Sacred Meets Profane in an Ad for Lamb

September 20, 2017Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s always tempting to draw conclusions about culture from successful advertising campaigns. After all, if they’re successful, they must have struck some sympathetic vibrating string in the culture. But which one?  Interpreting these ads is game all can play, but it would be hard to say which interpretation is correct. Among all the harmonious cultural elements, which one is most important?

It’s easier to pick out the note that’s out of tune. So with ads, the cultural interpretation game is easier when an ad is conflict with the culture rather than in harmony. When I came across this Australia Day ad for lamb from Meat and Livestock Australia, my first thought was: Sacrilege. You could never put this on the air in the US. A lot of Americans still take their religion seriously.


You can tell a joke about Jesus and Moses on the golf course, but when you do basically the same thing – putting sacred figures in contemporary profane* situations – as a TV ad, it goes too far, even if the irreverence is equal opportunity. At the table, besides Jesus and Moses, are the Buddha, Kuan Yin (the Buddhist goddess of compassion), Confucius, Dionysus and Aphrodite, Thor, Isis and L. Ron Hubbard. Oh my gods.

The MLA (no, not that MLA. The Meat and Livestock Australia MLA) had obviously been worried about the reactions of some religious people for whom religion is no laughing matter. Note that Mohammed does appear in the ad; he’s just phoning it in. And anyway, you probably don’t need an ad to convince Muslims to eat lamb.

The MLA was apparently less concerned about the reaction of other groups. The Indian Society of Western Australia spoke out against the portrayal of Ganesha (“the elephant in the room”) as being a meat-eater. The MLA apologized, saying it was not their intent to offend.** But as far as I know, they haven’t pull the ad. 
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* “Profane” in Durkheim’s sense of “everyday,” as contrasted with “sacred” times and places.

** I’m a tad skeptical about this claim of not intending to offend. The MLA’s previous Australia Day ads have also been criticized for insensitive depiction of Aboriginals and for “inciting violence against vegans.” 

Bloggiversary

September 19, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

After eleven years, I’m finally getting paid for this gig. The publisher of the leading intro sociology textbook e-mailed me asking for permission to use one my blogposts in the next edition (17e) of the book. I asked if they would cross my palm with silver. It turns out they would. I did the math, and it works out that my average weekly income from the blog is now 60¢ a week. Not bad.   

The 2017 turning of the blog year lines up closely with the Jewish high holidays – a time for reflection and repentance. So many blogposts worthy of the latter. But here are a handful I’d post again.
   
1.    Trump did not actually shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. But if he had, his supporters might well have rethought their position on homicide. Witness how conservative Christians changed their views on the importance of a politician’s private life.    
One Question Where Trump Turned Conservatives More Liberal

2.    In Italian, there is no word for “bedtime.”  Bedtime – Construct or Cruelty

3.    “Their early stuff was way better.” The dilemma of music groups – repeat or change?  Chasing the Dragon

4.    Asking who’s happier – liberals or conservatives – without looking at who’s in power is like asking the same question about Redsox fans and Yankee fans without checking the standings in the AL East. Political Baseball – Whose Fans Are Happy?

5.    “It’s your decision,” say the sitcom parents. Yeah, right. “black-ish” – Voluntary Conformism                  

Matching Evidence With Ideas — an Arthur Brooks Fail

September 16, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Linking ideas and evidence – that’s the most important thing I try to teach students. What kind of evidence can we get to see if some idea or assertion is valid? I’m glad Arthur Brooks isn’t in my class. I would have to conclude that I failed at my task.

In his op-ed in the Times yesterday (“Don’t Shun Conservative Professors,” here), Brooks writes about the plight of conservative faculty members. In the academic world, dominated by leftish ideologies, they are second-class citizens.

Generally, these professors fear they have little hope for advancement to leadership roles. Research backs up this fear, suggesting that intellectual conformity is still a key driver of personal success in academic communities. In a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers asked students to evaluate candidates vying to represent them with the faculty. In some cases, the candidate identified him- or herself as a “typical student at this college”; other subjects were given a candidate who was “a relatively untypical student at this college.” Even though both pledged to represent the students faithfully, in the same language, the untypical student consistently received significantly less support.

Really Arthur? That’s the best you got? One experiment on one campus? That’s your evidence?

And what is it evidence of? Brooks claims that conservative professors get shabby treatment at the hands of their liberal colleagues. The reason is that academic success depends on “intellectual conformity,” and conservatives’ political views  do not conform those of their more numerous and more powerful liberal colleagues.

Does this one study Brooks cites explore the attitudes and actions of faculty? No. Does it measure the rewards faculty receive? No. Does it use variables related to conservatism and liberalism? No. Does it even measure “intellectual conformity”? No.

It asks students who they would prefer to represent them as a student-faculty liaison. And here’s the stunning conclusion of that experiment: students prefer the hypothetical “prototypical” student rep over the “non-prototypical rep.” The typicality did not include political views. The typical student did not say, “I’m politically liberal”; the untypical student did not say, “I’m conservative.”*.

Preferring a student-faculty liaison who is typical rather than untypical – is that, as Brooks would have it, “intellectual conformity”?  Even so, it was only among the students who said they “felt certain right now” that the “typical” candidate won. Students who said they were “uncertain” were equally likely to choose the untypical as the typical.

It may well be that conservative academics are victims of discrimination. But the evidence Brooks offers isn’t just unconvincing. It’s an embarrassment. I certainly hope that other conservative intellectuals do a better job of matching their evidence to their ideas.
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* Here are the candidates’ statements shown to the student participants in the experiment:

“As a relatively typical student at this college, I feel as though I represent
the interests, values, and opinions of the students very well. I will fit in with the culture and climate of the college because I also share these same interests, values, and opinions. As a student of this college, I have deep ties in the community so I also want the college to make decisions that are the best for the students…”

“As a relatively untypical student at this college, I will try to represent the interests, values, and opinions of the students. While I do not share the same interests, values, and opinions, I will do my best to fit in with the culture and climate of the college. Although I may not have deep ties in the community, I will still try to make decisions that are the best for the students …”

The article is “Leadership under uncertainty: When leaders who are non-prototypical group members can gain support,” by David E. Rast III, Amber M. Gaffney, Michael A. Hogg, Richard J. Crisp. JESP 48.3 (May 2012).

Dreamers and the Trump Base

September 15, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

People whose life is in politics develop a firm ideology. Ordinary voters have no such need for consistency.

“Word of Deal Bewilders and Angers Trump’s Base,” says a subhead in today’s New York Times about DACA.  The deal in question was Trump’s agreement with his new friends Chuck and Nancy to let the Dreamers keep dreaming for at least another half year. Over on the right, the loud voices are getting shrill. The Times story quotes people like Ann Coulter (“At this point, who DOESN’T want Trump impeached?”), Rep. Steve King, and some talk-radio conservatives. 

But the people who voted for Trump are more loyal to him. Also more ideologically flexible. It’s Trump the person they want, not any particular policy. On some matters, their ardor for Trump has led them to change their long-held views. Russia is no longer a terrible villain. A politician’s private peccadilloes now mean little for his performance in office. Obamacare isn’t so terrible after all.

Given Trump’s campaign rhetoric and the “Build the Wall” chant, you might expect his supporters to be more adamant on immigration. But even before Trump’s change of heart on DACA, his base was soft on Dreamers, though the polls on this are not consistent. A YouGov poll taken September 3 -5 asked Trump voters.

Do you favor or oppose DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which is a policy that grants temporary legal status to “dreamers,” otherwise law-abiding children and young adults who were brought into the United States at a very young age by parents who were illegal immigrants?

(Click on an image for a larger view.)


The DACA glass is half empty. A third of the Trumpistas are firm opponents. But on the other side a third of the Trump voters actually support DACA, and the rest aren’t sure.

A Morning Consult Poll for Politico taken a few days earlier found Trump voters to be still more accepting of Dreamers and even non-dreamers.
“As you may know, Dreamers are young people who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children, often with their parents. Which of the following do you think is the best way to handle Dreamers?” The poll also about the best way to handle “immigrants currently living in the United States illegally.” The choices were”
  • They should beallowed to stay and become citizens if they meet certain requirements 
  • They should be allowed to stay and become legal sidents, but NOT citizens, if they meet certain requirements
  • They should be removed or deported from the United States
  • Don’t Know / No Opinion           

Two-thirds of Trump voters wanted to allow the Dreamers to stay. Slightly more than half were OK with granting residence (22%) or even citizenship (33%) to all immigrants now living in the US illegally.

When Trump took office, his net approval was +4 (45% Approve, 41% Disapprove). Since then, he has managed to drive that figure to – 14 (39 - 55). His recent change on DACA may have cost him cred with Coulter and other people deeply involved in politics. But it seems unlikely that his support with the public at large or even his base will fall any farther.

Algorithms and False Positives

September 13, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Can face-recognition software tell if you’re gay?

Here’s the headline from The Guardian a week ago.


Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski at Stanford’s School of Business have written an article showing that artificial intelligence – machines that can learn from their experiences – can develop algorithms to distinguish the gay from the straight. Kosinski goes farther. According to Business Insider,
He predicts that self-learning algorithms with human characteristics will also be able to identify:
  • a person's political beliefs
  • whether they have high IQs
  • whether they are predisposed to criminal behaviour
When I read that last line, something clicked. I remembered that a while ago I had blogged about an Israeli company, Faception, that claimed its face recognition software could pick out the faces of terrorists, professional poker players, and other types. It all reminded me of Cesare Lombroso, the Italian criminologist. Nearly 150 years ago, Lombroso claimed that criminals could be distinguished by the shape of their skulls, ears, noses, chins, etc. (That blog post, complete with pictures from Lombroso’s book, is here.) So I was not surprised to learn that Kosinski had worked with Faception.

For a thorough (3000 word) critique of the Wang-Kosinski paper, see Greggor Mattson’s post at Scatterplot. The part I want to emphasize here is the problem of False Positives.

Wang-Kosinski tested their algorithm by showing a series of paired pictures from a dating site. In each pair, one person was gay, the other straight. The task was to guess which was which. The machine’s accuracy was roughly 80% – much better than guessing randomly and better than the guesses made by actual humans, who got about 60% right. (These are the numbers for photos of men only. The machine and humans were not as good at spotting Lesbians. In my hypothetical example that follows, assume that all the photos are of men.)

But does that mean that the face-recognition algorithm can spot the gay person? The trouble with Wang-Kosinki’s gaydar test was that it created a world where half the population was gay. For each trial, people or machine saw one gay person and one straight.

Let’s suppose that the machine had an accuracy rate of 90%. Let’s also present the machine with a 50-50 world. Looking at the 50 gays, the machine will guess correctly on 45. These are “True Positives.” It identified them as gay, and they were gay. But it will also classify 5 of the gay people as not-gay. These are the False Negatives.

It will have the same ratio of true and false for the not-gay population. It will correctly identify 45 of the not-gays (True Negatives), but it will guess incorrectly that 5 of these straight people are gay (False Positive).


It looks pretty good. But how well will this work in the real world, where the gay-straight ratio is nowhere near 50-50? Just what that ratio is depends on definitions. But to make the math easier, I’m going to use 5% as my estimate. In a sample of 1000, only 50 will be gay. The other 950 will be straight.

Again, let’s give the machine an accuracy rate of 90%. For the 50 gays, it will again have 45 True Positives and 5 False Negatives. But what about the 950 not-gays. It will be correct 90% of the time and identify 885 of them as not-gay (True Negatives). But it will also guess incorrectly that 10% are gay. That’s 95 False Positives.


The number of False Positives is more than double the number of True Positives. The overall accuracy may be 90%, but when it comes to picking out gays, the machine is wrong far more often than it’s right.

The rarer the thing that you’re trying to predict, the greater the ratio of False Positives to True Positives. And those False Positives can have bad consequences. In medicine, a false positive diagnosis can lead to unnecessary treatment that is physically and psychologically damaging. As for politics and policy, think of the consequences if the government goes full Lomborso and uses algorithms for predicting “predisposition to criminal behavior.”

Smartphones and Teen Existential Angst

September 12, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve been wondering about America’s youth, mostly because of the Atlantic article by Jean Twenge: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”  (Previous posts are here  and here .)
As the title of the article suggests, we’ve got trouble.

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs . . . At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind.

Twenge shows how kids differ from those of just a few years ago in how they spend their time – less dating, driving, and hanging out with peers, and more time on their phones, tablets, and computers. These changes in behavior, Twenge claims, have psychological consequences.

The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world. . . .
There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.


I went to the archives of Monitoring the Future, the only source of systematic data that Twenge mentions. It surveys kids in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. I looked only at the data on 12th graders. One of the MTF questions asks kids whether they agree with the statement, “It feels good to be alive.” The choices are Agree, Mostly Agree, Neither, Mostly Disagree, Disagree.” So few kids chose either of the Disagree categories ( 4- 6 %) that I combined them with Neither.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

In the most recent year, these depressive categories accounted for only 18% of 12th graders. All the others agreed – 51% gave unqualified agreement, another 20% “mostly” agreed. More important for Twenge’s argument, the graph lines do not fall off a cliff in 2012 or in any other year. There’s a slow decline 2012-2015, but the numbers in the most recent year are very similar to what they were in before smartphones and social media.

Monitoring the Future also asks a question that would seem to tap depression, or at least existential despair*: “Life often seems meaningless.” The levels of agreement are the same ones as for “Good to be alive,” but the distribution of answers is more even.


Again, the sunnier choices carry the day.  Those who “Disagree” categorically out number all others, followed by those who disagree but with some reservations. And again, the MTF data shows no dramatic changes.

So, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” As I said in a previous post on this topic,
Whenever the title of a book or article is phrased as a question, two things are almost certain
  • The author thinks that the answer to the question is “Yes.”
  • The more accurate answer is “No.”
When it comes to finding life meaningful or worth living, teens today are no different from those teens twenty years ago who were sans iPhones, sans Facebook, sans Instagram, sans cyber-everything.
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*
In the view of the existentialist, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude", or a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.
Existentialism - Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism

America’s Not-So-Lost Youth

September 10, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston
It seems that we never tire of experts like Prof. Harold Hill, the con artist in “The Music Man,” warning us about the temptations that threaten to lead our children astray. That musical was set in Iowa a century ago, and the culprit, and when Prof. Hill told the good people of River City, “Ya got trouble, my friends,” the culprit was a pool table. I’m old enough to remember when the menace was comic books. And today, all those kids spending so much time on Facebook, Instagram, and iPhones – surely that can’t be good.

Last month, The Atlantic ran an article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” by Jean Twenge in full Music Man mode.


I blogged my skepticism (here). Twenge’s previous alarmist reports – The Narcissism Epidemic, for example – had not held up well against the evidence. But I had not been able to deal with the data sets from Monitoring the Future (MTF) that Twenge used for evidence about the destruction supposedly being wrought by iPhones. I didn’t know it at the time, but Alexandra Samuel had already done some of the work. (Her article is at JStor – here)

Twenge acknowledges that kids today cause far less trouble than did their counterparts of earlier genrations. Juvenile crime is way down. The same goes for pregnancy, drugs, and abortion. But, says Twenge, the kids are not all right. They are desperately unhappy. Or as the Atlantic sub-head puts it, they are “on the brink of a mental-health crisis.”  Ya got trouble my friends.

According to Twenge, the crucial year is 2012. “Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states.” It turns out that MTF survey of kids does not have many mental-health items – nothing about anxiety or depression. It does ask about happiness. Here is a graph from Alexandra Samuel’s article. The survey asks kids how happy they are generally – Very Happy, Pretty Happy, or Not Too Happy.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The biggest winner by far is Pretty Happy, chosen by 60-65%, a proportion that has not changed much since the first years of the survey. Since 2012, the percent reporting that they are Very Happy has decreased by perhaps 4 percentage points. Not Too Happy has increase by 2-3 percentage points. This hardly seems like leading edge of a mental-health crisis.

As for insidious effects of Facebook, Instagram and the rest, Samuel has a graph comparing kids who spend more time with social media (> 10 hours a week) and those who spend less. This too doesn’t do much to support Twenge’s claim that iPhones and the like are making kids “seriously unhappy.”


I don’t doubt that social media and smartphones have changed the way kids live their lives. Twenge presents evidence that kids are spending less time hanging out with peers, that they feel less pressure to drive a car, and that dating and sex are on the decline. I’d like to check the MTF data, but assuming Twenge’s report is accurate, are these trends a sign of a pending crisis in mental health? I seem to remember Harold Hill types warning about the dangers of peer groups – kids spending too much time unsupervised by adults. “Peer pressure” was always the source of bad behavior, never good. And adults fretted that this pressure was forcing kids to “grow up too fast ” (cars, sex). So if social media has made it easier for kids to escape these peer groups, maybe these trends are not harbingers of a coming crises in the mental health of America’s youth.

Look What You Made Me Do

September 4, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Fundamental Attribution Error occurs when we attribute too much cause to the individual while ignoring the power of the situation. But there is a second attribution error – perhaps not as fundamental, but still important.

The central idea in attribution theory is this: when people* explain why another person did something, they attribute the behavior to causes within the person – their personality or other traits. The person behaved bravely because he is brave or dishonestly because he is sneaky, or affably because she is outgoing, and so on.  But when people explain their own behavior, they cite external factors – specific or vague aspects of the situation. They rarely say or think: I did it because I’m brave, outgoing, sneaky, etc. Instead they think they did what most people in the same situation would do. It’s all about the situation, not about me. When we make the fundamental attribution error, we leap too quickly from the behavior we observe to conclusions about the person’s character.

The second type of attribution error can occur when we think about our own behavior and attribute too much power to external forces while ignoring or denying our own ability to exercise free will. For example, my syllabus says explicitly that I base grades on the total points from tests and papers. Attendance matters only for point totals at the borderline between letter grades. There is no attendance requirement. But when I ask a student, “Why did you come to class?” the answer is often, “I had to.” Given a few seconds to reflect, the student might come up with an answer more consistent with the facts. Still, that first and more-or-less automatic answer reveals the basic assumption we make about why we’ve done something: I had to.

Two worst-date stories I heard recently on a podcast (“Unorthodox”) reminded me of this second attribution error. I’ve added edited transcripts, but you should really listen to the audio clips to get a better sense of the story and the reactions of the podcast interviewers.




It was really terrible . . .  And after it was done, I definitely did not want to go out again. And I was getting out of the car, and I said something like, “Hey, thanks. Have a great night,” sort of mumbled that, and he thought I’d said something like, “I had a great night.” So he goes, “Me too. Would you like to go out for breakfast tomorrow?” And I died inside, and somehow that was taken for a yes. So I had to go out with him again.

The guy got the wrong impression, but rather than correct him – not in the immediate situation and not afterwards by sending a text – she chose to endure a second date the next morning. (Of course, she didn’t see it as a choice. In her view, she had to.)

Here’s worst-date #2.



                                           
I went out with a guy, and he took me to a fancy restaurant. And he was dressed sort of like a hillbilly. And he wouldn’t speak, and there was a lot of awkward silences. And I asked him, “Why are there so many awkward silences?” And he goes like, “I feel comfortable with silence. I think weI should feel comfortable with silence.” And then he proceeded not to talk for the rest of the date as a test to our relationship.

And then he took me to the Marriott Marquis where there’s this rotating lounge on the top floor. But what he failed to mention was that he’s extremely phobic of heights. So when we went into the glass elevator, he started having a panic attack. And when we got out on the 42nd floor, I was coaching him, telling him to breathe.  He’s asking me where we’re going in our relationship. . . .

But the kicker is that we had to walk down forty-two flights of stairs.

I wonder if gender makes a difference in these dating fiascos where the man and woman have very different perceptions of what the relationship is – that is, what the roles are and therefore who is supposed to do what. Women may think, “I don’t like the role you make me play,” but play it they do. Would a man behave differently? Would he say, “Look, I’ve gotten you through your anxiety attack, and I’m really sorry you suffered like that. But this is not going to be a relationship, and I’m certainly not going to walk down forty-two frickin’ flights of stairs. If you can join me in the elevator, we can leave together. If not, I’ll just say good-bye now.”

I don’t know of any systematic evidence on gender as it relates to dealing with bad dates. I guess I’ll have to pay more attention to Todd and Jayde’s “Blown Off” segment.

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* Cultures may vary on this tendency. Most of the evidence comes from the US and perhaps other Western countries, and there is some evidence that Asians may be more likely to consider situational factors when thinking about the causes of other people’s behavior.

LaLaLa . . . I Can’t Hear You

August 30, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston
“Republicans prefer that Trump ‘listen more’ to those in GOP with experience.”

That’s the title of a graph in the new Pew report (here). When I first saw the headline, I thought, well duh. Look at the questionnaire item.

When it comes to the major issues facing the nation, do you think Donald Trump should Listen More / Listen Less / Listen the Same Amount as Now to Republicans who have experience working in government?

Who’s going to say that it’s a bad idea to listen to people with a lot of experience? Only the childish and petulant. File this question under “social desirability.”


 I was wrong. Here’s the graphic from the Pew report.


The headline isn’t technically wrong, at least not if you take “Republicans” to mean anything more than 50% of them. But for me, the takeaway is that a third of Republicans and 40% of Conservatives say, “Don’t listen to voices of experience.”*

I guess this fingers-in ears attitude is part of the populist sentiment – the Reagan idea that government is bad. In that view, people who work in government are at best incompetent and more likely venal, and therefore what’s needed is someone who will “shake up” the government. 

For these supporters, Trumpism has everything to do with expressing their resentments and almost nothing to do with actually governing. When asked what they like about Trump, nearly four times as many cite personality rather than policy.

(Click on the image for a larger and perhaps clearer view.)

Small wonder then that they want little to do with people who know how to craft policy, get legislation passed, and administer programs. The irony is that half of those who cite personality perceive Trump as someone who “gets things done.” I wonder how they would respond to a follow-up question about what those things are.

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* It’s possible that the respondents did not take the question literally. Perhaps they interpreted “listen” to mean that Trump should follow the advice of Republicans with more experience in government. They’re quite happy with Trump just the way he is. Why ruin a successful presidency by letting more experienced Republicans influence Trump?

Hijacking Charlie Parker on His Birthday

August 29, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I suppose I should feel elated that a New York Times op-ed features both Charlie Parker and Emile Durkheim. But what Arthur Brooks (here) really wants to do is not to celebrate Bird on his birthday but to caution us all against too much individual freedom.
“To be truly free to enjoy the best things in life, set proper moral standards for yourself and live within them as undeviatingly as Charlie Parker did in his music.”
Of course, when Bird, along with Dizzy Gillespie and others, started playing what came to be known as bebop, most listeners rejected the music as too free, too far outside the constraints of the melody and chords. Some musicians felt the same way. When Diz was in Cab Calloway’s band, Calloway told him to “stop playing that damn Chinese music” or leave the band.

What was “too free” yesterday is today conventional. Read what people said about Ornette in 1960, and you wonder what all the fuss was about.

Bird is not the only one that Brooks wants to play his arrangements. There’s the paradox-of-choice riff: “The ‘paradox of choice’ is a well-established phenomenon,” he says. Maybe. It certainly makes for an interesting TED talk. But a lot of research doesn’t support it. I also note that every supermarket I’ve seen in the past few years still stocks a staggering variety of jams and jellies.

As for Durkheim, Brooks has him play this line:
“[The] results were clear: Individuals are less likely to hurt themselves in communities with more clearly articulated moral boundaries.”
I’m not a Durkheim scholar, but I’d be curious to see if a text search of Suicide turned up anything about moral boundaries. I’d put it differently. The most relevant types of suicide Durkheim outlines are anomic and egoistic. “Anomic suicide” rises when the socially distributed means are out of proportion to socially induced desires. “Egoistic suicide” is highest where people are more individualistic and less attached to social groups and the society as a whole. If this involves morality, it’s a morality that de-emphasizes the collective in favor of the individual.

Brooks apparently was a decent sax player in his day, and he currently heads a successful right-wing think tank (American Enterprise Institute) whose work can include good social science. But Charlie Parker does not belong in the AEI. Why not let him rest in peace?  Bird’s music was about music – the sounds, the tunes, the chords and notes and rhythms. It was not about morality.


Here’s Bird’s 1953 recording of Confirmation, probably his best composition. (I was going to choose “Moose the Mooche,” also a fine tune based on “I Got Rhythm” changes. The Mooche was not a presidential adviser. He was Bird’s connection.)



Information and Power — Again

August 24, 2017 
Posted by Jay Livingston

In a post shortly after the election (here), I speculated that person holding the real power in White House policy decisions would be the chief of staff not the president.

Regardless of whose voice was loudest and most broadcast in the media or even who had the ultimate power to make decisions, what mattered was who controlled the information that would base his decisions on. 
                                                           
As it turned out, I was wrong. The theory may have been right, but Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, did not centralize the flow of information. According to an article in Politico today,

White House aides say Priebus spent much of his time doing damage control and never instituted a holistic approach or managed to corral the flow of people and paper through the Oval Office.

That may change. Priebus is out. The new chief of staff is John Kelly, who will try to be the kind of chief of staff I envisioned.

In a conference call last week, Kelly initiated a new policymaking process in which just he and one other aide . . . will review all documents that cross the Resolute desk.
The new system, laid out in two memos co-authored by Kelly and Porter and distributed to Cabinet members and White House staffers in recent days, is designed to ensure that the president won’t see any external policy documents, internal policy memos, agency reports and even news articles that haven’t been vetted.

The keystone of the new system is a “decision memo” that will — for each Trump policy — integrate the input of Cabinet agencies and policy councils and present the president with various options, as well as with the advantages and drawbacks of each one.

In such a system, who has more power – the person who chooses A or B, or the person who controls the content of A and B? If Kelly is successful, the “advantages and drawbacks” will be reduced to tweet-length decision memos that challenge neither Trump’s attention span nor his preference for avoiding complexity.

The advantage of having a powerful central person is efficiency. Things get done. The risk of centralization is a “groupthink” structure that excludes inconvenient but important ideas. That might be an improvement over the disorganized and ineffective administration we have seen for the past seven months. But it might also mean that the things that get done turn out to be disasters – disasters that a more open system might have avoided.

Another possibility is that even Kelly will not be able to close Trump off from other sources of information – television, family, and wealthy contributors.

Repetition, Context, Meaning

August 23, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Barcelona” is a tender and amusing song in the second act of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company.” I saw a production of the show last night at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

It’s early morning, Bobby’s apartment. Bobby and April, a dim-witted stewardess (this was 1970) have just had their first night together. She gets out of bed and starts putting on her airline uniform. He is ostensibly trying to persuade her to stay.
“Where you going?”
“Barcelona.”
It’s not the answer you expect when someone asks “Where are you going?” and it gets a smile or even small laugh. But when I heard the line last night, the word also reminded me of the events of a week ago – the terrorist driving a van through the crowds in La Rambla. It was a strange feeling, almost jarring at first – these two meanings of the word floating in the air at the same time. It was like hearing two versions of the same tune simultaneously in different, dissonant keys.

But by the second or third time April said “Barcelona” (she sings the word only four times, but it seems like more), the word meant to me what it had always meant. Repetition of the word in the context of the show blotted out the other connotation.

Repetition and context change a word. I was reminded of something African American novelist David Bradley said on “60 Minutes” several years ago. He was talking about the problem of the word nigger in Huckleberry Finn. A censored version of the novel had recently been issued.

Bradley uses the original version, and when he teaches the novel to high school kids, the first thing he has them do is repeat the word. They just say, “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger. . .” over and over, a dozen times or more. Then he says, “OK, now let’s talk about the book.”

The word repeated and repeated out of its usual context loses its usual overtones. The students will now be able to hear the word in the context of the book that Mark Twain wrote.


Here’s a version of “Barcelona” with Neil Patrick Harris and Christina Hendricks.

   


The Day they Defined Dixie Deviance Down

August 22, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Thinking About the Unthinkable was the title of a 1962 book about thermonuclear war. The author was Herman Kahn. In an earlier book, Kahn maintained that thermonuclear war, like any other war, was both possible and winnable.  Critics responded that to even bring discussion of such a war into the realm of rational debate turned the horror of mass annihilation into an acceptable idea.

A half-century later, Donald Trump is helping to bring the ideas of White nationalism – once closeted and unacceptable – into the realm of legitimate political discourse. At least, that’s the argument made by Emily Badger in the New York Times today* (here)

Critics fear that Trump is inviting white supremacists out of the corner, helping ideas that have become widely reviled in America to be redefined as reasonable opinions — just part of the discussion.

It’s what Pat Moynihan called “defining deviance down.” People can change their ideas so that what had once been deviant is now acceptable.

Unfortunately, it’s not always clear how norms change. People who write about the process wind up using the passive voice, a lot, as Badger does with both verbs in the second part of that sentence:  “ideas that have become widely reviled”; “to be redefined.”

Who is doing the redefining?

It probably helps if the the green light on expressing those ideas comes from an important and mainstream source – the leader of the free world, for example. Or how about a respected magazine, not Brietbart or the Daily Stormer, and how about a “Senior Fellow” some place, just to give the whole thing the trappings of scholarship? 

So here we have Arthur L. Herman, Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, writing in the National Review. His article bears the title “Confederate Statues Honor Timeless Virtues – Let Them Stay” (here). If you have any doubt as to how wrong Herman is historically, read the Eric Foner piece I quoted yesterday, or see this article by Justin Fox at Bloomberg. Fox, in a footnote, cites a relevant statistic: in the 1890s in Alabama there were 177 lynchings.   

What Herman does in his article is not so much defining deviance down but rather standing it on its head. Those 177 lynchings, he argues, were good times compared with the court decisions and passage of civil rights laws seventy years later. I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.

[Robert E. Lee’s] dream of a new South descended into Jim Crow after he died. This is in fact the best argument that those who want these statues gone can make: that the “reconciliation” between North and South was done on the backs of blacks, and that the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow were the price America paid to have peace in the aftermath of civil war. From a historical point of view, it’s almost convincing, even though what American blacks suffered under segregation was nothing compared to what liberalism has inflicted on them since the 1950s, as it destroyed their families, their schools, and their young men and women’s lives through drugs and guns and the gangster-rap culture “lifestyle,” which is really a death style. [emphasis added]

For much of his article, Herman sounds like the stereotypical old White man yelling at the kids to get off his lawn, though he’s barely into his sixties. Perhaps his views about the relative joys of Reconstruction and Jim Crow will fade as the people who hold those views age and depart this plane. But it’s also possible that when those views are given the official stamp of National Review and the Hudson Institute, they become, even for younger people, less deviant and more thinkable. No doubt, Herman Kahn, one of the founders of the Hudson Institute, would be pleased.

-------------------------
* Badger cites two noteworthy sociologists, Tina Fetner and Sarah Sobieraj

The Statues That Were Never Built

August 21, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

At the ASA meetings in Montreal, someone (and I wish I could remember who it was) told me that the blog post of mine he really liked was the one about “negative space” (here). It’s from 2012, and I had only the vaguest memory of it, but here’s the gist. It started with what my grad-school roommate had said about the life drawing course he was taking.

One evening he came home and reported that the teacher had given a brilliant instruction that allowed him to make a real breakthrough.  What the teacher had said was this:
    Don’t draw the figure, draw what’s not there.  Draw the negative space around the subject.
In social science too, the solution to a problem sometimes starts with thinking about the part that isn’t there.

Today’s New York Times op-ed by Eric Foner (here) provides an excellent example. Much has been written in the past week or so about the statues of Robert E. Lee and other heroes of the Confederacy that are now central points in a political-cultural tug-of-war. Historians examine the provenance of the statues – who put them up and when – to reveal what these chunks of stone are saying. But, says Foner, we can also learn a lot about the statues and their meaning by thinking about the statues that are absent from the public square.

If the issue were simply heritage, why are there no statues of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, one of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s key lieutenants? Not because of poor generalship; indeed, Longstreet warned Lee against undertaking Pickett’s Charge, which ended the battle of Gettysburg. Longstreet’s crime came after the Civil War: He endorsed black male suffrage and commanded the Metropolitan Police of New Orleans, which in 1874 engaged in armed combat with white supremacists seeking to seize control of the state government. Longstreet is not a symbol of white supremacy; therefore he was largely ineligible for commemoration by those who long controlled public memory in the South.

As all historians know, forgetting is as essential to public understandings of history as remembering. Confederate statues do not simply commemorate “our” history, as the president declared. They honor one part of our past. Where are the statues in the former slave states honoring the very large part of the Southern population (beginning with the four million slaves) that sided with the Union rather than the Confederacy? Where are the monuments to the victims of slavery or to the hundreds of black lawmakers who during Reconstruction served in positions ranging from United States senator to justice of the peace to school board official? Excluding blacks from historical recognition has been the other side of the coin of glorifying the Confederacy.

According to a YouGov poll, most of the public (54%) see the statues as symbols of Southern pride. Only half that many see them as symbols of racism. And a plurality of the respondents disapprove of removing the statues, though there is an understandable difference between Whites and Blacks.  (I’m puzzled by the high rate of “No Opinion,” especially among Blacks.)                       

(Click on the chart for a larger view.)


I would expect that most of the statue supporters in the South would say that they are motivated by Southern pride and not racism. But after reading Foner’s article, I wonder ow would they respond to a proposal that their town square add a statue of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet? Or Frederick Douglass? Or the first Black senator from their state?

America’s Youth — Lost Yet Again.

August 13, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last week, The Atlantic posted this article by Jean Twenge, and some of my Facebook friends linked to it with favorable comments.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
Just from what you can see in this graphic, I was skeptical.

1. Kids and Trouble. When I see titles like this, I immediately think of “Trouble” from “The Music Man” and “Kids” from “Bye-bye Birdie.” (What can I say – I was raised on LPs of Broadway shows.) I’ve mentioned these in posts going back ten years (here) and more recently (here).  Apparently, you can get a lot of attention by telling people that the youth of America are going to hell in a handbasket, or in this case, an iHandbasket.

2. Crying wolf. Jean Twenge sounded a similar alarm not all that long ago. Generation Me (2006) and The Narcissism Epidemic (2009).  I noted my doubts about the latter here.

3. Question titles.  Whenever the title of a book or article is phrased as a question, two things are almost certain:
  • The author thinks that the answer to the question is “Yes.”
  • The more accurate answer is “No.”*

I’d like to explore the evidence – it seems that the main source of Twenge’s data is Monitoring the Future, a long-standing survey housed at ICPSR – but it’s complicated. The survey gives different forms to different samples of different age groups (8th graders, 10th graders, 12th graders). And in 2012, the survey changed the way it compiled the surveys. Anyone who knows how to work with MTF, please raise your hand.

-------------------
*This is a slight variation on Betteridge’s Law

Chasing the Dragon

August 6, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Three weeks ago, I posted this photo on my Facebook, adding that apparently KEEPOFF had a solid fan base at the Jersey shore.


A former student (Thomas Springsteen, no relation) commented: “Their early stuff was way better.”

Perfect. It’s what people always say. At least, it seems that way to me. Is there systematic evidence of the earlier-was-better bias? Well, sort of.

Philip Cohen asked people to rate performers twice on a scale of 1 (“terrible”) to 5 (“great”):
  • how good were they in the 70s?
  • how good were they in the 80s?
Here are the results.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

Most groups are on the 1970s side of the line of equality. And of those few who were better in the 80s, except for Pat Benatar and perhaps Prince and Michael Jackson, the degree of improvement is small.

Philip’s explanation (here)  is that his respondents are accurate reporters – music really did go downhill in the 80s, along with the whole damn Zeitgeist.

As I look back on these events – Reagan, the Cold War, sell-out music – in the context of what I thought of as my emerging adulthood, they seemed to herald a dark future, in which loss of freedom and individuality, the rise of the machines, and runaway capitalism was reflected in the decline of rock music.


Maybe. But maybe the results in this graph might not be so fixed in the historical moment. My guess is that he would have gotten similar results no matter what dividing point he chose. And not because of some inevitable law of musical entropy. It’s not the music, it’s the audience. The sound of a group or performer when they first becomes popular defines who they are. And that’s what we want to hear. We think: that’s what they sound like, and I really like it.

But what happens after a few years? The group can keep turning out music that sounds pretty much the same. We the fans think: yeah, it still sounds like them. But we don’t get that same thrill we had when we first heard them or saw them in concert.

Or the performers get bored and search out new sounds. They then risk losing their audience. A few can bring their audience along with them in these new explorations, like Dylan when he went electric or the Beatles with “Sgt. Pepper.” But these, I think, are exceptions.

My guess is that the graph looks the way it does for the same reason that we have oldies stations. We want to hear the songs that made us fans to begin with. Their early stuff was way better.

Directory Assistance

August 4, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I don’t know why I became briefly obsessed with the 1940 Manhattan phone book when a Facebook friend linked to it yesterday, but I did. Nostalgia perhaps, though I wasn’t living in New York in 1940. I wasn’t living at all. But seeing the exchanges with names instead of numbers (area codes, of course, had not yet been invented) makes it just a little easier to imagine what life in New York was like three quarters of a century ago. 475 tells you nothing; GRamercy 5 evokes a neighborhood.*

I couldn’t find my wife’s family. In 1940 not everyone had a phone. Perhaps they didn’t get theirs (WAdsworth 8) until later.  Then I went looking for other people who might have been living in New York then.

(Click for a larger view.)

You could just pick up the phone and call J.D. Salinger,** who might prefer not to have been bothered, or Coleman Hawkins, who would probably want to go out for a few drinks.

Estee Lauder lived just a few blocks from me, and we shared an exchange – ENdicott 2, (The elegant Endicott Hotel, built in the 1890s, was just a few blocks north.)

You can browse the entire phone book here.

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*  “I know the last part of your number –  6160,” I years ago to a fellow West Sider, “but I can never remember – is it 479 or 749.”
“749,” he said as though it were obvious. “RIverside 9.”
That was decades ago. I still remember.

**   “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you
’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

Cosmopolitans and Roots

August 3, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston


Why did White House advisor Stephen Miller call CNN reporter Jake Acosta “cosmopolitan”?

At the end of yesterday’s press briefing, Acosta asked about the Trump administration’s new proposals on immigration – reducing the total number of green cards by half and giving preference to people who are more skilled and people who speak English well.
ACOSTA:   The Statue of Liberty has always been a beacon of hope to the world for people to send their people to this country. They're not always going to speak English.. . . Are we just going to bring in people from Great Britain and Australia?

MILLER: I have to say, I am shocked at your statement that you think that only people from Great Britain and Australia would know English. It reveals your cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree.
Cosmopolitan? Acosta’s question suggests the exact opposite – provinicialism. A worldly and sophisticated person would know that countries in Asia and Africa have English as their national or dominant language and that people all over the world learn English as a second language. Only a rube would think that English proficiency was limited to Great Britain and Australia.

What did Miller mean by cosmopolitan? The question sent me back to the article that put “cosmopolitan” into the sociological lexicon – Alvin Gouldner’s 1957 “Cosmopolitans and Locals.”
 Cosmopolitans:
  • low on loyalty to the employing organization
  • high on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an outer reference group orientation
Locals:
  • high on loyalty to the employing organization,
  • low on commitment to specialized role skills
  • likely to use an inner reference group orientation.
Gouldner was writing about people in organizations. Miller is concerned with politics. The common element here is loyalty. Miller, along with Steve Bannon, engineered Trump’s “America first” doctrine, and by “cosmopolitans” he seems to mean people who are not putting America first. On immigration, people like Acosta are thinking about what might be good for an uneducated but hard-working Guatemalan, when instead they should be thinking only about what’s good for the US.

The alt-Right has been using cosmopolitan for a while now, and perhaps it was Miller’s familiarity with White nationalist discourse that made the word so available as a put-down of Acosta even though Acosta’s question seemed based on the kind of ignorance about the world that is much respected over on the right.

Like “America first,” “cosmopolitan” has a history of holding hands with anti-Semitism. In Stalin’s Russia, the phrase “rootless cosmopolitan” was a synonym for Jew, and he murdered quite a few of them. In the US today, the antipathy to “cosmopolitan” embodies this same fear of rootlessness and the same dislike of Jews. Here is one Website’s take on yesterday’s press briefing.


The twist here is that Acosta, the alleged cosmopolitan, is not Jewish, but Miller is. (The alt-Right uses the triple parentheses around a name to designate a Jew.) I don’t know how Miller resolves the dissonance other than to claim that he has never had anything to do with White nationalists (a claim that is probably false.  For the anti-Semites, the Website has this:

While not a Jew himself, Acosta is the end result of the education and programming pushed by the Rootless Cosmopolitans wherever they dwell – even Stalin grew wise to them near the end of his life.

Miller would of course understand this, and I think those more dedicated to The Tribe get the reference as well.

So Acosta cosmopolitanism came from being educated by Jews. Second, Miller and other Jews must surely understand the overtones of the term. And fJinally, let’s throw in a good word for Stalin: an anti-Semitic Russian autocrat – what’s not to like?

(Click to enlarge. The rootless cosmopolitan on the right is from a Soviet humor magazine 1949).

UPDATE: Jeff Greenfield says something similar and more at Politico. ( “It’s a way of branding people or movements that are unmoored to the traditions and beliefs of a nation, and identify more with like-minded people regardless of their nationality.”) (I met Greefield once long ago at a party, back before he was on CBS, ABC, CNN, back when he did a morning show once a week on WBAI.)

Lucky Gunners

August 2, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

There it was again – the false equivalency of guns and cars. It’s sort of like a riddle: Why is a Honda Civic like 6,000 rounds of ammunition? Answer: because both can be used to kill people. It must then follow, so goes the logic, that they are alike in many other ways.

Today’s logician is Jay Caruso, managing editor of Red State, writing in the National Review (here) about a lawsuit filed by the parents of one of the victims in the Aurora, Colorado theater massacre. With the encouragement of The Brady Campaign, a gun-control group, the parents sued Lucky Gunner, the online company that sold the Aurora shooter his stockpile of ammunition.

Lucky Gunner was no more responsible for the actions of James Holmes than Honda was for the actions of Abdul Razak Ali Artan when he attempted to use his Civic to kill pedestrians at Ohio State University, and it no more deserves punishment.

I don’t know about you, but to me it seems kind of obvious what the difference is between a Honda and 170 pounds of bullets.


It’s the same as the difference between a swimming pool and an AR-15.* Simply put, the purpose of guns and bullets is to kill. If they didn’t kill, nobody would buy them. Car manufacturers and swimming pool manufacturers, by contrast, try to make their products increasingly safer – less able to kill people.

So you have one dealer that sells people things whose purpose is transportatin and another dealer who sells people things whose purpose is killing. Caruso makes this same point in his next sentence.

There are already consumer protections that make gun manufacturers liable in rare cases when their products malfunction. Naturally, they do not apply to misuse.

Misuse it may have been. But the bullets did not malfunction. They did what they were designed to do – kill.

The main point of Caruso’s article is to criticize the Brady Campaign – first, for urging the parents to file a lawsuit they were sure to lose; and second, for not paying the $200,000 in Lucky Gunner’s legal fees that the court assessed the parents.

The reason the lawsuit was a sure loser also reinforces the idea that, as even a child knows, deadly weapons are different from cars. Because the purpose of guns and bullets is to kill, people might think that companies and individuals who sell them to killers have some responsibility for the ensuing deaths. So gunlovers, mostly via the NRA, have successfully gotten legislatures to pass laws absolving these sellers of any responsibility. As Caruso explains,

Phillips’s lawsuit was dismissed under the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was meant to protect the firearms industry from politically motivated lawsuits in which the plaintiffs claim that gun manufacturers and dealers were responsible for the criminal acts of third parties beyond their control.

Lucky Gunner is indeed lucky to have that kind of near-total immunity.  The  Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act might well go under another name – The Tom Lehrer “Wehrner von Braun” Act.
Once bullets get sold,
Who cares who they slay,
That’s not our department
Thanks to you, NRA.
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* Gun lovers often claim that swimming pools are more dangerous for kids than are guns. Really, they do. See this earlier post.

Bourdieu and Miss France — Respect for Théorie

July 31, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Imagine that a former Miss America some years later becomes a lawyer and eventually the director of the Miss America pageant. Now imagine that in a magazine interview, she says, “I don’t think Goffman’s concept of moral career is quite adequate to my trajectory.” And then, imagine that the magazine uses that as the pull quote in its article about her.

Multiply those small fractional chances, and you wind up with a probability of less than “ain’t gonna happen.”

But in France. . .

(Click on the image for a larger view, but you still won't be able to read it.)


Sylvie Tellier was chosen as Miss France in 2002. She is now director of that contest. I failed to come up with a good analogy for the US – an American sociologist whose name and key vocabulary terms would be recognized by the readers of a general-interest weekly. I chose Goffman faute-de-mieux.

The image tweeted is from Le Journal du Dimanche. The print is too small to read, and the current issue is not yet available online, but the pull quote circled by the person who tweeted this says, “J’ai décidé que la théorie de Bourdieu sur la reproduction sociale ne tomberait pas sur moi.” (Also note that you can now tweeter “WTF”  en français as well.)

Here in the US, there has been much hand-wringing, especially on the left, over the anti-science stance of those on the other side of the cultural divide and their refusal to acknowledge the facts – facts about climate change or evolution or the effects of tax cuts, and so on. But, at least in the French view, Americans across the political spectrum are also suspicious of theory – philosophy and abstract intellectualism – which the French, by contrast treat with far more respect.

There is no people among whom abstract ideas have played a such a great role, whose history is rife with such formidable philosophical tendencies, and where individuals are so oblivious to facts and possessed to such a high degree with a rage for abstraction. [Emile de Montégut, quoted in Sudhir Hazareesingh, How the French Think (2015)]

That was written in 1858. Thirty years earlier, Tocqueville had a contrasting observation about the US.
PHILOSOPHICAL METHOD OF THE AMERICANS

I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own, and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them.

More than a century later, journalist Adam Gopnik was struck by this same contrast when was fact-checking an article. His French sources were highly skeptical of the whole enterprise of fact-checking.*

Dubious look; there is More Here Than Meets the Eye. . . .There is a certainty in France that what assumes the guise of transparent positivism, “fact checking,” is in fact a complicated plot of one kind or another, a way of enforcing ideological coherence. That there might really be facts worth checking is an obvious and annoying absurdity; it would be naive to think otherwise.

I was baffled and exasperated by this until it occurred to me that you would get exactly the same incomprehension and suspicion if you told American intellectuals and politicians, post-interview. . . .

“In a couple of weeks a theory checker will be in touch with you.”

Alarmed, suspicious: “A what?”

“You know, a theory checker. Just someone to make sure that all your premises agreed with your conclusions, that there aren’t any obvious errors of logic in your argument, that all your allusions flow together in a coherent stream—that kind of thing.”

. . . A theory checker? What an absurd waste of time, since it’s apparent (to us Americans) that people don’t speak in theories, that the theories they employ change, flexibly, and of necessity, from moment to moment in conversation, that the notion of limiting conversation to a rigid rule of theoretical constancy is an absurd denial of what conversation is. (pp. 95-96)


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* I used much of this same material in this blog post ten years ago.

Uncertainty, Probability, and Q-tips

July 28, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Uncertainty and probability are really hard for people, even undergraduates in statistics classes, to understand. I mean, really understand – grok (do people still say “grok”?).

“The polls were wrong,” our president is fond of saying. “They said Hillary would win.” No. What the polls said is that the probability of Hillary winning was 65% (or whatever). That is, sixty-five percent of the time when we get poll results like these, Hillary will win. And 35% of the time, Trump will win. The result is uncertain.

In most of their reporting of results, the pollsters don’t emphasize or even explain the idea of probability. They hope that the people who read their reports will know what “65% probability” means. But they also know that most people, including political reporters, will reduce the message to, “Hillary’s gonna win.”

Maybe it would help if the pollsters included some boilerplate about probability and uncertainty – you know, down at the bottom of the page where they put the sample size and dates and margin of error. Nah. That probably wouldn’t help. It’s like Q-tips. That’s Ezra Klein’s a wonderful analogy. You can hear it in this clip from his recent conversation with Julia Galef. (The excerpt is four minutes long, but the Q-tips part starts at about 0:45. The rest is context and further explanation.)   



Here’s an approximate transcript:

You know how on the packaging of Q-tips they say, “Please don’t put these in your ear”? And ... the only thing ... people do with them is buy them and then immediately stick them into their ear as far as they possibly can, because that’s what you use a Q-tip for. And the Q-tip company knows this perfectly well.
 
What the political forecasters ... are saying is, “We’re giving you an accurate probabalistic forecast, and what you really need to understand is that this is fundamentally a tool to show you that there is uncertainty in elections. And what everybody is doing – and they know this perfectly well – is running to ... get certainty, to get the one thing that they’re told they’re not supposed to use this for.

We can accept uncertainty and probability in other areas. Last night, ESPN broadcast the final round of the World Series of Poker. With only one card (“the river”) unseen, Ott’s Ace/8 would beat Blumstein’s Ace/2. The only way Blumstein can win is if a deuce turns up on the river. The screen (upper left) shows these three “outs” – the only cards that will help Blumstein. If any of the other 39 cards left in the deck turns up, Ott wins the 128,000,000 in the pot.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

As ESPN showed, Ott’s probability of winning the hand is 93%. Blumstein has only a 7% chance. Most viewers – and certainly most poker players – knew what ESPN meant. ESPN was not saying “Ott’s gonna win.” It was saying that if the hand were played from this point 100 times, Blumstein would lose 93 times. But he would win 7 times. Seven times in hundred, he’d get the deuce.

You can guess what happened.


Blumstein got his deuce and won the tournament.

Nobody said, “ESPN got it wrong. Fake percentages. Never believe ESPN.”

We understand that poker is about uncertainty and probability. But we find it much harder to think this way about human behavior – voting for example. Suppose pollsters remind us that their polls show only probability.  “We told you that tf the election were run 100 times, Hillary would lose 35 times.” My reaction is, “That’s ridiculous. The same people would vote the same way, so she’d lose every time. Voters are not cards – you don’t shuffle them up and then turn over one voter on the river.” 

No. But that’s exactly what polls are – samples of the deck of voters. The results give us probabilities, not predictions. Unfortunately, most of the time, most of us ignore that distinction. And we stick Q-tips in our ears.

Cleaning Up After the Jamboree

July 27, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

How do you apologize for someone else’s bad behavior, especially when that person will not apologize, does not even recognize his own impropriety, and is the president of the United States?

Traditionally the president’s address to the Boy Scouts jamboree is non-political. It stresses the good deeds of the organization and the virtues it espouses.* Trump’s speech, by contrast, was what he usually delivers when he goes off script – attacks on his enemies (Hillary, the media, Obamacare), recountings of his electoral victories, dog whistles shout-outs to White Christians, and stream-of-consciousness irrelevancies.

The kids in the audience loved it. They cheered, chanted, and booed in all the right places.  No surprise there. Trump’s persona, like that of Howard Stern, plays well to the adolescent-boy sensibility. But some of the grown-ups felt uncomfortable with the campaign-rally speech, and the organization received many complaints from Scout parents. 

Apparently, the Scouts were not prepared. It took until today, Thursday (Trump spoke on Monday), for the “chief Scout executive” Michael Surbaugh to issue a statement. Here’s the key paragraph.

I want to extend my sincere apologies to those in our Scouting family who were offended by the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree. That was never our intent. The invitation for the sitting U.S. President to visit the National Jamboree is a long-standing tradition that has been extended to the leader of our nation that has had a Jamboree during his term since 1937. It is in no way an endorsement of any person, party or policies. For years, people have called upon us to take a position on political issues, and we have steadfastly remained non-partisan and refused to comment on political matters. We sincerely regret that politics were inserted into the Scouting program.

The problem is how to apologize for the president without offending him. (The president of the Boy Scouts, Randall Stephenson, is also CEO of AT&T. His company wants to gobble up Time Warner, and the deal needs the approval of the Justice Department. Trump’s remarks about loyalty  – “we could use some more loyalty” – may have caught his attention. Perhaps that’s why the statement came from the chief Scout executive.)

Surbaugh (i.e., his writers) hauled out two familiar rhetorical strategies to downplay Trump’s trampling on the norms of Jamboree speeches. First, rather than say that Trump’s speech was offensive, Surbaugh shifted the spotlight to “those . . . who were offended.” It’s not about Trump, it’s about those sensitive snowflakes who took offense.

Second, it wasn’t even Trump who made the speech, at least not as far as anyone would know from reading that paragraph.** Thanks to the passive voice, Trump disappears from sight. Instead we get “the political rhetoric that was inserted into the jamboree” and “politics were inserted” with no hint of who might have been the insertor-in-chief.

You have to have some sympathy for the Scouts brass. Trump dealt them a bad hand. What else could they have done? They could have claimed that Trump’s speech was not political, just good, clean American fun. It’s the sort of thing you might hear from Republicans in Congress. And after all, the credo does not say that a Scout is honest.

--------------------------------
*
A Scout is ...trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent

Oh well, four out of twelve ain’t bad. Maybe five if you allow that our president can also be helpful, at times, to some people. Of course, if Trump himself were scoring this one, he’d give himself 100%.  At the jamboree he mentioned only one of these virtues – loyalty. He complained  that “we could use some more loyalty,” and since most of the speech was about his political accomplishments, it was pretty clear that he was using the royal “we” and that he was referring to Washington politics and perhaps more specifically to the Attorney General.

** In the entire statement – nearly 500 words – Surbaugh never mentions Trump by name. He refers once to “remarks offered by the President of the United States.”