Davidson student hangs onto 97 percent March Madness ranking

Are you still mourning the loss of your perfect bracket after the multiple upsets this March Madness season? Even before the Villanova and NC State match up on Saturday, 99.3 percent of brackets were busted. As experts deem a perfect March Madness bracket impossible, having a nearly perfect bracket is something to brag about. Today, we hear from David College student Nathan Argueta, who argues that knowing a thing or two about math can help with March Madness strategy.


March Mathness: Calculating the Best Bracket

First and foremost… I am far from a Math Major and, prior to this class, the notion that math and sports going hand in hand seemed much more theoretical than based in reality. Now, 48 games later and a 97.2% ranking percentage on ESPN’s Bracket Contest has me thinking otherwise.

In Finite Math, we have explored the realms of creating rankings for teams based on multiple factors (win percentage, quality wins, etc.). Personally, I also take into account teams’ prior experience in the NCAA Tournament. Coaches with experience in the Sweet 16, Final Four, and Championship Game (like Rick Pitino out of Louisville) also factored into my decisions when deciding close games. Rick Pitino has made the Sweet Sixteen for each of the past four years. With a roster whose minutes are primarily distributed amongst second and third year players (players who have had success in the NCAA tournament in the past couple of years) I found it difficult to picture Louisville losing to either UCI, UNI, or even the upcoming battle against upstart NC State (who have successfully busted the majority of brackets in our class’s circuit by topping off Villanova).

In theory, the quest to picking the best bracket on ESPN begins and ends with establishing rankings for each team in the contest. Sure there are four of each seeding (1’s, 2’s, etc.), yet these rankings are very discombobulating when attempting to decide which team will win between a 5th seed and a 12th seed or a 4th seed and a 13th seed. One particular matchup that I found extremely interesting was the one between 13th seeded Harvard and 4th seeded UNC. Gut reaction call—pick UNC. UNC boasts a higher ranking and has ritual success in the postseason. But hold on—Harvard had a terrific record this year (much better than UNC’s, albeit in an easier conference). The difficult thing about comparing Harvard and UNC, however, became this establishment of difficulty of schedule. I nearly chose Harvard, were it not for the fact that Harvard got beaten by about 40 points against UVA while UNC put up more of a fight and only lost by 10 points.

In order to pick the perfect bracket (which mind you, will never happen), categorizing and ranking teams based on their wins against common opponents with prior sports knowledge is imperative. My school pride got the better of me when I chose Davidson to advance out of the Round of 64 against Iowa simply because I disregarded factors like momentum, size, and location. Looking back, it is no wonder that Davidson lost by over 30 points in what many pundits were looking to be a potential upset match. While mathematically our team’s chances could have more than competed against Iowa, in reality our season was spiraling downwards out of control since the second round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament in which we hardly beat out a surprising La Salle team and got annihilated by an injury plagued VCU team that we shut-out just nine days before. Moral of the story… brackets will be brackets and while math can certainly guide you towards a higher ranking in your class pool, you can kiss perfection good-bye. This is March Madness.

Presenting the New Trailer for Beth Shapiro’s “How to Clone a Mammoth”

Should we clone extinct animals? Evolutionary biologist and “ancient DNA” researcher Beth Shapiro’s highly anticipated How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction takes apart an idea that not so long ago seemed more fiction than science. Now, several teams of researchers are working to reconstruct the mammoth genome. How to Clone a Mammoth is making its debut with an array of coverage, including a feature in yesterday’s Sunday Times. From the article:

What excites some scientists, and disturbs others, is that the genome could one day become a template to recreate real mammoths — or something like them.
In her new book, How To Clone a Mammoth, Beth Shapiro of the University of California, an expert on ancient DNA, said: “If we really want to bring mammoths back to life, then we’re in luck, as far as DNA preservation goes. Some mammoths lived in places where their bones and carcasses were buried in permafrost, like being stuck in a freezer for 30,000-plus years.
“It’s in pretty shoddy condition, so hard to piece together, but if we sort through these tiny pieces, finding where they fit along the elephant genome, then we can slowly build a lot of the mammoth genome.”

We are delighted to share the book’s wonderful new trailer:


Interview with n+1 co-founder and PUP author Mark Greif

As Adam Kirsch writes in Tablet Magazine’s review of n+1 co-founder Mark Greif’s widely-reviewed new book, The Age of the Crisis of Man, “[t]he word “crisis” itself seems to capture something essential about our relationship to history, which we now experience as a constant procession of unexpected, suddenly emerging threats.” From cold war to climate change, from economic recession, to war in Iraq, recent decades have seen their share of anxiety-provoking episodes. And yet, it’s safe to say the “crisis of man” has become something of a throwback expression. The notion that human nature itself is under threat is an intellectual artifact of mid-century American culture. Why so?

The question, and Greif’s new book, appear to have struck nerves in today’s intellectual community, inspiring, among an explosion of coverage, Kristin Iversen’s “Man-Splaining” in Brooklyn Magazine, and a widely discussed New York Times Book Review essay by Leon Wieseltier. Recently, Greif took the time to chat with Princeton University Press about his book:

You’re best known for your work as a founder of n+1 and your essays in that magazine. What connects that New York literary world to this book?

MG: To me, they’re tightly connected. When we founded n+1, I wanted to understand how the intellectual and literary worlds worked now. The opening section (of the book?) many of which I wrote in the early issues, was “The Intellectual Situation.” I wanted to know how conventional wisdom got settled; how certain questions became “important” and “serious,” but not others; and especially why new novels and essays sometimes had influence on other debates, and sometimes seemed irrelevant or old-fashioned, past tense. In the same ten years of n+1 attempts to intervene in literary culture, though, my “day job” in effect was as a scholar, I had been digging in the library to see, objectively, how we got where we are. I was reading through complete runs of old journals, Partisan Review, Commentary, to see how to make a twenty-first century journal. But also to see, archeologically, what had been obscured in our picture of the twentieth century. This book is the analytic and philosophical complement to n+1 for me. It’s my best effort to tell a new story of how the twentieth century determined what counts.

Can you say succinctly what the “Age of the Crisis of Man” is?

MG: Sure. It was a period in the center of the twentieth century, from the rise of Nazism to the end of the Sixties, in which we put a universal human character at the center of all “serious” discussion in public.Not incidentally, this period saw the shift of international philosophizing from continental Europe to the United States and England for a little while. And it saw a brief crest of the American novel to its high-water mark of reputation (though maybe not of literary production). And it saw dreams of utopian international order. All those strains come together around the figure of “Man.” But then the same concentration of energy helped create the civil rights and liberation movements that seemed to blow it apart.

So this is an era that we ought to remember and learn from?

MG: Not entirely. It’s not an era I want to champion. I don’t want to reify the Man debates as just one more rival aspect of the twentieth century, as if we need to add it to PBS documentaries alongside the Cold War, suburbanization, existentialism, all the ingredients of the canned version of midcentury. Many of the explicit “crisis of man” books feel empty, frankly. I want to have read them so others don’t have to! But I think the emptiness is important. My basic model of history tries to locate the empty spaces, or blank or negative spaces, in public philosophy and rhetoric and criticism. Those spaces that demand answers that are simply impossible to decide. They (the spaces?) set what matters, what is acceptable, what one should think or say. But as coercive as they are, they may be themselves quite weak, loose, or devoid of reason.

Does your history mean there wasn’t a “crisis of women” or crises in different communities in America, or political crises? How important is a universal “Man” to your story?

MG: Crises of women’s rights and equality exist in this period, and crises of African-American rights, and racism, segregation, white supremacy, you name it. The important thing to see is how “what counts,” as public discourse has it, makes women’s and African Americans’ claims harder to articulate in some registers—in contrast, say, to the earlier (does earlier modify 1930s, i.e. 1931 vs. 1937, or are you using it to mean the entire decade was earlier than the post-WWII starting point of your book?)1930s—and articulable in others. Yet later the same discourse will become a source of explosive power, as feminist and civil rights and black power speakers plant their flag on Man. Sex and race provided the most fundamental contradictions to a universal, unmarked man. But that line of difference, and how tortuously it rose to salience, is a big part of my story.

What have we lost, in the transition from the age whose portrait you give here, to the twenty-first century?

MG: That’s the toughest question. It’s very hard to look at these moments when “ideas mattered,” and novels answered “the big questions,” so to speak, and not be nostalgic. Clearly these ideas did have consequences, too in geopolitics, in the lasting revival of human rights, in the standing of literature, as well as in the creation of a whole atmosphere of life and thought. At the same time, it’s clear that lots of thoughtful and sensitive people found the “discourse of the crisis of man” gaseous and stifling, especially as it got older. Whenever you live, you live among the mediocrities and coercions of the ideas of your own time. History usually tends either to wash them out or take them at their own valuation, while condescending to them, of course, since we always know better now.

I guess what interested me most in my own research was that I came to see it as a mistake to declare we had gone “from universalism to difference” in ideas, or in our picture of the basic human subject. As if there once was unity (even if only among an elite population), which split into groups. Universalism, difference: each of these is an intellectual project, an effort. Neither is more original or more basic than the other, at least not in the twentieth century. You can’t decline from one to the other. That was one thing I tried to point out in the book.

You say in the conclusion that you want to figure out where we start for twenty-first century thought. Do you really think you can give a starting point?

MG: The starting points are already given. The question is: How much do we understand how history has determined our presuppositions—say, what counts for us as “serious” thought, or what role literature and art play in ethical and political thinking? And then: With fuller knowledge, can we choose among our starting points? Can we say that some are stupid, and likely to lead nowhere?

Personally, I am divided about this. The historian in me thinks it’s silly to ask anyone to produce a better discourse of public debate and art from the recognition of past follies. Looking back from the future, “stupidities” are all we have; by which I mean, contingencies, symptoms, actings-out, with no way to step outside of your own time to see how eternity (or the archive, or the leisure of future historians) will regard you. Would knowing the past really help restrain or channel our impulses, now? The “intellectual” in me, on the other hand, or say the participant in culture and literature, the writer, thinks it’s obligatory to try to figure out where your opinions and discoveries come from. Then to see where they’re tending, whether you like to admit those tendencies or not, and then to throw some overboard, while telling people the terrifying prophecy of others. Like a Jeremiah. Whether other people like to hear it or not.

Using math for March Madness bracket picks

The countdown to fill out your March Madness brackets is on! Who are you picking to win it all?

Today, we hear from Liana Valentino, a student at the College of Charleston who works with PUP authors Amy Langville and Tim Chartier. Liana discusses how math can be applied to bracket selection.

court chalk

What are the chances your team makes it to the next round?

The madness has begun! Since the top 64 teams have been released, brackets are being made all over the country. As an avid college basketball fan my entire life, this is always my favorite time of the year. This year, I have taken a new approach to filling out brackets that consist of more than my basketball knowledge, I am using math as well.

To learn more about how the math is used to make predictions, information is available on Dr. Tim Chartier’s March Mathness website, where you can create your own bracket using math as well!

My bracket choices are decided using the Colley and Massey ranking methods; Colley only uses wins and losses, while Massey integrates the scores of the games. Within these methods, there are several different weighting options that will change the ratings produced. My strategy is to generate multiple sets of rankings, then determine the probability that each particular team will make it to a specific round. Using this approach, I am able to combine the results of multiple methods instead of having to decide on one to use for the entire bracket.

Choosing what weighting options to use is a personal decision. I will list the ones I’ve used and the reasoning behind them using my basketball awareness.


Winning games on the road should be rewarded more than winning games at home. Because of that, I use constant rates of .6 for a winning at home, 1.6 for winning away, and 1 for winning at a neutral location; these are the numbers used by the NCAA when determining RPI. I incorporate home and away weightings when performing other weighting methods as well.


Margin of victory is another factor, but a “blow out” game is defined differently depending on the person. With that in mind, I ran methods using the margin of victory to be both 15 and 20. This means if the margin of victory if 15, then games with a point differential of 15 or higher are weighed the same. These numbers are mainly from personal experience. If a team wins by 20, I would consider that a blowout, meaning the matchup was simply unfair. If a team loses by 15, which in terms of the game is five possessions, the game wasn’t necessarily a blow out, but the winning team is clearly defined as better than the opposition.

In addition to this, I chose to weight games differently if they were close. I defined a close game as a game within one possession, therefore three points. My reasoning behind this was if a team is blowing out every opponent, it means those games are obviously against mismatched opponents, so that does not say very much about them. On the other hand, a team that constantly wins close games shows character. Also, when it comes tournament time, there aren’t going to be many blow out games, therefore teams that can handle close game situations well will excel compared to those who fold under pressure. Because of this, I weighted close games, within three points, 1.5, “blow out” games, greater than 20 points, .5, and any point differential in between as 1.


Games played at different points in the season are also weighted differently. Would you say a team is the same in the first game as the last? There are three different methods to weight time, as provided by Dr. Chartier using his March Mathness site, linearly, logarithmically, and using intervals. Linear and logarithmic weights are similar in the fact that both increase the weight of the game as the season progresses. These methods can be used if you believe that games towards the end of the season are more important than games at the beginning.

Interval weighting consists of breaking the season into equal sized intervals and choosing specific weightings for each. In one instance, I weighted the games by splitting the season in half, down weighting the first half using .5, and up weighting the second half using 1.5 and 2. These decisions were made because during the first half of the season, teams are still getting to know themselves, while during the second half of the season, there are fewer excuses the make. Also, the second half of the season is when conference games are played, which are generally considered more important than non-conference games. For the people that argue that non conference play is more important because it is usually more difficult than in conference play, I also created one bracket where I up weight the first half of the season and down weight the second half.


The last different weighting method used was incorporating if a team was on a winning streak. In this case, we would weight a game higher if one team breaks their opponents winning streak. Personally, I defined a winning streak as having won four or more games in a row.

I used several combinations of these various methods and created 36 different brackets that I have used to obtain the following information. Surprisingly, Kentucky only wins the tournament 75% of the time; Arizona wins about 20%, and the remaining 5% is split between Wisconsin and Villanova. Interestingly enough, the only round Kentucky ever loses in is the Final Four, so each time they do make it to the championship, they win. Duke is the only number 1 seed never predicted to win a championship.

Villanova makes it to the championship game 70% of the time, where the only team that prevents them from doing so is Duke, who makes it 25% of the time. The remaining teams for that side of the bracket that make it are Stephen F. Austin and Virginia, both with a 2.5% chance. Kentucky makes it to the championship game 75% of the time, while Arizona makes it 22%, and Wisconsin makes it 3%. However, if Arizona makes it the championship game, they win it 88% of the time. Furthermore, Wisconsin is predicted to play in the championship game once, which they win.

The two teams Kentucky loses to in the Final Four are Arizona, and Wisconsin. During the final four, Kentucky has Arizona as an opponent 39% of the time, where Arizona wins 50% of those matchups. Kentucky’s only other opponent in the final four is Wisconsin, where Wisconsin wins that game only 5% of the time. On the other side, Villanova makes it to the final four 97% of the time, where the one instance they did not was a loss to Virginia. Villanova’s opponent in the Final Four is made up of Duke 72%, Gonzaga 19%, Stephen F. Austin 6%, Utah at 3%. The only seeds that appear in the Final Four are 1, 2, and one 12 seed, Stephen F. Austin one time.

During the Elite 8, Duke is the only number 1 seed that does not make it 100% of the time, with Utah upsetting them in 17% of their matchups. The other Elite 8 member is Gonzaga 97% of the time. Kentucky’s opponent in this round is Notre Dame 47% and Kansas 53% of the time.

In the Sweet 16, there are eight teams that make it every time: Kentucky, Wisconsin, Villanova, Duke, Arizona, Virginia, Gonzaga, and Notre Dame. Kansas is the only number 2 seed not on the list as Wichita State is predicted to beat them in 8% of their matchups. Kentucky’s opponent in the Sweet 16 is Maryland 39%, West Virginia 36%, Valparaiso 14%, and Buffalo 11%. Valparaiso is the only 13 seed predicted to make it to the Sweet 16. Villanova’s opponent is either Northern Iowa 61% or Louisville 38%. Duke appears to be facing either Utah 67%, Stephen F. Austin 19%, or Georgetown 14%.

Now, for the teams that make it into the third round. I’m not sure how many people consider a 9 seed beating an 8 seed an upset, but the number 9 seeds that are expected to progress are Purdue, Oklahoma State, and St. John’s. In regards to the 10 seed, Davidson is the most likely to continue with a 47% chance to move past Iowa, which is the highest percentage for an upset not including the 8-9 seed matchups. Following them is 11 seed Texas, who have a 42% of defeating Butler. For the 12 seeds, Buffalo is the most likely to continue with a 36% chance of beating Virginia. The 13 seed with the best chance of progressing is Valparaiso with 19% over Maryland. Lastly, the only 14 seeds that move on are Georgia State and Albany, which only happens a mere 8% of the time.

In general, Arizona seems to win the championship when using Massey and linear or interval weighting without home and away. This could be because most of their losses happen during the beginning of the season, while they win important games towards the end. Using the Colley method is when most of the upsets are predicted. For example, Stephen F. Austin making it to the championship game happens using the Colley logarithmic weighting. Davidson beating Iowa in the second round is also found many times using different Colley methods.

Overall, there are various methods that include various factors, but there are still qualitative variables that we don’t include. On the other hand, math can do a lot more than people expect. Considering Kentucky is undefeated, I presumed the math would never show them losing, but there is a lot more in the numbers than you think. Combining the various methods on 36 different brackets, I computed the probabilities of teams making it to specific rounds and decided to make a bracket using the combined data. This makes it so I don’t have to decide on solely one weighting that determines my bracket; instead, I use the results from several methods. Unfortunately, there is always one factor we cannot consider, luck! That is why we can only make estimates and never be certain. From my results, I would predict to see a Final Four of Kentucky, Arizona, Villanova, Duke; a championship game of Kentucky, Villanova; and the 2015 national champion being Kentucky.



Cinderella stories? A College of Charleston student examines March Madness upsets through math

Drew Passarello, a student at the College of Charleston, takes a closer look at how math relates to upsets and predictability in March Madness.


The Madness is coming. In a way, it is here! With the first round of the March Madness tournament announced, the craziness of filling out the tournament brackets is upon us! Can math help us get a better handle on where we might see upsets in March Madness? In this post, I will detail how math helps us get a handle on what level of madness we expect in the tournament. Said another way, how many upsets do we expect? Will there be a lot? We call that a bad year as that leads to brackets having lower accuracy in their predictions. By the end of the article, you will see how math can earmark teams that might be on the cusp of upsets in the games that will capture national attention.

Where am I learning this math? I am taking a sports analytics class at the College of Charleston under the supervision of Dr. Tim Chartier and Dr. Amy Langville. Part of our work has been researching new results and insights in bracketology. My research uses the Massey and Colley ranking methods. Part of my research deals with the following question: What are good years and bad years in terms of March Madness? In other words, before the tournament begins, what can we infer about how predictable the tournament will be?

One way of answering this question is to see how accurate one is at predicting the winners of the tournaments coupled with how high one’s ESPN score is. However, I also wanted to account for the variability of the level of competition going into the tournament, which is why I also looked at the standard deviation of the ratings of those in March Madness. A higher standard deviation implies the more spread out the playing level is. Ultimately, a good year will have a high tournament accuracy, high ESPN score, and a high standard deviation of ratings for those competing in March Madness. Similarly, a bad year will have low tournament accuracy, low ESPN score, and a low standard deviation of the ratings. This assessment will be relative to the ranking method itself and only defines good years and bad years solely in terms of past March Madness data.

I focused on ratings from uniformly weighted Massey and Colley ranking methods as the weighting might add some bias. However, my simple assessment can be applied for other variations of weighting Massey and Colley. I found the mean accuracy, mean ESPN score, and mean standard deviation of ratings of the teams in March Madness for years 2001 – 2014, and I then looked at the years which rested below or above these corresponding means. Years overlapping were those deemed to be good or bad, and the remaining years were labeled neutral. The good years for Massey were 2001, 2004, 2008, and 2009, and the bad years were 2006, 2010 – 2014. Neutral years were 2002, 2003, and 2007. Also, for Colley, the good years were 2005, 2007 – 2009; bad years were 2001, 2006, and 2010 – 2014; neutral years were 2002 – 2004. A very interesting trend I noticed from both Massey and Colley was that the standard deviation of the ratings of those in March Madness from 2010 to 2014 were significantly lower than the years before. This leads me to believe that basketball has recently become more competitive in terms of March Madness, which would also partially explain why 2010 – 2014 were bad years for both methods. However, this does not necessarily imply 2015 will be a bad year.

In order to get a feel for how accurate the ranking methods will be for this year, I created a regression line based on years 2001 – 2014 that had tournament accuracy as the dependent variable and standard deviation of the ratings of those in March Madness as the independent variable. Massey is predicted to have 65.81% accuracy for predicting winners this year whereas Colley is predicted to have 64.19%accuracy. The standard deviation of the ratings for those expected to be in the tournament was 8.0451 for Massey and 0.1528 for Colley, and these mostly resemble the standard deviation of the ratings of the March Madness teams in 2002 and 2007.

After this assessment, I wanted to figure out what defines an upset relative to the ratings. To answer this, I looked at season data and focused on uniform Massey. Specifically for this year, I used the first half of the season ratings to predict the first week of the second half of the season and then updated the ratings. After this, I would use these to predict the next week and update the ratings again and so on until now. For games incorrectly predicted, the median in the difference of ratings was 2.2727, and the mean was 3.0284. I defined an upset for this year to be those games in which the absolute difference in the ratings is greater than or equal to three. This definition of an upset is relative to this particular year. I then kept track of the upsets for those teams expected to be in the tournament. I looked at the number of upsets each team had and the number of times each team gets upset, along with the score differential and rating differences for these games. From comparing these trends, I determined the following teams to be upset teams to look for in the tournament: Indiana, NC State, Notre Dame, and Georgetown. These teams had a higher ratio of upsets over getting upset when compared to the other teams. Also, these teams had games in which the score differences and rating differences were larger than those from the other teams in March Madness.

I am still working on ways to weight these upset games from the second half of the season, and one of the approaches relies on the score differential of the game. Essentially, teams who upset teams by a lot of points should benefit more in the ratings. Similarly, teams who get upset by a lot of points should be penalized more in the ratings. For a fun and easy bracket, I am going to weight upset games heavily on the week before conference tournament play and a week into conference tournament play. These two weeks gave the best correlation coefficient in terms of accuracy from these weeks and the accuracy from March Madness for both uniform Massey and Colley. Let the madness begin!


Christopher Bail talks to Salon about “Terrified”

Christopher Bail, author of Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream, recently spoke with Paul Rosenberg for a feature in Salon on how anti-Muslim sentiment is fostered by the broader cultural landscape, and the innovative new methodology he has used to study that process. Paul Rosenberg at Salon writes:

It may be hard to fathom or remember, but in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 the American public responded with an increased level of acceptance and support for Muslims. President Bush—who had successfully courted the Muslim vote in 2000—went out of his way to praise American Muslims on numerous occasions in 2001 and 2002. However, the seeds were already being planted that would change that drastically over time.  Within a few short years, a small handful of fringe anti-Muslim organizations—almost entirely devoid of any real knowledge or expertise, some drawing on age-old ethno-religious conflicts—managed to hijack the public discourse about Islam, first by stoking fears, grabbing attention with their emotional messaging, then by consolidating their newfound social capital, forging ties with established elite organizations, and ultimately building their own organizational and media infrastructure.

How this all happened is the subject of a fascinating new book, “Terrified: How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream,” by sociologist Christopher Bail, of the University of North Carolina.  The book not only lays bare the behind-the-scenes story of a momentous shift in public opinion, it employs cutting-edge computer analysis techniques applied to large archives of data to develop a new theoretical outlook, capable of making sense of the whole field of competing organizations struggling to shape public opinion, not just studying one or two the most successful ones. The result is not only a detailed account of a specific, significant, and also very pernicious example of cultural evolution, but also a case study in how to more rigorously study cultural evolution more generally in the future. In the process, it sheds considerable light on the struggles involved, and the difficulties faced by those trying to fight back against this rising tide of misdirected fear, anger and hatred.

Read the full interview with Christopher Bail that follows here.

Terrified, by Christopher Bail

May the odds be in your favor — March Mathness begins

Let the games begin! After the excitement of Selection Sunday, brackets are ready for “the picking.” Have you started making your picks?

Check out the full schedule of teams selected yesterday, and join the fun by submitting a bracket to the official Princeton University Press March Madness tournament pool.

Before you do, we recommend that you brush up on your bracketology by checking out PUP author Tim Chartier’s strategy:



For more on the math behind the madness, head over to Dr. Chartier’s March Mathness video page. Learn three popular sport ranking methods and how to create March Madness brackets with them. Let math make the picks!

Be sure to follow along with our March Mathness coverage on our blog, and comment below with your favorite strategy for making March Madness picks.

Too Hot to Handle? Jonathan Zimmerman Q&A on the problem with sex education

A product in part of the Progressive Era’s efforts to eradicate prostitution, sex education today is more likely to take its cues from the hazards of sexting. But while sex education has always been emotionally fraught, according to Jonathan Zimmerman, author of Too Hot To Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, its opponents are not limited to the realm of evangelical ministers and Conservative pundits. What exactly is the world’s problem with sex education? Zimmerman has a terrific op-ed in today’s New York Times arguing that globalization, contrary to popular belief, has limited rather than expanded such instruction. He was recently interviewed for a piece by Jessica Lahey on the Atlantic.com, and spoke to the History News Network as well.

This week, Zimmerman took the time to sit down with Princeton University Press to shed some light on the fascinating social history of sex education, as well as his personal motivations for writing the book:

Ontario Sex Education Protest 20150224externalimagek104541


Why did you write this book?

Jonathan Zimmerman (JZ): My mother spent her career in international family planning and sex education. So she imbued me with the standard liberal American view of the subject: the United States was “behind” other Western democracies, which provide much more extensive, honest, and effective sex education than we do. And that’s why their teen pregnancy and STD rates are so much lower, or so the story goes.

So was your Mom correct?

JZ: Not exactly. First of all, it turns out that the USA was the global pioneer of sex education rather than a laggard. Eventually, countries like Sweden and the Netherlands did develop more detailed sex education than the USA, especially on the subject of contraception. But sex education is limited in those countries by citizen and teacher resistance, just as it is here. And, more interestingly, it has a different set of goals.

How so?

JZ: In Scandinavia and Continental Europe, the stated goal of sex education is not to limit negative social consequences, but rather to help each individual determine and develop her or his own sexuality. I didn’t understand the difference until I found an exchange in the Swedish archives between an educator in Ireland (where sex education was much more like the American version) and the leader of the RFSU, Sweden’s national sex education organization. The Irish educator wanted to know how Swedish sex educators kept teen pregnancy and STD rates so low. The RFSU guy replies with a kind note that says he doesn’t know whether sex education actually influences those outcomes, because there are so many other factors that affect young people’s behavior. And then he says, that’s not the point anyway! It’s to help them lead healthy and pleasurable sexual lives.

So the Americans emphasize social consequences, and the Europeans emphasize individual rights? That sounds like a very different story than the trans-Atlantic comparative tale we usually tell, in which the Americans stress the rights of individuals and the Europeans attend to the common good.

JZ: Exactly!

And I don’t imagine you could get elected to an American school board if you were pushing for a sex-education curriculum aiming to assist each teenager in developing sexual identity and pleasure.

JZ: Probably not. But there’s plenty of resistance to that perspective in Europe now, too, especially among new immigrants Countries like Sweden and the Netherlands have witnessed an enormous burst of immigration over the past two decades, mainly from Muslim and Hindu societies in North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. And many of these newcomers are angered and offended by a sex education stressing the “right” of each adolescent individual to engage in sex, which violates their communal or religious prescriptions on the subject. They also think that school-based sex education inhibits their own right to raise their children as they see fit.

What about their countries of origin, in the developing world? What does sex education look like there?

JZ: Until the 1980s, it barely existed. But the HIV/AIDS crisis changed all of that, especially in Africa. The question became not “Should we have sex education?” but “What kind of sex education should we have?” And in Africa and Asia, not surprisingly, it more closely resembled the abstinence-only or danger-centered approach that we see in many parts of the USA.

So would it be fair to say that an American-style sex education is more “culturally appropriate”—in many parts of the developing world—than, say, the Swedish version?

JZ: Yes, and that’s one of the central ironies of my book. Many people in the West who support so-called “comprehensive” sex education also fashion themselves “multiculturalists,” stressing the importance of diversity and the need for educators to respect it. It’s hard to square that perspective with a commitment to adolescent sexual rights, which are simply anathema in many cultures. I realized that, too, when I was in the archives in Sweden, and I came across a comment by a frustrated educator who had been trying—without a lot of success–to promote his approach in the so-called Third-World. As he acknowledged, many people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America did not share his premises on the value of the individual, at least not when it came to sex. “It is hard for people to be autonomous in cultures where autonomy seems to be of such little use,” he wrote.

What about conservatives? Wasn’t there also an irony in the way they invoked their “cultural” rights and prerogatives?

JZ: Definitely! In the USA and the UK, especially, white conservatives since the 1960s have often resisted “multiculturalism” as a divisive threat to the body politic. But on sex education, they invoked their own cultural and religious rights and—increasingly—they united with ethnic and religious minorities who shared their point of view. So in the UK, for example, you see white Tories joining hands with Muslim immigrant organizations against sex education.

And these conservatives make common cause across borders, right, as more and more people move across them?

JZ: Exactly. I think many people on the Left like to imagine that “globalization”—the rapid circulation of people and ideas around the world—as a force for liberal-ization. But in the story that I tell, globalization actually inhibits the spread of sex education by allowing critics to share ideas and strategies. Sex education has been a global movement, to be sure. But the same goes for its opposition.

In the USA and elsewhere, some conservatives have resisted or rejected scientific claims regarding evolution and climate change. Isn’t the opposition to sex education an example of similar behavior?

JZ: No. We simply don’t have the same kind of scientific knowledge or consensus about sex education as we do in the realms of evolution or climatology. And part of the reason is that there is so little sex education in the first place! It’s incredibly hard to show that something so brief and haphazard affects something as complicated as sexual behavior.

So maybe it’s really a story about what schools can do, and what they can’t?

JZ: I think so. The 20th century witnessed an enormous boom in formal schooling around the world, as well as new norms of sexual expression and behavior. Sex education brought these two trends together, but the marriage never really worked out. Kids get their messages and values about sex from other institutions, especially in the mass media. Schools just don’t factor into the equation very often, or very well.

Celebrate National Grammar Day with Frank Cioffi’s One Day in the Life of the English Language

Grammar: It’s the difference between knowing your stuff and knowing you’re stuff. Some even say it saves lives (see below). If you haven’t noticed, today is National Grammar Day (March 4), so here at Princeton University Press we are celebrating good grammar, proper punctuation, and clear communication with Frank L. Cioffi’s anti-textbook handbook, One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook.

Cioffi’s chatty and charming reference doesn’t just lay out the “rules,” but also makes a convincing case for why good grammar and usage matter. Cioffi argues that Standard Written English (also known as “formal English”) is vital for success in professions where exactness and clarity carry great importance, and he also proposes that correct English can foster a more honest, ethical, and functional culture of communication.

The book draws on some three hundred real-world sentences printed in eleven newspapers and six weekly magazines and published on a single, typical day (December 29, 2008). Cioffi emphasizes that English usage is continually evolving and he debunks some of the most popular grammar “rules.” Is it acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition? It is. Can you start a sentence with a conjunction? You can. Is it “correct” to use split infinitives. Sure.

What do you think? Does “formal” English still matter in the post-Twitter world?


Check out the introduction and let us know.

We’ve also been tweeting out #NationalGrammarDay #protips from the book today.

Happy National Grammar Day!

Photo via Brett Jordan / Flickr


Books released during the week of March 2, 2015

New Hardcovers

bookjacket In-Your-Face Politics:
The Consequences of Uncivil Media

Diana C. Mutz

“With ample humor and sufficient exposition for a lay audience, she conducts and analyzes a series of experiments carefully crafted to study how extreme close-ups and uncivil behavior in political TV affect the public discourse. . . . An approachable yet scientifically rigorous look at what passes for political discourse in America.”–Kirkus


bookjacket On Elizabeth Bishop
Colm Tóibín

“Novelist Tóibín (Nora Webster) gives an intimate and engaging look at Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and its influence on his own work. . . . Tóibín is also present in the book, and his relationship to Bishop’s work and admiration of her style gives the book much of its power. Whether one is familiar with Bishop’s life and work or is looking to Tóibín to learn more, this book will appeal to many readers.”–Publishers Weekly starred review


bookjacket Pagans and Philosophers:
The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz

John Marenbon

“In this book, John Marenbon exhibits remarkable erudition and a formidable command of the relevant texts, both scholastic and literary. He is adept at setting out complex issues in a clear way, and his book incorporates much little-known and fascinating material in the history of ideas.”–Anthony Kenny, author of A New History of Western Philosophy


bookjacket Pleasure and Piety:
The Art of Joachim Wtewael

James Clifton, Liesbeth M. Helmus & Arthur K. Wheelock Jr.
With contributions by Stijn Alsteens & Anne W. Lowenthal

“The definitive study of one of the period’s most significant artists.”–H. Rodney Nevitt Jr., University of Houston


bookjacket Still Lives:
Death, Desire, and the Portrait of the Old Master

Maria H. Loh

“This ambitious and complex book opens up the study of the Italian Renaissance with renewed theoretical and scholarly vigor. Maria Loh paints a vivid portrait of the messy politics of studio culture and the new pictorial economies resulting from the printing press.”–Todd Olson, University of California, Berkeley


bookjacket “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”:
A History of the Armenian Genocide

Ronald Grigor Suny

“[A] deeply researched, fair-minded study. . . . Suny creates a compelling narrative of vengeance and terror.”–Kirkus, starred review


bookjacket Watchdogs on the Hill:
The Decline of Congressional Oversight of U.S. Foreign Relations

Linda L. Fowler

“Examining the evolution and deterioration of oversight on the Senate side of the Capitol, this thorough and theoretically grounded work offers systematic insight into the national security watchdog that doesn’t always bark. Fowler’s call to ‘renew foreign policy oversight’ will be deeply interesting to scholars, practitioners, and citizens alike.”–Christopher J. Deering, George Washington University


bookjacket White Backlash:
Immigration, Race, and American Politics

Marisa Abrajano & Zoltan L. Hajnal

White Backlash is one of the best books I have read in the last half century. Based on rigorous analyses of multiple data sets and presented in remarkably clear prose, the book advances a compelling and original argument that will change the way we talk about immigration and electoral politics. I highly recommend this important work to anyone seeking an understanding of the current and growing racial divide in U.S. politics.”–Willliam Julius Wilson, author of More than Just Race


bookjacket Analytical Psychology in Exile:
The Correspondence of C. G. Jung and Erich Neumann

C. G. Jung & Erich Neumann
Edited and introduced by Martin Liebscher
Translated by Heather McCartney

“Erich Neumann’s place in the history of analytical psychology may finally find the positive reassessment it deserves via this collection of his correspondence with Carl Jung….Perhaps most importantly, these letters allow us to see a mutually enriching exchange of ideas that formed a significant, though under appreciated, passage of intellectual history. This is essential reading for anyone interested in the theoretical origins of psychoanalysis.” –Publishers Weekly


bookjacket  The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Volume 14:
The Berlin Years: Writings & Correspondence, April 1923–May 1925 (English Translation Supplement)

Documentary edition
Albert Einstein
Edited by Diana Kormos Buchwald, József Illy, Ze’ev Rosenkranz, Tilman Sauer & Osik Moses
Translated by Ann M. Hentschel & Jennifer Nollar James
Klaus Hentschel, consultant

In almost one hundred writings and more than one thousand letters included in this volume, Einstein is revealed yet again as the consummate puzzler of myriad scientific problems as well as the invested participant in social and political engagements.


bookjacket  Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels:
How Human Values Evolve

Updated edition
Ian Morris
Edited and with an introduction by Stephen Macedo
With commentary by Richard Seaford, Jonathan D. Spence, Christine M. Korsgaard, and Margaret Atwood

“A provocative explanation for the evolution and divergence of ethical values. . . . In the hands of this talented writer and thinker, [the] material becomes an engaging intellectual adventure.”–Kirkus

bookjacket  From Ancient to Modern:
Archaeology and Aesthetics

Edited by Jennifer Y. Chi & Pedro Azara

This beautifully illustrated volume is the accompanying catalog for the exhibition at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and focuses on fifty objects from three iconic sites in the ancient Near East: Ur, Diyala, and Kish.

New Paperbacks


Heart Beats:
Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem

Catherine Robson

“It’s tempting to sentimentalize an era in which poetry–memorized, recited poetry–held so prominent a place in the culture. But its once-substantial role turns out to be a mixed and complicated tale, as thoroughly chronicled [by] Catherine Robson.”–Brad Leithauser, NewYorker.com

A Romance of Many Dimensions

Edwin Abbott Abbott
With an introduction by Thomas Banchoff

“One of the most imaginative, delightful and, yes, touching works of mathematics, this slender 1884 book purports to be the memoir of A. Square, a citizen of an entirely two-dimensional world.”–The Washington Post Book World
bookjacket Extinction:
How Life on Earth Nearly Ended 250 Million Years Ago

Updated edition
Douglas H. Erwin
With a new preface by the author

“Theories and mysteries can be dispelled with good data from the geologic record, and Erwin (a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History) offers an authoritative account of the search for these data and for the cause of the extinction. . . . Extinction provides a great reference for researchers and the interested lay reader alike.”–Andrew M. Bush, Science


bookjacket The Confidence Trap:
A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present

Updated edition
David Runciman
With a new afterword by the author

“His rich and refreshing book will be of intense interest to anyone puzzled by the near paralysis that seems to afflict democratic government in a number of countries, not least the United States. Runciman’s account of the workings of the confidence trap-the belief that democracy will always survive-will serve as an antidote to the moods of alarm and triumph by which writers on democracy are regularly seized.” –John Gray, New York Review of Books


bookjacket Life on a Young Planet:
The First Three Billion Years of Evolution on Earth

Updated edition
Andrew H. Knoll
With a new preface by the author

“A fascinating book. . . . The catastrophic surface narrative of this impressive and intriguing book would surely have pleased Stephen Jay Gould; but I think its deterministic subtext would have pleased Charles Darwin still more.”–Matt Cartmill, Times Literary Supplement



Mass Flourishing:
How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change

Edmund Phelps

“The book eloquently discusses the culture of innovation, which can refer to both an entrepreneurial mind-set and the cultural achievements during an age of change. . . . The dismal science becomes a little brighter when Mr. Phelps draws the connections between the economic ferment of the industrial age and the art of Beethoven, Verdi and Rodin.”–Edward Glaeser, Wall Street Journal

Political Bubbles:
Financial Crises and the Failure of American Democracy

Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole & Howard Rosenthal

“As pundits debate the causes of the 2008 economic crisis, the authors contend that financial crises have inherently political dimensions. McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal argue persuasively that political bubbles and market bubbles are highly similar, with policy biases contributing to and amplifying market behavior. . . . The authors provide an exhaustive review of structural problems that they believe impede effective government response to new catastrophic economic developments. Their arguments transcend the academic to include historical precedents and specifics on Wall Street machinations.”–Publishers Weekly
bookjacket Thinking About the Presidency:
The Primacy of Power

William G. Howell
With David Milton Brent
With a new preface by the author

Thinking about the Presidency is a relatively brief book which would do well in any survey-level course on executive leadership or the structure of American government. . . . By looking at the presidency through the lens of expanding presidential power, Howell and Brent left this reader asking for more: such as why government works this way or why Congress reacts as it does. That it leaves open those questions indicates that this book is a valuable addition to any graduate-level course.”–Seth Offenbach, Journal of American Studies


bookjacket Higher Education in America
Revised edition
Derek Bok

“Magisterial.”–Stanley Fish, New York Times



Beyond the Brain:
How Body and Environment Shape Animal and Human Minds

Louise Barrett

Beyond the Brain is an astonishingly good book, both substantive and fun to read….Barrett re-centers the field on the study of animal cognition. I think this is an excellent decision, and not just because it allows her to tell some great animal stories. The main advantage is not narrative but substantive: her careful reconstruction of the grounds of natural cognition is simply more convincing and more relevant than even the best discussion of artificial intelligence could ever be….Beyond the Brain is full of…interesting and heterodox discussions, and is sure to engage, enrage, and inspire in differential measure depending on the reader’s theoretical proclivities.” –Michael L. Anderson, Journal of Consciousness Studies 

Cells to Civilizations:
The Principles of Change That Shape Life

Enrico Coen

“This attempt at a grand theoretical synthesis within biology explores the transformative powers and creative forces that have brought about the living world from the first cells to the latest developments in cultural and technological evolution…[Coen’s] eloquently written book offers a programmatic synthesis and an empirically grounded proposal for a theory of biology….Cells to Civilizations will stimulate many productive discussions about the origins and development of life in all its complexities.” -Manfred D. Laubichler, Science

An Uncertain Glory:
India and its Contradictions

Jean Drèze & Amartya Sen

“It’s an urgent, passionate, political work that makes the case that India cannot move forward without investing significantly–as every other major industrialized country has already done–in public services….This book is…a heartfelt plea to rethink what progress in a poor country ought to look like.” –Jyoti Thottam, New York Times Book Review

CLIMATE SHOCK authors on TheAtlantic.com: Will camels roam Canada again?

Climate ShockThe last time concentrations of carbon dioxide were as high as they are today, write Marty Weitzman and Gernot Wagner, authors of Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet, camels lived in Canada. That was a bit over 3 million years ago, of course. But how certain does science have to be for the world to act? Wagner and Weitzman had a terrific op-ed appear today on The Atlantic.com where they argue that climate is best thought of as a global-scale risk management problem. Check it out here:

Will Camels Roam Canada Again?

What we know about climate change is bad enough. What we don’t could make it even worse.

Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman

You are cruising down the highway at 65 miles per hour, reading a book in your self-driving car. Your life is in the hands of a machine—an eminently benevolent one. Meanwhile, in the lane next to you, an 18-wheeler using decidedly last-century technology—relying on a fallible human driver—appears to be swerving your way.

Your car’s computer is on the case. Equipped with orders of magnitude more computing power than the Apollo moon lander, it determines with all the confidence it can muster that there’s a greater-than-50-percent chance—it’s “more likely than not”—that the truck is about to hit you.

You may want to look up from your book. More importantly, you want to know with certainty that your onboard computer will hit the brakes, even if there’s a 49-percent chance that doing so will be a false alarm.

If, instead of “more likely than not,” the danger were “likely,” “very likely,” or even “extremely likely,” the answer would be clearer still. Even if there’s a 95-percent probability of a crash, there’s still a 1-in-20 chance that nothing will happen—but no one would gamble their life on those odds. Your car’s computer hopefully will have engaged the anti-lock braking systems already.

A perfect self-driving car doesn’t exist yet, nor has the world solved global warming. But it’s surprising that, by the standards that we’d expect in a car to keep its occupants safe, the governments of the world haven’t stepped on the brakes to avoid planetary-scale global warming disaster—a 100-year-storm hitting New York every other year, frequent and massive droughts, inundated coastal cities. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that it was “more likely than not” the case that global warming was caused by human activity. By 2001, it had progressed to “likely.” By 2007, it was “very likely.” By 2013, it was “extremely likely.” There’s only one step left in official IPCC lingo: “virtually certain.”

Read the rest at The Atlantic.com here.


Calculus predicts more snow for Boston

Are we there yet? And by “there,” we mean spring and all the lovely weather that comes with it. This winter has been a tough one, and as the New York Times says, “this winter has gotten old.”

snow big[Photo Credit: John Talbot]

Our friends in Boston are feeling the winter blues after seven feet of precipitation over three weeks. But how much is still to come? You may not be the betting kind, but for those with shoveling duty, the probability of more winter weather may give you chills.

For this, we turn to mathematician Oscar Fernandez, professor at Wellesley College. Professor Fernandez uses calculus to predict the probability of Boston getting more snow, and the results may surprise you. In an article for the Huffington Post, he writes:

There are still 12 days left in February, and since we’ve already logged the snowiest month since record-keeping began in 1872 (45.5 inches of snow… so far), every Bostonian is thinking the same thing: how much more snow will we get?

We can answer that question with math, but we need to rephrase it just a bit. Here’s the version we’ll work with: what’s the probability that Boston will get at least s more inches of snow this month?

Check out the full article — including the prediction — over at the Huffington Post.

Math has some pretty cool applications, doesn’t it? Try this one: what is the most effective number of hours of sleep? Or — for those who need to work on the good night’s rest routine — how does hot coffee cool? These and other answers can be found through calculus, and Professor Fernandez shows us how in his book, Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us.

This book was named one of American Association for the Advancement of Science’s “Books for General Audiences and Young Adults” in 2014. See Chapter One for yourself.

For more from Professor Fernandez, head over to his website, Surrounded by Math.


Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/laserstars/.