Video of the day

Awesome time-lapse of fog rolling in in California.  The part with the Golden Gate Bridge is especially awesome.  (I’ve posted below, but you should definitely click through and watch it larger)

Rape in Asia (and in marriages everywhere)

Perhaps you’ve heard about the new report on the prevalence of rape in Asia (nice summary from CNN).  It’s a problem (and surely a problem all through the world).  Let’s just be clear on that.  That said, I really don’t like ambiguous definitions of sexual interactions being used as “rape.”  When it comes to “partner rape” the study uses:

Had sexual intercourse with his partner when he knew she didn’t want it but believed she should agree because she was his wife/partner

I think reasonable people can definitely disagree on this, but I just don’t see that as “rape.”  I agree to stuff I don’t want to do all the time because my wife wants me to do them.  My wife agrees to stuff she doesn’t necessarily want to do all the time because she’s my wife.  It’s called being married.  Sure, on some level sexual intercourse is different from washing dishes, cleaning gutters, picking up a kid’s toys, etc., but if it’s rape just because a partner who might really rather not want to have sex agrees to in order to make their partner happy, I really don’t see that as “rape” or sexual violence in any meaningful way.  Now, it was clear from the full results that a lot of men simply feel entitled to women’s bodies.  And that’s a very real problem.  And the amount of rape under other– more appropriate in my book– definitions is a very real problem.  But I don’t think it really serves the cause of women’s rights to overstate inarguable cases of sexual violence by muddying the waters with problematic definitions of rape like this.  

Photo(s) of the day

This week’s Animal Photos of the Week are so good, I could not limit myself to just one:

Jaguar ambushes caiman
This jaguar in Brazil swam silently across the river to ambush the unsuspecting caiman on the opposite bank. The 20-stone cat sank its teeth and claws into the 8 foot reptile, then carried it off in its jaws, swimming back across the river with its catch.Picture: BARCROFT
Two geese  looks out of step as they surrounded by a massive flock of black birds. The white geese cut a striking figure against the dark storm clouds and thousands of Red Winged Blackbirds
Two geese looks out of step as they surrounded by a massive flock of black birds. The white geese cut a striking figure against the dark storm clouds and thousands of Red Winged BlackbirdsPicture: John Fan/Solent News

Oklahoma and medical abortion

Really interesting piece from Emily Bazelon on the court challenge to Oklahoma’s law that requires abortion providers to “follow FDA protocol” when administering the drug that induces the abortion.  Well, that sounds reasonable enough until you consider the following:

In general, an FDA protocol is written at the time a drug is approved, based on the available research at the time. After doctors start prescribing a drug, more studies come out, and they may well suggest that a drug has other uses, or can be better administered at a different dose or in a different way.  Doctors keep up with the latest findings and shift based on the accumulating evidence. This is what’s called “off label” use. “It’s perfectly legal and acceptable,” says Susan Wood, a public health professor at George Washington University and former FDA assistant commissioner for women’s health. (She quit over the Bush-era fight about approving the emergency contraception Plan B). “It’s also common in medicine.” The American Medical Association estimates that one-half of all prescriptions written are off-label, Yale medical school professor Nancy Stanwood told me.

When the FDA approved medical abortion in 2000, it was already legal in 18 countries. The standard regimen at the time was a dosage of 600 milligrams of Mifeprex, doled out over three clinic visits, and only to women in the first seven weeks of pregnancy. Since then, research has shown that it’s safe to use 200 milligrams, given at two clinic visits and then at home, for up to nine weeks of pregnancy (Here’s a handy comparative table). TheAmerican College of Obstetrics and the World Health Organization now advise 200 milligrams, given up to nine weeks. According to the brief filed in the Oklahoma case by the Center for Reproductive Rights, “96 percent of all medication abortions now involve an evidence-based regimen that departs from” the FDA protocol that’s on the label.  [emphasis mine]

Regardless of your position on abortion, you should be very concerned with the idea of the government micro-managing medicine to this degree (of course, based on yesterday’s post the need for certain basic regulations is damn clear).  Here’s Bazelon’s conclusion, which I think is exactly right:

But the Oklahoma law, and the likely Supreme Court battle over it, turn on a different question (to which Wood answered with a resounding no): Should states single out Mifiprex for different treatment from any other drug? On a deeper level, should states be in the business of ordering doctors to provide what they believe, based on the best medical evidence, is substandard care? Only in the field of abortion does the government interfere in this way with doctors and their patients. Is that really what the Constitution allows?


College rankings

You may have heard that the US News college rankings came out today.  I used to love and be fascinated by these things.  I think Duke may have even made it as high as #4 back in my day (surely because they were a bit better at gaming the rankings back then).  Then I learned better.  The rankings do have some value (Harvard really is better than East Carolina), but they are ultimately an incredibly blunt instrument.  And they don’t really tell us what the “best” colleges are (presumably, best would mean provide the best education), but rather which colleges are the most prestigious (surely correlates with quality education,but I’d guess r=.4 at best) and the richest.

Meanwhile, at the Atlantic John Tierney provides a handy (and lengthy) summary of what’s wrong with these ratings.  And there’s a lot.  Among those shortcomings I find most compelling:

  • The rankings don’t take into account measures of the quality of education at each institution, nor is there any consideration of “outcomes” (for example, what do students at College X actually learn, and do its students get jobs upon graduation?). This weakness in the rankings earned a recent slam from Education Secretary Arne Duncan and comment from President Obama when he announced in August the Administration’s own proposalfor rating colleges.
  • A very substantial chunk (22.5 to 25 percent) of an institution’s ranking comes not from any hard data but from a “reputational” measure, in whichU.S. News solicits “peer assessments” from college presidents, provosts, and admissions directors, as well as input from high-school counselors. U.S. News claims that by giving “significant weight to the opinions of those in a position to judge a school’s undergraduate academic excellence,” the rankings allow for the inclusion of “intangibles” such as “faculty dedication to teaching.” Critics say this component turns the rankings into a popularity or beauty contest, and that asking college officials to rate the relative merits of other schools about which they know nothing becomes a particularly empty exercise because a school’s reputation is driven in large part by – you guessed it – the U.S. News rankings. According to Malcolm Gladwell, this reputational measure is simply a collection of “prejudices” that turn the U.S. News rankings into a “self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • The whole exercise implies a sort of authoritative precision and rigor that impart real meaning to the rankings, but that it is simply nonsense to say that, for example, Duke “ranks higher” than Johns Hopkins or that Middlebury should rank 13 spots higher than Wesleyan.
  • Because the rankings have a popular audience, they encourage colleges and universities to game the system – i.e., to do what they can to raise their place in the rankings by, for example, spending lots of money on things theU.S. News formula deems important or by aggressively increasing the size of their applicant pool so they can turn away a higher percentage of their applicants, thus showing themselves to be “more selective” and thereby raising their rank.

That gaming is definitely a huge part of it.  If US News gives weight to class sizes under 20, many universities will literally cap classes at 19 in response.  If class sizes over 50 are penalized, look for lots of caps right at 50.  I certainly took these ratings a helluva lot more seriously before 1) I became an actual social scientist and learned about concepts such as measurement and external validity and 2) actually spending the last 23 years of my life in a variety of academic institutions.

One thing I will say is that, ceteris paribus, better students does equal a better education.  You really do benefit considerably as a college student from having brighter, more engaged peers.  To me, that’s the real advantage of going to a Harvard or Duke.  The fact that they are doing any better job educating you there, I’m largely dubious of.  Though, not entirely dubious.  Insofar as the students are brighter and more ambitious, the faculty can more comprehensively and consistently challenge their students without fear of leaving a huge chunk of the class behind.  Like, I said, there is some there there in these rankings, but they need to be taken with a shaker’s worth of salt.

When it comes time for my kids to make college decisions, I’ll be far more interested in the Washington Monthly rankings.

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