Month: December 2017

Heretics welcome! Economics needs a new Reformation | Larry Elliott

Neoclassical economics has become an unquestioned belief system and treats those challenging the creed as dangerous

In October 1517, an unknown Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther changed the world when he grabbed a hammer and nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The Reformation started there.

The tale of how the 95 theses were posted is almost certainly false. Luther never mentioned the incident and the first account of it didnt surface until after his death. But it makes a better story than Luther writing a letter (which is what probably happened), and thats why the economist Steve Keen, dressed in a monks habit and wielding a blow up hammer, could be found outside the London School of Economics last week.

Keen and those supporting him (full disclosure: I was one of them) were making a simple point as he used Blu Tack to stick their 33 theses to one of the worlds leading universities: economics needs its own Reformation just as the Catholic church did 500 years ago. Like the medieval church, orthodox economics thinks it has all the answers. Complex mathematics is used to mystify economics, just as congregations in Luthers time were deliberately left in the dark by services conducted in Latin. Neoclassical economics has become an unquestioned belief system and treats anybody who challenges the creed of self-righting markets and rational consumers as dangerous heretics.

Keen was one of those heretics. He was one of the economists who knew there was big trouble brewing in the years leading up to the financial crisis of a decade ago but whose warnings were ignored. The reason Keen was proved right was that he paid no heed to the equilibrium models favoured by mainstream economics. He looked at what was actually happening rather than having a preconceived view of what ought to be happening.

Somewhat depressingly, nothing much has happened, even though it was a crisis neoclassical economics said could not happen. There was a brief dalliance with unorthodox remedies when things were really bleak in the winter of 2008-09, but by late 2009 and early 2010, there was a return to business as normal.

The intellectual monopoly is something of an irony given how central the idea of competition is to orthodox thinking, but it is a sad fact as the preamble to the 33 theses notes that the neoclassical perspective overwhelmingly dominates teaching, research, advice to policy, and public debate.

Many other perspectives that could provide valuable insights are marginalised and excluded. This is not about one theory being better than another, but the notion that scientific advance only moves ahead with a debate. Within economics, this debate has died.

That debate needs to be rekindled. A more pluralist approach would take account of the complexity of markets, the constraints imposed by nature and rising inequality. So what needs to be done?

Firstly, listen to consumers, because it is pretty obvious that they are unimpressed with what they are getting. The failure of the economics establishment to predict the crisis and its insistence that austerity is the right response to the events of a decade ago has meant the profession has rarely been less trusted.

Of course, there were economists who got it right and some of them Paul Krugman, for example wielded real influence. But it should have come as little surprise that when it came to the Brexit referendum, voters took the warnings from the UK Treasury, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of England with a very large pinch of salt. After all, not one of these august bodies armed as they were with their general equilibrium models saw the deepest recession since the second world war coming, even when it was already under way.

It is welcome news that discontent is bubbling up from below on university campuses. True, the prestigious academic journals remain in the hands of the old order and in economics faculties there is strong resistance to change but increasingly students are showing their frustration at being told to learn and regurgitate economics that is not just narrow and of little relevance, but also plain wrong. Of the 33 theses pinned to the LSE, five involved the teaching of economics, with demands to be taught history and economic thought, and for the monopoly of the status quo to be broken.

One of the theses demands that economics must do more to encourage critical thinking, and not simply reward memorisation of theories and implementation of models. Students must be encouraged to compare, contrast, and combine theories, and critically apply them to in-depth studies of the real world. The fact that students feel the need to say this is a terrible indictment of the way economics is being taught, and their discontent negates the idea that this is just whingeing from aggrieved Keynesians.

Secondly, we should stop treating economics as a science because it is nothing of the sort. A proper science involves testing a hypothesis against the available evidence. If the evidence doesnt support the theory, a physicist or a biologist will discard the theory and try to come up one that does work empirically.

Economics doesnt work like that. Theories can be shown to work only by making a series of highly questionable assumptions such as that humans always behave predictably and rationally. When there is hard evidence that disputes the validity of the theory, there is no question of ditching the theory.

Thirdly, economics needs to be prepared to learn from other disciplines because when it does the results are worthwhile. One example is the way in which auto-enrolment has increased pension coverage. If humans were truly economically rational, it would make no difference whether their employers automatically enrolled them into pension schemes: they would decide whether to join schemes on the basis of whether they deemed it worth deferring consumption until they had retired. Yet, basic psychology says this is not the way people actually act. They are far less likely to opt out of something than they are to opt into something.

Fourthly, economics needs to be demystified. One of the big battles between Catholics and Protestants in mid-16th century England was over whether the bible should be in Latin or English, a recognition that language matters. The easy part of an economic Reformation is to attack the current establishment; the difficult part is to present a compelling story without resorting to jargon. Control of the narrative as George Osborne realised when he criticised Labour for failing to mend the roof while the sun was shining is crucial.

At the launch of the 33 theses last week, Victoria Chick, emeritus professor of economics at University College London, put it this way: The economics mainstream has the hallmarks of certain religions. They think they have the truth. But read for yourself and think for yourself. Change has occurred before and it can occur again. Shes right. It can.

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/dec/17/heretics-welcome-economics-needs-a-new-reformation

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See how your primary school is doing

Image copyright Getty Images

Pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in England are dropping further behind their classmates in national primary school tests, statistics show.

The gap between SEN pupils and their peers has risen from 48 percentage points in 2016 to 52 this year.

The figures are revealed in school league tables, published by the Department for Education (DfE), showing the results of about 16,000 primaries.

Head teachers say special-needs education funding is in crisis.

English primary school tables

Department for Education website

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The government statistics show 18% of children with SEN reached the expected level in reading, writing and mathematics, compared with 70% of their peers without special needs.

Although SEN pupils’ results edged upwards on last year, when 14% made the grade, their non-SEN peers boosted their results more dramatically from 62% to 70%.

Teachers have been warning that pupils with special needs, such as mild autism or dyslexia, would struggle in the tougher tests introduced last year.

A National Association of Head Teachers’ spokesman said it was “one of those situations where money is the solution and schools need the government’s help”.

The tables also showed disadvantaged pupils still perform far worse than all other pupils in England, with around half passing the tests, compared to nearly two-thirds of non-disadvantaged.

The gap between the two groups of pupils is now as wide as it was in 2012 at about 20 percentage points.

However, there does appear to be a small catch-up (one percentage point) in poorer pupils’ attainment on 2016 when the tougher tests were introduced and results for all pupils dipped significantly.

‘Phonics’

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “This data is a useful indication of school performance but it is not the whole story. One thing it does do, though, is confirm what NAHT has been saying for a long time about social mobility.

“Raising the Key Stage 2 standard (Sats test) was not going to help close the gap. The issues that underpin inequality reach far beyond the school gates and exist throughout the communities that schools serve.”

But Schools Minister Nick Gibb hailed the achievements of pupils and teachers, saying they had responded well to the more rigorous curriculum.

This set of pupils was the first to benefit from the government’s new approach to phonics, he said.

“Pupils are now leaving primary school better prepared for the rigours of secondary school and for future success in their education,” Mr Gibb added.

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Overall, pupils have scored better in their Sats results than last year, which was the first year of the new tests.

The DfE said this was partly because of “increased familiarity” with the new tests.

There was a nine percentage point increase in the proportion of black pupils passing the tests, to 60% – just one percentage point behind the national average and white pupils.

The top five local authorities were all London boroughs, with Richmond upon Thames at the top, Kensington and Chelsea coming second and Bromley third.

The inner city boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham and Hackney have claimed the fourth and fifth spots.

In 1999, Hackney, which had been one of the worst performing boroughs, became the first local education authority to be taken out of council control.

In this year’s tests across England, local authority schools slightly outperformed academies and free schools, with 62% of their schools reaching the expected standard compared with 61% of academies and free schools.

In all, 511 schools – 4% of the total – have fallen beneath the government’s expectations or “floor standard”, where fewer than 65% of pupils met the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics and the school did not achieve sufficient progress scores in all three subjects.

This is an improvement on last year, where 665 – 5% – primaries were found wanting.

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Read more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-42353456

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3 tips on how to shop for gender-inclusive toys this holiday season

My favorite Christmas gift I ever received was a computer game—”Secret of the Scarlet Hand,” the sixth mystery in the Nancy Drew PC series. Playing the game, my friends, sister, and I would huddle around our bulky family Dell computer for hours on end. With one person controlling the mouse, the rest of us would watch earnestly, eyes glued to the screen, or peeping through spaces between fingers that nervously covered our faces.

Playing as the famed girl detective herself, we’d open forbidden passages and interview suspects around a museum exhibit of ancient Mayan artifacts. We completed cultural-, literary-, and science-based challenges, eventually losing our minds when Nancy became trapped inside a monolith with a mummy. I credit that game with the launch of my Nancy Drew obsession, and my interest in journalism that followed.

Perhaps the best part of the gift was that there wasn’t anything inherently masculine or feminine about the way the game looked or felt. I don’t remember feeling like Nancy had to “think like a man,” or that she was ever told she was smart “for a girl” to solve the mystery. It was a game that followed a female protagonist, not a game specifically made for girls—the kind of toy I’d hope to purchase for a niece or nephew to give them an opportunity to explore their interests.

There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with gender-specific toys—I was a huge “Barbie girl” growing up, too—but according to toy experts, we run into trouble when we limit children’s play to toys marketed to a specific gender, perhaps limiting children in their understanding of what they find interesting as a consequence.

It might seem daunting to purchase gender-inclusive toys for the kids in your life, especially if you may not necessarily know what the child likes. However, toy experts and advocates from Global Toy Experts, STEMToyExpert.com, and Let Toys Be Toys, break down how to shop with gender-inclusivity in mind this holiday season.

1) Steer clear of gendered packaging and stereotypical choices.

Richard Gottlieb, founder of toy consulting company Global Toy Experts, told the Daily Dot that this notion that pink is “for girls” and blue is “for boys” didn’t begin until the 1930s, when department stores began gendering baby clothes to sell more products. While stores in New York and Philadelphia were initially split on which color was “for girls,” pink eventually won out, its feminine connotation brought into the mainstream with the success of the Barbie doll.

Most obviously, this marketed packaging manifests itself into toy aisles and onto the boxes themselves. Gottlieb used the example of the original Battleship game, the exterior of which showed a father and son playing the game, with a mother and daughter doing dishes in the background.

Even representation in toy catalogs matter. Tessa Trabue, a campaigner with the United Kingdom-based gender-inclusion toy campaign Let Toys Be Toys, told the Daily Dot that it’s important for advertising and catalogs to show boys and girls playing with all toys—as opposed to seeing two girls play with dolls, or two boys play with building blocks. When children see this kind of representation, they better understand that these toys aren’t just for a specific gender, and are also for them.

“If basing on a gender, it’s going to be based on stereotypes, and that’s not the best way to shop for a child,” Trabue said. “ that when people buy presents and they don’t know their children very well, they just end up with, say, a sea of Barbies for a girl, and the girl doesn’t even like Barbies. Do you really want to waste your money on a toy the child doesn’t even want?”

2) While toy brands might be introducing girls to STEM, gendered STEM toys are still gendered.

Let Toys Be Toys, which has helped push for gender-inclusivity in toys for about five years, doesn’t endorse certain toys or toy brands, Trabue said. However, she said that even when toy companies make toys such as engineering-based kits, home repair tools, or chemistry sets specifically for girls, these products are still gendered. In being gendered, these toys continue to send the message that girls are different and need a special way to get into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields.

Will Asbury, owner of STEMToyExpert.com, told the Daily Dot that the organization too holds mixed opinions. However, this seemingly reinforced gender bias doesn’t mean these STEM-specific toys for girls don’t serve a purpose.

“Whilst we agree that toys can play an important role in encouraging girls into STEM, it does seem counterintuitive that we are designing toys specifically aimed at girls in an effort to reduce gender bias!” Asbury wrote in an email. “That said, if STEM toys for girls do encourage more girls to enter STEM fields, then we do not see the harm in it.”

STEMToyExpert.com’s list of the top STEM toys for girls includes several of these gendered options, including the popular GoldieBlox interactive toys, and a roller coaster and amusement park building kit from Lego Friends. To find STEM-related toys that don’t enforce a gender bias, however, Trabue suggested gift shops within museums and science centers. She also suggested looking into independent toy stores, which may have a greater selection gender-inclusive toys but might be on the pricier side than big box stores.

Of course, these options may not be available to people who don’t live in cities with such centers, so it never hurts to do a little online shopping, too. Asbury, whose website specializes in discussing STEM toys, told the Daily Dot that adults may be interested in looking into Lego Boost, a robot coding and building set, and Anki Cozmo, an artificial intelligence-based robot, which are both gender-inclusive.

3) Don’t forget about toys that emphasize caring activities for boys.

Gottlieb said that this push for gender-inclusive toys should, above all, make it so that children don’t feel there’s a “no-go zone” in the toy department—this goes for boys as well. Trabue said Let Toys Be Toys specifically uses the Twitter hashtag #caringboys to promote and encourage the practice of boys using caring toys, such as dolls and strollers, play kitchen sets, and cleaning toys.

However, because many of these kinds of toys are pink, boys are still resistant to choose and play with such toys. Going back to the point of gender-inclusive packaging and advertising, Trabue emphasized the discouraging nature of caring toys as a reason to advocate for companies to dismantle gendered toy aisles and catalogs altogether.

“We think it’s very important that boys are allowed the chance to play with caring dolls and explore these activities…It’s nice on the packaging if they could see a boy playing with the doll,” Trabue said. “It’s strange. Why wouldn’t you want to give boys the chance to explore caring play? Even if they don’t become fathers, don’t want them to be caring human beings?”

In the U.K. this is already happening—the Let Toys Be Toys campaign has helped remove gendered signage from toy aisles in major U.K. retailers, such as the Entertainer and Boots, and has also seen a 70 percent drop of online retailers ending the use of gendered denotations on catalogs. The campaign also gives out “Toymark” awards to book and toy businesses that market their products gender-inclusively.

Gottlieb’s company, too, has also helped lead toy companies toward more inclusive products, and assisted in removing gender categories from the annual Toy of The Year awards. But in the United States, one look at the Toys-R-Us website in their segregated toys for boys’ and girls’ outdoor play, as pointed out by Trabue, shows how much further mainstream toy companies need to go to achieve gender-inclusivity.

However, consumers in doubt about what to purchase their niece or nephew don’t need to shell the out big bucks for the perfect toy. After all, it’s the thought behind the toy that counts—literally.

“Think in more terms of the interest of the child, or your interest—there are two ways to give a gift,” Gottlieb said.

Read more: https://www.dailydot.com/irl/gender-inclusive-toys/

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Scholarship for Muslim women honors pioneering scientist

When it came to pursuing a scientific career, Tasneem Essader encountered forces pulling her in and pushing her away: She drew inspiration from her mother’s work in chemistry, but initial discouragement from her engineer father, who thought she should do something else. She was inspired by women engineers she met, but found few girls around her in advanced high school science classes.

Essader, who feels strongly connected to her Muslim faith, also struggled to find the right fit among an array of identity-based scholarships as she looked to help ease the financial burden of college.

Then, an uncle informed her about the Adawia Alousi Scholars program, and the obstacles started to fall away. She found that fit, and a kinship with the scholarship program’s namesake.

“After reading about Dr. Alousi’s life, I felt like the struggles I faced because of who I am in the field I want to pursue have been validated,” Essader wrote in her essay application, “that someone who has gone through the same struggles as I have and has something about it to make it easier for future generations.”

The scholarship, established at the Dearborn, Michigan-based Center for Arab American Philanthropy with money from Alousi’s family trust, is believed to be the first of its kind for Muslim-American women studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Essader is in the inaugural class of 11 recipients of the scholarship, named after a scientist who helped develop a pioneering drug treatment for congestive heart failure in the 1980s.

Alousi, who died in 2010, was an Iraq-born Muslim who had to fight to earn recognition in a male-dominated field. She wanted money from her trust to go toward charity.

“We reflected upon who my aunt was, what she would want. She was most passionate about her science and Islam — the scholarship reflects those passions,” said nephew Amin Alousi, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Alousi said his aunt’s pharmacological research was the backbone for a new class of drugs for congestive heart failure — and she and her colleagues were the first to bring such drugs to market. Still, he added, she faced discrimination being “a foreign-born woman.”

“She really did have to be vocal,” Alousi said. “On all the scientific papers, she insisted on being recognized as a lead author.”

Alousi said the scholarship includes grade requirements but he added, “We want people with a compelling story,” including “overcoming hardships.”

Essader, a freshman at the University of North Carolina, wants to “carry forward Dr. Alousi’s spirit by breaking the stereotypes surrounding people who look like me.” Essader says her father has grown more encouraging as he sees her passion for her intended career in biomedical engineering.

Another recipient, Teeba Jihad, said her “family was under attack” in her native Iraq as members of the Shiite sect of Islam during wartime. After coming to the U.S. at age 11, she faced name-calling and criticism for her modest clothing. Jihad, who had a cancer scare in 2013, is studying biomolecular science at New York University and has worked in a lab to develop breast cancer treatments using magnetic, nanoscale particles. The scholarship, she wrote, allows her to “continue to create a positive image of young Muslim females.”

Alousi hopes the recipients’ achievements help dispel misconceptions.

“The bigger narrative of how often people in the West or in the United States wrongly assume Muslim women are uneducated, not successful, or not outspoken — I think that’s the bigger story that we hope to overcome with this scholarship and the young women it supports,” he said.

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Karoub is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity Team, and frequently writes about religion. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/jeffkaroub and find more of his work at https://apnews.com/search/jeff%20karoub . Sign up for the AP’s weekly newsletter showcasing our best reporting from the Midwest and Texas: http://apne.ws/2u1RMfv .

Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2017/12/10/scholarship-for-muslim-women-honors-pioneering-scientist.html

Researchers share $22m Breakthrough prize as science gets rock star treatment

Glitzy ceremony honours work including that on mapping post-big bang primordial light, cell biology, plant science and neurodegenerative diseases

The most glitzy event on the scientific calendar took place on Sunday night when the Breakthrough Foundation gave away $22m (16.3m) in prizes to dozens of physicists, biologists and mathematicians at a ceremony in Silicon Valley.

The winners this year include five researchers who won $3m (2.2m) each for their work on cell biology, plant science and neurodegenerative diseases, two mathematicians, and a team of 27 physicists who mapped the primordial light that warmed the universe moments after the big bang 13.8 billion years ago.

Now in their sixth year, the Breakthrough prizes are backed by Yuri Milner, a Silicon Valley tech investor, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and his wife Priscilla Chan, Anne Wojcicki from the DNA testing company 23andMe, and Googles Sergey Brin. Launched by Milner in 2012, the awards aim to make rock stars of scientists and raise their profile in the public consciousness.

The annual ceremony at Nasas Ames Research Center in California provides a rare opportunity for some of the worlds leading minds to rub shoulders with celebrities, who this year included Morgan Freeman as host, fellow actors Kerry Washington and Mila Kunis, and Miss USA 2017 Kra McCullough. When Joe Polchinski at the University of California in Santa Barbara shared the physics prize last year, he conceded his nieces and nephews would know more about the A-list attendees than he would.

Oxford University geneticist Kim Nasmyth won for his work on chromosomes but said he had not worked out what to do with the windfall. Its a wonderful bonus, but not something you expect, he said. Its a huge amount of money, I havent had time to think it through. On being recognised for what amounts to his lifes work, he added: You have to do science because you want to know, not because you want to get recognition. If you do what it takes to please other people, youll lose your moral compass. Nasmyth has won lucrative awards before and channelled some of his winnings into Gregor Mendels former monastery in Brno.

Another life sciences prizewinner, Joanne Chory at the Salk Institute in San Diego, was honoured for three decades of painstaking research into the genetic programs that flip into action when plants find themselves plunged into shade. Her work revealed that plants can sense when a nearby competitor is about to steal their light, sparking a growth spurt in response. The plants detect threatening neighbours by sensing a surge in the particular wavelengths of red light that are given off by vegetation.

Chory now has ambitious plans to breed plants that can suck vast quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in a bid to combat climate change. She believes that crops could be selected to absorb 20 times more of the greenhouse gas than they do today, and convert it into suberin, a waxy material found in roots and bark that breaks down incredibly slowly in soil. If we can do this on 5% of the landmass people are growing crops on, we can take out 50% of global human emissions, she said.

Three other life sciences prizes went to Kazutoshi Mori at Kyoto University and Peter Walter for their work on quality control mechanisms that keep cells healthy, and to Don Cleveland at the University of California, San Diego, for his research on motor neurone disease.

The $3m Breakthrough prize in mathematics was shared by two British-born mathematicians, Christopher Hacon at the University of Utah and James McKernan at the University of California in San Diego. The pair made major contributions to a field of mathematics known as birational algebraic geometry, which sets the rules for projecting abstract objects with more than 1,000 dimensions onto lower-dimensional surfaces. It gets very technical, very quickly, said McKernan.

Speaking before the ceremony, Hacon was feeling a little unnerved. Its really not a mathematician kind of thing, but Ill probably survive, he said. Ive got a tux ready, but Im not keen on wearing it. Asked what he might do with his share of the winnings, Hacon was nothing if not realistic. Ill start by paying taxes, he said. And I have six kids, so the rest will evaporate.

Chuck Bennett, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, led a Nasa mission known as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) to map the faint afterglow of the big bangs radiation that now permeates the universe. The achievement, now more than a decade old, won the 27-strong science team the $3m Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics. When we made our first maps of the sky, I thought these are beautiful, Bennett told the Guardian. It is still absolutely amazing to me. We can look directly back in time.

Bennett believes that the prizes may help raise the profile of science at a time when it is sorely needed. The point is not to make rock stars of us, but of the science itself, he said. I dont think people realise how big a role science plays in their lives. In everything you do, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, theres something about what youre doing that involves scientific advances. I dont think people think about that at all.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/dec/04/researchers-share-22m-breakthrough-prize-as-science-gets-rock-star-treatment

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