Dog Bites Man; Conservative Pundit Abuses Statistics

March 10, 2007

Tyler DiPietro fisks conservative pundit John Hawkins who’s clueless about science, but leaves fisking his statistical claims to me. I’m always happy to oblige; the claim in question is that liberals are more racist than conservatives. I hate to disappoint Tyler, but Hawkins isn’t making an error in mathematics, but in basic reasoning. He quotes a study saying,

White Republicans nationally are 25 percentage points more likely on average to vote for the Democratic senatorial candidate when the GOP hopeful is black…In House races, white Democrats are 38 percentage points less likely to vote Democratic if their candidate is black.

The most shoddy part of the quote is the ellipsis, which covers several paragraphs in the relevant article. The 25% and 38% figures are not meant to be compared; after all, the 25% figure applies to Senate races while the 38% applies to House races, in which different dynamics might be in play.

In addition, just comparing white Democrats to white Republicans is somewhat misleading, since Democrats also have a significant black and Latino vote. In the 2006 election, a sixth of the Democratic House vote was black and 10% was Latino compared with only 2% and 5% of the Republican House vote respectively.

The remainder of Hawkins’ point about racism is a short screed about how Republicans are the party of Lincoln whereas Democrats had a Dixiecrat contingent. Not surprisingly, Hawkins stops short of looking at Democratic versus Republican behavior sometime in the 1960s, when the Dixiecrats defected to the Republicans after LBJ did something to help black people.

Incidentally, the other point of Hawkins refuting which Tyler left to me – namely, that conservatives contribute to charity more – is something I talked about a while ago. In a nutshell, charity is meaningless. If you have 200 dollars to burn, the best way of spending them is contributing to politicians who help the poor; for a billion dollars every four years you can elect a President and a Congress that will push through programs that will increase federal payments to both the real (i.e. third-world) poor and the US poor by 30 billion dollars a year each.


March 5, 2007

Bean writes about a non-coercive strategy of increasing fertility rates. It appears as if what causes fertility rates to plummet with development is women’s entry into the workforce combined with the realization that working mothers face significant difficulties. Therefore, it’s possible to increase fertility by subsidizing child care, as France and Sweden do.

Although Bean doesn’t mention it, such policies have been mostly successful: France’s fertility rate is now 2.01 up from 1.89 in 2000, higher than every developed country except the US, and higher than even the US once one controls for teen pregnancy. Sweden is at 1.66 up from 1.53 in 2000, the 8th highest in the EU. Meanwhile, Ireland, whose high fertility (1.86, second only to France in the EU) is based on keeping women barefoot and pregnant rather than informed and empowered, is seeing a reduction in fertility.

Significantly, the Norwegian solution of paying women to be mothers is not working so well. In Norway, the government pays women the equivalent of $19,000 a year to stay home and raise children; the fertility rate is 1.78, down from 1.81 in 2000. In Sweden and France, which emphasize daycare, fertility is soaring.

Of course, it’s not all policy. Attitudes matter; the reason Norway is so far high is that it starts from a fairly feminist base (though, to be honest, it doesn’t explain why it’s more fertile than Sweden, widely understood to be the most feminist country in the world). Italy and Spain, which are becoming more Western European and less Catholic in attitude, have seen fertility increases between 2000 and 2006 that are even higher than France’s; but their increased natalism is starting from a base almost at 1.

Bean correctly notes that

there is a long history of using public fertility supports for natalist purposes. But that’s not what’s at issue here. The question here is how to allow women to balance the biological responsibility for childbirth with the need and desire of many women to work outside the home? Some countries, including Sweden, that have been successful in encouraging parenthood through childcare also have much saner work expectations than the U.S. To accomodate motherhod, we *all* need to work less (not just mothers — everyone). Another answer — which the article doesn’t even touch — is to shift societal expectations about childcare. If parents share caregiving responsibilities, men will better understand the demands women have long faced and women will be able to continue to work and to become mothers simultaneously.

The bottom line is that any solution cannot just be about women — it’s got to consider how to shift family structures, societal expectations, and state supports.

Obviously, state supports are the easiest to change. Daycare is expensive for the individual family, but because of the middle class compact, it’s not expensive for the taxpayer. And, of course, it provides the important benefit of covering poor families, which are caught in the impossible situation of having to earn two paychecks while keeping the children at home until free primary education kicks in.

On the other hand, state supports can also help influence societal expectations. Best Buy’s offices have adopted a flex-time policy wherein employees are free to choose their hours, as long as they get all their work done. Not only has this policy increased productivity, but also working mothers are able to maintain a good work-family balance without being branded uncommitted at work. The government can use a variety of mechanisms to encourage such policies, if only because they increase labor productivity.

There’s the environmental argument that low fertility is good because it reduces global population pressure. The problem with that argument is that the people who make it manage to accomplish both being racist/imperialist and ignoring realities in order to avoid being racist/imperialist.

First, in the first world there’s no population pressure. The US can comfortably accommodate many more than 300 million people without any increases in agricultural productivity, it exports so much food. Globally it’s something else, but 100 million extra Americans or Europeans don’t make much of a difference.

Second, stare at a graph of agricultural productivity for a few seconds if you think that the very real problem of supporting a social security system with a fertility rate of 1.5 outweighs the hypothetical problem of a population bomb. The way it looks now, world population is going to converge to 11 billion by the end of the century and stay there. That’s sustainable, from both an economic and an environmental point of view.

And third, immigration isn’t always a feasible solution. The US and Canada can weather any fertility rate with immigration alone. Japan, South Korea, and Russia, all countries with very real negative population bombs, can’t; they’re just not attractive destinations for immigrants. Japan is in an especially problematic position, because its social security system is based on cradle-to-grave corporate responsibility to employees, a principle that is being increasingly undermined by a variety of processes of which only some are avoidable.

Fortunately, subsidizing daycare and encouraging corporate cultures conducive to gender equality are good even independently of their making the difference between a fertility rate of 1.5 and a rate of 2. Forget the morality of equal rights for a second; it’s generally better for a society to have a talent pool of skilled workers consisting of all educated adults rather than just half of them. As I like to say, it’s better for everyone for merit to supplant privilege.


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.

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.

Saturday Link Roundup

February 17, 2007

I wanted this roundup to be science-themed, but there’s been too few linkworthy science posts and too many political posts. Still, starting with the science, GrrlScientist reports about how sulfur particles cause some global cooling, which can be exploited to mitigate global warming. The only thing I have to say about that is to recall the Futurama episode where Fry says at a ski resort, “It’s a good thing global warming never happened.” Leela retorts, “It did, but the nuclear winter balanced it out.”

Orac writes about the dilemma of whether to allow individuals access to experimental drugs. He comes down strongly on the side of not allowing, explaining that,

The entire ruling also seems to rest on a misperception that there are “miracle drugs” out there that we will have to wait years for because the FDA is too slow to approve them. However, if there really were such a “miracle drug” that was amazingly effective compared to anything we have now, a large randomized phase III trial would not be necessary to detect its efficacy. Indeed, its efficacy would almost certainly show up in even a small phase I trial. There’d be examples of amazing tumor shrinkage or even outright cures. In reality, we don’t see these things in Phase I trials, because there are no miracle drugs, at least not yet. Because the effects of most new drugs against various tumors tends to be less than miraculous, we need Phase III trials to determine safety and efficacy.

Kevin Alexander Gray of Black Agenda Report skewers Obama as a bland, white-identified politician who’s not listening to the black community’s concerns. Obama happens to be black, but he’s not the black voters’ candidate; black voters prefer Clinton, who they’re backing by several percentage points more than whites do, while supporting Obama by no greater numbers than whites do. It could be due to unfamiliarity, but it could also be due to Obama’s failure to tap into traditional sources of black support.

Matthew Yglesias turns his attention to Iran. Scott McLemee has an entirely misguided column on Inside Higher Ed that accuses liberals of not caring about Iranian democracy. Matt Yglesias notes that he has no idea what he’s talking about. After all, American conservatives want to bomb Iran, a surefire way to cement support for the regime, while the liberals are letting the regime crumble under its own weight.

Via Ars Mathematica I found a long article in the New York Magazine about praise and self-esteem. The two-line conclusion is that praising children’s intelligence will only hurt them by making them complacent and causing them to view failures as embarrassments, while praising their effort will make them work harder. In addition, praise needs to be specific – e.g. “It’s good that you can concentrate for so long” – or else it will be perceived as disingenuous. Draw your own conclusions about education.

Social Normality

February 16, 2007

In a brief exchange I had with Lynet a few days ago, she raised the question of normality. Writing about how culturally ingrained sexism discourages women from pursuing an interest in math or science, she says,

I agree about it being kind of a stretch to think that a girl would consciously choose not to study maths because it’s not ‘feminine’. The notion of femininity is strongest these days insofar as it affects sexual relationships with men, I’d say. Part of the method of communication can sometimes involve shared assuptions about how a woman who feels attracted to a man will react.

It might perhaps be more ‘normal’-seeming for a girl to be disinterested in maths; I think ‘normality’ plays a bigger role than ‘femininity’ here. Both notions are of course gender-dependent.

The conception of normality is of course far stronger than sub-notions like femininity or masculinity or whiteness. At the risk of engaging in totalization, let me suggest that in fact these sub-notions depend on normality. Restrictive gender roles can’t live without a sense of social conformity that tells men to act like men and women to act like women.

One continual source of frustration for progressive activists is their total inability to combat conformity. Martin Luther King talked about judging people by the content of their character, but all he managed to do was remove skin color from the long list of superficial bases of judgment. In post-1960s America, people are still judged by their clothes and manner of speech and height and weight (though, to be fair, the 1960s also ushered in greater tolerance for subcultures than before).

Similarly, gay marriage is a good way to advance equal rights for gays and lesbians, but the libertarians, liberals, and radical leftists who are hoping to see the state stop enforcing its model of marriage on people are going to be disappointed. Like interracial marriage before it, single-sex marriage will not change anything about marriage, except remove one specific restriction. In 30 years, polyamorists will be rebuked, “Marriage is between only two people.”

This all-encompassing conformity is of course strongest outside these social battles. Take the standard modern Western view of gender relations, which illustrates just how complicated things are. What’s considered normal dragoons people to choose an archetype within their accepted gender role and stick to it.

Traditionally, men are expected to be strong and sporty and tough and have the same range of emotions as a clownfish; women are expected to be sexless before marriage and subservient and sexually submissive after. Nowadays, men are supposed to have a sensitive side they can switch on and off at will – Jack Bauer is not a John Wayne character – while women can choose between subservient femininity and ultra-masculinity. Naturally, subcultures and uncommon attributes like homosexuality and geekdom complicate things further.

Now, let’s apply that notion to women in math. This being 2007 rather than 1907, a 14-year-old girl with interest in math has a few rolemodels, both historical and contemporary, and knows that it’s possible for women to do math. But since math is so immersed in geek culture in the West, she may well be inclined to do something else if she doesn’t have a geeky personality.

This applies to both boys and girls, but ends up disadvantaging girls more. First, current geek culture is less gender-neutral than it would like to believe it is. If Gary Gygax had developed D&D for a female or even mixed target audience, he’d have built it with a more developed social interaction system and a less developed combat system.

Second, there’s a self-perpetuating myth that men can be mathematicians without sacrificing other interests while women can’t. In a culture that discourages women from doing math, the only women willing to overcome cultural expectations will be insanely dedicated to the point of having no other interests. That will only reinofrce the notion that math is somehow abnormal for women, perpetuating the cultural discouragement. This is essentially the intersection of social normality with the problem of rolemodels.

And third, the current construction of masculinity has a 1940s/50s Hollywood kernel with some modifications from the 60s and 70s. Since there have always been high-profile male mathematicians and scientists, there has been plenty of time to cultivate a properly masculine appreciation of science. The current model is one of the scientist or the mathematician as a conqueror or an explorer in uncharted territory. This has little to do with how math and science are actually done, but it’s romantic enough that people believe it. That way, men can be mathematicians without losing their gender-dependent normality, while women can’t.

For sure, this is a very gross simplification. I was ostracized for years for reading encyclopedias in my free time and being both good at and interested in math. But I had a support group of fellow (male) geeks, whereas the only girl in my class who was that geeky was kept out of our group even more so than the genuinely mentally disturbed male computer whiz.

Expectations of social normality affect everyone, but they always affect the marginalized the most. Women, and probably minorities and the poor as well, have to spend a large amount of the cultural equivalent of political capital to be taken seriously even if they have no special quirks, such as a love of mathematics. The best analogy here might be law school student loans, which indebt everyone but cripple people who had to take loans to pay for college.

Abstinence-Only Education Reaches New Lows

February 15, 2007

Amanda has a really good post about a variety of things, from the importance of abortion to flip-flopping to sex education. On sex education, she quotes a Washington Post article by Marc Fisher that documents just how disgusting abstinence-only education can get. Says Fisher,

In the matter of the “gum game” — the yucky attempt in Montgomery County schools to impress upon teenagers the dangers of sexual promiscuity by asking them to share a piece of gum — all involved now appear to be appalled at themselves.

The idea that abstinence is the solution to such social ills as teenage pregnancy is based more on ideology than on facts. Of all developed countries for which data is available (p. 15 in the PDF), Poland has the least promiscuous teenagers, followed by Portugal. But out of 28 countries for which teen birth data is available, Portugal has the seventh highest teen birth rate and Poland has the ninth. English-speaking countries overall do the worst; dropping them, Portugal becomes fourth out of 23 and Poland becomes fifth.

In the US, research into abstinence-only education shows that its effects on STDs are not statistically significant. The Heritage Foundation tried weaseling out of it by saying that the research showed teens who pledged abstinence had lower rates of STD infections than teens who didn’t, but the research did in fact show that the difference isn’t statistically significant.

And, note, pledges are supposed to be the most benign and effective form of abstinence promotion. Scare campaigns don’t generally work; politically they’re disastrous – just ask Jerry Kilgore – while in marketing and in social promotion, they just fail to produce results. The anti-drug scare campaigns that permeate schools have after all failed to curb drug abuse.

And here’s the full text submitted about another favorite exercise that won’t be used anymore: “Exlax game.”

In this game, students were handed squares of Hershey’s chocolate, but before they popped the candy, they were told that a few kids had instead received Ex-Lax laxatives. Still want to eat it? Few did, and, in fact, Tierney assures me that although this exercise “really freaks them out,” it is only a mind game designed to drive home the idea of random risk — no laxatives were distributed to students.

So, if it’s not about results, what is it about? The obvious answer – sexual control and prudishness – is only partially correct. The organization that organized those games was a conservative group that the school system outsourced sex education to, so we can assume its motives are the same as those of the uderlying conservative pro-life movement.

Saying that this total opposition to birth control is due to sexual control is of course consistent with opposition to abortion. But it’s not the only thing that’s consistent. Modern conservatism is anti-pragmatic on everything: on foreign policy it would rather breed enemies than talk to enemies, on economics it would rather kick people off welfare rolls than offer retraining to reduce the need for welfare, on interrogations it would rather torture terrorists than get them to produce good intelligence, and on abortion it would rather ban abortion than offer good sex education.

That’s how opposition to stem cell research, which has nothing to do with sexual control, ties in. The route from a pro-life belief that embryos are people to opposing stem cell research is very short. It’s very much what the Political Survey defines as the pragmatic/idealist dimension of politics.

So it’s likely that sex education and birth control are tagged with the same association to abortion. Pro-lifers have set up what they believe to be the culture of life, defined by fetal and embryonic personhood, and immutable moral codes overruling practical considerations. In contrast, it says, pro-choicers have a contraceptive mentality. In that framework, abortion, contraception, and sex education are all symptoms of the same problem.

Factual and Normative Statements

February 11, 2007

Lynet, who’s just started blogging at Elliptica, talks about the distinction between personal and political feminism. She also makes the incisive observation about standards of masculinity and femininity,

[Link] On some level, I want to be feminine. That is to say, I want to identify as a woman, want to count as a genuine member of my sex. It’s a matter of identity. I think most people feel this way about their gender. As a result, statements of the form “Men are usually…” or “It is feminine to…” are almost never able to be nothing more than statements about the way men or women are. Inevitably, they end up containing some idea that this is the way men or women ought to be.

This means that when people make entirely scientific statements about women, on average, scoring less than men on maths tests (or having a smaller sexual appetite, or whatever) I find it hard to believe that someone, somewhere, is not taking that as a normative statement; a statement about what they should do to fit in with their treasured identity. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t do these studies, or report what they find, but I think it’s important that people consider what they are playing with when they make gender statements. They are not to be made lightly or without basis.

First, let me get the personal identity stuff out of the way: I think identities are for other people. Other people are free to box me as 18, male, atheist, Israeli-born, white, and so on. My own behavior has nothing to do with those, except for the trivial things (I pee standing up, don’t go to any house of worship, etc.).

More to the point, Lynet is entirely right. Statements about gender essentialism are almost never meant as “is” statements, and infrequently meant as “seems” statements. Relationships books that try emphasizing that men and women are from different planets tend to boil down to, “In mainstream culture, men and women are encouraged to act in different but equally irrational ways, and it’s perfectly fine.”

Worse, “Men are…” statements always carry a very strong “and should be” flavor. Any male who doesn’t conform to those statements is automatically branded not a real man, with all the accompanying stereotypes.

It’s somewhat more complicated for females and “Women are…” statements, but Lynet’s basic point about wanting to be feminine holds. Women who choose not to be feminine are immediately thrown into one of several very limiting boxes: the whore, the tomboy, the hyper-aggressive corporate executive, the Lucy Liu character.

Psychologically, these statements are very damaging. They’ve gotten to the point that merely asking female testtakers to fill in an oval for gender before a math test will hamper their performance. An individual woman may escape that stereotype threat, just like an individual may choose to receive a non-mandatory vaccination; but from the perspectives of public education and public health, both stereotype threats and voluntary vaccinations are disasters.

There’s an entirely different class of essentialist statements, that of normative statements that pretend to be factual. The entire notion that women are worse than men at math boils down to shoddy research nobody would’ve taken seriously but for a burning desire to tell women to stick to cooking.

There aren’t that many factual statements about gender differences that aren’t trivial (“very few men can lactate”). Cognitively, males’ better spatial perception appears to have no consequences outside tests that ask people to mentally rotate shapes. Females’ better verbal perception has serious consequences concerning language change, but unless you’re a sociolinguist or a feminist activist concerned with control of language, you don’t need to ever know that.

And even so, people don’t usually make those statements without some social justification in mind. I’ve yet to see a single person who thinks females are underrepresented in science for biological reasons say that by the same token, women should be 80% of the average linguistics department.

The Blank Slate and Other Phantom Theories

January 29, 2007

I keep posting my 3QD columns increasingly late. My most recent one, about Pinker’s The Blank Slate and the inconsistencies between how it portrays the world and how the world actually is, was up only at 8:42 pm even though we’re supposed to have them up and running by midnight between Sunday and Monday.

The most important one liner from the entire post is in my opinion, “The truth is never oppressive” – or, in its fuller version, “the truth, or what a reasonable person would believe to be the truth, is never oppressive.” I then show that on the contrary, the views Pinker holds about gender and apologizes for about race fail any scientific reasonable-person standard.

The spine of the article is four paragraphs about a third of the way through, including that one liner.

The relationship between Pinker and Lewontin is an interesting one. Pinker notes that although Lewontin claims that he thinks the dominant force in evolution is the interaction between gene, organism, and environment, in terms of social implications he ignores everything but environment. On that Pinker is certainly right: Biology as Ideology is an anti-science polemic that distorts facts to fit Lewontin’s agenda (my take on Lewontin was subsequently debated in length here). However, Pinker commits the same transgression: he says he believes in the sensible moderate view that human behavior is determined by both inborn and environmental factors, and goes on to not only ignore the implications of the environmental part but also defend racists and sexists who have used pseudoscience as cover.

For instance, he starts by ridiculing people who called Richard Herrnstein a racist for a 1970 paper about intelligence and heredity. Although the paper as Pinker describes it is not racist per se, Herrnstein was indeed a racist. The screed he published with Charles Murray in 1994, The Bell Curve, is not only wrong, but also obviously wrong. Even in 1994, there were metastudies about race and intelligence that showed that the IQ gap disappears once one properly controls for environmental factors, for example by considering the IQ scores of children born to single mothers in Germany by American fathers in World War Two.

The truth, or what a reasonable person would believe to be the truth, is never oppressive. If there is indeed an innate component to the racial IQ gap, or to the gender math score gap, then it’s not racist or sexist to write about it. It remains so even if the innate component does not exist, but the researcher has solid grounds to believe it does.

However, Murray and Herrnstein had no such solid grounds. They could quote a few studies proving their point, but when researchers publish many studies about the same phenomenon, some studies are bound to detect statistically significant effects that do not exist. By selectively choosing one’s references, one can show that liberals are morally superior or morally inferior to conservatives, or that socialism is more successful or less successful than capitalism. At times there are seminal studies, which do not require any further metastudy. There weren’t any in 1994, while existing metastudies suggested that the racial IQ gap was entirely environmental. As I will describe below, the one seminal study [link added] done in 2003 moots not only Murray and Herrnstein’s entire argument but also much of Pinker’s.

As in my other scathing book reviews, there are some parts I would’ve liked to rebut but couldn’t without breaking the article’s flow. Things that would’ve made it into the post if I’d written it in bullet point format include,

1. Pinker’s scare campaign around Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. Hardly anyone cares for them anymore, especially for Dworkin. Even Brownmiller felt the need to compare Dworkin’s speeches to revival tents in a paragraph praising Dworkin’s passion.

2. The general use of abstract moral principles against social movements. Proponents of torture advise opponents of torture to speak only in moral terms and ignore the fact that torture is ineffective; sexists advise feminists to only attack obvious discrimination and ignore the fact that men and women are cognitively nearly identical.

3. The reemergence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, largely due to the discovery of the Pirahã’s inability to master basic counting. Chomsky’s transformtional grammar is the only serious challenge to Lockean empiricism, which Pinker tars by associating it with the phantom theory that is the blank slate.

4. Relational models. Pinker quotes Alan Fiske’s theory of four relational models – market pricing, communal sharing, equality matching, and authority ranking – and claims that equality matching is the most common to support his claims. In fact there’s no criterion that can determine which is more common; for what it’s worth, equality matching is the weirdest of the four in some precise ways.

5. The Larry Summers controversy, in which Pinker defended the assertion that women are innately worse at math than men. There’s no obvious EP-derived hypothesis why it should be so, and even if there were, it would fail to conform to reality, since women can and often are as good at math as men. Feminist activism has changed a lot; Columbia’s progressed from having its first female Ph.D. student in math 20 years ago to having a 50-50 incoming class this year.

6. Education. I have no idea where Kim Gandy’s getting her numbers from when she says boys and girls are 99% identical in learning, but the basic point that the differences in cognition are small is right. Stentor has a link to the relevant research somewhere in his archives. I allude to this point in the post, but don’t explicitly mention this research.

Why Science is Important

January 29, 2007

A thread on Feministing that degenerated into a series of dumb arguments against Ashley’s growth stunting reminded me just how important it is to argue from science, or facts in general, rather than personal experience.

It’s very attractive to argue from personal experience. It’s your own safe space, which no hierarchist can deny. When you’re sure you’re right, it immunizes you against having to defend yourself to people who just don’t get it. Unfortunately, it also immunizes you against being able to make any headway with people who don’t already agree with you.

Everyone has personal experiences. But the experiences that make it to the mainstream are those of people who are connected in some way. The personal experience of a President or Prime Minister matters more than this of a member of Congress or Parliament, which matters more than this of someone who is merely connected to a politician, which matters more than this of a plebian.

Unsurprisingly, social movements that are based on members’ personal experience fail. Feminism that’s based on personal experience is doomed, because when a woman’s personal experience conflicts with a man’s, absent any evidence the man’s experience will be favored.

In contrast, science is by and large objective. For all the stories of systematic bias, the scientific community has only had two or three cases of lingering bias: early anthropology, eugenics, and maybe psychanalysis. It’s been wrong a few more times, but given that the only methodology with a better batting average than the scientific one is the mathematical one, which isn’t generalizable to most real world questions, attacking science for having been wrong has no merit.

The center and the right successfully characterized the left as all about good feeling for decades. Heart-wrenching moral arguments rarely work in politics. The last time they did in the US was when MLK was fighting segregation. Even MLK couldn’t apply the same organizing strategy that had worked in the South to poverty in Chicago.

In the last forty years, the social movements that have done any good were those based on empirical data. Even within the same movement, battles that were based on empirical data succeeded, whereas those that were based on personal experience failed. Feminists could get extensive anti-discrimination laws on the books, but personal stories of sexual harassment never went anywhere. They could pass laws against domestic violence and strengthen laws against rape, but they could never get criminologists or police departments to apply feminist theories to rape reduction.

As I’m fond of saying, a safe space is a powerless space. Serious political activism requires getting into the mainstream space and working from there. And that requires showing that you have strong enough a case to be allowed in. If it weren’t an excruciating process with fewer successes than you think you deserve, Bismarck wouldn’t analogize it to making sausages.

Science Versus Non-Science

January 27, 2007

Olvlzl joins many pundits in falling flat on his face when trying to attack Dawkins’ book. He invokes the usual equivocation of scientific knowledge with theology, failing to note that the two are entirely inequivalent. He also proves my point about religion in the media, which his post partly inspired, in factlessly suggesting memetics could lead to restrictions on free speech.

Not making any apologies here: non-scientific knowledge doesn’t have and shouldn’t have the same respectability as scientific knowledge. Why should it? The most advanced social sciences, psychology and economics, are at about the same point physics was in 1650. Less advanced ones have barely, or not even, gotten to the acceptance of Copernican astronomy. Theology and critical theory aren’t even up to Roger Bacon’s standards, and probably never will be.

In 2007, I say that the rational layperson must accept scientific authority on issues such as physics, climatology, evolutionary biology, medicine, and chemistry. In 1707 or even 1807, I wouldn’t; I’d instead say that a rational person must educate himself in natural philosophy and form his own opinions.

Likewise, disciplines that are as intricate as the natural sciences were in the 18th century aren’t subject to the same tyranny of peer review. There’s a wide body of knowledge about economics today, just as there was a wide body of knowledge about biology in 1820. Many people recognized the fact of evolution, though they couldn’t adequately explain it. Linnean taxonomy had been standard for decades. Malthus had already published his essays on population, although they still hadn’t gained wide acceptance.

Paul Krugman wrote, “Economics is harder than physics; luckily it is not quite as hard as sociology.” I’d put biology somewhere between physics and economics, since its first serious overarching theory was developed in the 1830s (economics has never had anything so rigorous as Darwinism; at best, it’s where biology was just before Darwin).

Not coincidentally, a reasonably educated layperson can be completely up to date about the main ideas of economics and the evidence for and against them. It wouldn’t be enough knowledge for setting interest rates, but it would be enough for evaluating major proposals in fiscal policy or development economics.

And that’s one of the two most advanced social sciences. Economists and psychologists keep looking up to physicists, but they already sit fairly close to the academic tower’s top. In contrast, theologians, who have yet to produce even one non-trivial truth, sit in its basement.

What the people who attack Dawkins for not knowing about theology miss is that theology isn’t even non-science; it’s non-knowledge. It’s so detached from reality and so useless that it’s as relevant even to a debate about religion as is Pokémon mythology. Dismissing it out of hand is one of the few things Dawkins gets right.

Ironically, the best criticism of the book is the one that goes the other way: why does Dawkins spend so much time attacking intellectual gnats, instead of writing something intelligent about the politics of religion? The most annoying thing about people like Dawkins and Harris is their inability to get beyond totalizing religion. Dismissing theology is good, but the entire point of such a dismissal is to avoid having to spend time on unproductive discussions about religion.

Teaching Math by Discovery

January 27, 2007

Robert and Ellen Kaplan’s latest, Out of the Labyrinth, describes the joys of pure discovery learning as applied to mathematics. The current system emphasizes the power of aptitude and centers around a slow accumulation of knowledge that takes place over 12 years. Instead, they recommend their own Math Circle, where children who were not screened for prior knowledge or aptitude are nonetheless caused to invent irrational numbers at the age of 5.

Most of the middle of the book is theoretical and explains analogies for math learning; as is the usual for books that weave together theory and practice, the theory can be safely skipped. The important parts of the book are the parts at the beginning that explain the setup of the Math Circle, the chapters on the problems with aptitude-based teaching, and the chapters toward the end about math curricula.

Chapter Three, “The Myth of Talent,” advocates ideas interesting and enlightening enough that it could be expanded into several books. The Kaplans don’t quite claim that all people are equally talented at math, which would be just plain wrong. Instead, they show how the American educational system emphasizes aptitude too much.

Much later in the book, they write about stereotype threats, which cause women (and minorities) to perform worse on tests when they’re told that women (or minorities) perform worse than men (or white people). I’ve heard that this research has been generalized to tiered learning: students in general perform at about the level they’re expected to, so that tiering causes lower-ranked students to underperform.

For sure, the USA’s problems in math education aren’t purely the result of fourth-grade aptitude tests. Singaporeans are segregated into tiers beginning in first grade and into different schools beginning in seventh, and yet routinely get the highest TIMSS scores in the world. The difference is mainly that Singaporean students are told, “You’re a failure, so you have to study hard,” which reduces performance less than the American version, “You’re a failure, so math is too hard for you and you needn’t care about it.”

So it’s partly cultural. However, the educational system can’t change culture, so focusing on telling people that test scores say very little about mathematical talent and deemphasizing standardized tests early on will work better. The Kaplans don’t talk about that entirely, but it’s the natural conclusion one draws from reading Chapter Three.

The Math Circle is designed to counter that problem. It’s not selective, although there’s a limited element of self-selection among its students. It stimulates discussions among students, which then promote the (re)discovery of mathematical facts, such as the existence of irrational numbers. It gets students to think for themselves, thereby reaching proofs of theorems on their own. And it has no tests or graded assignments.

Once the foundation of that is laid down, the instruction proceeds extremely rapidly; a whole topic takes ten weeks to cover. Among the list of topics for children ages 14 to 18 is algebraic geometry, which is usually only taught in the first year of graduate school to students repeatedly selected for interest in and talent for math.

Although within each topic the instruction is fairly linear, in general the topics don’t really depend on earlier topics. This counters the problem in traditional education, wherein students who have a problem with one area of instruction can’t keep up afterward.

Where the book’s thesis breaks down is toward the end, where the Kaplans generalize from their overwhelmingly positive experience with the Math Circle to general curricula. Standardized curricula are designed to be “Teacher-proof,” they say, requiring teachers to teach to the national average rather than to the class. Direct instruction should be replaced with more discovery, they imply.

One of the main problems with current education is that it’s developed and evaluated by teachers, who by and large were diligent A students in school. Not surprisingly, the system works well for diligent A students. Everyone else – creatives, uninterested students, students with specialized interests, B-F students – gets shafted.

Likewise, one of the main problems with educational reformers is that by and large they’re extraordinary teachers. Attempts to use the Math Circle’s principles in a normal classroom setting routinely confound most teachers.

Michel Thomas could teach people a language in a week – or at least make them believe they knew the language after a week, considering his record of creativity with the truth. He never explained how his system works, even when UCLA contacted him in order to use his method to teach their language courses. When it was finally reverse-engineered and fitted for use in a classroom setting, it no longer performed any better than other intensive language courses.

The same principle applies to discovery learning. In science education, studies have shown that direct instruction is superior to discovery learning in teaching not only scientific facts but also experiment design. In math education, American schools are increasingly using discovery learning hand in hand with overemphasis on calculators, without any improvement in results.

In other words, the Kaplans can make students excited about mathematics when they teach by discovery. The other couple hundred thousand math teachers evidently can’t. Not surprisingly, in low-income schools, which aren’t under immense pressure from parents to be decent, teacher-proof methods increase test scores.

It’s neither obvious nor shown in the book that the Math Circle requires discovery learning to be successful. For all I know, an equally enthusiastic teacher with a different teaching philosophy could achieve the same results by proving theorems on the blackboard and only asking students to think of ways of generalizing the results or the method of proof.

Not surprisingly, the apparent rarity of teachers who can teach in ways similar to those of the Math Circle is why application to schools is so limited. In elementary school, I had a series of classes that were supposed to teach creative thinking and worked in ways that were similar to the Math Circle. But I only had access to those classes because I was in a gifted class, which got perks other classes didn’t.

It’s entirely possible sending the same teachers to more classes but at less frequent intervals, or at the same frequency but to a regular class, would’ve helped even more. But there were neither the funds nor the number of teachers required for universal coverage, so instead, the city allocated these enrichment programs to just one class.

Implementing the easy reforms, such as making math classes less calculator-dependent, is likely to only make math education less dismal. Something more fundamental is needed to make it satisfactory, let alone good. And by all means, experimenting is good, as is supporting good enrichment programs like the Math Circle. Getting children excited about what the school system turns them off of is always a positive thing. But the Math Circle’s principles are as generalizable to the school system as the USA’s victory in Korea was to Vietnam.

Dreadful Links

January 20, 2007

Just Dreadful is quickly becoming my favorite stop on the blogosphere, so it gets first few links of this edition.

Jenny expands on Dinesh D’Souza’s delineation of the difference between liberals and Islamists. In an interview on Townhall, D’Souza complains that although liberals are the “polar opposites” of Islamists, they don’t support killing large numbers of innocent people in order to destroy a regime that had nothing to do with Islamism. Jenny translates

So, one wants to impose its fundamentalist ideals on everyone, and the other wants to let people decide for themselves who to marry and when to have children.


So, even though the “cultural left” opposes fundamentalist extremism, they won’t get behind the invasion of a secular country that had nothing to do with 9-11? WTF? And as if that weren’t bad enough, they’re also against the erosion of our civil liberties, warantless wire-tapping, and other war-mongering activities!

Jessica notes that female athletes are paid horrendously little, anti-discrimination laws or no anti-discrimination laws. In the US, the situation got so bad that female soccer players went on strike. She explains,

We don’t hear much about female athletes, and if we hear anything about them at all, we only hear about tennis, golf, soccer, basketball and boxing. For the most part. Soccer is my thing, so that’s what’s up with all the soccer posts. What I say about soccer you can apply to almost any sport in which women compete (or try to compete) professionally. The US women’s national soccer team was one of the best in the world, yet becuase of a lack of funding, there is no longer a women’s major league (it used to be the WUSA). Yeah we can argue that Americans just don’t care about soccer, except for the fact that David Beckham is getting paid $1 million a week to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy.

Women always do the least appreciated jobs. It goes both ways: jobs that become predominantly female, as secretarial work did early last century, become underappreciated, and jobs that are underappreciated can become predominantly female. Globally, soccer is very popular, so it’s reserved for men, but in the US men play baseball and football. Now that Americans start caring about soccer, as seen in the Beckham situation, it’s likely American female soccer players will get shafted even more.

Jessica also rants about parents who want to genetically ensure their children are disabled. CNN quotes Slate as saying, “Old fear: designer babies. New fear: deformer babies.”

Ok, so parents want thier kid to look like them and be able to relate to them, but do they realize what the hell they are doing? As kids, they (the parents) probably had to endure teasing, feeling out of place, ect. And now they want to force that on thier child? I don’t know about you, but if I grew up constantly feeling out of place and being taunted and came to find out that my parents were responsable for all of that, I would be pretty damn pissed.

My own take on it is that disability isn’t race. It’s not something to be normalized; it’s a medical condition to be fought. Parents who overdose on identity politics and deliberately cripple their children are no different from parents who overdose on religion and chain their children to their bed until they repent.

Moving on to other blogs, Stentor quotes an ABA article on the problems ex-convicts face in the US.

There’s a nice — albeit too short — article (“Run-on Sentences”) about “collateral consequences” of being convicted (or sometimes just charged) with a crime.

By and large, people with felony convictions are banned from enlisting in the U.S. military. Fifteen states bar convicted drug offenders from recieving welfare or food stamps. In various states, people with convictions are excluded from public housing, barred from recieving educational loans, and denied driver’s licenses. In New York, for instance, a man who had learned to cut hair in prison was denied a barber’s license when he got out.


What’s more, if you’re one of those crazy people who think that the goal of the criminal justice system should be to reduce crime, these “collateral consequences” make no sense. It’s absurd to hold a strict “personality trait” theory of crime (that crime is solely the result of the perpetrator’s internal dispositions). Yet any theory that allows for situational influences would have to admit that taking away opportunities for a person to become better integrated into, and invested in, society will tend to increase crime.

Ann writes about maternity centers, where conservatives send unmarried women who get pregnant to give birth, give up the baby forever, and return to normal society.

So you know how, in the pre-Roe years, young women who found themselves with unwanted pregnancies were often sent away by their parents to deliver their babies in maternity homes?

Well, these homes still exist. And on Tuesday, three pregnant teens staged a jailbreak from the New Hope Maternity Center in rural Utah. They hit the director of the home with a frying pan, tied him up with electrical cords, and made off in a stolen van. Whoa. I know they’re “troubled teens,” and I’m not trying to justify their violent behavior, but things must have been pretty bad for them to resort to these tactics.

Jason Rosenhouse of EvolutionBlog is looking for math blogs. Many of the blogs listed appeared in my old “Where are all the math blogs?” post, but some don’t – Growth Rate n lg n, The n-Category Café, Recursivity, and Antopology, in particular.

Shnakepup, who was kind enough to whore my blog on EvolutionBlog, has a good post about Weinberg’s review of Dawkins’ book. The bone of contention is that Weinberg said scientists should be allowed to comment on philosophy and religion, and John Lynch said it was no better than theologians’ commenting on science. Says Shnakepup,

I’d like John to explain to me exactly how scientific expertise is qualitatively equal to non-scientific expertise.

In order for this to be true, one must assume that all forms of expertise are equal. Would my expertise in, say, the union attendance contracts at my job be qualitatively equal to, say, PZ’s Ph.D. in Biology? I would hope not.

Speaking of Growth Rate n lg n, Tyler assails the traditional American method of teaching math, which is very atomistic with classes specializing in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, etc.

The way mathematical concepts are communicated is fundamentally hierarchical. We teach it in a way that gives the impression that you have subjects with a successive level of difficulty. You start with arithmetic, move up to elementary algebra, then to geometry, then to more advanced algebraic concepts. Then the smarter kids who specialize in math move on to super advanced subjects like trigonometry, calculus and statistics. The kicker is this: I think this hierarchical communication of math is bad idea, and we should find a better way to do it.

The first problem with the hierarchy implicit in the method I described above is that it is entirely mythical. It is actually counter-intuitive to non-math students when I say that, overall, I find proofs in calculus and analytic geometry to be far easier than proofs in abstract algebra, which in turn I find overall a bit easier than problems in combinatorial logic (when they have any idea what the latter is). These misconceptions exist because math concepts were taught to them in a way conveyed the idea that algebra was an intermediate step between common arithmetic and advanced concepts like calculus and statistics. They would be highly surprised to learn that many of the problems in higher arithmetic are enough of a pain in the ass to make abstract algebra look like child’s play. Consider the quandary presented by Fermat’s last theorem:

Lindsay explains why she has absolutely no problem with Pelosi’s embrace of motherhood politics: politicians always project an image to help themselves get elected and stay popular.

On a gut level, I’m not crazy about the mommy schtick. Yet, as a feminist and a partisan Democrat, I’m not going to complain. As Amanda argued several week ago, Nancy Pelosi’s in-your-face parenthood seems to be reaching a lot of women who might otherwise feel alienated by Democrats.

Electoral politics is about symbolism, not syllogism. It’s like the Village People. Everyone needs a character.

Gordo writes about the United States’ gloriously anti-authoritarian Attorney General:

I wasn’t going to post anything this weekend, because my friend’s computer is difficult for me to work with, and because I don’t have much online time while I’m here in Portland, but I just have to comment on this video of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’ testimony. In it, Gonzales says that the Constitution doesn’t guarantee the right of habeas corpus to individual Americans.

That’s the right the right to demand that the government present evidence before locking you up.

If you’re not reading Appletree, you don’t know what you’re missing. Even though Gordo’s not posting that much lately, the discussion threads there tend to be livelier than here. There’s even a very thoughtful conservative regular, Dana of Common Sense Political Thought.

The Assumption of Equality

January 20, 2007

I promise I’m going to review Pinker’s The Blank Slate sometime soon – if I read enough background material and feel brave enough to skewer the guy on a blog he reads, I’ll do that on the 29th on 3QD – but now I’ll just focus on one point of his, the assumption of equality.

Feminists, he says, don’t need to assume that men and women are equal in any way. All they need is to do things like send identical resumés to firms and see if there’s systematic bias in hiring. But mere imbalances in pay or the number of women should not be taken as evidence of discrimination in themselves, because they could be due to things other than discrimination.

In fact, the assumption of equality is crucial. The studies that show systematic bias in hiring can never implicate a single employer. In the seminal study on racial discrimination in hiring in the US, each employer was sent four resumés, two for each race. Sending any more was impossible due to strict controls on the content of each resumé. Overall, the basic result was significant at a p-value of 0 to four decimal places, but for an individual employer, it could never be lower than 0.25.

Update: in the comments, Bruce explains the definition of a p-value to the lay reader. The p-value is the probability of getting a result at least as extreme as the one in the experiment. If you toss four coins and all four are heads, then the p-value is 1/16, since no result is more extreme than all-heads. But if you get three heads, the p-value isn’t the probability of getting three heads, 1/4, but the probability of getting at least three heads, 5/16.

More detailed studies within the same employer could in principle discern discrimination, but even then it’s impossible to finger specific culprits. Fingering specific culprits isn’t necessary if all we want to learn is how much discrimination there is, but is critical if we want to enforce anti-discrimination laws.

For a concrete example, take a big law firm that hires eight lawyers every year. Let’s say that the talent pool consists of all graduates of top 10 law schools, who are 50% female. Let’s also say that there’s systematic discrimination in hiring, so that only 20% of all people hired are women. Looking at the firm’s hiring pattern over the last ten years will quickly confirm that, since there will be 16 women and 64 men hired, which is significant with a p-value of 0.00000003.

Now, thanks to a large pile of research in sociology, psychology, and economics, we can be reasonably certain that it’s not because women are just bad lawyers. We could even look at class performance, and conclude that indeed women are as qualified as men, which allows us to conclude said firm is violating equal rights laws.

Then we could impose a quota, say 6 women over the next two years (which has a p-value of 0.23; 5 would have 0.11); ordinarily quotas should give more leeway, say a p-value of 0.05, but when the discrimination is obvious and blatant, a more stringent quota is in order.

Without research telling us that the assumption of equality is correct, we could never correct such cases. In a single year, hiring 2 women out of 8 is insignificant, with p = 0.14. Even sending matched resumés over several years wouldn’t help. To avoid making the firm suspicious, we’d have to limit ourselves to, say, two of each gender in each year.

If 20% of people hired are female, we need 8 or 9 successful applications, or callbacks (assuming the bottleneck is in callbacks rather than interview results), to get a p-value under 0.1, and 11 or 12 to get a value under 0.05. A hiring or callback rate of one in four means it will take 11-12 years of tracking to discover the discrimination; a rate of one in ten means it will take almost 30. In other words, it makes equal rights laws toothless.

In contrast, once we establish that the assumption of equality makes sense, we could get a p-value under 0.05 in two years, and under 0.005 in three. The lower the p-value, the easier it is to build a case against the firm, and the more it makes sense to impose more stringent quotas, which rectify the problem sooner.

There are also entirely different avenues of discrimination, which become entirely invisible without the assumption:

First, there are ostensibly neutral standards, like fireman exams that emphasize physical toughness more than is needed on the job. Minneapolis’s fire department got better after its first female head took the fireman exam apart and removed the parts that weren’t really necessary, but kept women out. Although the actual changes to the exam did not require any assumption, it took the heuristic that differences in results probably underlay discrimination to know that the exam might be biased.

And second, there are cultural biases. Pinker tries to argue that women are hardwired to like different things from men based on the fact that in the US at least, math departments have fewer female professors than physics departments, but it’s incredible to believe that mathematicians are more bigoted than physicists. The likeliest explanation is that the American educational system steers girls away from science and especially math, which is nigh impossible to detect with the studies Pinker promotes.

Now, you might ask, how do I know that this assumption of equality in abilities, interests, and desires holds?

The answer is, there are multiple pieces of evidence, or lack thereof. First, research into cognitive differences has failed to find any innate racial differences. Any solid ingrained difference has been traced to culture; for example, the use of Chinese characters sharpens spatial perception, which improves mathematical abilities. Eric Turkheimer disposed of the idea that the black/white IQ gap is genetic once and for all in a 2003 paper.

Innate cognitive differences between women and men do exist, but are far smaller than people like Pinker implies. The only social effect that has been reliably traced to them is the fact that young women drive language change, on account of women’s better linguistic perception. Men’s domination of the hard sciences has never been traced to any cognitive difference.

Second, international data holds biology constant while varying culture. If girls are innately less interested in math than boys, then we’d see a similar effect of female underrepresentation in math throughout the world. But in fact, this effect varies hugely by country. In the US and Japan, women are indeed grossly underrepresented in math and science. In Sweden, India, and Thailand, they’re still somewhat underrepresented, but by a margin that doesn’t even come close to the American one.

It might be that the natural level of female representation in science isn’t 50% but 40%, but given that the US is at 13%, dismissing attempts to encourage girls to explore math more as doomed social engineering is unwarranted.

With race, the proper international comparison is of dominant to oppressed groups. As Pinker notes, the IQ gap is found all over the world to correlate with ethnic inequality, even when the ethnicity isn’t defined by race. White Americans have higher IQs than black Americans, and Protestant North Irelanders have higher IQs than Catholic North Irelanders.

Third, large-scale surveys of discrimination of the kind Pinker approves of can function as pilot studies. These studies can’t implicate single employers, but can implicate industries, or trends. When every industry where there is a gender or race gap is found to engage in discrimination once an appropriate study is done, it’s safe to conclude that a firm with a large gender or race gap is guilty of sexism or racism until proven innocent.

And fourth, even when gaps are found not to result from discrimination but from a smaller talent pool, it’s almost always possible to trace the effect to sexism or racism, and seldom to innate factors. People who believe in large, socially significant cognitive differences based on gender have never been able to agree on what these social effects precisely are; in most cases, each person’s views are very close to what we’d expect to find if he were motivated by sexism rather than science.

For instance, take elections. In Canada, female candidates for Parliament are slightly less likely to win than male candidates, but the effect is statistically insignificant, with p = 0.14. There are numerous plausible sexism-based reasons why Canada’s Parliament is only 20% female: unsupportive party leaders, lack of role models, cultural expectations of male leaders, and so on. In contrast, there’s no plausible innate reason, since solid gender differences in cognition don’t include a higher male capacity for leadership.

Pinker berates Bella Abzug for insisting that equality means that women must have fifty percent representation everywhere. But that assumption of equality is exactly true. Nobody’s saying that women should comprise seventy or eighty percent of linguistics professors because of their superiority in handling language. It’s assumed that the slight difference still means the proper gender distribution is roughly fifty-fifty. By the same standard, equality means exactly proportional representation for women and minorities.

The Thinness Ideal

January 10, 2007

Samhita asks why Western beauty norms have changed lately to ever lower BMIs, and also why they are based on whiteness.

One of the most solid things about the transmission of culture is that people imitate those who are above them in the social hierarchy (note: this is vastly oversimplified). You see this with language, when pretentious Anglophones load their speech with French words, and pretentious non-Anglophones load theirs with English words.

This is why in cultures where food is scarce, plumpness is considered ideal. It signals that the woman is prosperous enough to be well fed. It’s also why Indian beauty standards prize fair skin: it traditionally indicated that the person didn’t have to work outside in the Sun.

Now, you might think that modern societies prize thinness for the same reasons less prosperous ones prize plumpness: in the age of junk food, it’s hard for the lower and lower middle classes to maintain a sub-25 BMI. This is especially true in the US, a massive exporter of culture.

This might be a contributing factor, but a) American society is too class-unconscious to have anything as explicit as that, and b) the idea that fatness is bad predates the obesity epidemic. Kids got beaten up in school for being fat in the 1950s and 60s, when a substantial fraction of American households were food insecure.

Instead, what I think contributed to it is the fat cat stereotype. The link between richness and fatness was always there, but cartoons from the robber baron era helped convince people of a link between fatness and piggish, lazy, authoritarian richness.

The best way to check that is to see when fatness began to be seen as bad – for example, when kids started to get bullied in school over this. If I’m right, this will have happened in the very early 1900s, or in the 1930s, two periods when the American poor were very class conscious.

The answer to Samhita’s race question is easier, albeit depressing. Globally, the most dominant ethnic group is Caucasians. The second most dominant and the fastest rising is East Asians. The third most dominant is South Asians. I’m fairly certain that if you look at ethnic breakdowns of lists of models, whites will be the most numerous, followed by East Asians, followed by South Asians.

This is less trivial than it sounds. There are fewer Indians than Latin Americans in the global upper class. It just so happens that most Latina models either are or look like they are of unmixed European ancestry.

So if you’re concerned about the underrepresentation of East Asians or even South Asians in beauty standards, wait 20 or 30 years. Things will look different when China and India start matching the US in their level of exportation of culture. If you’re concerned about the underrepresentation of Africans, though…

Wednesday Night Links, V. 2

January 3, 2007

(Note to Gordo: I swear I’m not trying to undercut you)

Via Winds of Change: Callimachus writes a superb post documenting the rank uselessness of the CIA. While the anti-CIA arguments I’m most familiar with come from the far left and concentrate on its atrocities in Latin America, Callimachus does a better job by focusing on its failure as an intelligence agency.

Illegal domestic spying? The CIA had been at it for decades. It’s no coincidence that most of the Watergate burglars had ties to the CIA. The agency’s 1963 manual on interrogation and the 1980s coercive techniques manual are enlightening reading for people who think this sort of thing only happens when George W. Bush is president. The latter publication’s problems were compounded by poor translation for use in Central America, where the English “neutralize” unintentionally acquired a darker sense when rendered in Spanish.(…)

The agency, using expensive, super-secret spy satellites, never could get a viable picture of Soviet military activity. Meanwhile a Defense Intelligence Agency executive named William Lee cobbled together a workable model of the Soviet military economy by augmenting the meager secret sources with perfectly unclassified books, periodicals, government documents, and newspaper clippings. After the end of the Cold War, Soviet documents affirmed the accuracy of Lee’s estimate of the Soviet military burden (about 28 percent of the USSR’s GDP in 1988) over the CIA’s (about 14 percent).

That the CIA has been engaging in domestic spying and torture for decades is the main reason I wasn’t outraged when Congress voted to retroactively legalize the abuses of Guantánamo Bay. Why should I be outraged at something that’s been standard operating procedure since the early days of the Cold War? It’s like being outraged at the shocking discovery that people get robbed.

In other news, Liz Funk wrote an exceedingly dumb article about bars that attract young women in order to boost their image among older men. The article’s bad writing, the wrong arguments about rape, the anti-feminist shibboleths, and the author’s anti-feminist history have caused the feminist blogosphere to rain torrential criticism on Funk. As usual, the one who makes sense the most is Lindsay, who manages to extract some discussion-worthy argument from the junk.

Contriving to get one subset of the clientele completely wasted isn’t in the best interests of customers or the neighborhood. People who live in club-filled New York neighborhood of Chelsea are sick of people puking on their steps because clubs keep serving wasted kids for sport.

I don’t see any problem with reasonable alcohol promotions intended to attract certain types of otherwise legal customers. (IMO, the federal laws should be changed to put 18-year-olds in the the legal drinker category, but until then, laws should be upheld in a gender-neutral fashion.)


This is big business, and club owners aren’t giving young girls free drinks out of the goodness of their hearts. So, allowing owners to flout the law in pursuit of underage female customers sends an ugly message: Male amusement is more important than public safety.

The only non-creepy thing I can say about this is that the bars I’ve gone to would’ve given me a drink if I’d asked for one. That said, although I think it’s good that puritan age limits are not enforced in New York, selective enforcement is worse than both no enforcement and universal enforcement.

Ann notes that anti-choicers are turning to infighting between the more extreme faction that harasses women and argues with ten times enlarged pictures of 18-week-old fetuses, and the more moderate faction that couches its position in pro-woman rhetoric.

And while we’re back to talking about South Dakota, it’s worth mentioning this item from the Christian press in which prominent anti-choicer Leslee Unruh admits that during the campaign she faced more harassment from hardline “pro-lifers” than from pro-choicers.

“When you’re running a pro-life campaign the last thing you need is pro-lifers who have a different strategy and won’t respect the people in the state,” Unruh said.”The pro-life community can’t continue to do this,” she added. “When someone works as hard as I have for 22 years, the outside pro-lifers coming in and bringing trucks and (bringing) anger and hate—that affects the community.”

The Obesity Epidemic

January 3, 2007

Rod asks why Americans have off-the-charts obesity rates and concludes that the main reasons have to do with poverty. In particular, healthy food costs a lot more than unhealthy food, so low-income Americans eat junk food to be able to pay for rent and health insurance.

I remember that when I lived in the US, I was shocked to notice how much more expensive fruit and vegetables were. One kilo of oreos costs less than a kilo of grapes! Very weird! At the time I thought that the price discrepancy was due to the fact that I was living in Pasadena (a fairly wealthy city in Southern California). To make it worse, I had no car (how “European” of me!) and no bike, so I had to walk to the super market… and of course I walked to the nearest one, which was at the “boundary line” (aka: East California Blvd.) dividing Pasadena and San Marino (another wealthy city, so I was told), and therefore I was paying a sort of “tax” for shopping in a fancy neighborhood. I didn’t really have a choice. There was a fruit and vegetables market in Pasadena, every Sunday or so, but it was a bit far (5 miles is a bit far when you have to walk). STILL, I can’t live without a regular intake of grapes, peaches and apples, so I didn’t care much about paying the so-called “tax” for fruit and vegetables.

HOWEVER, it was shocking to realize that in the campus dining hall where I usually had lunch a small fruit-salad bowl could cost 5 bucks! 5 bucks! “The whole world has gone insane!”, I must have thought at the time, “a pizza costs pretty much the same as a fruit-salad bowl? And a greasy burger costs less than that? Weird!” How come a fruit-salad bowl costs THAT much!? The only possible explanation I could find was that fruit was considered a luxury “good”, and therefore its price was greatly inflated. This would have been even more shocking for a Brazilian, since that in Brazil fruit and vegetables are, in general, much better quality than in Europe (fruit is, at least), and they’re also ridiculously cheap indeed! I remember that a Brazilian friend of mine, a great guy from Rio, would go to the “fruit and vegetables” Pasadena market every Sunday, and he brought loads and loads of stuff. He had a bike, you see…

There are several reasons why healthy food is hard to find in the United States for most people. First, as Rod notes, walking distances to grocery stores are outrageous outside very compact cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco. In these cities, where it’s relatively easy to get to grocery stores and with them non-crap food, obesity rates are barely above French or Italian levels (in New York they’re slightly below US average, but in Manhattan they’re far below).

For further evidence that this matters, look at patterns of which areas have the most obesity. In Canada, obesity is highest in rural areas and lowest in large metropolitan areas. In the Southern US, where cities have far higher poverty rates and are more car-dependent, obesity is lowest in the suburbs and equally high in cities and rural areas. Moreover, in the US more liberal states, which tend to be slightly more pedestrian-friendly, tend to have lower obesity rates than more conservative states.

There are two more problems that likely contribute to the USA’s insane obesity rate, of which one is again related to the price of fruit. Almost every developed country heavily subsidizes its agriculture; however, while Europe and Japan subsidize a wide variety of crops, the US concentrates on giving aid to corn, which is why its corn production is off the charts.

Since Americans can’t actually eat 280 million tons of corn annually, even when they feed excess yields to animals, American agribusinesses look for creative ways to dump corn wherever possible – for example, by replacing sugar with corn syrup in coke. Corn syrup isn’t any more healthy or tasty, but Uncle Sam foots the bill for it. If it were possible to load fruit and vegetables with excess corn, they’d be cheap, too.

Of course, pizzas don’t necessarily have corn; however, they use cheese derived from milk from cows that ate subsidized corn. While corn isn’t the sole culprit, it’s the largest one. Sugar crops and hog farms receive outrageous subsidies, too, but to a lesser extent than Iowa’s corn.

The problem that doesn’t have much to do with fruit prices is culture. This is related to both eating and exercising: American eating culture is lusher than most European countries’ eating cultures, and American commuting culture is car-friendlier than all European countries’.

American restaurants usually have larger main courses, greater selections of red meat, and larger portions of side dishes than French restaurants. The most common steak at a French restaurant is the relatively fat-free filet mignon, and a typical serving has about 200 grams; the most common steak at an American restaurant is the sirloin, with serving sizes closer to 300 grams.

I haven’t been able to find statistics for distance walked in the US, but in Supersize Me, Morgan Spurlock notes that Americans walk very little, at least by New York standards, and limits his walking distance accordingly. In Britain, the government has suggested the reduction in the distance walked by residents in the last 20 years as one factor behind the country’s growing obesity rate.

Ezra and Zuzu have posts linking to a not especially bright article arguing that the obesity epidemic is a myth. Nonsense. The argument that skyrocketing rates of obesity are fine because what matters is not weight but a sedentary lifestyle only works if people are compensating for their higher weights by exercising more. The loopiest part of the article is,

Obesity research in the United States is almost wholly funded by the weight-loss industry. For all the government’s apparent interest in the fat “epidemic,” in recent years less than 1 percent of the federal health research budget has gone toward obesity-related research. (For example, in 1995, the National Institutes of Health spent $87 million on obesity research out of a total budget of $11.3 billion.) And, while it’s virtually impossible to determine just how much the dieting industry spends on such research, it is safe to say that it is many, many times more. Indeed, many of the nation’s most prominent obesity researchers have direct financial stakes in companies that produce weight-loss products.

The gold standard of corporate-influenced research is tobacco risks. In the case of tobacoo, people have done meta-analyses of studies underwritten by governments or nonprofits and compared them to studies underwritten by tobacco companies. Those funded by tobacco companies were likely to exculpate cigarettes, while those not funded by big tobacco were likely to note a link between smoking and lung cancer. No such distinction is being made in this case.

If you think all American studies are irreparably biased, then go to other countries. The BBC quotes a governmental study that concludes that in 1998, obesity caused 30,000 premature deaths in England, and could cost the economy £3.5 billion a year by 2010. It also quotes a separate study by the British Heart Foundation, which estimates that 28,000 heart attacks in Britain each year are attributable to obesity.

False Rape Allegations

January 1, 2007

Men’s Rights Activist left a comment saying that conservatives did not view rape as a sex crime, but rather concentrate on false rape allegations. Those two views are equally false. I addressed the sex crime theory in the original rape thread; for the idea that there are a lot of false allegations, consider this.

[Link] Given the many reasons for doing so, it is understandable and perhaps even inevitable that victims will often make inconsistent or untrue statements about their assault. However, many investigators and others have mistakenly concluded on this basis that the entire allegation is false. For example, in her article on the topic, Aiken (1993) defines a false allegation as a claim that is deliberately deceitful about any significant aspect of the assault. Based on this definition, the author provides the following as case examples for false rape allegations:

Toni was asleep at home when she was awakened by someone’s presence next to her bed. A masked man was standing there holding a knife. He threatened her with the knife and forced her to have vaginal sex with him. He also forced her to perform fellatio. After he left, she immediately called the police. In her statement, she denied engaging in oral sex because she felt shame and guilt.

Patricia was a drug addict. She would do almost anything to support her habit. She made arrangements to buy some crack from her dealer. She met him at the appointed time and place. In the course of the transaction there was a disagreement over the terms of the sale. The dealer physically assaulted Patricia, dragged her behind a vacant house, and forced her to have sex. Patricia reported the incident to the police, completely omitting the details of the drug deal.

Kathryn lived alone and was sexually assaulted by her neighbor. He forced her to have vaginal and oral sex with him. Kathryn had always feared this man. He threatened to kill her if she reported the assault. She also was afraid of venereal disease. To secure free medical services, she reported the incident to police. She described her assailant as a masked stranger and denied the oral act.

The characterization of these cases as “false allegations” is not only incorrect but also troubling. In the first instance, the victim omitted details of certain sexual acts out of shame. In the second, she omitted details of her own drug use in order to bolster her perceived credibility, and in the third she failed to provide the identity of her assailant out of fear for her life. These case examples are not really false allegations. These are cases in which the victim omitted or distorted information about the assault, but they do not negate the reality that the assault happened.

The same document quotes an NYPD sex crimes specialist who analyzes the 250 unfounded rape reports out of 2,000 in New York in a given period of time; of these, about 200 weren’t real rape reports, but rather cases of female victims of lesser crimes yelling rape to get the police there more quickly, and 45 more did not accuse specific people.

Once in a while, a woman might fabricate a rape for a variety of reasons, like having a tyrannical father or husband who holds her to a curfew she broke, or wanting to talk to a police officer out of loneliness. She will very, very rarely point to a specific perpetrator, which will require her to face him and has a serious risk of the police discovering she’s a liar.

The majority of rapes are committed by people known to the victim (the NCVS says 60-70%; the BCS has exactly 50%, assuming the unweighted bases can actually be weighted). The majority of false allegations posit a stranger. In many rapes, the victim doesn’t or barely resists for fear for her life; in most false allegations, she resists. Many real rapes involve not just vaginal intercourse but also other sexual acts; in most false allegations, there’s only vaginal intercourse, both because of the embarrassment factor and because rape is perceived as being just forced intercourse.

In other words, mens’ rights activists’ stereotypical false allegation, which involves a woman who has consensual sex with a man and then accuses him of rape, happens extremely rarely, if at all.

Rape Reduction Strategies

December 18, 2006

On the rape thread on Feministing, I outlined a possible approach to combat rape based on the underlying theory that it’s a violent crime. Some of the ideas below are based on things that have worked for other violent crimes, while others are based on no particular theory but direct profiles of rapes and rapists.

1. Basic law enforcement: more cops on the streets, diversion of police resources from drugs and obscenity laws to violent crime, and implementation of methods to reduce police arrival time (which mainly goes back to more cops).

2. Basic social welfare: it’s known that murder correlates very strongly with both poverty and inequality; although the underreporting of other violent crimes, especially rape, makes it hard to investigate them with the same level of thoroughness, it’s likely that the socioeconomic profile of the rapist doesn’t significantly differ from this of the murderer. Therefore, widening the social safety net, and having policies concerning minority cultures and education that don’t create underclasses, should help reduce the risk of rape.

3. Self defense: self defense classes offered to women only meant to protect from rape tend to have low penetration and limited availability. A better path would be to teach self defense in physical education classes in schools. Males have a physical strength advantage over females partly because they spend more time honing their physical skills in sports and brawls. However, note that according to the 1997 NCVS, the ratio of risks of young men to older men is the same as this of young women to older women, which is not what the “men are physically stronger than women” hypothesis would predict since men in the 16-19 age bracket, the one most at risk, are probably physically the strongest.

4. Reporting: reported sexual assault rates are surprisingly static, which suggests the rape rate is inversely proportional to the reporting rate. In the last 15 years, the US has seen a drop in rape and a rise in reporting, and crime surveys from Britain and Canada, where sexual assault rates are higher, also reveal lower reporting rates. There are several mechanisms of encouraging victims to report. First, making rape laws more gender-equal, as in Canada, should increase the reporting rate of at least male rape. Second, rape prosecutions at least in the US are based on the DA’s decisions; there have been cases of women forced to testify or even watch tapes of their rapes at the trials of their rapists; making prosecution contingent on the victim’s consent should encourage reporting. And third, too many cops and people buy into the myth of false reports, so $10 million on an educational campaign will be money well spent.

5. Drinking: both rape victims and rapists are likely to be drunk. The 1997 NCVS reports that 35.8% of rape victims believe their rapists were under the influence of alcohol (and 13.8% believe they were on drugs, with a 7.3% overlap). A Home Office survey lists several studies giving figures ranging from 6% of 81% for victims. Policies that a) educate people about drinking and b) promote some alternatives to binge drinking should help reduce rape.

Immigration is Good

December 16, 2006

On a comment thread on Appletree, Stram is inadvertently giving a good reason why illegal immigration is not a serious economic problem in the US. He links to a factsheet produced by the Center for Immigration Studies, which claims to be based on data from the US Census Bureau.

[Link] Households headed by illegal aliens imposed more than $26.3 billion in costs on the federal government in 2002 and paid only $16 billion in taxes, creating a net fiscal deficit of almost $10.4 billion, or $2,700 per illegal household.

With nearly two-thirds of illegal aliens lacking a high school degree, the primary reason they create a fiscal deficit is their low education levels and resulting low incomes and tax payments, not their legal status or heavy use of most social services.

Many of the costs associated with illegals are due to their American-born children, who are awarded U.S. citizenship at birth. Thus, greater efforts at barring illegals from federal programs will not reduce costs because their citizen children can continue to access them.

If illegal aliens were given amnesty and began to pay taxes and use services like households headed by legal immigrants with the same education levels, the estimated annual net fiscal deficit would increase from $2,700 per household to nearly $7,700, for a total net cost of $29 billion.

Costs increase dramatically because unskilled immigrants with legal status — what most illegal aliens would become — can access government programs, but still tend to make very modest tax payments.

The fact that legal immigrants with few years of schooling are a large fiscal drain does not mean that legal immigrants overall are a net drain — many legal immigrants are highly skilled.

The vast majority of illegals hold jobs. Thus the fiscal deficit they create for the federal government is not the result of an unwillingness to work.

One of the advantages of not listing your methodology anywhere in sight is that I won’t be able to rip it to shreds if it’s shoddy (which it usually is). But let’s grant that the methodology is sound and focus on the consequences.

$29 billion is 0.25% of the United States’ GDP. This compares with about $100 billion wasted every year on Iraq and $1 trillion wasted every year on private health care (incidentally, Ezra has a really good series about Ron Wyden’s universal health care proposal, which is slated to shave $150 billion per year in costs).

In fact, illegal immigrants who are offered citizenship will likely vote mostly for the Democrats, who are better than the Republicans at controlling government spending; as such, the political effects of amnesty may well be more than enough to compensate for additional welfare payments.

And finally, the amnesty scenarios only compare illegal immigrants to legal immigrants of similar levels of education, controlling for whether the head of household is from Mexico or another country. Legalization will make it easier for immigrants to acquire more education, for example by attending local colleges, and increase intergenerational income mobility, which will make the immigrants’ children more likely to be educated and have high enough incomes to be a net financial gain to the government.