Category Archives: Bad Maths

Apparently someone came to this blog by searching for “active learning in maths good or bad”… I wish I could tell them, without active learning there CAN BE no maths. Maths is all about DOING it yourself. But what do I know, I’m just a sociologist who thinks maths is fun.

Passive learning in maths!?

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The price of a citation, or How did King Abdulaziz University get in the world’s top 10?

According to a great recent blogpost by Berkeley academic Lior Pachter, there is something very fishy about university rankings.  In last week’s global university ranking published by the US News and World Report (USNWR), the top 10 universities listed in mathematics are:

1. Berkeley
2. Stanford
3. Princeton
5. University of Oxford
6. Harvard
7. King Abdulaziz University
8. Pierre and Marie Curie – Paris 6
9. University of Hong Kong
10. University of Cambridge

The USNWR rankings are based on 8 attributes:

– global research reputation
– regional research reputation
– publications
– normalized citation impact
– total citations
– number of highly cited papers
– percentage of highly cited papers
– international collaboration

Now, how did KAU end up in the top 10?  Its chair received his PhD in 2005 and has zero publications.  Its own PhD programme is only two-years old. It has separate campuses for men and women.  The author, and probably many other mathematicians, have never heard about KAU. Apparently, the secret of the ranking success lies in the fact that,

“[a]lthough KAU’s full time faculty are not very highly cited, it has amassed a large adjunct faculty that helped them greatly in these categories. In fact, in “normalized citation impact” KAU’s math department is the top ranked in the world. This amazing statistic is due to the fact that KAU employs (as adjunct faculty) more than a quarter of the highly cited mathematicians at Thomson Reuters. “

The article goes on with a very interesting and evidence-supported discussion of the ranking system, and of the particular approach taken by KAU in order to put itself on the world’s mathematical map. There are also comments by various academics, a few of whom work for KAU. Well worth a read if you have time to be scared about the $$$$$future$$$$$ of global academia.

Pachter’s blogpost raises some very interesting questions about the future of global academia. First of all, it is not at all surprising that universities from the periphery (the “global south”, as we sociologists like to call it) are trying to gain prestige and put themselves out there.  It is also not surprising that some, which are very affluent, will attempt to buy their way in the global academic system. In fact, by doing so, they are merely using loopholes and bugs – which to them are “features” – in the ranking and prestige system created by old-world academia. Our indignation at this, while justified, is also somewhat hypocritical: after all, they are simply taking the “money makes research go round” principle that bit further. Academics and administrators in US and European universities should take this as a warning – a mirror held up to our own academic institutional  practices which may be less blatant and aggressive, but are nevertheless often the same in their nature.  UK universities in particular – more so than in the rest of Europe, but still less so than in the US – are also doing their best to hire highly-cited academics.  I’m not at all worried about universities from other places taking the lead in research, and no doubt many of the names on the list are doing just that.  What is really worrying is the increasing overreliance on numeric indicators of academic quality as a substitute for much more detailed, more qualitative indicators.  I think that we… or someone? but who? well, we – vice-chancellors, academics and administrators – should take the hint from KAU’s success on paper and change the system of science quality assessment not just by tightening existing loopholes, but by not relying on simplified indicators at all.

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Hitler becomes a maths supervisor

P.S. This video, created by some very observant maths undergraduate, develops an already established tradition of video spoofs based on Bruno Ganz’s earth-shattering performance in the German historical film “The Downfall”.  The video surfaced on the Internetz late yesterday night and caused uncontrollable midnight laughter in our sociological-mathematical household (and, I’m told, not only in ours). Not everyday I come across such superb fieldwork materials! I have no clue how to use it in research, though, so for now I will just keep laughing, if you excuse me.

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Q-step: better quantitative skills for students and social scientists

Q-Step is a new initiative for boosting the quantitative skills of UK social scientists.  If you’re an interested teacher, researcher, student, stakeholder etc., you can go to their inaugural event on 17 March in London:

“The UK has a shortage of social science graduates with the quantitative skills needed to evaluate evidence, analyse data, and design and commission research, skills that are increasingly in demand from employers across all sectors. Yet fewer post-16 students in the UK study maths and statistics than any other comparable country, and quantitative skills are not consistently assessed in social science A levels. This has lead to a skills deficit amongst students moving from secondary to higher education.”

Q Step Logo_landing_page

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The year of code


Did you know it was the Year of Code?

I can’t really code. But it makes life so much easier (and cheaper). If your job requires using computers for anything, then learning a bit about coding will help you do more stuff, not rely on others for help, be faster and more efficient on the computer, and, eventually, spend less time on it. And it’s fun because you get the computer to do things.  It’s like training a dog – only in fact you are training yourself, and not the dog. Strangely, I haven’t been able to find much research about the addictive potential of coding, apart from this now old book from 1989 by Margaret A. Shotton and this book about Hackers by Paul Taylor – although several friends who have done programming swear that it can be a highly addictive activity.

Well, it’s not that much fun, if you have health problems with your hands, arms, joints or back like me, so it is a bit of a Catch 22. This – and also the fact that I ended up working as a social scientist specialising in qualitative research – is why I don’t know much coding.  Thankfully, my friends do, and so does Google. By pestering friends and Google I’ve been able to do some small bits of HTML coding, and write hundreds of pages in LaTeX (without losing any work or ending up with hideous formatting – MSOffice, it’s your turn to blush). I tried to learn R last month and although it didn’t go very well, I’ll go back to it soon, because there are some awesome extensions for R that don’t exist on “button-based” data analysis programmes, made “especially” for us, social scientists… One in particular, TramineR, is so awesome and relevant for my work that I’m dreaming of being able to use it. Not to mention how often SPSS and NVIVO crash and how expensive they are for anyone who isn’t attached to a rich institution which can buy the packages for its employees. And- meh – they don’t work on Linux, while R and LaTeX have no problem with different platforms.

I really think that social science students and researchers in the UK, in general, could do with more knowledge about how to use computers to their own benefit. One reason why the existing packages are so, well, bad, is because the market is not educated enough. I’m told that the quality of coffee in the UK has soared in the last two decades. Why? Because consumers have become more demanding. I’m sure that one day when more social scientists and other people who need computers for their daily lives start being a bit more discerning about the software they use,  someone out there, or even one of us, will gather their wits and design better software.

It might be a better idea to get a keen pupil teach a class on coding, and not a teacher who is new to it, but hey. If “2014 – the year of code” succeeds in getting more students and teachers to learn code, then  with all its flaws it is a fantastic initiative (watch the video…but try not to headdesk when you realise that its director can’t code yet). Knowing some code it’s like knowing a bit of swimming – won’t hurt you (unless you have an underlying health condition, and even then can be beneficial under supervision), makes life more fun, and heck, it can even save your arse. So if like me you know little or no coding, do check out the Code Academy. And if your word document has ever crashed on you, have a peek at the marvellous thing called LaTeX [pronounced “leitek”].

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Sociology and basic numeracy

Things like this make me scream silently in my head.  One of my favourite daily procrastination materials professional blogs recently posted an example of how we continue to treat men as default humans and women as women. Very important point, undermined by a very silly mistake in the maths. Fellow sociologists, I love your work, but would you get your act together, please.

$1 man’s wage = $0.81 woman’s wage is the same as $1.23 man’s wage = $1 woman’s wage. 😮 Not $1.19 (in fact, it’s a fascinating number, 1.23456790123…, but that’s beside the point).

The original post is here.

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