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.