21 February 2018

Alleged Racism at Fredonia

Stephen Kershnar
Racism, Free Speech, and Sucker Punches
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 19, 2018

            Two events have focused the SUNY-Fredonia community on racism. The events illustrate what speech the First Amendment protects and why it does so.  
            A few months ago at an off-campus event, a Fredonia’s student’s boyfriend wore blackface as part of his Halloween costume. He also wore a multi-colored wig, so his artistic vision was hard to understand. The student posted a picture of the two of them. An uproar followed and other students allegedly harassed her. SUNY-Fredonia’s president, Ginny Horvath, wrote a note to the college community stating, “The student who posted the picture has been counseled, as have those who have been described as harassing her.” Fredonia’s Chief Diversity Officer, Bill Boerner, reported that the counseling was voluntary.

            A couple of weeks ago, a white Fredonia student was allegedly sucker punched by a black person. He posted a picture of his bruised-and-bloody face. The student then posted the following statement on Snapchat, “Fucking Nigers are pussys.” The quote included these misspellings. On Facebook, students called for the college to punish him, made fun of him for posting a picture of his bloody face as a pathetic appeal for sympathy, explained that they were laughing their ass off because he got beaten up and was crying on social media, threatened violence, and declared that this sort of attitude was why at least one minority student left Fredonia.

            In response to the Snapchat post, Horvath sent out two public statements and announced that a third was on the way. She wrote, “The Office of Student Conduct and the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion have continued to gather information and to confer with campus leaders, SUNY legal counsel, and SUNY leaders as we go forward.” She then said that addressing this event is a priority. The student who wrote the Snapchat post wrote an apology and announced that he will enter counseling.

            Horvath’s post did not address the students’ Constitutional ignorance, glee over violence, or threat of violence. The sucker punch likely will not get much attention, despite its being a felony. The call to gather information is disturbing. It has a big brother feel to it.   

            The Snapchat post is clearly protected by the First Amendment. SUNY-Fredonia is a state institution and so must satisfy the First Amendment right of free speech. There are exceptions to the First Amendment such as those made for fighting words, clear-and-present danger, and harassment, but they do not apply here.

The Constitution does not protect fighting words. These are face-to-face communications that will clearly provoke an immediate-and-violent reaction from the listener. The classic statement of this is found in the Supreme Court holding in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942). Because the student did not make a face-to-face communication and there was no threat of immediate violence, the fighting-words exception does not apply.

The clear-and-present danger Constitutional rule allows the government to shut down speech when the speech is intended and likely to produce imminent lawless action. See, for example, Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). This wasn’t true here.

            Nor is the post harassment. The Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999), required that university rules prohibiting harassment respect the right to free speech. To constitute harassment, the speech must be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively prevents the victim from getting an educational opportunity or benefit. This requires that the speech be aimed at an individual and be so severe and pervasive that it prevents someone from getting an education. Again, this wasn’t true here.  

            The First Amendment also protects Halloween costumes. This can be seen in Schact v. United States (1970), where the Supreme Court has said the First Amendment protects wearing military uniforms at protests. Similarly, the Fourth Circuit said that the First Amendment protects allegedly racist and sexist costumes and skits at state universities. See Iota XI Chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason University (1993).

            Controversial speech is worth protecting. First, people have a right to shape their own lives according to their own vision. They can do this better if they consider different ideas about family, politics, religion, and work. This is best accomplished through dialogue, sometimes with those who have very different ideas. Second, John Stuart Mill argues that just as the marketplace of goods tends to lead to better and cheaper goods being bought and sold, the marketplace of ideas leads to true and better justified ideas being accepted and disseminated. John Stuart Mill argues that even false speech will sometimes lead people to discover why their beliefs are true, that is, what justifies them.

            Honest and in-depth discussions of the two events might, for example, bring up the issue of the right of free speech and why it matters. It might also bring up awkward issues such as the problem of black violence and black interracial violence. A sucker punch is a serious matter. The facts here are well-known, but blacks commit more murders and robberies than whites and roughly half as many rapes and batteries. Here I am relying on 2009 arrest records from the U.S. Census Bureau. This is significant given that whites are nearly six times more numerous. In addition, there is some evidence that blacks are targeting whites. For example, Columbia University economists Brendon O’Flaherty and Rajiv Sethi found that in single-offender robberies, blacks are fourteen times more likely to rob whites than vice versa. Such discussion might lead to investigating whether these crime patterns are due to poverty, racism, culture, or genetics.

            Such an honest-and-robust discussion might also lead to a discussion of when and why certain words are offensive. The n-word is used by such artists as Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dog, and 50 Cent. It is an interesting discussion as to why their use of it is less offensive than the Snapchat post. It might raise the issue what is offensive and why.

07 February 2018

The Sabermetrics of University Admissions: Ignore factors that don't predict success

Stephen Kershnar
The Sabermetrics of University Admissions
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 5, 2018

            Many college applicants are awaiting decisions. They went through the process of getting recommendations, taking standardized tests, writing essays, doing volunteer work, filling out applications, being interviewed, and so on. The sloppy way in which student are admitted for these schools is at odds with the use of statistics elsewhere.  

Consider the use of statistics in Major League Baseball (sabermetrics). This is standard operating procedure in how baseball teams select players, decide what to pay them, and so on. The same is true for the National Football League. The New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, for example, use statistical methods in deciding whom to draft or trade and how much to pay players. In addition, they use statistics in deciding which plays to run. Ditto for NBA teams.

The same is not done for medical school admissions, at least not to the same degree. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, medical school admissions committees holistically evaluate applicants. Holistic evaluation considers applicants as individuals. It involves looking at applicants’ diversity, life experiences, and personality in part through essays and interviews as well as looking at more traditional academic indicators such as grade point average (GPA) and standardized test score.

Committees usually consider applicants’ charitable work, performance in unstructured interviews, physician shadowing, race and ethnicity, recommendations, and undergraduate major. The different factors are then matched to the admission committee’s view of its community, school, and medicine in general.

These non-academic factors (consider, for example, physician shadowing) have not been validated. They either don’t predict performance or are not known to predict it. In addition, they water down consideration of factors that do predict performance and, in fact, do so reasonably well.   

A number of studies have found that the combination of medical college admissions test (MCAT) and undergraduate grade point average (GPA) is the best predictor of success in medical school. MCAT scores also correlate with medical board scores. The way to choose applicants who will be the best doctors is to rely on these factors. This is particularly true if these factors are combined with a personality test, such as one that looks for statistically validated personality features such as grit or conscientiousness.

The MCAT’s predictive power is similar to that of other standardized tests. Test scores predict undergraduate and graduate student performance reasonably well. They also predict job performance at a range of jobs. Even when restricted to gifted students, the SAT still predicts who will perform better. Standardized test scores even predict who will be a better professor.  

The predictive power of standardized tests is unsurprising. Standardized test scores (such as the SAT) correlate with IQ and IQ is a reasonably strong predictor of job performance. IQ predicts job performance better than do other measures such as interests, personality, reference checks, and interview performance. The more complex the job, the better it predicts performance.

Medical schools should only consider standardized test score, GPA, and, perhaps, a couple of other validated factors such as personality-test score and structured-interview score. The same is true for universities admitting undergraduates, especially elite universities.

A defense of the holistic admissions system for medical school is that it predicts which physicians have better bedside manners, care more, or are more likely to serve poor or rural people. One problem with this defense is that there is no reason to think that admissions committees can outperform validated tests for desired personality features. If personality features are important (consider, for example, emotional intelligence), they should be tested for in the best available way.

A second problem is the lack of evidence that committees can predict these features. For example, I can’t find any evidence that admissions staffers can predict bedside manner from a half-hour interview. A third problem is that an argument is needed as to why these factors are more important than ability. Physician shortage and medical error are costly. Medical error is one of the leading causes of death. Choosing a student whose demographics or numbers suggest she will work fewer hours or will be a less capable physician than her replacement is similar to replacing a second-round draft pick in the NFL with a sixth-round pick. It is unclear why a gain in bedside manner or caring is more important than greater ability.

A second argument for holistic admissions is that diversity is important and holism is a better way to achieve diversity than a purely statistical system. A problem with this objection is that if diversity is worth doing, then it is worth doing with formal weighting. By analogy, if a NFL team is required to hire Jewish players, it would make sense for the team to use the same statistics-based ranking that it uses to rank other players. This way a team might have to substitute a third-round draft pick for a first-round pick, but avoids substituting a seventh-round player for a first round pick.

In addition, if diversity-related cost (less merit per doctor and fewer doctors) outweighs the diversity-related benefit (for example, role models and stereotype elimination), then it fails a cost-benefit analysis. We have a general idea how markets view diversity. Competitive markets do not value it much if at all. Consider, for example, Hollywood, MLB, NBA, and NFL. In general, markets are better than other methods for weighing costs and benefits. The cost of diversity in medical school is worth considering. It would be helpful to know, for example, how many additional deaths and injuries from physician error will come about for a 1% increase in medical-class diversity and whether the tradeoff is worthwhile.

The case for using a statistics-based admissions system for undergraduate admissions is similar to that for medical school. University admissions should be simple (standardized test score, GPA, and, perhaps, a few other validated factors) and done by a computer. At the very least, it should be done in a way similar to what is done in professional sports.

25 January 2018

Lessons from the Vietnam War

Stephen Kershnar
What Have We Learned from the Vietnam War?
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
January 22, 2018

            Many of us recently watched Ken Burns’ outstanding documentary: The Vietnam War. What’s interesting is how little we learned from the war.
            The Vietnam War teaches us that there are three requirements that should be met before the U.S. goes to war. First, the U.S. should fight on the just side. No country may trample on other people’s moral rights regardless of its international goals. Second, the U.S. should go to war only when doing so is in the American people’s interest. The government is the people’s agent and should act on its behalf. Third, the U.S. should go to war only when doing so satisfies the Constitution. The Constitution is a contract between the government and the people and it’s wrong to ignore it no matter how strongly politicians feel about some international cause.
            First, consider whether the Vietnam War was in the U.S. interest. The U.S. lost 58,000 people and spent $800 billion adjusted for inflation. When you add in the value of the 58,000 lives lost (currently valued at, roughly, $9 million per life), the total cost is more than $1 trillion dollars. Even if the U.S. hadn’t lost, it is hard to see how the American people would have benefitted enough by the preservation of a corrupt South Vietnamese government to justify spending that much blood and treasure.
            Did we learn anything from this expenditure? No. According to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, the second Iraq War cost the U.S. $2 trillion dollars. The Bush II and Obama wars in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria and drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen added a considerable sum to this expenditure. Bush I’s first Iraq War preceded the spending orgy. According to the Congressional Research Service, it only cost $100 billion. The American people are spending money they don’t have for wars whose costs to them dwarf their benefits. Worse, when the amount of death and destruction are taken into account, it’s not even clear they’re good for the people we’re trying to benefit.  
            Second, consider whether the Vietnam War was Constitutional. The Constitution requires Congress to declare war (Article I Section 8). In the Vietnam War, this wasn’t done. Congress merely passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. In not declaring war, Congress followed its pathetic precedent in the Korean War, authorizing war in some sense without declaring it. Making matters worse, the resolution was repealed in 1971 and Richard Nixon continued the war anyway. Congress further muddied Constitutional waters in 1973 by passing the War Powers Resolution that permitted it to authorize war without declaring it. Congress and the courts then followed this retreat by failing to enforce either that resolution or the Declaration of War clause.
            Did we learn anything from this pattern of ignoring the Constitution and statutory law during the Vietnam War? Again, no. As in Korea and Vietnam, U.S. wars in Kosovo, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq (two different wars), Libya, and Syria were all done without Congress declaring war. Congress preferred to shirk its constitutional duties. Congressional cowards didn’t want to go on record because doing so would make them accountable.   
Some of these wars didn’t even satisfy the War Powers Resolution. Even after Congress explicitly refused to authorize air and missile strikes, Clinton bombed Serbian forces anyway. The Obama administration made the ridiculous argument that it didn’t need Congressional authorization to attack the Libyan military with drone strikes and cruise missiles. Other examples include Obama’s unauthorized attacks on ISIS and Syria. Such gross unconstitutionality occurred without the courts stepping in, members of the military living up to their oath and insisting on proper authorization, or the media demanding that the Constitution and statutory law be followed.

The Constitutional problems with the Vietnam War were made worse by conscription. Conscription made it clear that in their rush to engage in wasteful and, in some cases, unconstitutional wars, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson were not going to let American freedom stand in their way. Sadly, their names are not blacked like other historical villains. In 1918, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution permits conscription in one its most embarrassing decisions.

            Did we even learn anything from the lies and lack of integrity displayed by the Presidents and the military leadership during the Vietnam War? No.
The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was based on lies. The first attack was a North Vietnamese response to aggressive intelligence-gathering maneuvers by coordinated American, Laotian, and South Vietnamese forces. The second attack likely never occurred. Johnson and the military knew this, but used it to get Congress to authorize war anyway (albeit without declaring it). Both Johnson and Nixon thought the war was unwinnable but kept feeding American boys into the Vietnamese meat grinder. Johnson lied about whether the war was winnable, how much it was expected to cost, and how well it was going. In his 1964 Presidential campaign, he promised not to escalate the war. Nixon told similar lies, scuttled peace talks during the next presidential campaign, and secretly bombed Cambodia.
            Did we learn anything about putting sleazy men in high office? No. The Bushes, Clinton, and Obama are cut from the same cloth as Johnson and Nixon. While less tragic than the Vietnam War, the second Iraq war involved an impressive number of half-truths and lies. It might be that the nature of the American political class makes a lack of integrity, lying, and cover-ups standard operating procedure. Still, this is all the more reason to limit presidential opportunities for starting and continuing wars and to tightly monitor them once they begin.
            It is unclear what we’ve learned from the Vietnam War. The reputation of Lyndon Johnson remains intact. We’ve failed to ensure that American wars are in the people’s interest, legal, and not propelled by a pack of lies. George Santayana said it well, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”