world. 


On top of that, your application has to be completely perfect, guaranteed to work and so incredibly well written that not a single one of the many reviewers will be in the slightest way offended or bored. The National Science Foundation forces scientists to show how their science will impact teaching. I can’t help think that the system itself bleeds out the time, energy and enthusiasm that generates the very teaching excellence we all want.  
The Dean answered the student by saying that …. 

…not everyone tap dances well, meaning that Penn State appoints faculty for their abilities on a number of different criteria, of which teaching is quite rightly just one. But just a few months back, prompted by an article our local newspaper about the luxury of tenure, my colleague Marcel Salathe and I concluded that the talented could survive without it and indeed, that maybe it would sharpen everyone’s game to be without the tenure safety net. Sure there might be some subjects (economics?) where the protection is necessary so that faculty can investigate the unpopular. But most disciplines don’t need it, surely not ours. And there are PSU Faculty who take it seriously easy once they get tenure. 

But they are not Penn State’s finest. The hardest working people in my Penn State have tenure, many of whom are exceptional teachers. And over the summer, for the first time ever, I became grateful for tenure. My science is warped enough by the conservatism of the grant awarding process. I realized in June that if my family’s security depended on conservatism as well, I’d be reduced to pathetic. 
The experience was this. In March I drafted a paper I currently consider one of my best*. We thought hard about every word. The paper concerns the bizarre orthodoxy that you must take your antibiotics long after you feel better. For over 15 years, I have found that idea odd. I finally wrote down my disquiet. When the paper was about to come out, I sent it to my very supportive NIH Program Officer, who passed it to the NIH press office. Next thing I am getting calls from NIH folk worrying about the message. And yes, in a very real sense we were questioning conventional wisdom. But maybe conventional wisdom is wrong? Nevertheless, I found myself working with the College of Science press office to write a defusing press release. The result was so insipid, barely any press outlet covered it.  
So I learnt two things. Its very hard to have a serious discussion about medical orthodoxy.  And tenure is essential so that we feel free to question. Now more than ever we need Penn State employees to challenge authority without fear.
*I reserve the right to change my mind if it turns out we are wrong.

The Perfectionist

Chromatic_Perfection__Take_2__by_DonBertone.jpgBy this time in the semester, I can see some interesting things in the class grade book. There are students who are going to fail because they are not blogging. I worry students who do not like writing are disenfrancised by the heavy blogging requirement of this class (40% of final mark). I tried to have lunch with three such students to find out; naturally the two blokes I asked did not show up.  But the other student was very interesting. Turns out she is unable to blog because she loves writing. This means, evidently, that it has to be perfect soaring prose, literature for a new age, and on a topic no student has thought to blog about ever before.


The University

The Dean of the Eberly College of Science, Dan Larson, was supposed to be talking to the class today about the Universe. We decided over the weekend that it would be more appropriate given current events if he talked to the students about what has just transpired at Penn State.

And he sure did.  It was remarkable that someone so senior would stand in front of students – nonscientists all, so formally not his responsibility – and be so, well, darned honest. Several times I cringed, worrying that if there was a journalist in the room, SC200 would make the news for all the wrong reasons (“Dean says…”). The students did not muck around. “Should JoPa have been sacked?”. “For closure, we need to hear you say what you think about that”, “Should Spanier have been sacked?”, “Does the rot extend to the Board of Trustees?”, “What did you think of the riot?”, “Should Spanier be allowed to return to campus as regular Professor?” etc etc. And the Dean challenged the students. Penn State is us, he said. We can all do something about the future of Penn State.
It’s all been as shocking for Faculty as students. We too feel it viscerally. So many people have been let down by what we have to hope was so few. One of the most eloquent comments by a student concerned the real victims: we can do something about Penn State’s reputation by what we all do next; the victims can never get normality back.
And a beautiful thing happened, unscripted.  A student wanted the Dean’s reaction to the claim that some seniors had second job interviews cancelled because they were Penn State. I pushed them hard on that (I can’t believe it is true). No one had first hand experience of it. The Dean said very aggressively that if it was true, it was outrageous and you didn’t want to work for that organization anyway. And then a student left the room, to return ten minutes later to mouth to me “I got the job”. I told the class her second interview had obviously gone VERY well, and she got a round of applause. It’s a serious job, with benefits and a future (and she gets to live in Colorado). She’s on her way. And given the Dean’s performance, I think we are too.


Teaching students has its challenges.  But this?

The night before Thursday’s class JoePa, arguably the most influential person in Penn State’s history, got sacked after 62 years on Penn State’s football coaching staff. Students rioted. Graham Spanier, the University President, who had been in our class just a few weeks earlier, was also sacked. By Thursday, Penn State was front page news globally. Everyone on campus was confused and angry. TV and satellite trucks were everywhere.
I spent most of Thursday morning wondering what to teach that afternoon. I decided I could not teach the regular stuff I had planned. Science seemed oddly irrelevant, for once.  
So I decided we had to discuss the situation, at least for 15 minutes. I polled the students that did turn up (easily the worst turnout yet) on whether sacking the President was fair. They thought it was, 34 to 5.  Some of the students wanted to talk about the football coach sacking. I didn’t. They love him and, like the President, he has done so much for Penn State. But the problem started in football, and it was allowed to persist there. How could the guy at the top of football stay?  It happened on the President’s watch; it happened on JoePa’s watch.
So I asked the students about Sandusky.  
He’s the guy accused of the child molestation which started all this. The grand jury indictment makes him sound like a monster. First off, I asked the students to imagine the consequences if he is innocent. Gasps. Yeah I can’t imagine it either. All this turmoil for nothing? No, lets assume he did do what they say.
In which case, why did he do it?  He knowingly wrecked the lives of those kids and their families. He trashed his wife’s life, the life of his adopted kids, and his own outstanding reputation. And he trashed the Penn State ethos, JoePa, Graham Spanier, and a lot of otherwise very good people.
So why did he do it? He must have had extraordinarily strong urges to have sex with young boys. Where do those urges come from? We never ask this as a society. We throw around meaningless labels instead. Evil. Deviant. Sick. Animal. Pervert. Monster.
Of course, the students and I had nothing concrete to offer by way of explanation either.  It reminds me of medicine in the 15th century. Discourse based on ignorance. I think it’s pathetic. To understand is not to exonerate. It’s the first step in trying to properly prevent child molestation. Slapping labels on it does nothing. It’s moronic anti-intellectualism at its worst. I predicted to the students that in 50 years we will have a proper understanding. But only if society unleashes scientists to work on this one.
One student texted the Comment Wall to say it was inappropriate of me to turn a tragedy like this into a teaching moment
Nah.  That’s the whole point.  Science is not irrelevant.

American education

From a beautiful article in this week’s Time magazine from Fareed Zakaria, one of Time‘s many great journalists (italics mine):

time cover.png

“I went through the Asian educational system, which is now so admired. It gave me an impressive base of knowledge and taught me how to study hard and fast. But when I got to the U.S. for college, I found that it had not trained me that well to think. American education at its best teaches you how to solve problems, truly understand the material, question authority, think for yourself and be creative. It teaches you to learn what you love and to love learning. These are incredibly important values, and they are why the U.S. has been able to maintain an edge in creative industries and innovation in general.

Many of my students are hungry for American education at its best and work hard on my attempts to offer it. This is indeed so the point of it all. I agonize about whether I am pushing them hard enough at this. And how to reach the other students, for their own good and for everyone else’s. Zakaria’s article appears in an issue of Time which is asking where the American dream went.

Power anecdotes

Sometimes I wonder if I am the wrong guy for this job.


In recent classes I have discussed the power of anecdotes. I do this in the context of vaccines. A few parents have seen their children turn autistic in the days following vaccination and assume causality. And it’s hard not to (particularly if the parent telling the story is gorgeous and eloquent). But many vaccines are given around the time autism sets in, so it could be coincidence. Science is needed to check for cause and effect.  
And there’s the rub.  Hundreds of studies and thousands of statistical analyses have failed to find any evidence for a link…and yet, those anecdotes remain very powerful. And way easier to understand than a bunch of tedious science, none which ever directly proclaims: ‘Vaccines safe!’  Instead, the best soundbite a scientist can honestly contribute is: ‘No evidence vaccines are not safe….’  A tough asymmetry in public health messaging, and one from which humanity suffers.
I thought I had taught it all pretty well. But the other day, I overheard a student saying she would no longer be getting vaccines and she wouldn’t vaccinate her yet-to-be-born children. Until my class, she had never realized there were risks…. So much for my attempts to put tiny risk into perspective. 
Another student tells me he was damaged by the MMR vaccine; he and his parents — and the doctor who eventually cured him — are completely convinced. Quite how the vaccine damaged him, and how the cure could have cured him…well it was all a bit odd and I’d have liked to know more.  But the student drew back from my questioning.
So I didn’t do well by either student.  But that’s two powerful anecdotes I can use next year to teach, well, the power of anecdotes to overwhelm science.


First revision session today on Class Test 3. Three students pointed out an error in Question #20. It was a very inspired question, but not with ‘ulcer’ accidentally replacing ‘cancer’. That rather dramatically changed the meaning of the question. Which might explain why only a minority of students divined that I meant ‘cancer’, and 75% of the students chose the answer that made sense if you read ‘ulcer’.  So three opinionated students get the 5% extra credit that goes with finding a mistake in one of my tests. And memo to other students: this is a strong argument for bitching at me if you have a good case.

So the revised marks distribution is as follows.  No student got all the remaining 26 questions correct, but under my algorithm, nine got 100%.  A, 13; A-, 17; B+, 9; B, 11, B-, 14; C+, 8; C, 7; D, 10; Fail, 1; 10 no-shows. The average mark, excluding the no-shows, was 84%. So after all is said and done, an improvement over Class Test 2, at least on the students’ part.
I like to think of these things as teachable moments. Even well-meaning scientists screw up. And students should argue their corner. It makes everyone think.


octopus-tentacle.jpgGuest instructor Faye Flam, a science writer from the Philadelphia Inquirer and professional blogger, talked in class Tuesday about how one of my students was misled by a superficially reliable source.  The student post itself, the subsequent comments and then the class discussion prompted Faye to write it all down.

Bottom line: seek independent views; watch for uncritical press releases; extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. 
And for me, a fantastic story to teach next year.