Rich and Poor Students: How to Distinguish

At Tsinghua University, there is a great range of wealth among  students. Some are from very rich families, some from very poor. I asked a friend how to distinguish rich students and poor ones.

“At the student store, rich students buy things that cost more than 15 yuan [2 dollars],” she said.

I asked another student the same question.

“By their shoes,” he said, “especially sports shoes.”  Poor students wear Chinese brands you’ve never heard of. Rich students wear American brands.

Like my friend’s answer, this surprised me. At the Beijing Zoo, I paid $10 for Nike shoes that cost $100 in America. Yet when visiting America, Chinese people I know have bought Nike shoes, because genuine Nike cost less in America than in China. So the American shoes of the rich students are probably genuine (> $100) and the Chinese-brand shoes of the poor students cost less than $10 ($5?).

Chinese Reaction to Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize

I asked several Tsinghua students what they thought about Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese dissident, winning the Nobel Peace Prize. There was a wide range of answers:

1. “It’s a sensitive subject,” said one student. And said no more.

2. “The Nobel Prize always seems to involve China,” said another student. Maybe she meant the Peace Prize in 1989 to the Dalai Lama and the more recent Literature prize to Gao Xingjian, but I’m not sure. Politely changing the subject.

3. “I don’t know much about what he stands for,” said another student (a freshman).

4. “Now is not the right time for his ideas. They would interfere with economic progress,” said a student who is a member of the Communist Party.

5. “Many people say because the European economy is bad, they gave the prize to someone who will never collect the money [because he’s imprisoned],” said another student. She added that receiving the prize will be bad for Liu. Because it was “a great shame for China” (meaning the government), they will increase his prison sentence.

The Stupidity of Crowds

At Tsinghua I am teaching a class called Frontiers of Psychology. The students are reading The Man Who Would Be Queen by Michael Bailey. At one point Bailey mentions what is sometimes called the older brother effect: If a man has one older brother, he is more likely to be gay than if he has no older brothers, controlling for several things. This has been seen many times. In 1962 it was reported that gay men have more older siblings than other men but not until 1996 was it determined that this was due to more older brothers.

Bailey doesn’t mention the strength of the effect. The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki is about research that found that non-experts can do an excellent job of estimating this or that number (such as the weight of a particular cow) even when they know little about it. Their answers are excellent in the sense that the average of their answers is very accurate. Perhaps my students, who had read two-thirds of Bailey’s book, could accurately estimate the strength of the effect.

I posed the question like this. Suppose that when a man has no older brothers, his chance of being gay is 2.0%. What is his chance of being gay if he has one older brother? I gathered an estimate from every student. The median of their estimates was 8%. The correct answer is 2.7%.

First Day of Class

Today was my first day of class at Tsinghua. I am teaching a seminar called Frontiers of Psychology. There was only time for about half of the 40-odd students to identify themselves, which included saying their favorite book. Three girls said their favorite book is Pride and Prejudice. Two said The Little Prince. One said Harry Potter. One said Rebecca by Daphne Du Marier (published 1938). One boy said he didn’t have a favorite book — reading books was a waste of time. One boy said his favorite book is Ulysses.

Most of them, perhaps 80%, chose a non-Chinese book as their favorite. One French, two German, the rest English (which they may have read in Chinese translation). At first I was surprised but then I realized it made sense. Chinese civilization was more advanced than European civilization for a long time but when Gutenberg invented the Western version of the printing press everything changed. In Europe, unlike China, books became cheap and literacy spread. With literacy came a book industry. A large number of Europeans have been reading books for 500 years. In contrast, the Chinese language, with thousands of characters (in contrast to 26 lower-case and 26 upper-case letters) made printing difficult. With reading material rare, so was literacy.

Interview for a Press Release

A writer for UC Berkeley media relations wanted to interview me for this press release about the Tsinghua Psychology department. I said I’d blogged a lot about Tsinghua but she said she wanted “fresh quotes”. So I wrote this:

Why did you decide to take this opportunity [become a professor at Tsinghua]?

Partly because I wanted to write more books — in addition to The Shangri-La Diet — and this job would let me, because I only teach one semester per year. Partly because I thought the undergraduates would be brilliant. Partly because I thought living in Beijing would be fascinating.

What have you learned/discovered?

How talented the students are. To get into Tsinghua as an undergraduate, you have to score extremely well on a nationwide test. Oh, so they’re bookish? Not quite. A month ago I went to a talent show put on by biomedical-engineering majors. One act was five girls dancing. After a few minutes someone told me that three of the girls were boys. I hadn’t noticed. It was really hard to tell.

Influenced by Mulan, perhaps.

The Foxconn Suicides

Foxconn, located on the coast of China, is the largest electronics manufacturer in the world. They make iPhones, Wiis, and many other famous products. You may have read about the epidemic of suicide that has broken out among its employees. There were two in the last few days, for example. The count now stands at something like a dozen suicides in about a month. The factory complex involved is gigantic, with perhaps 300,000 workers, but no question this is a terrible thing. The victims are all or mostly men in their early twenties. The median length of employment at Foxconn might be about a year.

Foxconn has appealed to my university (Tsinghua) and in particular my department (Psychology) for help. I’m told their assembly line was designed at Tsinghua. In any case, several people from my department (faculty and graduate students) have gone to the factory and tried to do something.

At a department meeting we discussed our department’s involvement. I said it’s really hard to make progress on such problems for reasons that might not be obvious. When I had trouble waking up too early, I started to study the problem via self-experimentation. All I cared about was solving the problem. Any answer was acceptable. I would spend as long as it took to find it. It took me 10 years to make visible progress. The first thing I figured out was that the problem was partly due to eating breakfast — which sleep researchers had failed to discover.
Consider the Foxconn suicides. It would be incredibly helpful to figure out what’s causing them. But few professors want to study a problem that they have no idea if they can solve nor how long it will take. They don’t want to wait ten years to write a paper. By then their funding will have run out. If funding is assured regardless of progress, then how does the funder ensure they are actually doing something? And few professors have total academic freedom. Their graduate school advisor, their academic friends, the people who control their career have certain beliefs. About which theories are good and which are bad. About which methods are “correct”. If their results contradict these beliefs, if they use a “wrong” method, they will suffer, just as all heretics suffer. So there is pressure to come up with an acceptable answer using proper methods. This gets in the way of coming up with the actual answer.

This doesn’t mean academic research is useless, but it does mean that professors work in shackles that outsiders are, in my experience, unaware of. I wrote about this in my Medical Hypotheses paper. It is a big reason my self-experimentation found new and surprising answers to old questions: I had total freedom. All I cared about was finding the answer. I didn’t care about publications. I didn’t worry about funding. I had as much time as it took.

“Psychology is the bridge between art and science”

Yesterday I attended interviews of Tsinghua students who want to transfer from another major to psychology. Almost all of it was in Chinese, but at one point, as part of an explanation of her interest in psychology, a student said (in English), “Psychology is the bridge between art and science.”

Well put. Maybe she read that somewhere, but I doubt it. I’d never heard it before. Notice how we think art can be done by anyone yet science can only be done by scientists (in extreme cases, only by physicists). Psychology, especially self-experimentation, may lead us out of that desert.

The wisdom of Tsinghua freshmen.

Tsinghua Student Clubs

Here is a list of Tsinghua student clubs. Some are puzzling or intriguing:

  • Student Anti-Cult Association
  • Student Collection Association
  • Student Du Xing Association
  • Student Edge Landscape Studies Association
  • Student Informatized Service and Consultation Enthusiasts Association
  • Student Insurance Association
  • Student Project Management Association
  • Student Web Surfing Enthusiasts Association
  • Student Xi Lu Association

No restaurant club. Neighboring Peking University has such a club. I wonder what the Student Social Interaction Development Association does. The Student Redology Association is devoted to study of the book Dream of a Red Chamber. I mentioned earlier a student club whose name means “sing your heart”. Here that club is called Student Education Aid-the-Poor Service Association.

Teaching: What I Learned Last Semester

Andrew Gelman’s thoughts about teaching led me to mull over what I learned last semester from teaching at Tsinghua. I taught two classes: a freshman seminar that covered a wide range of psychology research; and a class for graduate students about R.

Some things worked well:

1. In the freshman seminar, one of the assignments was to design a Mindless-Eating-type experiment. (Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink was one of the reading assignments.) One of the students designed a really good experiment in which people on different buses get different treatments. She happened to be a senior applying for graduate school and her work on that assignment helped me write a really strong letter of recommendation for her.

2. I graded the students on their comments on the reading and set the bar very high to get a full score (3 out of 3): they had to say something that interested me. A fair number managed to do this. The bar wasn’t too high.

3. I had lunch with all the students in the seminar (about 5 per week). The students seemed to like it. I certainly did.

4. There were classroom debates about which paper was the best (one week) or the worst (another week). They got everyone involved, was far less passive than listening to me talk, and gave them practice speaking English.

But there was plenty of room for improvement:

1. Students in the seminar were frustrated by the vague criterion (“interest me”). Toward the end I posted the comments that got the full score and that seemed to help.

2. In the seminar it was hard to get feedback about how well I was being understood. The best I could do was pass out slips of paper and have the students write down what percentage of what I said they understood. More immediate feedback (e.g., when I used a too-difficult word) would have been better.

3. In the R class I hoped the students would analyze their own data. This was too hard for quite a few of them. In the future I’ll give them a data set.

4. One student dropped the R class because my English was hard to understand.

5. In the seminar, some students (freshmen) complained that other (older) students, whose English was better, talked too much. They had a point and I should try calling on people randomly. I also should try to get general feedback after each class (e.g., “tell me one thing you liked and one thing you didn’t like about today’s class”).

6. In spite of my constant complaint that professors treat all of their students alike (e.g., all students get the same assignment) when they aren’t all alike — they differ substantially in what they’re good at, for example — I pretty much did the same thing.

7. I should have at least tried to learn my students’ Chinese names.

Tsinghua Student Life

The Chinese government sets limits to the number of acceptable student suicides per year at every college. If the number is exceeded, the college is punished — perhaps by a reduction in administrator salaries. Although colleges conceal suicides from their own students, they dare not conceal them from the government. At Tsinghua (with about 12,000 students) the annual limit is six. (So far this year, there have apparently been none.) In the electrical engineering department recently, more than six students were thought to be considering suicide. Because of this, a psychology professor gave the EE majors a talk about looking at the bright side of things.

A newly-formed Tsinghua student club has a Chinese name that means Sing Your Heart. It is for students who want to volunteer to teach in poor rural areas.  The club has a special song that they sing at every meeting. They are remarkably ambitious: They want to set up a training program to train students to teach in these areas.

The School of Humanities and Social Sciences has a debate competition every year. This year’s topic is: Should the Fuwa (the Beijing Olympic mascots) have genders?

The Wisdom of Tsinghua Freshmen

This semester at Tsinghua University — the most selective college in China — I taught a freshman seminar about recent psychology research. Three weeks ago I gave my students a choice of five articles from Psychological Science, all published in 2008. They were to read one of them and comment.

Mostly I try to teach appreciation but three weeks ago we focused on how articles could be improved. I have never tried to teach this, yet the students made some very good points. Here are some of their comments:

1. This article said that we believe women make better leaders when there is within-group conflict and that men make better leaders when there is between-group conflict. One student pointed out that Rwanda was a good example. After the genocide (within-group conflict), far more women were elected to office.

2. This article studied the effect of cleanliness on moral judgments. One experiment compared two groups: subjects in one group had recently washed their hands, subjects in the other group had not. Before the time when the handwashing happened, both groups saw unpleasant scenes from a movie. Students pointed out an important confounding not mentioned in the article: The two groups differed not only in handwashing but also in the time from movie to test (because handwashing took time). Perhaps subjects who washed their hands remembered the movie less well.

3. The name-letter effect is a tendency to favor outcomes (broadly defined) that involve the first letter of your name. This study involved Belgium workers. The authors found that workers were more likely to be employed by a company whose first letter matched the first letter of their name. The correlation was small but reliable. Two students pointed out that this might reflect the company’s choice of whom to hire rather than the employee’s choice of where to work. One student pointed out that the correlation might be due to name-place correlations across Belgium. Perhaps certain regions favor certain names for both people and companies. As you move closer to the French border, perhaps French names become more common among both people and companies.

In all of these cases, had I been the editor, I would have required the authors to change their article appropriately.

James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds described cases where averages of estimates made by non-experts did very well, sometimes out-performing experts. These three examples don’t involve numerical judgments nor averaging, but they do show non-experts (freshmen) doing better than experts (journal editors and reviewers) in certain ways. Each paper was read by about eight students.

More It isn’t easy to convey how impressed I was. The comments about Rwanda and about name localization certainly deserve a letter to the editor (if Psychological Science published them).  Both of them are sophisticated methodological comments. The Rwandan one says that after you write an experimental article, try to find out if  real-world events support your findings. That may be a helpful lesson in many cases. The name localization one suggests that psychologists who use survey data should be learning more about how to analyze survey data. Several other times my students surprised me with how good their comments were. One was during a discussion of possible reasons for the Holocaust, another was about why women in ancient China bound their feet, a third involved proposals for Mindless-Eating-type experiments.

Tsinghua Curiosities: First Day of Class

I am teaching a seminar-like class called something like New Topics in Psychology. Most of the students are freshmen because this is the first year the psychology department has accepted undergraduates. Some unusual things happened on the first day of class:

  • A graduate student volunteered to be a teaching assistant. (She was the second person to do so. A grad student in automation had volunteered a week earlier.)
  • A freshman had her picture taken with me.
  • I mentioned Caltech, where I was a freshman. Someone asked if Randy Pausch was a Caltech professor. (He was at Carnegie-Mellon.)
  • The students did brief introductions. Many students appeared to think that one student’s Chinese name was humorous. This was briefly explained to me but I still have trouble believing it. Maybe I misunderstood.
  • There was uncertainty about the length of the class. It lasted only the first two-thirds of a longer period. (The basic unit is 45 minutes class plus 5 minutes break.)
  • The students were seated in the usual rectangular way. Moving from front row to back row, the students’ English appeared to get worse.
  • The (first) teaching assistant advised them to not say “My English is not good” but to say “My English is on the way”.

The Ethical Stupidity of Med School Professors: Plagiarism Very Very Bad, Ghostwriting Okay

Do medical school professors live in a different ethical world than the rest of us? Apparently. A friend of mine just entered grad school at Tsinghua. She was required to attend four different lectures about how academic dishonesty is wrong. (The last one, she said, was good; the speaker told a lot of stories.) China has a huge plagiarism problem, sure, but at least they say that plagiarism is wrong.

Whereas medical school professors haven’t managed to grasp that ghostwriting is plagiarism (taking someone’s words and ideas as yours without acknowledgment). And it happens all the time. NYU med school Professor Lila Nachtigall, as I’ve noted, considered the deed so minor she forgot that she’d done it. Apparently using a different word confuses them. A recent article in Nature reveals the befuddlement of the entire medical establishment about this. We’re not sure what to do about it, journal editors say. As Tony Soprano’s mom would say: Poor you.

What’s so nauseating about this is that ghostwriting is certainly worse than the garden-variety plagiarism that American undergraduates and the odd Harvard professor engage in.  (And at least they are embarrassed, unlike Nachtigall, when caught.) Garden-variety plagiarism is merely self-serving; you save time, get a higher grade. Whereas drug-company ghostwriting makes drugs appear better than they are. Which harms millions of sick people.

Although American universities publicly condemn plagiarism and other types of cheating, in practice they allow them. (Believe me, I know. When I tried to stop cheating in my Intro Psych class at Berkeley, the chairman of my department told me, “We’re not in that business.”) And the student cheaters — having been told by university blind-eye-turning that cheating is okay — grow up to be med school professors who do horrible things routinely. That’s my theory.

Thanks to Dave Lull.

Spectacle Practice

Late last night, on my way home, I came across a huge crowd of Tsinghua students next to the campus stadium. More than a thousand. There was no event at the stadium. All of them were dressed in a casual uniform, in varying colors. “What’s this about?” I asked one of them. “It’s a secret,” she said. Another one told me they were practicing for the upcoming National Day (October 1), which is China’s Fourth of July. This particular National Day will be the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the current system so there will be an especially big celebration. The uniforms said “60” on the shirt. There were going to be at least 9 practices. This particular night was the first night they would practice in Tiananmen Square, where the event would take place. Every one of them had a square with different colors on the two sides; like a giant LED display they would make different displays. “It lasts all night,” the student told me. “It ends at 6 am. We don’t sleep.”

And, indeed, at 5:30 am the next morning, a police-escorted convoy of 45 buses, each with about 60 students, came through the campus gate near my apartment. An article about the Tiananmen practice says it involves about 200,000 people. That’s a lot of buses.

Tsinghua Dumplings

Jennifer Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, has a nice post about dumplings, including this:

I once made 888 dumplings for a party, my personal record. . . . You might have crudites, warm cheese, stale hummus, left over at the end of the party. You will never have leftover dumplings — unless you burned them.

This reminds me how much I liked the dumplings a the Tsinghua student cafeterias. I think they were served at every meal but I associate them with breakfast, maybe because there was less choice at breakfast. Fresh and homemade and chewy and well-spiced and incredibly cheap (like all the cafeteria food). Maybe 6 for 25 cents. There was an optional vinegar-like sauce (speaking of fermented foods). There were two types (pork & ??) but I didn’t understand the Chinese names.

I tried to avoid them. They were too easy and familiar. But it takes a certain amount of stamina to eat strange food so if I was tired, I’d have dumplings.

Why One Student Loves Tsinghua University

After reading my post about Reed College’s horrible treatment of Chris Langan, a friend of mine who is a student at Tsinghua University wrote this:

I feel so lucky that we have lots of brilliant scholars who are at the same time good teachers. Many of them do care about undergraduates and give good advice. I don’t know which education system for undergrads [Tsinghua’s or Reed’s] is best, for colleges that do poorly in educating undergrads [like Reed] may produce students who are more independent. But being educated here, I have to say I love Tsinghua and its teachers a lot.

Why does she love Tsinghua? I asked.

I think it is very tolerant.  I made many mistakes while I was growing up, but just like my parents, my school didn’t forced me to do anything to correct my mistakes. It gave me freedom to choose, to live my own life. I’m glad it didn’t interrupt my life and gave me the chance to see my mistakes and to correct them by myself. And when I did want to correct them, it allowed me to. I realize that there won’t be many chances to make mistakes and to correct them by myself after I leave school so I value the time in the school. So I guess the best thing about Tsinghua is its freedom and tolerance.

My friend started as a math major. Then she became an English major. Now she is taking economics classes because she wants to study economics in graduate school. That’s what she means by “mistakes”: choosing the wrong major.

Tsinghua versus Reed.

Life Imitates Art School (part 2)

Tsinghua University includes an art school added six or seven years ago. An art school elsewhere in Beijing moved to the Tsinghua campus; a big building was built for them. Two of my Chinese teachers are art students. I told them about the San Francisco art school where every department looks down on another department. This got a big laugh. The same thing happens in their school, they said. It is divided into fine arts and design. The fine arts students look down on the design students because the design students are working for money; the design students look down on the fine arts students because they aren’t practical.

The more curious interaction is between the art students and the rest of the school. Students in the rest of Tsinghua, which resembles MIT, often ask the art students their score on the national exam that high school students take to get into college. It is incredibly difficult to get into Tsinghua by that route; maybe 1 in 10,000 is successful. Art students have lower scores on this test but must also pass a test of artistic ability. One of my teachers, who is now a graduate student, said she’d been asked her exam scores at least 10 times.  Here is one context. My teacher has just helped another student with his bike.

Student who has just been helped: What’s your major?

My teacher: Art.

Student: What was your score on the national test?

And she is big and strong, she said, so potential questioners may have been afraid of being hit. Other art students are asked more often.

Marxism Studies at Tsinghua University

All Tsinghua undergraduates are required to take four Marxism-related classes to graduate; next year the requirement will be reduced to three classes. A friend told me about her Marxist philosophy class, which she thought was pretty interesting:

  • There is no homework. No reading, no papers.
  • If there will be a final, it hasn’t been mentioned.
  • The teacher doesn’t take attendance. Now and then he calls on students to answer questions and if the student isn’t present, this is noted.

My friend, who is a member of the Communist Party, couldn’t suppress a smile when she told me about the lack of homework.

Making a Living in China

Several buildings are being built on the Tsinghua campus. At least one woman makes a living as a prostitute among the construction workers. She is known as Qikuaiban, which means seven and half yuan (about $1). The name came about when she offered her services to a worker, he said, “All I have is seven and a half yuan,” and she accepted that payment.

Happiness in China: Who wants to be a construction worker?