Junk Statistics

September 29, 2006

On Feministing, Samhita talks about a new study that shows that 56% of all female-owned American businesses are home-based compared with 47% of all male-owned ones. The news piece says grandiosely,

“A significant percent of women having businesses in the home are comprised of women who are doing it for family reasons,” said Kathleen Christensen, director of the Workplace, Workforce and Working Families program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York.

I find myself constantly referring to Echidne’s post about junk science. She talks about junk medical science, but it applies to junk social science just the same. A difference of 9 percentage points suggests that a small subset of American women prefers working at home, either due to a traditional view of motherhood or due to inability to find daycare.

Compared to other gender gaps, this one is tiny (in the US, women make 62 cents on the male dollar). It can be explained entirely with ad hoc things with few policy implications: maybe it’s because conservative women would rather work from home; maybe it’s because of daycare problems, which women face more than men because their spouses are less willing to stay home with the kids; maybe it’s because female-owned businesses tend to be smaller than male-owned ones.

In any case, the operative terms are “some” and “maybe.” The government should subsidize daycare, but not because of this 9-point gap; I submit that anyone who uses it as a pro-daycare talking point knows less rhetoric than a cucumber.

Of course, this doesn’t prevent some commenters on Feministing from bullshit-analyzing that trend even after someone pointed that it’s very weak.


Women and Language

September 28, 2006

Hat-tip to Battlepanda: Mark Liberman of The Language Log refutes the latest binge of “women are verbal and men are visual, so let’s perpetuate the patriarchy” arguments so that you don’t have to.

It’s recently fashionable for books and articles to enlist neuroscience in support of the view that men and women are essentially and unavoidably different, not just in size and shape, but also in just about every aspect of the way they see, hear, feel, talk, listen and think. These works tend to confirm our culture’s current stereotypes and prejudices, and the science they cite is often overinterpreted, and sometimes seems simply to have been made up. I recently discussed an example from Leonard Sax’s book Why Gender Matters (“Are men emotional children?“, 6/24/2006), which David Brooks has used to support an argument for single-sex education. The latest example of this genre, released August 1, is Louann Brizendine‘s book “The Female Brain“.

One of Brizendine’s claims is that on average, women use 20,000 different words a day whereas men use 7,000 (presumably, there’s the assumed qualifier “Anglophone” or “American,” considering that there are plenty of languages that don’t even have 20,000 unique lexemes). Mark eviscerates that claim, showing that there’s no evidence for it, to the extent that he can prove a negative:

I looked through the book to try to find the research behind the 20,000-vs.-7,000-words-per-day claim, and I looked on the web as well, but I haven’t been able to find it yet. Brizendine also claims that women speak twice as fast as men (250 words per minute vs. 125 words per minute). These are striking assertions from an eminent scientist, with big quantitative differences confirming the standard stereotype about those gabby women and us laconic guys. The only trouble is, I’m pretty sure that both claims are false.

With respect to the speech rate claim, I’ve just run a script on a corpus of 5,202 transcribed and time-aligned telephone conversations, involving native speakers of American English with a wide variety of ages, regions and backgrounds. The average speech rate for the males was 174.3 wpm, and the average speech rate for the females 172.6 wpm. I assume that Brizendine didn’t just concoct her figures about male vs. female speech rates out of thin air — she must have gotten them from a study that someone did somewhere, sometime, or at least from some other author plugging another work in the flourishing genre of pop gender studies — but let’s say, at least, that it ain’t necessarily so. I’ll post something more about Brizendine’s striking speaking-rate and words-per-day claims as soon as I can figure out what evidence she based them on. [More on female and male speaking rates is here, and more on the number of words men and women typically speak per day is here.]

Even if men and women do use different numbers of unique words per day, automatically attributing that to innate sex differences is hasty. Consider this thought experiment:

Freedonia is a very patriarchal society, where men are subject to universal conscription, and women are not allowed to take jobs outside home. Freedonia hasn’t fought a war in 40 years and its military is primitive, and its male-dominated industries are stagnant enough that they don’t produce any new specialized vocabulary. In contrast, there are plenty of household appliances, and a rich semantic space in Freedonian for household tasks. Further, military terms are largely native and can only be augmented by native derivational affixes, of which there are few since Freedonian is an analytic language in origin. But most household terms are borrowed, and can be augmented by the much larger set of affixes available in the languages Freedonian women come into contact with. Naturally, women will use many more unique words than men.

In contrast, suppose that Kumran is an equally patriarchal society, but its language partitions different semantic spaces differently. Its military is modern and so is its oil industry, so its (invariably male) industrial workers possess an enriched specialized vocabulary and are often able to choose between a general Kumrani word, a specialized Kumrani military or industrial term that got generalized by analogy, or a borrowing. At the same time, women, who are conclaved in their homes and shut off from the outside world, have little opportunity to communicate with other people, read books, or be exposed to the public sphere’s vocabulary. In Kumran, men will obviously use more unique words than women.

It matters which language you decide to base your research on. It matters which society you do your study in. It matters which social factors control men and women’s language use.

And, of course, it matters that there’s no evidence that there’s even a discrepancy to explain with social factors.

On Animal Rights

September 28, 2006

Stentor analogizes the argument that humans and only humans should have rights to two exceptionally frustrating arguments for sexism and heteronormativity:

A1. Most heterosexual couples are able to produce children.
A2. Only those couples which can produce children should be allowed to marry.
A3. Therefore all heterosexual couples should be allowed to marry.

B1. Most women have less upper body strength than men.
B2. Only people with great upper body strength should be allowed to be firefighters.
B3. Therefore all men, but no women, should be allowed to be firefighters.

C1. Most humans (and few if any animals) are capable of “reason.”
C2. Only things that are capable of “reason” have rights.
C3. Therefore all, and only, humans have rights.

The point is that it’s inconsistent for liberals to support argument C while opposing A and B. But in fact, off the top of my head, I can think of two big discrepancies, one between A and C, and one between B and C. Argument A’s second premise is very weak; when questioned, its supporters can rarely come up with a justification better than “It’s what marriage is for.”

In addition, even assuming A2, it’s very easy to come up with a system that only gives fertile couples the right to marry: make marriage contingent on childbirth. It’s fairly easy to measure upper-body strength too, but not capacity to reason. There’s probably an objective standard for what a rational being is, but we don’t know it yet. We have a multiplicity of standards, the crudest easy approximation for which is “all born humans with functioning cortexes, and only them.”

The other big discrepancy is the degree of difference. When liberals argue for gender equality, they typically don’t attempt categorical refutations of arguments like B; instead, they point out that the differences between the sexes are small, and vastly outweighed by intra-sex differences. This is especially true in fields based on intellectual performance, where innate gender differences are trivial to nonexistent.

In contrast, species differences are enormous. The best-trained apes never master more than a few hundred words and no grammar at all, and are incapable of speaking. The most severely retarded human can know much more than that given enough effort. Even granting that a 30-year-old chimp may be more capable of reason than a 1-year-old, the overlap between chimps and humans is small enough, and the inconvenience of treating all chimps as persons or of establishing criteria for chimp personhood is large enough, for it to be moral to base rights on humanness.

Incidentally, it makes some sense to establish a middle category of beings that aren’t considered rational but are close enough that they should have limited rights: dolphins, great apes, very late-term human fetuses, octopuses, and so on. Their rights should under no circumstance be allowed to conflict with the well-being of humans – including the benefits of scientific research – but when their rights are sacrificed, it makes sense to do it in the way causing the least amount of pain.

Science PAC

September 27, 2006

Hat-tip to PZ: there’s a new American PAC meant to promote good science and policy, Scientists and Engineers for America. SEA is based on the following list of core principles:

  1. Federal policy shall be made using the best available science and analysis both from within the government and from the rest of society.
  2. The federal government shall never intentionally publish false or misleading scientific information nor post such material on federal websites.
  3. Scientists conducting research or analysis with federal funding shall be free to discuss and publish the results of unclassified research after a reasonable period of review without fear of intimidation or adverse personnel action.
  4. Federal employees reporting what they believe to be manipulation of federal research and analysis for political or ideological reasons should be free to bring this information to the attention of the public and shall be protected from intimidation, retribution or adverse personnel action by effective enforcement of Whistle Blower laws.
  5. No scientists should fear reprisals or intimidation because of the results of their research.
  6. Appointments to federal scientific advisory committees shall be based on the candidate’s scientific qualifications, not political affiliation or ideology.
  7. The federal government shall not support any science education program that includes instruction in concepts that are derived from ideology and not science.
  8. While scientists may elect to withhold methods or studies that might be misused there shall be no federal prohibition on publication of basic research results.  Decisions made about blocking the release of information about specific applied research and technologies for reasons of national security shall be the result of a transparent process.  Classification decisions shall be made by trained professionals using a clear set of published criteria and there shall be a clear process for challenging decisions and a process for remedying mistakes and abuses of the classification system.

The official blog motivates the formation of the PAC, “Over the last several years, scientists have come under political assault and the integrity of science has been compromised. The attacks have ranged from White House rewriting an Environmental Protection Agency report on global warming, to veto of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, to the promotion of intelligent design to disseminating inaccurate scientific information on federal websites.”

This is of course a positive development, though since the organization isn’t even one day old, it’s way too early to judge how influential it will be. Science is like free trade: every politician likes to say he supports it, but when it comes to actually putting it above partisanship and taking it seriously, everyone runs away from it as if it were the plague (which it’s not – at most, it has scientists who study the bacterium that causes the plague…).

On the other hand, some of the eight core points are underwhelming. Bad science is most dangerous when it comes from the government, but it can also cause harm when it comes from businesses or from political movements, which can pressure the government to adhere to their bad science. Corporations dislike science that tells them their products are harmful (think tobacco); political movements dislike science that conflicts with their ideology or that looks scary (think evolution and thimerosal).

In addition, overall, I think the best approach is based on education rather than lobbying. Science isn’t that powerful an interest group. It can only seriously influence government policy when backed by another institution, such as the military-industrial complex. But the backing institution will then corrupt and subvert it; the radical left wouldn’t be nearly as anti-science as it is if it hadn’t learned to associate science with nuclear bombs.

Where science is immensely powerful is in education, obviously. I’m pretty sure that dollar for dollar, it makes more sense to focus on the local and state level on the federal level, given the positively weird structure of American politics. Focusing on education on the federal level (point #7) requires the movement to fight battles that cause unnecessary schisms between localists and centralists, which I don’t see doing any good to anyone, except maybe the religious right.

Christianity vs. Islam, and Dominionism vs. Islamism

September 27, 2006

Whenever I point out to people that there is no difference between Christianity and Islam, someone always brings up terrorism. Generally, it’s coaxed in denial of the existence of such Christian terrorists as Timothy McVeigh; occasionally, the critic is sophisticated enough to recognize that Christian terrorism exists, but says it’s not so bad as Islamic terrorism.

In fact, there difference between the levels of terrorism the two religions cause is entirely attributable to anti-terrorist action and European racism.

In Christian countries, there’s a significant contingent of Dominionists, which has a militia minority; in Muslim countries, there’s a significant contingent of Islamists, which has a Jihadi minority. So far, there’s no difference. Where there is a difference is in the governments.

The United States has a functioning government that’s strong enough to crack down on domestic terrorism. Since it would be unthinkable for it to bomb Idaho, it uses police tactics against the militia movement, which are largely successful at curbing it.

In contrast, the Saudi government is not a modern state capable of cracking down on its extremists – developing countries tend to be like that. Most Jihadists in Saudi Arabia never leave their home country, but there are enough of them that those who do used to be a formidable threat (though they no longer are).

The first-world countries these international Jihadists target obviously try getting rid of them, but their governments opt for treating terrorism as a military problem, which doesn’t work. Bombing Iraq produces less of a backlash among Americans than bombing Montana, and Iraqis can’t vote in American elections.

Now, lately Islamist anti-Western terrorism comes not from Islamic countries, but from European Muslims. A good place to start when looking at the difference between Christians and Muslims would be identity. After all, the one Western country with a significant Muslim minority without Jihadism, Canada, is the one country where that minority is not pressured to develop its own religious identity by a racist system.

And indeed, most countries with Christian minorities don’t impose a Christian identity on Christians. It’s a lot easier to be a Christian in Turkey than a Muslim in France. Some do, but there’s no charismatic leader like Bin Laden who can transform this Christian identity into a militia one.

Dominionism is largely an intra-US movement. Dominionists don’t need a worldwide revolution; they’re based in a sufficiently powerful country that it’s a lot easier for them to take over that one country and then use it to launch wars of aggression against the rest of the world. Call it the Christianity in one country policy. Pat Robertson isn’t interested in inspiring non-Americans to do anything but bow to their American masters, for that is how American patriotism works; even if he were, he would lack the charisma to do so (though I presume some of the people in his movement don’t).

Fractional Ideals

September 27, 2006

I’ve explained what ideals are, but just like they generalize the concept of numbers, it makes sense to generalize the concept of fractions, in the form of fractional ideals.

Here is where I have to be a little more axiomatic. We’re interested in integral domains, which are defined by the six axioms of rings, plus the axioms that multiplication is commutative, there’s an element 1 such that 1*a = a for all a, and the product of two nonzero elements is again nonzero. If R is an integral domain, we define the fraction field K of R to be the set of all fractions r1/r2, with the usual notion that r1/r2 = r3/r4 if r1r4 = r2r3, and the usual method of addition and multiplication. The main advantage of K is that it obeys a stronger axiom than the ab = 0 –> a = 0 or b = 0 axiom: in K, for every nonzero element a, we can find an element 1/a such that a(1/a) = 1.

Now, recall that an ideal I of R is identified by two properties: if a and b are in I, and r is any element of R, then a + b and ra are in I. So we can apply that rule to every subset of K. For example, if R is the ring of integers Z, then K is the field of rational numbers Q; (2) is an (integral) ideal of R, and (1/2) = {…-1.5, -1, -0.5, 0, 0.5, 1, 1.5…} is a fractional ideal of R.

Actually, to make it work, we need a third condition, namely that there exists an element s in R such that sI is contained in R, i.e. is an integral ideal. That takes care of annoying cases like (1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16…).

As with integral ideals, if R is a principal ideal domain, then multiplying fractional ideals is just like multiplying integral ideals. We have (1/2)(2) = (1), (2/3)(1/10)(45) = (3), etc.

The most nifty thing about working with fractional ideals is that every ideal is invertible in a way. In particular, if I is any fractional ideal of R, then there exists another ideal, call it J, such that IJ = (1), as long as R is a Dedekind domain.

To prove that J exists, first note that by definition, there exists an element s of R such that sI is contained in R. Now, if r is any element of R, then clearly rsI is contained in R, and if t is another element of K such that tI is contained in R, then (s+t)I is contained in R, since it’s a subset of the larger integral ideal sI + tI. So the set of elements s of K such that sI is in R is a fractional ideal, call it S; observe that for every i in I, iS, the set of all elements of the form is, is contained in R.

Now, SI is obviously an integral ideal of R. But it’s not necessarily the whole of R; that needs proof. I’m going to prove that tomorrow, by first proving it in the case I is a prime (integral) ideal of R, and then using that to prove unique factorization into ideals. Then if I = (P1^a1)(P2^a2)…(P(n)^a(n)), then S = (P1^(-a1))(P2^(-a2))…(P(n)^(-a(n))) and we’re done.

Authoritarianism vs. Totalitarianism

September 27, 2006

There’s a comment on Majikthise arguing that Dominionism doesn’t really exist because all the American religious right wants to do is recreate the 1950s. It seems like a sufficiently common argument – after all, it’s a variation on the standard conservative reason to support the fascists – that it deserves refutation here.

Most of what the religious right is demanding: A return to federalism and democracy concerning abortion, traditional sexual mores, even prayer in school were all mainstream practice circa 1950-60’s America. The scare of “theocracy” seems to obscure the point that most of what is advocated is neither new nor radical to American culture. To the contrary it is cultural leftist “experiments” (like ss “m”) that represent the political extreme.

Apparently, equal rights are a political extreme. In fact, as I said in that thread, turning the clock back to 1950, when the Supreme Court didn’t enforce desegregation, thousands of women died every year in botched abortions, homosexuality was illegal, and women couldn’t get non-shitty jobs, is considered moderate in the Dominionist movement. Recreating the past is always a major theme in fascism, but in fact, fascism always ushers in a substantially more repressive environment.

Conservatives always oppose social changes; that’s not new. Bismarck fought the social democrats and the liberals, the Dixiecrats fought civil rights, and de Gaulle fought the student movement. When you’re already an established player, you don’t need to have the totalitarian zeal to kill all your enemies. You have the mainstream’s privilege of ignoring and marginalizing them.

But fascism is reactionary rather than conservative, and its playbook imitates not its conservative allies’ but its communist enemy’s. When you want to radically remake society in your image, it doesn’t matter whether your utopia comes from Marx, the Bible, the Qur’an, or an idealized past; in all cases, you’ll end up creating a far more restrictive society than this of Bismarck, or de Gaulle, or even the Tsar.

In the 1870s, Germany was authoritarian rather than totalitarian. But the idealizers of the past who came to power in 1933 nonetheless made it totalitarian. Similarly, in the 1950s, the US was authoritarian (unless you were a straight, Christian, non-leftist white male), but the idealizers of the past who might come to power will make it totalitarian to everyone.