Scripture

February 28, 2007

A good way of distinguishing texts that have attained scripture status – the Bible for Christians, the Qur’an for Muslims, the Founding Fathers’ writings for Americans, Das Kapital for Marxists – from ordinary texts is how political hacks treat them. Ordinary texts, people, events, etc., are viewed positively or negatively based on the person’s bias. For instance, a conservative will automatically view The Feminine Mystique negatively.

In contrast, scripture is universally revered within its target group, so that the writer will instead project his own views onto it. Hence the constant tug of war over who represents the ideals of the Founding Fathers as presented in 1776 better. It’s as if writers can choose one of several sources to appeal to: the facts, what the Bible says, what the Founders said, what Lincoln believed in, what MLK marched for.


A Primer on Excluding People

February 28, 2007

Jessica has a tremendous post on TPMCafe analogizing the DePauw sorority affair, wherein the national chapter kicked out 23 women who were nonwhite or overweight or too geeky in order to boost recruitment, to the mainstream feminist movement’s recurrent exclusion of under-30 women. She says,

Mainstream feminism may not be kicking any women out of the treehouse, but it’s certainly not lowering the ladder, either. Sure, we have our women’s studies classes and local NOW chapters, but the bulk of outreach done by mainstream feminists and women’s organizations is targeted towards those who already consider themselves feminists, or at the very least are politically engaged.

I used to think that this gap in outreach was just a backlash-tired movement unintentionally forgetting about women who feminists figured wouldn’t be interested anyway. But reading about the odd logic of recruitment spouted by the DePauw sorority sisters had led me to make a comparison that I’m sure many of my elders will find infelicitous—now I wonder whether the chilliness faced by many of my peers isn’t something a bit more insidious.

Maybe, just maybe, some feminists would rather that young women weren’t interested in feminism [emphasis in original] on a large scale—that way, the movement still belongs to them.

It’s a general symptom of any movement that doesn’t have clear standards of success that depend only on its own actions – e.g. “Win the next election.” When the movement can attribute successes and failures to social trends, it doesn’t have to do that much. The gradual closing of the gender gap in the US in the last 30 years has allowed the feminist movement to pretend post-1975 activism had anything to do with it; in particular, it’s allowed it to slack.

Katha Pollitt’s response to Jessica is a primer on how to exclude people and make the movement insular and ineffective. Her response to Jessica’s allegation that the feminist movement is excluding young women is the same response that the Democrats always use when told they don’t inspire anyone: “Start your own movement,” with a strong “stop bugging us” undertone.

In general, Pollitt rebuts not so much Jessica’s argument as the argument she thinks she should be making. Jessica’s demand for giving young women a seat at the table isn’t some personal power thing, a question of daughters criticizing mothers but mothers not allowed to criticize daughters. It’s a specific demand that the feminist movement stop being so ineffective. Think of her as the Markos Moulitsas of American feminism, without the sanctimony.

When Jessica delves more into specifics, she talks about a lot more than generational tension. The feminist movement engages in scaremongering about Roe vs. Wade, which just doesn’t inspire anyone considering that abortion has been legal in the US for 34 years. NOW’s action alerts are so slow that blogs like Feministing are typically months ahead of them. Organizations like NOW and Feminist Majority use a command and control structure that’s reminiscent of machine politics.

Instead, Pollitt responds with such generalities as,

There’s something else that bothers me, though, about your piece. It’s the way you shift from a critique of unwelcoming institutions to a general complaint that older, individual feminists should criticize you, yourself, in any way. How dare some have a problem with Feministing’s mud flap girl logo! And send you — horrors — e mails about it! As a constant reader of Feministing, I know that you and your co-writers are quite the blogo-battlers. You don’t have the all-inclusive, nonjudgmental, everyone’s-a-feminist POV you insist others take toward young women.

I’ll admit to only having read Feministing for 8 months. But there’s a big difference between being inclusive and having no opinions. Jessica and Vanessa are unabashedly sex-positive, to the point that Feministing was the only feminist blog except Majikthise not to take shit from the radicals on blowjobs. But Jessica has never censored radical commenters, not should she.

Ignoring the radical fringe doesn’t make one exclusive. On the contrary, Sister Souljah moments are often central to outreach whenever a movement has been tarred with radicalism. Criticism about the mudflap logo is too unserious to waste time on; the real outreach comes from convincing the average 21-year-old woman to be a feminist activist.

I’m not an especially mainstream feminist. On the issues I’m mostly with the movement – the only issues I split with it on are sexual assault and deadbeat child support, both of which are fairly minor – but I tend to loathe its general attitude toward things. My ideal post about abortion isn’t an unremarkable rant about trusting women, but a serious philosophical treatise about personhood or a public health-oriented post. And yet I’ve always felt welcome there, even when arguing with five different regulars all at the same time.

Granted, relative to mainstream feminism I’m on the opposite side as the radicals Pollitt insists Jessica take seriously. But, you know, the side I’m on has more than 90% of the population. Rovian tactics of appealing to the base and ignoring everyone who isn’t sufficiently radical may work when there’s a war going on and your side is perceived as the only one that’s strong on defense. In normal circumstances, it makes you lose both houses of Congress to a boring, spineless party.

If there are ideological differences between generations, they should be discussed as ideas, not declared off limits because the person who espouses them is younger (or older). You are doing what you accuse older feminists of doing — declaring your views unassailable simply because you have them. They say,”You weren’t there,” You say, “You aren’t here.” Okay, but you still have to make your case — plenty of young women, including young feminists, don’t share your POV. Your real beef with Ariel Levy, for example, is not that she’s too old and out of it to understand young women (she’s only in her early thirties). It’s that you don’t agree with her view that today’s sexual culture (girls gone wild, hooking up etc) is basically exploitation and exhibitionism packaged as feminism. I’m not saying she’s right or wrong, I’m just saying that “Female Chauvinist Pigs” presents an actual argument, not a mindless ignorant diss of young women by some old fussbudget who knows little about them. Fact is, a lot of young women agree with her and loved that book. It was really popular on campus.

Icons of Evolution presents an actual argument, too. Ariel Levy isn’t someone who tries very hard to be taken seriously, what with her equivocation of old puritanism with modern depravity. I’m not making any apologies here: the raunch culture is objectively better than the puritan culture. The culture of the 1990s accepts subcultures that can by and large escape mainstream trends in ways this of the 1950s never did. The virgin/whore dichotomy stops holding when one considers not just what shows on MTV but also what’s acceptable to people who watch MTV.

And, for the record, Jessica doesn’t just dismiss Levy without explaining why she’s so off-target. Writing in the Grauniad, she made a far more specific case than she does in a short blog post on TPMCafe that needs to encapsulate her entire critique of present-day feminist activism.

I’ve never had much sympathy for Kos, so comparing Jessica to him might not be the best analogy for her activism. But the Beltway Democrats who keep complaining about him annoy me even more than he does; Pollitt’s rant about Jessica sounds a lot like the cry of a DCCC organizer who’s concerned with the grave fact that he no longer has a monopoly on fundraising.


Ezra Opens a Second Front in the War on Science

February 28, 2007

Ezra’s latest post complains that the media doesn’t pay enough attention to partisan thinktanks. The idea is that it doesn’t matter that a study is hopelessly biased, as long as it has 500 pages of pretty graphs. Now, I know it’s attractive to project the diametric opposite of your own view onto the mainstream media. However, that’s not a very good methodology for discussing politics.

Social sciences have an outrageously low signal to noise ratio. How couldn’t they? They a) attract people who’re on average less smart than those who do natural sciences, b) give people a lot more incentive to stick to indefensible conclusions, and c) has a proliferation of methodological minutiae that can get you any result you want. For instance, multiple regression analysis depends on the variables you enter so much that the same data can be shown to lead to wildly different conclusions.

With so much chaff and so little wheat, people have to develop mechanisms of throwing out the junk. One good mechanism is the rule of thumb that if a thinktank disagrees with an academic study, the thinktank is always wrong; to take a slight refinement, academics whose chairs are funded by ideologically motivated thinktanks, like John Lott, are barely more reliable than thinktanks.

Right now, the media gives equal credence to peer-reviewed studies and to thinktank hatchet jobs. Even if it does what you imply it should, it won’t improve matters much. Laypersons won’t be any more informed, and experts won’t learn anything new.

A single news article can only offer a cursory analysis of scientific debates, and is hardly more informative than, say, direct-to-consumer drug advertising. It’s impossible to write a 1,000-word New York Times article doing justice to, say, debates within biological community about evolutionary developmental biology. And that’s an issue where it’s relatively easy to produce rigorous research; when you venture into economics, things get exponentially harder.

It’s possible for a newspaper to publish a debate between Lewontin and Dawkins, or even to commission both to write regular features about evolution. But what’s the point? Professional biologists, who know all the relevant facts and have been familiar with those debates for decades have already decided. There’s no point in a rematch in a far less professionally competent arena.

The same principle applies to social sciences. When a thinktank publishes a research, the ideal media’s reaction should be to ignore it. There’s nothing that privileges thinktank fellows over real economists enough to exempt them from peer review. Likewise, there’s nothing that privileges ordinary people’s views. Serious scholars may not be able to describe poverty or unemployment in lurid detail, but frankly the media could use fewer heartwrenching stories and more facts.

The layperson doesn’t need to know anything more than what mainstream expert opinion is, and to what extent expert opinion can be trusted (more so on climatology and evolutionary biology than on welfare economics and political science). If he cares enough to delve into the subject, that’s what books and professional reviews are for. The mainstream media can never be a substitute for scholarly books and articles; even semi-popular magazines like Scientific American are inferior to actually reading what current research is.

Check out my post on religion and welfare. The post has 1,500 words; counting graphs and tables as a number of words taking equal space, the study it critiques has 15,000. And the post doesn’t do anything that I’d expect of similar coverage in the mainstream media: literature review, quoting other experts, actually checking the data, fleshing out alternative theories. In its most cursory form, therefore, a satisfactory critique needs to be about a tenth its object study’s size. When the study in question has the 500 pages the hack Ezra quotes brags about, it takes 50 to take it apart.


Visualizing Math

February 28, 2007

Lynet writes about how she tried explaining the Poincaré Conjecture to a literary theorist and a historian. The bone of contention wasn’t really the conjecture, which the media dumbed down just enough so that non-mathematicians could understand a statement vaguely resembling what Perelman actually proved. Rather, it was how mathematicians could visualize a four-dimensional world.

“Can mathematicians actually picture four dimensional space?”

“Roger Penrose says he did it – briefly – once,” I said, grinning [1].

“No, but are there people out there who can actually…”

“Not that I know of.”

My historian friend was relieved. My literary theorist friend was confused. “If you can’t picture it,” he asked, “how could you have any intuition about it? I mean, you could just say whatever you wanted about it and no-one would be able to refute you.”

I’ll leave it up to you to make an appropriate snarky comment about literary theorists. I’d reply to Lynet’s friend by noting that at least the simpler intuitions, namely, those relating to the vector space structure, are easily generalizable.

I can view points in the plane as pairs of coordinates (x, y), and work out things like angles between lines, lengths of lines, tangent lines to curves, functions on the plane, and so on. Regarding the point (x, y) as a vector from (0, 0) to (x, y), I can add vectors pointwise by (x1, y1) + (x2, y2) = (x1 + x2, y1 + y2) and multiply them by scalars by k(x, y) = (kx, ky). I can look at linear transformations of the plane, or even affine transformations.

All of those are intuitively thought of using very concrete notions: length and angle are measurable concepts; tangent lines touch curves at only one point; vector addition consists of walking from (0, 0) to (x1, y1) and then along the same direction and for the same distance as from (0, 0) to (x2, y2); linear transformations are combinations of rotations, reflections, shears, stretches, and compressions, while affine transformations add translations.

But in higher mathematics, they’re considered abstractly, in order to generalize as much as possible. Length is defined using Pythagoras’s theorem, and angle is defined using inner products. Linear transformations are defined by the more easily generalized property that T(v1 + v2) = T(v1) + T(v2) and T(kv) = kT(v), which coincides with the more concrete definition in two dimensions.

Not coincidentally, for two or three years of university, students only ever see algebraic arguments, which don’t involve visualizing anything. Later some geometric aspects return, but even they are typically schematic; people who draw a line with a loop in it in algebraic geometry only look at very general aspects, like having a point with two tangent lines and not being decomposable into two lines.


Tuesday Night Links

February 27, 2007

Echidne examines the consequences of shrinking government to the point that it can be drowned in a bathtub. She looks at what spending cuts have done to the FDA, which is conducting just half the food safety inspections it did three years ago (link). I don’t want to blow government out of proportions; I just want to increase it to the size that I can ride the subway without being infected with cholera, eat uncooked chicken without getting salmonella, and walk under a shed without worrying about the possibility of a collapse.

Ezra writes about free trade; although he has populist sentiments, he’s fairly pro-trade. In a heated argument between Brad DeLong and Jeff Faux, he comes down clearly on DeLong’s side after Faux dodges a legitimate question about free trade’s positive effects on China. Ezra takes Faux to task for ranting about Chinese domestic economic policy for being bad for the poor. Why impoverishing China by slapping tariffs on it will cause its government to change its policy when similar sanctions against other countries have miserably failed is beyond me.

Samhita asks whether it can truly be called feminist empowerment when women in Pakistan protest the demolition of illegally built mosques. The people on the comment thread tend toward realizing that, to quote EG, “Women are a huge segment of the population, and no social/political/religious movement would succeed without any support from women. But that doesn’t make the movement inherently feminist.”

Jenny explains why it’s not a feminist duty to support Hillary Clinton. Just like I don’t accuse anyone who opposes Obama of hating black people and anyone who opposes Richardson of hating Hispanics, so do I oppose allegations that opposing Clinton is something sexist. The proper feminist or antiracist or pro-gay or pro-atheist thing to do is support a candidate based on real issues, regardless of gender/race/sexual orientation/religion. Feminism doesn’t exist to empower Hillary Clinton, but to empower the 3,249,999,999 women who aren’t so powerful as to have a shot at becoming the most powerful person in the world.

Lindsay writes about the difference between the left-wing American blogosphere and the right-wing one. While the left-wing blogosphere seeks to turn itself into part of the Democratic Party, featuring a motley crew of policy analysts, movement activists, fundraisers, and screamers, the right-wing blogosphere only engages in scalping of the type Donahue did to Amanda.

Ruchira reproduces an article about Tehran that seems to strike the correct chord in depicting the city as highly cultured and developed and at the same time suffering from a fundamentalism problem. This isn’t Kandahar or even Baghdad we’re talking about, but a modern city that doesn’t have many ingrained problems a revolution won’t solve.

Brent notes that Mitt Romney is hardly the only person in the US who thinks atheists can’t be Presidents. A clueless law professor at Colorado University rants about atheists from about every imaginable angle, including coming out in support of Romney’s bigotry. Brent takes him to task for spouting inanities about atheists’ morality.

Skatje takes down arguments for preserving the Pledge of Allegiance so that you don’t have to. Hitting the nail right on the head, she says, “An oath of loyalty is something you see in totalitarian regimes, not something you’d expect in a nation that prides itself on freedom. In a classroom with children from as young as age five robotically chanting at a flag every morning, I’d also expect a big silver screen on one of the walls. I’ve already written about nationalism. Submission and obedience to a government is another leg of it.”

Tyler rants about excessive moderates who in order to look centrist compare atheists to fundamentalists. Unlike Tyler I don’t care enough for Dawkins to get agitated when someone does a hatchet job on him, but I do care enough for reality to see that atheism is as extreme as fundamentalism to the same degree that supporting full racial equality is as extreme as apartheid.


The Teachers’ Union is the Source of All Evil in the World

February 27, 2007

Shelley finds a flowchart that documents how hard it is to fire a tenured teacher in New York, the idea being that if only the evil teachers’ union stopped demanding that teachers not be arbitrarily fired, the state of American education would be a lot better. Of course, as Mark Kleiman notes, in the South it’s already the case, and public schools stink even more than they do here…

Focusing on individual bad teachers misses the point. The point is that there’s a severe shortage of good teachers, which has gotten to the point that California has to accept teachers who flunk a tenth-grade-level reading test. Now, California’s schools are severely underfunded – per student funding in California is below national average even though housing prices are the highest of all states – but similar problems with teachers happen even with decent funding.

People who think the teachers’ unions are the source of all that’s evil in the world just focus on the wrong problem. There already exists a process for getting rid of bad teachers; it’s called not giving them tenure in the first place. And even if they’re fired, the state has to find an alternative teacher, typically a rookie who won’t necessarily be any better.

Look, you don’t need mega-pay to have good teachers. On average, schools in the US spent $8,300 per student in school year 2003-4, of which three fifths went to teacher pay and benefits. Stuyvesant’s per student spending is about the same (it was $8,200 in 2003 by a definition that leaves a small amount of spending out), so its teachers can’t be paid that much more, even though New York is hardly a cheap place to live in.

The American school crisis is mostly a low-income school crisis. Upper middle class suburbs like Westchester and Nassau Counties have non-selective public schools that do perfectly well. Part of it is because of an insane cash infusion, but that’s only true for some suburbs.

So it makes sense to ask how come low-income schools have teachers who stink. Is it because good teachers would rather get paid $40,000 a year to teach at a magnet school that produces Nobel Prize winners than get paid $40,000 to teach in a ghetto? Or is it because low-income schools naturally lack one of the most important control mechanisms, parental involvement (there’s a reason scripted learning works in low-income schools)? Or, is it really a funding question, with a few exceptions for glamorous places like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.


The Gay Rights Vote

February 26, 2007

Via the Daily Dish: it appears as if the gay rights vote is no longer in the Democrats’ pockets. Jason Kuznicki of Positive Liberty has a long post about the rank failure of the Human Rights Campaign to do anything effective, which has gotten to the point that it doesn’t even identify itself when it calls supporters asking for donations. In contrast, he says, the free market has been tremendously successful.

“Conservative” corporate America just keeps on getting things right, both in their sales pitches to us and in the way that the big corporations are all rushing to offer equal treatment to gays and lesbians. Do you want an example of capitalists working to help minorities, while the government and the nonprofit sector both lag behind? Look no further. (Hosted, ironically enough, by the same HRC that doesn’t manage nearly so well with its own gays and lesbians…) If current trends continue, gays and lesbians may well be the test case that proves that employment nondiscrimination laws aren’t really necessary at all — take any sufficiently developed capitalist economy, free it from public or private coercion, and the profit motive may just be enough to end discrimination all by itself.

Obviously, some anti-discrimination laws are necessary, especially when passing is difficult or impossible. In the comments, Kuznicki suggests that this is the case: responding to a commenter who complains that HRC is not doing anything for transgendered people, he says that,

The stigma against transgendered people is vastly stronger, so much so that at times nearly the entire institutional weight of society is against them. When this happens, the case for government intervention is far more powerful.

My actual point isn’t about how important anti-discrimination laws are. I tend to follow the mainstream gay rights movement in the US in considering legal equality – military service, adoption, marriage – to be the most important gay rights issue. Rather, it’s about the fact that the Democratic Party has been allowed to take various socially liberal groups, including gays, atheists, and pro-choicers, for granted.

It’s a good thing that there exist libertarian gay rights activists who support the Republicans on most issues. It’s C. S. Lewis in reverse: gays, atheists, pro-choicers, etc., have the most influence when they constitute significant factions within both political blocs. Political parties don’t like to spend political capital on anything, except perhaps their leaders’ pet issues; they’d rather accumulate it, and with it, get more power. Activists who can say “If you screw us, we have another party to turn to” are invaluable for any agenda. It comes naturally to moderates, but not so much to groups like gay rights activists.

Instead, the left is acting like Dobson and tries to squash any non-Democratic support for gay rights. As Pam notes, when Republican State Representative Dan Zwonitzer helped kill an anti-gay bill in Wyoming and passionately called for equality, the HRC ignored him. Never mind that he gives Pam teeth when she tells the Democrats homophobia is a vote loser; he’s a member of the wrong party, so he must be shunned.

The 2008 election is a good opportunity to marginalize the Dominionist vote within the Republican Party. The Dominionists say they like none of the Republican primary candidates; Giuliani, Romney, and McCain are too liberal for them, and the lightweights and darkhorses all have some personal purity issues (Brownback is pro-immigration, Huckabee raised taxes, and so on). Giuliani in particular offers cultural liberals a tremendous opportunity to return the Dominionists to a position of political irrelevance.

Of course, it’s conversely a good opportunity for the Dominionists to establish a foothold within the Democratic Party. This is especially troubling since of the three serious Democratic Presidential contenders, the one who’s the most fundamentalist is also the one who’s the most electable.

Still, both parties have significant contingents that will do their best not to allow this switch to happen. Make no mistake about it, it’s a political fistfight; pro-choicers and gay rights activists just have to be better at it than the religious right in order to ensure that the Democratic Party does not make room for Dominionists. If Clinton were more electable or less conniving it would make sense to support her, since she actually cares about keeping abortion legal; unfortunately, she’s neither. But for what it’s worth, whenever some left-wing Dominionist makes an offer – “Sacrifice women and gays and atheists and we’ll vote for you” – a good start would be to point out that Independents aren’t into that kind of sacrifice.


Sorting Things Out

February 26, 2007

First, I’ve crossposted my post about religion and welfare below to four different blogs: Appletree, What Would Durkheim Do?, 3QuarksDaily, and UTI. I nominated the Appletree version for Skeptics’ Circle, because, really, you can read my study critiques either here or there.

Second, a short list of the posts I owe you guys is,

- My next Galois theory post, about examples of Galois groups;
– A post about Jews and racism, and how Jews were part of the coalition of oppressed American minorities until the 1960s but not afterward;
– A post about education, and in particular why the notion that low-income schools in the US underperform because of administrative problems misses the point;
– The next radical pathology, theoretical thought;
– Possibly a sample chapter or half chapter from my book, which I haven’t edited since the last time I complained on this blog that I should edit it.

And third, Ann’s Weekly Feminist Reader has a story about a bill that’s just cleared committee in Colorado that mandates comprehensive sex education. A few conservative organizations said that this would strip the state of federal funds conditional on teaching abstinence only; one legislator correctly referred to that as blackmail.


Religion and Welfare

February 26, 2007

In most countries secularism is positively correlated with support for welfare, but does welfare make people more secular? Anthony Gill of the University of Washington says yes; in 2004, he and grad student Erik Lundsgaarde published a paper arguing that welfare provides a substitute for church attendance, making people less likely to attend church.

The full theory goes as follows: in the 19th century, the power of Christian churches came from their ability to provide social services such as charity, education, and health care. As the state started providing the same services without requiring or expecting church attendance, it became less economic for people to attend church, and less economic for church leaders to focus on welfare activities.

This theory has a lot of holes in it, but the study has some empirical backing. There’s a statistically significant relationship between a Christian country’s welfare spending as a percentage of GDP and the percentage of people in it who report attending church weekly, even when controlling for such variables as education and whether the country is Catholic or not. The weakness of the study comes not from its lack of data, but from flaws in how the variables are defined, failure to look for alternative explanations, and problems with individual case studies.

First, the study doesn’t explicitly say how welfare spending is measured. This is significant because it right off the bat fails to control for key factors. Most importantly, the most expensive part of the welfare state is social security, whose cost increases with the old age dependency ratio. But more religious states have higher population growth rates, leading to younger demographics and lower social security costs.

It’s possible to get around that by looking at states that buck the trend and are both relatively religious and relatively old. The best case study here is Poland, which is simultaneously the most religious nation in Europe and one of the oldest. Additional examples include Spain, Portugal, and to some extent Italy. The only one of the four that appears in the scattergram plotting church attendance and welfare spending is Spain, which is considerably more religious than the regression line predicts.

In addition, even when one controls for old age pensions, not all governments spend welfare the same way. The USA prefers targeted tax breaks, making its welfare system appear stingier than it actually is. In addition, some benefits can be distributed either as welfare or as spending on health care and education, which the study doesn’t account for. A good example in the US would be free lunches in schools, a welfare service that adds to the education budget.

Second, the omission of education spending is crucial. A church often thrives by having its own set of parochial schools. The standard British joke about catechism is that religious education only secularizes people, though the more common sensical effect is the opposite, namely that greater availability of parochial schools will make the population more religious. Education spending is correlated to welfare spending via the mediating variable of economic liberalism or socialism. As such, Gill and Lundsgaarde commit a grave sin of omission by overlooking it.

Likewise, a more direct political mediating variable could account for much of the correlation. In a followup paper, Gill notes that the correlation between welfare and religosity holds within US states, too. But within the US, both welfare and secularism fall under the rubric of liberal politics, contrasted with the welfare-busting and religiosity of conservative politics.

This in fact holds true in Europe and Latin America, which comprise all countries in the study but two, the US and Australia. Throughout Europe and Latin America, even more so than in the US, there is a strong tradition of anti-clerical liberalism. It’s likely that all Gill’s motivating example of Uruguay shows is that Uruguay has a long history of domination by the left-liberal Colorado Party.

Third, the main measure used for religiosity, reported church attendance, is deeply flawed. The USA’s real church attendance rate is half its reported rate. The church attendance variable tracks not how many people attend church, but how many would like pollsters to believe that they attend church. This variable has some value, but is overall less important than data based on actual church attendance.

The other figure used, the percentage of people who declare themselves nonreligious, is flawed as well. There are two dimensions to religious affiliation – one’s choice of religion, which tracks culture, and one’s position along the religious-secular spectrum. More plural areas, especially those with strong connections between religion and culture, will have a lower percentage of people calling themselves nonreligious than less plural areas.

Fourth, many of the assertions in the study admit too many inexplicable case study exceptions. Ireland and the Philippines’ unusually high levels of religiosity are attributable to the role the Catholic Church played in pro-independence and anti-Marcos politics respectively; I presume Poland could be similarly explained away, were it in the study. But other exceptions require seriously modifying the theory.

For example, the study would predict an increase in American church attendance rates after the welfare reforms of the 1990s. The American study only finds a slightly less significant correlation between welfare and religion in 1995; meanwhile, there was a measurable increase in church attendance in the two months following the 9/11 attacks.

For another example, the case study of Britain goes in almost the opposite direction as the one the study predicts. Britain hasn’t had a serious welfare system since Thatcher’s economic reforms. And yet, in the 1990s, religious belief crashed, and while children of secular parents always grew up to be secular, children of religious parents had only a 50% chance of growing up to be religious. Levels of belief crashed even among Muslims, who Britain forces a religious identity on in many respects.

And fifth, there are alternative explanations that the study should look at but doesn’t. First, it’s legitimate to ask why support for welfare correlates so nicely with secularism in Western politics. It could be an ideological accident that modern liberalism is secular and pro-welfare and modern conservatism is religious and anti-welfare; after all, in turn-of-the-18th-century Britain, it was the Tories who were more supportive of extensive Poor Laws and the Whigs who favored a libertarian economic policy.

Or, equally well, it could be the realpolitik version of what the study is trying to say: welfare is a substitute for religion. As such, religious organizations are likely to ally themselves with political groups that oppose welfare. It holds to some extent for modern conservatives, though by no means for all. In 1900, the US populists were both pro-religion and pro-welfare, and would only embrace prosperity theology in the 1960s and 70s.

A good way of gauging such political explanations is seeing if the same trends hold for non-Western countries. Muslim organizations provide the same welfare Christian ones do; in fact, one of the main power sources of Islamist movements is their strong performance in disaster relief. Of course, Islamism has an entirely different dynamic to it – its main promise isn’t charity but change – but it’s useful to examine this dynamic and see how it can apply to the West. How relevant is the promise to change the morally uncertain status quo to the rise of American Dominionism?

I should stress that except perhaps for the problematic definitions of the variables, this study is not shoddy. A data set comparing religiosity and welfare is always useful. The study’s downfall is in using the data to confirm a theory that has no other evidence to it. Although the study seems to satisfy the falsification criterion in that Gill intended for it to highlight the failure of the theory, in fact it does not falsify the statement “welfare does not cause a decline in religiosity.” All it does is superficially confirm the statement that welfare does in fact cause religiosity to fall.

Of the many different angles the study could take, the one about a direct effect of welfare on religiosity is one of the most obvious two, which is probably why Gill went with it. The other, that religious groups lobby against welfare, is more empirically plausible than the converse direction of causation, but does not fit well into Gill’s theory. But more indirect links, for example with education or political liberalism as a mediating variable, look far more fruitful. The study’s ultimate downfall is not so much that it is wrong as that it is woefully incomplete, concentrating on perhaps the least enlightening theory available.


Lindsay was Edwards’ First Choice

February 26, 2007

Lindsay has a great piece in Salon explaining how she was approached to be Edwards’ blogmaster, how she refused, and how she asked the staffer who approached her about all the issues that would later prove significant: her tone, the right-wing noise machine, her political views, her atheism, blogging while working for the campaign.


Note on Issue Emphasis

February 25, 2007

I reserve the right to choose which issues I care about. If my relative ranking of political issues differs from yours, it’s not generally because I’m an inhuman monster who can’t see the self-evident fact that you’re always right.

Likewise, I reserve the right to choose which issues I blog about. These tend to be the issues I have a comparative advantage in when it comes to both care and knowledge. As such, the issues I care about the most in politics – those related to fascism as defined by extreme cultural conservatism, warmongering, and a surveillance state – may not be those I devote the most time to.

For example, take Iraq. Among all hot topic in American politics, it’s the fourth I care about most. But in blogging time it’s far behind, because there are a million other blogs devoted to the issue, which offer news and analysis superior to anything I might come up with.

If you don’t like my issue emphasis, tough. You can try convincing me to care about your pet issue more, but you can’t make me more informed about it, or give me comparative advantage over the bloggers in my social network. If you don’t think there’s any blog that caters to your interests, start your own. You don’t need to be a good writer to succeed; if success had anything to do with writing skills, Daily Kos and Majikthise’s traffics would be switched.


Economic Inequality in the US Versus in Sweden

February 25, 2007

An article in Canada’s leading conservative rag about the purported failure of the Swedish model led me, once again, to comparing data from Sweden to data from the US. First, just to get this out of the way, Sweden has a higher workforce participation rate than the US.

More importantly, the staggering income inequality in the US compared with Sweden’s relative equality means that the American poor are far, far worse off than the Swedish poor, and have been so for decades. The USA’s GDP per capita is just more than a third higher than this of Sweden, $43,500 versus $31,600. But in the US, the bottom quintile’s share of aggregate income was 3.6% in 1999 and is trending down, compared with 3.9% for the Swedish bottom decile in 2004 and an additional 6% for the second decile.

In other words, assuming that aggregate income has the same share of GDP in the US and Sweden, an assumption that probably works in the USA’s favor, the Swedish bottom quintile has twice as much income as the American one. And that doesn’t count the fact the Swedish poor get free health care.

What’s more, the US has always been like that, despite populist claims that it was better in the 1960s and 70s. The share of the American bottom quintile peaked at 4.4% in the mid-70s; the share of the Swedish bottom quintile bottomed at 9.4% in 2000, a year of high capital gains.


Racism Clarification

February 25, 2007

Stentor clarifies what he meant when he said racism is objective. In light of the clarification, his argument becomes far more robust. He explains that what he meant is that “One important source of information about those effects is the testimony of purported victims.” That’s of course true: it matters what members of the possibly oppressed group say; for example, continuing with my example of Jews, when a conservative Jew says that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, it deserves a serious response at least initially.

Stentor says, and I completely concur, that instances when the effect on the minority group is subjective, subjective impressions are all there is.

Levy’s interpretation of my argument comes close to being accurate with respect to the particular example I used in my post — Native American mascots — due to the nature of the alleged benefits weighing in favor of keeping the mascot. Defenders of Chief Illiniwek claim that the Chief honors Native Americans. Honoring, though, is an act whose success can only be judged by its subjective impact on the intended honoree — that is, does the honoree feel honored or not. So the honest testimony of Native Americans is the only evidence we have to go on for this particular issue.

The main available defense against racism charges is not applicable here, so asking native Americans if they’re offended is the only recourse.

In many circumstances, one can show non-discrimination, or insufficient evidence of discrimination. An employer who’s called a racist or a sexist can ask for proof of differential treatment, or alternatively produce positive proof of equal treatment. “In the last three years, 12% of my hires have been black against a 12% black talent pool, and a black employee makes on average the same as an equally experienced white employee” tends to be a trump card.

In the case of native mascots, it’s impossible to make a good argument like that. Some people analogize native mascots to Viking mascots, but a) the Vikings are an extinct civilization, and b) the descendants of the Vikings are widely known to be normal human beings with modern rather than Viking moral codes. The employment discrimination analogy to the Viking analogy isn’t the example I gave above, but “I don’t give men or women any pregnancy leave, so I’m not a sexist.”

Alternatively, returning to the example of Jews, one can try impeaching the testimony of the members of the minority group. It usually involves a double prong: first, noting that e.g. criticism of Israel is acceptable in light of Israeli actions, and second, showing that Jews tend to analyze anti-Semitism irrationally (for example, most American Jews live in areas without local anti-Semitism, so they underplay domestic anti-Semitism and instead totalize Israel). The first is often sufficient on its own, but sometimes the second is necessary to reinforce it.

And again, in the case of mascots, or for that matter other examples of public mockery, this doesn’t really apply. Showing that native mascots are legitimate free speech isn’t enough; the response to that should be, “You’re also free to vote Republican, just as I’m free to try convincing you not to.” One has to show that the mascots represent the chosen tribe, or even all native Americans – the two tend to get conflated – accurately. And, again, they don’t, at least not according to what people who know something about native Americans seem to be saying.


Israel and Apartheid

February 24, 2007

I don’t think I’ve ever referred to the Israeli occupation as apartheid. But now that a UN envoy who’s a South African professor of international law is saying that the Palestinians’ situation is the same as this of black South Africans in the 1970s, I’m starting to warm up to the comparison. What’s more, the envoy suggests that “Israel is imposing a policy of ‘controlled strangulation’ that is helping to give rise to a failed state on its doorstep” – in other words, that Israel is deliberately screwing Palestine’s economy to make it ungovernable.

Israel’s response is predictable: “You’re one-sided.” Israel can’t justify the occupation itself in terms that won’t make people so angry that they’ll demand sanctions. It can much less justify the specific details of the occupation – the roadblocks, the protection of settlers’ lynches of Palestinian civilians, the fence, and so on.

So, instead, when people criticize it, its best shot is to make shrill accusations of anti-Semitism, and to try delegitimizing the notion that Palestinians should have rights. The Israeli government isn’t the only organization that believes certain people’s rights depend on sufficient obsequity, but it’s the one that defends this notion the most blatantly.

Look, what Bismarck said about laws and sausages applies to liberation movements, too. Everyone likes a liberation movement, after (or right before) it achieves its goals. When it’s still not painfully obvious it’s won, it gets demonized, regardless of what tactics it uses. Even Martin Luther King was billed as a dangerous radical into the early 1960s. It then goes without saying that any political movement that isn’t blessed with fighting a relatively non-violent establishment, which can be fought non-violently, faces even greater delegitimization, regardless of whether its causes or methods are justified.

So comparisons between modern Israel and apartheid South Africa are complicated by the fact that Nelson Mandela’s success made it impolitic to defend apartheid South Africa. But in fact, once one gets over that differential, the comparison still holds. Olmert isn’t Assad or King Hussein, who slaughtered Palestinians by the thousands and myriads. South Africa wasn’t Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, either; it had no arbitrary pogroms.

Almost every regime can point to a worse regime. It’s somewhat analogous to pathological extremism, where the subsitute for radicalism is nationalism. Killing people is certainly a way of showing one’s authentic patriotism. That way, Palestinian terrorists can say they’re better than the IDF, and the IDF can say it’s better than Syria, and Syria can say it’s better than Pinochet, and Latin American fascists can say Pinochet’s better than Mussolini, and Italian fascists can say Mussolini’s better than Hitler. Nazis are sufficiently vilified that no political force needs to ever invoke them positively.

Israel isn’t Britain. The British Empire was the sort that stopped its trains when Indian independence activists lay on the railroad tracks. As Orwell noted, Gandhi could only use non-violent tactics because Britain had a conscience. Israel has no conscience; its military whitewashes its bulldozer drivers’ running over activists who stand in front of buildings that are scheduled for demolition. As such, denying human rights to all Palestinians because a small group of them commit terrorism against Israeli civilians isn’t an especially rational thing to do. And, while we’re at it, India had its terrorists, too – Subhash Chandra Bose went as far as allying himself with the Axis against Britain in World War Two.

It’s possible to typify most countries as stereotypes of people. The US used to be Vito Corleone, until Bush turned it into Sonny Corleone. In that paradigm, Israel is the annoying kid who murders someone, gets caught, and then complains to the judge, “But the terrorists are killing more people and you haven’t caught them yet!”. Yes, kid, brag about your incompetence at hiding your atrocities. When you do that, you deserve to do hard time just for stupidity.


Radical Pathology: Extremism

February 24, 2007

Extremism is at the same time the most important radical pathology and the least secure of the 11 pathologies that typify radicals. In both cases, it’s because it affects not only radicals, but also most conservatives and progressives, especially those who are members of party or movement bases. In its weakest form, it leads people to brag about having the lowest or highest composite Political Compass score; in its strongest, it leads to sustained delusions about the nature of the political spectrum.

The basic idea that promotes extremism is the notion that there’s always someone who’s more leftist (or libertarian, or fundamentalist) than you. From that vantage point, less extreme people are viewed as potential traitors to the movement, as Kate Millett was to the Dworkinians. Becoming ever more extreme is then one way of proving authenticity.

This manifests itself in how radicals argue with one another. “They’re not really radical” is hurled as an insult in radical circles, just like “they’re too radical to be able to implement their ideas” is in mainstream ones. Extremism naturally flourishes in communities that eschew compromise, and radicals tend to value personal purity too much to compromise on anything.

It may seem trivial that radicals are extreme. But in fact there is a very strong non-trivial observation, namely that radical pathologies tend to cooccur. Personal purity can arise from every political orientation or ideology, but it tends to be more present among people more prone to extremism or totalization. Likewise, those people who have given up on causing any real political change content themselves with becoming ever more unacceptable to the mainstream they hate.

Once extremism is established as a badge of authenticity, it tends to spread to ridiculous dimensions. It’s true that James Dobson is less radical than Jerry Falwell, who is less radical than Pat Robertson, who is less radical than R. J. Rushdoony. A Dominionist is likely to talk predominantly to other Dominionists because of the shared ideology; in that milieu, he can easily believe that Dobson is a moderate, and thence portray the 90% of the political spectrum that’s on Dobson’s left as liberal.

Extremism sometimes manifests itself in the formation of fusions – for example, the radical right in the United States is a fusion of Christian fundamentalism, which used to be economically left-wing, and libertarianism, which is nominally socially liberal. Both kinds of radicalism became part of an incidental Republican coalition, but once both social conservatism and unrestrained capitalism became associated with the right, right-wing extremists started fusing the two in order to become more radical than their colleagues who were associated with only one of the two movements.

This only happens when extremism acts on some conventional left-right scale. It can also act on individual movements, which then only segregate themselves away from other political groups even more. The prime example here is libertarianism, or at least the part of it that isn’t part of any conservative coalition; big-L libertarians aim not to be right-wing or left-wing, but simply libertarian. Similarly, radical feminism tends to view itself as separate from the rest of the left, so that radical feminists usually display extremism by adopting ever crazier attitudes about sex, which their more conventionally extreme socialist feminist colleagues use as evidence that they’re not really radical.

In fact, the example of radical feminism versus social feminism shows how in certain cases, extremism can exert a force opposite to this of totalization and symbolism. Socialist feminists are conventionally extreme in that they integrate radical feminism, Marxism, and antiracism into one hyper-radicalized ideology, but they don’t conventionally totalize gender or spend what little political capital they have on such symbolic issues as pornography. In contrast, radical feminists are only extreme with respect to gender, but often not with respect to race or class; however, they engage in extensive totalization.

In a more theoretical framework, this is because totalization requires that the radical care about nothing except one cause, and extremism requires that he care about many different causes at once. Totalization might require unholy alliances; extremism views them with the same suspicion that the mainstream does. Extremism requires solidarity with many other movements; totalization has a problem with their lack of singleminded devotion to the totalized cause.

This largely explains the schism between big-L libertarians who associate themselves with neither the left nor the right, and conservative libertarians who associate themselves with Dominionists. The latter group has a somewhat easier time  fusing into one radical movement than the ragtag left because most Dominionists believe in prosperity theology, so that even if they care more about abortion, they at least don’t snub the libertarians. But even the left has always had a central radical movement, centering on class to the exclusion of gender, nationality, and often race.

As for symbolism, it tends to cooccur with totalization more than with extremism. Part of being the most fringe is saying that less extreme (and hence lesser) people’s struggles are worthless. There’s no inherent reason why radical environmentalists would decide to cast themselves as more extreme than environmentalists who tell people not to shower; however, since the latter group is almost self-evidently nutty, another radical can easily carve up territory to its left by telling it the truth and then saying similar but untrue things about mainstream activism. It helps to think of Michael Pollan as such a radical; in his case, the symbolism he eschews is organic food, which he portrays as still not pure enough.

On the other hand, trivialization and personal purity hold for all radicals, regardless of whether they’re single-issue radicals, who emphasize totalization, or fusion radicals, who emphasize extremism. All libertarians argue that libertarianism trivially follows from basic freedom, regardless of whether they’re allied with religious conservatives or not. All right-wing Dominionists eschew putrefying alliances with other fundamentalists even when it entails losing political battles.

The reason extremism is so important a radical pathology is that it’s often what creates a radical. Radicals aren’t synthesized de novo. Radicalization tends to follow disillusionment with the dominant political system, reaching beyond disillusionment with only one party or ideology. But that alone doesn’t always create a radical; it can easily create a progressive or a conservative or a reformer. It’s the stress of extremism that pulls progressives and conservatives away from the center, until they become so radical that they’re indistinguishable. Once one has a framework in which anything that is considered mainstream is automatically bad, one often turns authoritarian just by rejecting the usual notions of deliberative democracy, pluralism, and realism.

And at the same time, it’s so pervasive among progressives and conservatives that it’s almost not a radical pathology. It’s certainly true that other pathological attributes that reach progressives and conservatives – for example, delusions of media bias – are not really radical pathologies. But extremism is central to radicalism, while the perception of pervasive media bias isn’t and can easily be subsumed under other pathologies, such as paranoia.


Carnival Announcements

February 24, 2007

The March 1st edition of Help Us Help Ourselves will be posted on Feministe; submit your posts by comment- or trackback-spamming Jill’s announcement post.

The 55th meeting of the Skeptics’ Circle will be posted in five days on The Second Sight. Submit your woo-debunking to EoR by email.


Abortion is Good

February 24, 2007

Jill has a tremendous post about how abortion is in fact a moral good. Once you think it through, it’s fairly easy. Abortion is a beneficial medical procedure that removes something that is often a health risk; childbirth is as a rule more dangerous than safe abortion. As Jill notes,

Some on the Pandagon thread argue that procedures like heart surgery are morally neutral. I don’t think so. Having access to that surgery in the first place is a moral good. Deciding to take the course of action that is best for you is a moral good. That’s true whether the issue is terminating a pregnancy or fighting cancer.

The act of heart surgery is of course morally neutral. A person’s choice to have a heart surgery, or for that matter an abortion, isn’t a moral question because it doesn’t impact any other person. As Jill says, the good comes from the fact that this option is available. And conversely, the moral evil in abortion legislation comes from people who pass laws that cause the maternal mortality rates to skyrocket.

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Saturday Science Links

February 24, 2007

I think it was Squashed who was enamored enough with my science-themed link posts on Appletree that he suggested making it a regular weekend feature. Always happy to oblige, here’s what my net has come up with:

Shelley notes that scrub jays plan ahead, a cognitive trait previously thought to be unique to humans. In one experiment, the birds were conditioned to expect food in the morning in one room but not in another; those in the breakfast-less room then stored food each night. In another, each room had a different kind of food; the birds then stored each kind of food in the room filled with the other kind.

She also links to a study that shows that children of alcoholics have reduced mental development. Now, you’d think it’s because women who consume alcohol during pregnancy ruin their fetuses’ brains. But in fact, it’s both genetic and environmental, with no gender component; the senior author explicitly says that “There were no differences between the effects of maternal and paternal drinking.” My guess is that the groups that treat all women as pre-pregnant are not going to issue gender-neutral warnings to individuals not to become alcohol-dependent.

Tara writes about the gloriously pro-science President of Gambia, who is trying to use prayer to cure AIDS. The good news is that people must see the President in person to get prayed for, limiting the scope of the pseudo-treatment somewhat. The bad news is that the President demands they stop taking anti-retroviral drugs.

Mark at Cosmic Variance explains the equation e = mc^2 using a thought experiment. The basic point of the thought experiment is that since light is a wave, it imparts momentum, so conservation of momentum eventually implies mass-energy equivalence.

Orac’s Friday Dose of Woo features biodynamics, a pseudoscience that emphasizes the need for not only organic farming but also various processes that are supposed to make crops spiritually healthy. Biodynamic requires farmers to apply eight specific substances to the soil, all of which take me back to the days when I read the AD&D Dungeon Master Guide‘s section on magical items.

GrrlScientist writes about the sea changes in the continental shelf waters of the northwest Atlantic. What had been previously attributed to overfishing of cod is now recognized to be primarily the result of climate change. The main change is reduced salinity, caused by a) greater snowmelts in the Arctic, and b) climate-driven shifts in wind patterns that alter ocean currents.


My Name isn’t Olivia, but Still

February 23, 2007

One Jewish Dyke has an A-Z meme that attracts me because it asks questions I’d rather not answer in addition to the usual trivial stuff. She didn’t tag me, unless she thinks my name is Olivia, but still, here it goes:

Accent: nondescriptly foreign, more European than Asian.

Bible book that I like: none of them, but Joshua is useful when talking to an ignoramus who thinks the Qur’an is the only pro-mass murder scripture.

Chore I don’t care for: cleaning my room.

Dog or cat: neither.

Essential electronics: laptop.

Favorite cologne: I’m sufficiently out of the loop on anything related to beautification that I don’t even know which genders are supposed to wear it.

Gold or silver: I like the color silver more, but I’m not going to put money into either.

Handbag: what handbag?

Insomnia: only when I direly need to wake up in time the next day.

Job title: teaching assistant (I’m only actually TAing starting this May, but the department calls everyone a teaching assistant so that first-years can get a social security number, which I still haven’t gotten).

Kids: I don’t have any, thank the FSM.

Living arrangements: a single room in a hybrid of a four-bedroom apartment and a dorm.

Most admirable trait: intelligence.

Naughtiest childhood behavior: having ridiculous superhero fantasies.

Overnight hospital stays: I think I had one when I was 2.

Phobias: none I know of.

Quote: “Facts may be on the liberals’ side, but God is on ours!” (this predates Colbert, I should add).

Religion: semi-practicing Pastafarian.

Siblings: one sister who’s turning 14 the day of the third Carnival of Mathematics.

Time I wake up: between 7 and 3, usually somewhere in the middle.

Unusual talent or skill: mathematical ability.

Vegetable I refuse to eat: I don’t eat most vegetables, but tomatoes deserve singular mention.

Worst trait: chronic lack of social skills.

X-rays: when I was 11, my right pinky suffered trauma that may or may not have included dislocation and/or a broken bone, and that required an X-ray.

Yummy stuff I cook: see “living arrangements” above and draw your own conclusions.

Zoo animal I like the most: elephants, maybe.


Iran Has Secret Plans to Take Over the World

February 23, 2007

Michele Bachmann said that Iran has a plan in the works to split Iraq with another entity, in which it will take over the northern half of Iraq and turn it into a terrorist breeding ground. She refused to source that statement; my guess is that she knows that if she tells people God whispered it in her ear, people will realize how batshit insane she is.

Of course, there’s a broader principle here. Even a lunatic like Bachmann doesn’t make things up unless they’re part of radical right-wing dogma. She’s hardly the only creationist in Minnesota. There is a real Iran, and there’s the Iran various ideologues want there to be. For the extreme left, it’s thriving and governed by a popular regime. For the extreme right, it’s an omnipotent terrorist state preoccupied with nothing but killing Americans and spreading Jihadism.

For people like Bachmann, it’s self-evident that Iran is and has always been this sinister enemy. In the real world, Iran was part of the USA’s war on terror until Bush wrote it off as a member of the Axis of Evil; but in American right-wing fantasies, it’s always supported every Jihadist organization, even Sunni ones like Al Qaida. In the real world, Iran is plagued by a looming oil peak and rock-bottom regime support; in American right-wing fantasies, it’s capable of taking control of the northern and western half of Iraq – i.e. the Sunni and Kurdish parts, where it’s even more hated than the US.


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