Friday links: the counted, and uncounted, toll of COVID-19, university funding apocalypse, and more (UPDATED with bonus link)

Also this week: a wild scandal in papyrology, another expression of concern for Jonathan Pruitt, and more.

From Jeremy:

FiveThirtyEight has an informative and moving piece on why COVID-19 deaths are undercounted. It focuses on Meghan’s father Bob Duffy, who passed away in March, almost certainly from COVID-19 although he was never tested. Meghan’s own remembrance of her father is here.

Another expression of concern for a paper co-authored by Jonathan Pruitt, this one in PNAS.

Nature reports on data indicating that the pandemic is reducing the productivity of women scientists relative to that of men. Disappointing but predictable.

You’ve probably already seen stories about this, but in case not, here’s an Atlantic piece on the wild story of Oxford papyrologist and MacArthur “genius” grant winner Dirk Obbink. There’s strong evidence that Obbink stole papyrus fragments from a collection at Oxford, lied about their age to inflate their worth, and sold them to a rich evangelical for millions of dollars. And Obbink’s not the only apparently-dishonest papyrologist involved in this saga. Obbink denies wrongdoing.

A distressing Twitter thread arguing that US colleges and universities face a funding apocalypse. And here’s additional data and discussion focused on the Australian and Canadian contexts.

UPDATE: just saw this and decided to add it to this week’s linkfest rather than waiting for next one: Princeton University sociology dept is not accepting applications from any prospective graduate students this year, so as to focus on supporting their current graduate students during the pandemic.

After all of the above links, you could probably use an uplifting one. I know I could. So here’s the story of then-graduate student Lisa Piccirillo, who started working on an open problem in pure mathematics as a side project, without realizing just how old or important the problem was, and solved it in a week.

As a bookend to the first link, here’s a melancholy, but characteristically lovely, piece by Kieran Healy on the kitchen counter observatory. It’s for anyone who crunches numbers, especially but not exclusively those who are doing so while staying home with their children. I’ll quote a couple of bits to encourage you to click through:

People sometimes think (or complain) that working with quantitative data like this inures you to the reality of the human lives that lie behind the numbers. Numbers and measures are crude; they pick up the wrong things; they strip out the meaning of what’s happening to real people; they make it easy to ignore what can’t be counted. There’s something to those complaints. But it’s mostly a lazy critique. In practice, I find that far from distancing you from questions of meaning, quantitative data forces you to confront them. The numbers draw you in. Working with data like this is an unending exercise in humility, a constant compulsion to think through what you can and cannot see, and a standing invitation to understand what the measures really capture—what they mean, and for whom…

I sit at my kitchen-counter observatory and look at the numbers. Before my coffee is ready, I can quickly pull down a few million rows of data courtesy of a national computer network originally designed by the government to be disaggregated and robust, because they were convinced that was what it would take for communication to survive a nuclear war. I can process it using software originally written by academics in their spare time, because they were convinced that sophisticated tools should be available to everyone for free. Through this observatory I can look out without even looking up, surveying the scale and scope of the country’s ongoing, huge, avoidable failure. Everything about this is absurd.

6 thoughts on “Friday links: the counted, and uncounted, toll of COVID-19, university funding apocalypse, and more (UPDATED with bonus link)

  1. You don’t need to bother clicking through to find out what Jonathan Pruitt’s latest expression of concern says; it doesn’t say anything that you don’t already know. Read the first and last items instead, you’ll be glad you did.

  2. I was pretty disappointed in Noah’s thread about the “College Apocalypse”. There are some long term trends in education that are gloomy – namely declining willingness of society to fund universities (aka decreasing share of funding from taxpayers at state universities) and a demographic trend of fewer young people.

    But both those trends having been going for a while Will COVID accelerate some binary outcomes like colleges closing? Sure. But is this a shocking news story or something solely due to to COVID? No.

    And his treatment of international students is glib at best. All that is really going on is a brief decline during Trump’s attack on immigration. There is no evidence of a longer term trend for international students that is longer than a presidents term. And some pretty good evidence to the contrary. COVID will obviously compound this short term, but long term you have to claim you know international travel won’t recover for many years (and Trump will be reelected) to make the claims he makes.

    The treatment of domestic demand is also weak (although not as weak as international students). Is there a peak of births entering college in 2025? Yes. But its nothing like the baby boom peak. Its a 10% peak with a gradual decline. You can’t talk like you think half the colleges in the country are going to close removing supply and then worry about a 10% decrease in demand. Some of the commentator discussion about price increases are also very off base as most of what drove that was the aforementioned decline in state tax revenue. As far as I know the percentage of students attending college is still trending up ( . And indeed a main consequence of the last recession was an even higher percentage of people going to college because it was a better use of time (and a smarter longterm financial decision) than sitting at home on unemployment resulting in an actual few year bump in enrollments.

    Bottom line – long term trends are problematic. COVID will tip some borderline cases into crises but also will have highly unpredictable outcomes for the next few years (possibly some positive as well as negative), but long term is still a gradual trend, not falling off a cliff. And deeper long term positive trends of switching US economy to a knowledge economy (meaning more jobs require college training) and the premium placed by other countries on English speaking ability (and thus attending English-speaking universities and living in English-speaking countries) is likely to remain strong as softening (best case countervailing) forces.

    Put me down as a solid meh!

  3. Interesting that the bot which produces the “We Recommend” list at PNAS under the editorial expression of concern suggests the very article under concern first.

    Not sure I really understand the traces, ribbons, and slices in Lisa Piccirillo’s story, but I’m glad she is getting credit she deserves and her advisor got her to publish it quickly.

    Now that my Saturday morning link reading is done, it on to mowing grass and DIY projects.

  4. If anyone ever thought that a focus on numbers must blind you to the people behind them, the post from FiveThirtyEight demolishes that idea. And there is no site so focused on numbers as FiveThirtyEight. I am very sorry for your loss, Meghan.

    I try to keep this in mind. Recently teaching a course on matrix methods in health demography, one of the examples was a Markov chain model for sepsis. And at the same time a news article appeared about an Australian man who went into the hospital just not feeling well, turned out to have septic infection, and left with arms and legs amputated. I read the article to the class. It helped remind me, and maybe them, that there are people behind those transition matrices.

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