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.