Sunday, April 30, 2017

Beware "scholars" with fake credentials

Political Scientist Andrew Richards, a professor at University of North Carolina, recently published a damning exposé of White House insider "Dr." Sebastian Gorka. It is certainly worth reading in whole in order to gain some insight into how this particular fraud managed to fly under the radar.

On paper, perhaps, Gorka's credentials would have appeared legitimate: his dissertation was awarded in 2007 while he was enrolled at Corvinus University of Budapest. Unfortunately as Dr. Richards digs beneath the surface, it becomes quite apparent that there is less than meets the eye when it comes to Gorka's alleged expertise and scholarship. Richards summarizes the shoddy work contained within the dissertation, and also goes into the composition of the dissertation committee itself, which appeared to have at least two individuals who had obtained no more than a Bachelor's level degree and one Ph.D. who was a personal friend of Gorka's. In addition, it is not clear when exactly Gorka attended Corvinus University, nor if he was even present when the dissertation was accepted by his committee. Dr. Richards' statement that Gorka essentially was awarded a title from the equivalent of Trump University is sadly appropriate. In essence, the late Hunter S. Thompson would have had about as much right to claim the title of "Doctor" as Sebastian Gorka. The one thing Gorka was adept at, for a while, was to market himself as an anti-terrorism expert, based on a dodgy degree, and target those who were easy marks: media outlets, politicians, and audience members who were looking for an "expert" who would confirm their most deeply-held prejudices under the ruse of offering expert opinion.

What this sad affair says for the legitimacy of any degree awarded from Corvinus University I certainly am in no position to offer a judgment. Perhaps this was an isolated incident at an institution that normally offers better quality control. Or not. At the moment, I would defer to someone with some expertise on the status of Corvinus as an institution. The matter certainly does not help the institution's reputation.

For those curious, Dr. Richards does shed some light on the process of awarding a Ph.D., and the typical composition of a dissertation committee. His description is generally fairly similar to my own experience. The bottom line is that all committee members have the degree that they may or may not be willing to confer upon the Ph.D. candidate, depending on how the dissertation process up to and including the defense plays out. A good outside member is typically someone from a different department at the institution, and is present to assure that the process was above board. None of that appeared to be the case for Gorka. And given his lack of credentials, those seeking insights into terrorism and strategies for combating terrorism would be well advised to look elsewhere for legitimate experts.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Today We March For Science

Once I learned that there would be a March for Science event, I knew I'd have to be involved somehow. My initial modest hope was that there would at least be a satellite event in our state's capital, Little Rock. To my pleasant surprise, Fort Smith ended up holding one of the satellite events. Our event would likely be dwarfed by the larger events worldwide, but that Fort Smith is now a viable host for events like this is itself a sign of the times we live in. I know many of the organizers, as they are primarily on faculty with me. There was a good deal of support thanks to our local Indivisible chapter and Western Arkansas TOGETHER WE WILL. Many of us at today's event were scientists and science educators. Many more were fellow travelers. We share a common concern: the state of support for our sciences in the US.

It seems obscene that now that we're well into the 21st century that we would need to hold rallies in order to remind the public that we exist and that we matter. And yet here we are. The level of hostility toward the sciences in the US seems to be at an all time high. Nor has there been more than lip service paid to science education, it would seem. As the Dean from our university's STEM College acknowledged, the proportion of students majoring in a science discipline is woefully small compared to other developed nations as well as those that are developing (China, Singapore, etc.). As I recall E. O. Wilson writing in Letters to a Young Scientist, there is good reason to be optimistic about the continued development of the sciences globally. Regrettably, the US appears to be in the process of abdicating its leadership role in the sciences. That will not bode well for us in the long run. We march in part to remind our fellow Americans of that reality. We march to remind our fellow human beings of how integral the sciences are to our civilization.

Scientists are often hesitant to get involved in public life and would prefer to let the data speak for themselves. The reality is that our data do not speak for themselves. They need advocates. How we go about our work needs to be better communicated to the public. We test hypotheses based on theoretical models. We search for converging evidence over time. In many cases, such as with climate change or many media violence cues, there is considerable converging evidence supporting that those phenomena are real and that they should concern us. The qualifications for working in the sciences needs to be better communicated. There are plenty of misconceptions about the level of IQ (only one small facet of intelligence) needed to become a scientist. Wilson himself once noted that he was not the smartest man in the room - and yet he went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work. He worked hard, persisted, and learned how to network with those who had expertise where he did not. That is what the vast majority of us do. Even better, we don't need to be math geniuses to succeed in most sciences (there are exceptions). The level of mathematics competency in my discipline is relatively doable for practically any college or university student - unless one wants to be a quantitative psychologist, in which case plan on a heavy mathematics course load in order to truly understand the intricacies of theoretical statistics. But generally, to repeat, one need develop a minimal level of fluency in mathematics and conduct research that will contribute to humanity.

I'd love to say that we could be nonpartisan. The facts on the ground in the US suggest something different. Those of us who work in the sciences are well aware of politicians who are hostile to us and well aware of which party has shown considerable hostility to our work. We are well aware of who has tried to cut funding for fundamental work in the sciences, and we are well aware of who has written off our work as trivial, or who has accused some of our work as being little more than a hoax. We know who might want to scrub the archives of "inconvenient" scientific truths. As a researcher, I am comfortable working with colleagues from all walks of life. There is a red line though that may never be crossed: we seek and report the truth regardless of how it affects a party's polling numbers or corporate quarterly reports.

It is a shame that we need to have science marches, but if we must, I am thankful to know that I am in good company. I hope we can continue to work together to advocate for our work. If we don't, no one else will.