Reviewed Books & Films

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Is Higher Education Simply a Business?


Geoffrey Cox, president of Alliant International University, has written a thorough and thoughtful review of Suzanne Mettler’s provocative book Degrees of Inequality:  How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream, challenging many of her assumptions.

On the book jacket, Mettler argues,

America’s higher education system is failing its students. In the space of a generation, we have gone from being the best-educated society in the world to one surpassed by eleven other nations in college graduation rates. Higher education is evolving into a caste system with separate and unequal tiers that take in students from different socio-economic backgrounds and leave them more unequal than when they first enrolled. . . . As politicians capitulate to corporate interests, owners of for-profit colleges benefit, but for far too many students, higher education leaves them with little besides crippling student loan debt.

Mettler says these for-profit universities are primarily responsible for the enormous and growing chasm between educational haves and have-nots, and many other reviewers of her book agree.  For example, Gary Rivlin (2014), writing in The New York Times Sunday Book Review column, notes,

For-profit colleges are the true bad guys in this tale. Though their “ardent defender,” the Republican Party, contends that the schools provide “meaningful opportunities for low-income and minority students,” Mettler mounts a persuasive case that . . . [t]hese institutions are generally more skilled at getting rich off those living in the lower economic reaches than they are at preparing them for the job market. She has mined congressional reports, newspaper accounts and academic ­studies, piling up example after example of recruiters who’ll say practically anything to enroll a student, any student, in their programs, resulting in graduation rates not even close to those of traditional colleges. And how do those who manage to earn a degree fare? In the 2007-8 academic year, the average student working on a bachelor’s degree from a for-profit college found herself in deeper debt ($32,700) than her counterpart attending a private college ($17,700). And good luck settling loans with those low-paying jobs so many graduates find themselves working, despite the dreams that the school’s marketers put in their heads. Alumni of the for-profit colleges account for nearly half of all student-loan defaults, according to Mettler, even as they make up one in 10 students pursuing a postsecondary education. (para. 3)

President Cox finds these arguments somewhat glib, and he wonders whether the U. S. higher education system causes societal disparities or simply reflects them.  He makes the obvious case that enhancing educational access will require additional funding, and this money will have to come from somewhere.   

We must also recognize that higher education is a capital-intensive enterprise, and if we take seriously the challenge of increasing access, it will require substantial new investment. This could come from redistributing some of the public largesse bestowed on the elites or by finding more resources in strapped state budgets, but neither of these seems likely. The only other alternative is private capital. We need a system that holds for-profit education fully accountable but also treats it as a necessary, full partner in the effort to expand capacity and opportunity. Only then will it cease being primarily the route for those disenfranchised by other segments of the higher education system. (penultimate para.)

Are most of the thousand or so for-profit colleges that have been created in recent years simply exploiting disadvantaged, naïve, and unsophisticated students and taking advantage of generous and largely unregulated federal loan programs, or do many for-profit colleges offer a viable and meaningful shot at a good education and a rewarding career for over a million students who would not otherwise have these opportunities?


Rivlin, C. (2014, June 6). B.A.s and I.O.U.s. [Review of the book Degrees of inequality, by S. Mettler]. The New York Times. Retreived from 

Read the Review
ReviewShow Me the Money!
By Geoffrey M. Cox
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(28)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Why Do So Many Psychologists Write So Badly?


Michael Corballis wrote a laudatory review of Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles by Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychology professor and one of the leading intellectuals of the 21st century.  Corballis notes, “Pinker is a rarity among academic psychologists not only as a stylish writer, but also as a profound thinker with an ability to grasp the major issues of human nature and human evolution” (final para.).

Corballis is especially enthusiastic about Pinker’s ability to write clean, clear, and direct prose that can be appreciated by academics as well as by educated readers without specialized training in psychology or linguistics.  However, Pinker’s writing is apparently sometimes too clear for those academic journals in which he publishes.  Pinker notes in the introduction to his book,

The process of getting an article accepted for publication in an academic journal is by far the most unpleasant experience in intellectual life, since it requires devoting time and brainpower to making one’s article worse in an abject effort to satisfy the whims of an anonymous referee. (p. x)

Later, discussing one of Pinker’s articles published in the prestigious and scholarly journal Psychological Review, Corballis writes, “If an anonymous referee made that one worse, it must have been a cracker to begin with” (para. 6).

Why is so much of what we read in psychology journals obscure and pedantic?  Why can’t we all write like Steven Pinker?

Read the Review
ReviewA Pinker View of Almost Everything
By Michael Corballis
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(20)

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Do We Need Six Psychology Dictionaries—Or Any?


Seven years ago in PsycCRITIQUES I reviewed the first APA Dictionary of Psychology (Korn, 2007). Since then there have been two shorter editions (concise and college) and three special topic editions, including most recently The APA Dictionary of Statistics and Research Methods. In his review of this volume, Michael Palij provides an interesting history of statistics dictionaries and  an analysis of the purpose of a dictionary, and he points out that all this information is available on the Internet. Even the Oxford English Dictionary is available online, for free.

Do we really need any of these APA volumes? I enjoyed searching through my copy of the Big One when I did my review, but concluded that there was “no significant difference” (Korn, 2007, last para.) between searching it or the Internet. And that was a biased judgment from an older person still in love with hard-copy books. I confess that I have not looked in that dictionary in the past seven years. The need for an APA statistics dictionary seems especially questionable. Palij points out that statistics is a tool used by many disciplines other than psychology and is its own discipline with its own dictionary. He also notes several important missing items and the editor’s “argument that ‘space limitations prevent us from providing certain information’” (last para.). There are no space limitations on the Internet.

Perhaps readers could help me understand the need to sacrifice so many trees in publishing these dictionaries. Why would you use a hard-copy book to find the definition of anything?


Korn, J. (2007). You can look it up. [Review of the book APA dictionary of psychology, by G. R. VandenBos (Ed.)]. PsycCRITIQUES, 52(1). doi 10.1037/a0006301
Read the Review
ReviewNumbers, Words, and Things: Reviewing a Statistics and Methods Dictionary
By Michael Palij
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(25)

Thursday, July 03, 2014

What Does Developmental Psychology Tell Us About the Identity of Cybercriminals?


In his review of Gráinne Kirwan and Andrew Power's book Cybercrime: The Psychology of Online Offenders,  Thomas Holt describes the authors’ typology of cybercrime that consists of Internet-enabled crimes that “can also occur in the real world (e.g., piracy)”; Internet-specific crimes that cannot exist off-line, such as malicious software distribution; and  crimes in virtual worlds, “where nonhuman characters and representations of people engage in offenses that would otherwise be dictated as crimes in the real world“ (para. 2).

What do developmental psychology and other areas of psychology that study identity development tell us about the nature of cybercriminals?  Is there something unique about this new type of offender compared with other offenders who steal, assault, and so forth?  Do current models and theories apply, or do we need to develop new ones for cybercriminals?  Much is discussed these days about preventing the development of criminals.  Should we also discuss how we can prevent individuals from turning to cybercrime? 

Read the Review
ReviewTheorizing the Motives of Cybercriminals
By Thomas J. Holt
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(22)

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Kodachromes in the Brain


It is easy to be impressed by colorful functional magnetic resonance-imaging (fMRI) photos of activity in the brain. Every introduction-to-psychology textbook has these pictures to show students that there are places in the brain for various cognitive events. William Uttal has been casting doubt on what we really know from fMRI pictures, most recently in Reliability in Cognitive Neuroscience: A Meta-Meta-Analysis.

In his review, Harry Whitaker writes that Uttal’s point concerning the unreliability of these fMRI pictures “should be taken seriously by anyone engaged in research that uses changes in brain images as the dependent variable in a cognitive experiment” (para. 2). Whitaker also points out two methodological problems that Uttal did not consider: one, that the emotional state of a person affects the location of brain activation, and two, what

is actually seen [in these pictures] is a computer-generated image of changes in the oxygen concentration in the blood of some veins within the venous network that are presumably draining tissue regions in the brain that have recently been active (para. 8).

Does that really tell us much about what part or parts of the brain are most involved when I balance my checkbook or recall who played shortstop for the White Sox in 1952?

Have cognitive neuroscientists been overselling these Kodachromes in the brain to our students and the public? Isn’t it more important for psychologists to learn more about how we think than where in the brain we think about something?

Read the Review
ReviewThe Emperor Has No Clothes
By Harry A. Whitaker
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(23)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Should Spanking Children be Banned?


Many adults approve of parents spanking their children, and currently 19 states still allow spanking in schools. In The Primordial Violence: Spanking Children, Psychological Development, Violence, and Crime, Murray A. Straus, Emily M. Douglas, and Rose Anne Medeiros argue that spanking should be banned, a conclusion they base on the preponderance of the evidence showing that spanking is associated with numerous negative developmental outcomes. Reviewer Clifton R. Emery agrees with this but cautions against the unintended consequences of such a ban. He explains that policies punishing or stigmatizing parents who spank, or policy changes implemented without substantial accompanying public education, could be counterproductive. He suggests that a ban on corporal punishment must be accompanied by public education including, at a minimum, a media campaign, targeted programming for high-risk families, and a mandatory one-semester course in parenting for all high school students.

Is there enough public buy-in about the negative impact of spanking for a ban to be a realistic solution? Do you agree that a ban on spanking could be counterproductive? If so, how? What other solutions are viable?

Read the Review
ReviewParenting Paradigm Shift
By Clifton R. Emery
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(22)

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Time to Say No More to the War on Drugs?


Carl Hart’s new book, High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, which I (Fred Heide) reviewed recently for PsycCRITIQUES, undercuts many of the myths that have swirled around illegal substances for decades. For example, Hart points out that 75 percent of those who use crack or methamphetamine never become addicted, that cognitive tests of methamphetamine users are in the normal range, and that the number of murders directly caused by drug addiction is miniscule. He also notes that the war on drugs has affected minority communities at dramatically higher rates than non-minorities, and in 40 years has failed to reduce daily use of cocaine, heroin, or cannabis despite a 3,500-percent increase in spending and a 700-percent explosion of the American prison population. Is it time for society to reconsider the war on drugs?

Read the Review
ReviewHigh Time for a Change in Drug Policy
By Frederick J. Heide
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(21)

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Is Spam Good for You?


In 1937, Hormel Foods Corporation introduced a meat product called Spam, which
generally is taken to mean spiced ham, although the recipe remains a secret. It
is cheap and doesn’t taste too bad, perhaps because it contains lots of sodium.
With all the calorie-rich fast food available, Spam does not seem much of a
threat to the national obesity epidemic.

Spam, however, may be seen as a serious threat in the world of the Internet. In his review of Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet by Finn Brunton, Daniel Keyes worries “that we are seeing the diminishment of our public sphere as the Internet becomes one global mall where corporations finely tune their advertisements to our every need rather than a place where we might stumble upon different ways of thinking, and so forth. that help to diversify our world” (final paragraph). Keyes says that in the book the author “makes a forceful argument that the evolution of spam from direct e-mails into various viruses and botnets designed to enslave personal computers exerts a profound influence on the design, regulation, and everyday use of the Internet” (para. 3).

That seems overly dramatic to me. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it. Spam blockers are reasonably effective in keeping us from messages for walk-in bathtubs and organ-enhancing drugs. It is harder to prevent pop-up ads, but how much do people pay attention to those things? I’d like to know if there is any good research on that topic.

Perhaps I simply am unaware of the powerful Internet forces influencing my thoughts and behavior. What should we be looking for, and can psychologists do anything to help protect us from these hidden persuaders?


Read the Review
ReviewRead This Review and Earn Easy Cash!
By Daniel Keyes
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2014 Vol 59(19)

Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

Danny Wedding, PhD

Associate Dean for Management
and International Programs,
California School of Professional Psychology,
Alliant International University

Associate Editors of PsycCRITIQUES

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