I will begin with a letter I wrote, and then explain how I got here. This letter is to support my friend’s boycott of PetsMart. Basically, for people who don’t want to click the link below and read her long blog post, her cat Ei[se]nstein died during a grooming appointment. They had just moved, so he had a clean bill of health from a vet only a few months prior, and he had been remarkably tolerant of grooming for a cat — he was a Persian and she kept him shaved down, so it was quite routine for him to be groomed. This cat was Miranda’s only local friend because she had just moved to Bloomington, Indiana, for graduate school. (And I would like to remind anyone from PetsMart corporate who may end up reading this — if it were not for people who perceive pets to be close friends and family, you would not have a business.) Worst of all, when her cat died, the employees at this PetsMart location left her with her raw grief in a public area, with no offer of comfort or support, and with no offer to figure out what happened (well, except the vet tried to sell her an autopsy!). In what seems like an effort to cover their own butts, they only offered statements that all boil down to “Sometimes these things happen.”

Before this gets all tl;dr, I encourage anyone reading this to join me in signing Miranda’s petition and boycotting PetsMart until this situation is addressed.

To Whom It May Concern:

I am a proud former employee of PetsMart, and friends with many other current and former PetsMart employees, some of them groomers. For this reason, I am writing you today in hopes that PetsMart will address a situation that occurred in December 2008 at one of your Indiana locations. Specifically, as outlined in a blog post online (http://mirandathom.blogspot.com/2010/06/most-important-recommendation-i-can.html), a friend of mine lost her cat while he was in the care of PetsMart groomers. This incident—both the pet Einstein’s death and the way his caretaker Miranda was treated—reflects poorly on PetsMart as an organization and on its current and former employees. Until this incident receives due attention, I will cease doing business with PetsMart, and will encourage my friends and family to do the same. My own blog post on the matter can be seen at https://amberwb.wordpress.com/2010/07/22/a-friend-stirs-up-my-outrage/.

Thank you,

Amber Westcott-Baker

So, how I got here… It’s kind of interesting to me (as a researcher of attitudes and attitude change) that I’m having a hard time summarizing my former position or how I got here (ah, consistency bias).

I didn’t originally want to support this boycott. As a former PetsMart employee, I did not like the way my friend characterized this incident as “PetsMart killed my cat,” rather than some specific PetsMart groomers killed her cat. My initial position was that the organization PetsMart is separate from the action of its individual employees when those actions break with store policy–which certainly would be the case if, as she suspects, the groomers gave her cat a sedative or did anything else other than groom her cat.


What I failed to consider before was the fact that an organization is made up of its employees, and its actions are the summed actions of its members. If those employees did break with store policy, were they held accountable? Does PetsMart have a SOP for handling a pet death? If so, why was it not followed in her case? (I am assuming it wasn’t, because the way she was treated reeks of diffusion-of-responsibility — no one seemed to know what to do or how to respond.) Are records kept of deaths, and are they investigated in any way? From my experience as an employee and friend of groomers, I know that sometimes pets die from stress or overheating — rarely, but it does happen. What I don’t know is whether there is a standard way of handling it.

I wanted to view her incident as unique, not a symptom of a systemic problem with PetsMart as an organization. However, the way that she was treated in the aftermath of Ei[se]nstein’s death makes this an organizational issue. It means that when anyone takes their pet to PetsMart and the worst happens, no one in the organization will know what to do or how to respond to real grief at the loss of a family member. It means that the bereaved will have no way of knowing whether their pet died of natural causes (stress, some underlying condition) or mistreatment/neglect unless they have their wits about them enough to preserve the pet’s remains, have an autopsy, perhaps hire a lawyer… which, BTW, are all things that only people of privilege have the social and economic capital to do.

Miranda has her own list of things she wants to happen to resolve this situation. Personally, at the very least I want someone from PetsMart to acknowledge and sincerely apologize for her loss. I want them to investigate this PetsMart location and the number of pet deaths that have taken place there. I want them to develop Standard Operating Procedures and actually train their employees to deal with pet deaths–or, if they have these procedures and training policies in place already, investigate why they were not followed in Miranda’s case.

Until that happens… PetsMart, you’re dead to me.


Teaching evaluations are a broken system.

For those not familiar, pretty much all colleges and universities have course evaluations at the end of a term where students have the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback about the course and the teacher.  It’s usually a bunch of bad survey questions, and, at least on my campus, you’re ranked relative to other profs or TAs in your department and in the campus at large.

A couple problems with this. First, the numbers are meaningless unless they are compared to something else (indeed, many of the questions here are phrased specifically as “how would you rate [blah] compared to other [blahs] on campus?”, making them especially meaningless standing alone), but comparing everyone against each other is a zero-sum game. No matter how good your teaching is on campus, there are going to be people on the bottom of the distribution.

Survey numbers in general are a really bad way of getting high-stakes data (for one, there’s a self-selection bias in completing it at most schools), and even worse is using data from a “survey” that has had very little thoughtful survey design and no validity checks put into it. And these data are high-stakes–the more teaching-oriented the school, the more high-stakes they are. But the students don’t know this… nearly always these surveys are phrased in terms of “opportunities to improve the course,” but behind the scenes they are used in hiring, merit-raise, and promotion decisions. It might be interesting to run a study (too lazy to see if one has been done already, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it has)–rate a professor with the framing of the instructions emphasizing course improvement or with emphasis on hiring/raise/promotion opportunities. I mean, it’s kind of amazing to me that we don’t disclose how this data is used.

That brings me to the last point: the asymmetrical nature of the feedback. Teachers have to give high-stakes, potentially ego-threatening feedback to students (in the form of grades and evaluation of student work), sometimes to their faces and always non-anonymously, but students are given the opportunity to provide high-stakes, threatening feedback anonymously. Most or all schools have students complete the evaluation before the final grades are released (but the teacher doesn’t receive the results until after); but obviously they don’t complete it before they have received grades and feedback on everything else in the course thus far. Clearly students will provide feedback differently if the professor/TA/whoever knows who they are–that is the whole point of anonymous feedback, to get their “real” opinion. But there is not such thing as a “true” opinion, and the asymmetry of evaluation opportunities is potentially harmful. For one, it leads to grade inflation and softening of course material–when the class is too hard or students don’t all get As, course evaluations go down. Course evaluations are high-stakes. So instruction becomes subservient to the anonymous feedback of students, who, just like on the internet, will say the kinds of things or provide the kinds of ratings that they would never dream of saying to someone’s face. Here’s a gem from the most recent teaching evals for my husband’s cousin, who is a professor of media comm: “Dr. [cousin] wears baggy pants that looks like he’s wearing a diaper.” On one hand, maybe he didn’t know and who else is going to tell you that? On the other hand–really?? This how seriously his students take these evaluations; this what will (partially) decide his next merit review?!

I started off reading this article in Psychology Today nodding in all the right places, but after awhile it got a little shrill.  Quick summary: Page 1, introducing the phenomenon of boomerang children, or kids who go back to live at home in their 20s and beyond.  Page 2, it’s all the parents’ fault for getting too chummy with their kids.  Page 3, we finally get into some societal reasons that people are landing back home in greater numbers than previous generations; but no, it’s really the parents’ fault.

While a lot of what is said resonates with my own feelings about over-invested parents, especially those who continue “parenting” their children long after they’re developmentally mature, this article appeals to authority (“experts”) rather than providing actual evidence so many times it’s not even funny.  The evidence it does provide is mixed–even the anecdotes aren’t really that compelling.  The people interviewed are happy to have their kids home–so where’s the “detrimental effects” that parents can endure?  Do those parents not really know what is good for them, and this happiness is false?  Do the sociology and child-development “experts” in the Ivory Tower know better than the actual people out there, living their lives?

The helicopter/buddy parent phenomenon is only a reason that people faced with financial difficulty can land in their parents’ nest when they’re displaced.  It’s not the reason that they’re displaced.  Unemployment or financial difficulty is glossed over in this article as a secondary cause, when it’s probably the primary cause–at least with kids who boomerang home after college graduation and finding their first job.

I wish I had more time to write about this.  I’m sure I’ll use this tag again.

So for reasons that are nobody’s business* I’ve been thinking about birth control success/failure rates over the last couple days.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how they’re usually expressed–in a percentage (e.g., 95% effective).  Sometimes it’s a little clearer; for example, Planned Parenthood reports their figures as number out of 100 women per year (e.g., 95 out of 100 women per year).  What does that even mean? I think a lot of people have the idea that “95% effective” means that they only have a 5% chance of getting pregnant, ever, using it.  This isn’t the case at all.   It means that if you use that method for a year, you have a 5% chance of getting pregnant that year.  And then you have a 5% chance of getting pregnant the following year if you continue using it.  And so on.

So what if you choose a method and stick with it for a number of years?  5%, which is the annual failure rate for birth control pills, may sound really acceptable, but what about 40%?  That’s the chances that you’ll have a kid after using pills for 10 years.

This graph and table are visualizations of the same info; they show your chances of having a kid after x years of using a particular birth-control method.

Birth control failure rates over time

Chances (% probability) you will have at least one kid after x years of using birth control, by method. Click to embiggen.

Chances (% probability) you will have at least one kid after x years of using birth control, by method


x = 1

x = 5

x = 10

x = 15

No method










Diaphragms, female condoms





Male condom, fertility awareness





Hormonal pills





IUD, patch, ring, sterilization





Depo Provera; multiple methods





(Data from multiple sources; actual rather than “ideal” use reported, because everyone thinks they use perfectly and no one does.)

Of course, I feel compelled to note that your chances of getting pregnant in the next year on any particular method never change.  It’s not like if you have using condoms for 14 years without pregnancy, you suddenly have a near certainty of getting pregnant.  It’s just like Vegas–what has happened up until now doesn’t matter.

What this does mean is that if you’re thinking about what sort of birth control to use in the long term, you should decide what % risk is acceptable to you (if the answer is zero, I hope you’re celibate or pro-choice), and find a method that meets that criterion over the time period that you will be using it.

* No, it’s not what you probably think.

This TED talk is by the author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives , which I think I need to read (it’s even on Kindle!) when I’m done with my quals.

In this eloquent TED talk excerpt,* the author notes that he would not want to go back in time because this is the healthiest, wealthiest, most comfortable-for-humanity time in history (he left out that it’s also the least violent).  Then he expresses his frustration that despite all the wonderful things that science has achieved for humanity, we’re now living in a time where many intelligent, educated people mistrust, reject, and even fear the results of science, including most prominently vaccines and genetically-modified foods.  (Also, a nice, amusing little bit on how much we invest–financially and psychically–in Big Placebo.. a.k.a. vitamins and supplements).

* Are there any ineloquent TED talks?

I was most proximally motivated to write this after stumbling on two of Thomas H. Benton’s essays—On Stupidity Part 1 and Part 2 —when looking for a link for him in my last post, though his articles are certainly not the only impetus.  I don’t know if I go a single day in academia without encountering people complaining that Students Are Getting Stupider.

Are college students really getting stupider?  Since when?  Compared to what?

The short answer: yes, but it may look worse than it is depending on your point of view.  And it’s not for the reasons that you may think.

Three Reasons

Long answer:  there are at least three reasons that it may seem like students are getting dumber, especially from the perspective of those whose job it is to educate them.

1) It only seems that way because of estimation errors.

Humans are incredibly bad at estimating pretty much anything.  Barring any hard data on how smart students “used to be,” we estimate.  And what do we use to estimate?  Our own experiences, which are highly colored—especially if the “we” in question are college professors (and professors-in-training).


As of 2008, 55% of all US citizens over 25 have had at least some college education—that is, over half the population is or was at one time a college student.  At the same time, only 2.7% has attained a doctorate—this includes JDs, MDs, etc.; a little less than half of those are PhDs.  Moreover, as our good friend Dr. Benton himself would point out, most of those holding PhDs do not end up being tenure-track college professors for the simple reason that there are not enough of those jobs to go around to all of those who train for them.  So professors who are looking around at their students and wondering if they’re dumber than students were in “their day” are those who have managed to claw their way to the top of the pyramid scheme of academia.

Now, while I acknowledge that the people at the top of this pyramid aren’t necessarily the most intelligent people in the population—after all, I have kind of disingenuously avoided defining “smart” thus far, and really anyone who avoids grad school should be commended on their common sense—nonetheless these are people who are smart in the way that academia rewards, and have made it through multiple, successively more selective filtering processes to get where they are today.  So, at least in the ways that they tend to value, professors are in the “smartest” ~3% of the population.  Moreover, they have spent years and years interacting most closely with others in the upper levels of the pyramid.  The older people they know—other faculty, their friends (who are likely to be highly educated or at least intelligent as well), graduate students—are all really smart.  Thus, their “data” for how things “used to be”—their own experiences—suffer from a heavy selection bias; consequently their estimations for how smart college kids were in their time will be skewed toward the “smarter” end of the spectrum, making today’s kids look “dumber” by comparison.  That is, even if the average college kid (or average teenager, or whatever we want to get up-in-arms about) were no different than 10, 20, 40 years ago, the smarter and more academically-insulated the person is who is doing the estimating, the more likely s/he is to be biased in estimating the past.

2) They actually are dumber.

On average, that is.

I noted above that over half the population 25 and older, as of 2008, has had at least some college education.  That certainly wasn’t always the case.  Assuming you, Dear Reader, are over 25, back in “your day,” fewer people went to college—how many fewer depends on when “your day” was.

In 1950, only 6% of the 25+ population had obtained Bachelor’s degrees.  In 2008, that figure was 29%.  Educational attainment has expanded rapidly, especially in the last 40 years.  The more people go to college, the dumber the average college student is.

I know, I know—I’m totally confounding intelligence with things like socio-economic status / ability to pay for college, motivation or pressure to attend, preparation, etc.  Many of the kids going to college now who would have been less able to go in the past are women* (now more than half of college attendees) and minorities, who would have been just as smart in past decades but the bar for their entry into academia would have been very high indeed.  However, now nearly 1/3 of the US obtains a bachelors degree before 25, and over half have had some college—that latter figure means that it is mathematically certain that there are some people in college who are of less-than-average intelligence:  at least 5% of the population at large, or 9% of people who go to college before 25.

Note that I’m not saying this shouldn’t be the case, that “dumber” people than those who attended college in the past shouldn’t be allowed to do so.  What I am saying is that there really are people of lower intelligence going to school in greater numbers, because everyone is attending school in greater numbers.  The bachelor’s degree is the new high-school diploma; try searching for entry-level jobs on Monster.com—even simple administrative work.  Good luck finding something that does not require a bachelor’s degree.

* The name of the 1967 Census report on demography of college attainment is “Men with College Degrees.

3)  They arrive at college less prepared than in the past.

The third reason that college students seem dumber these days is that people enter college less prepared to do the sorts of things that their college professors (and graduate-student teachers, and adjunct lecturers…) did in their college days.  This was the main point of the Benton articles above, so I’ll mostly gloss over this point.  Common whipping boys for lack of preparation are the media, the kids themselves (“kids these days” are always a popular target), or even high school teachers, but the real problem is the constant and very rapid accumulation of human knowledge.  We can’t teach it all—but we try to, and the result is spreading kids too thin, beginning in elementary school or earlier.  Once upon a time it was possible to be a true polymath, but today it takes a lifetime to become an expert in even one little niche area of one field.  Prodigies may be able to achieve a few areas of expertise.  But the accumulated knowledge of the human race grows exponentially, so the portion that any one person can possibly know is constantly shrinking.  Why try to prepare students for everything when the result is so shallow?

So even the smart kids are arriving at school with less foundational science knowledge, poorer writing ability, fewer analytical skills, etc., because they’ve spent their K-12 years with a kitchen-sink approach to education.  For that matter, their college years will be no different; many of today’s college courses, especially at large, state universities, are huge lecture courses that reward cramming of massive amounts of information rather than deep learning of a few key concepts.

I feel like, after writing all of this, that there should be a point, but there really isn’t, beyond offering some explanations for a common perception—basically, it all comes down to numbers, or at least my three reasons do.  I’m sure there are lots more reasons why college kids are dumber than ever, probably involving video games, iPhones, or Twitter.

I’m in my qualifying exams of my PhD program and have an 8-month-old baby, so I shouldn’t be surprised, but MAN life is so busy.  I could use at least another 4 hours in each day.

My first entry here is a wish-list of things I would like to post soon.  Maybe when I have a few minutes here or there, I can make one of these posts instead of zoning out while watching Highlander.  (Of course, zoning out has its merits as well.)  See my dreams for the near future of this blog after the jump. Read the rest of this entry »