Archive for February 2011

When You Hit Bottom, Stop Digging…or McArdle’s Kitchen Chronicles redux.

February 28, 2011

Fair warning:  This is way too long and fundamentally way too trivial to bother with.  Given all the urgent stuff going on in the world, Megan McArdle hardly deserves anyone’s attention.  I’m just posting this to clear my hard drive and brain of a bit of unfinished business. Plus I think I promised several times to post on Megan McArdle’s response to my post on the serial factual errors in her writing on the history of innovation as seen in the American kitchen.

So by all means, walk on by if you’ve had enough McArdle (I have, and won’t be going to that well again for a while) — but if you want some smack talking and the odd bit of fact, jump the jump and join me.

First, just to catch up with the action:   I’ve had prior occasion to think of this list of officers’ fitness reports in the context of the writer in question.  The title of this post refers to the twelfth item on that tally, but many others apply, I think. Pick your favorites in the comment thread.

In her response, McArdle was particularly stung, I believe (because of her link to it), by a Wall Street Journal blog’s summary of the Krugman-Cowen-McArdle-Levenson sequence.

Thus provoked, she was then moved  to produce an 2,300 word justification of her claims, on which mastication I will now comment.  (That noun chosen because being attacked by McArdle always reminds me of Denis Healey’s marvelous description of being attacked in debate by the Tory politician Sir Geoffrey Howe: it is “like being savaged by a dead sheep.”)

I’ve got to say I am a bit resentful here.  I’m the one supposed to stupify my antagonists with posts rivaling War and Peace for length if in no other aesthetic category, and here she comes stealing onto my patch.*

Ah well.

McArdle begins well, at least for the case I’m trying to argue, setting out on her journey of redemption with perhaps the most revealing and humiliating sentence I’ve read on any blog:

“It’s certainly possible that I got something wrong in that post; I am of course not a historian of kitchens.”

There’s a perhaps even more self-diminishing line that follows: “But neither is Mr. Levenson, and I can’t plead guilty to the offenses I am charged of based on his evidence.”

I like to think that I’ve left seventh grade far behind me, and so see no need for comment here — beyond that we are dealing with someone who really needs to think some more about the argument from authority.

Once she gets past that reflex of pique, she answers my criticisms with three basic types of deflection.

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First, she tries to shift between categories of existence, availability and penetration to suggest that whatever actually occurred, the specific appliances she cites weren’t really part of the 50s landscape. This is nonsense, as I’ll detail a bit below.

Second, she tries a bit of indirection suggesting that some of my examples of her errors aren’t really that significant, because, in essence she knows better.

Third she uses what is perhaps her most powerful (and often used) trick when cornered.  She declares that she was talking about something else that whatever it was she clearly got wrong — and when seen in light of that other issue, everything she said becomes both correct and humiliatingly more insightful than whatever her critics might have argued — or, as she wrote, it surprised her that “someone who teaches science writing at MIT is so unfamiliar with the containerization revolution that he can mistake “container” for “refrigerated.”  It was ever thus:  when cornered, she resorts to the ad hominem, hoping that the insult will distract from the failed argument behind it.

On tactic number one: McArdle had originally claimed that  50s kitchens did not contain, “electric drip coffee brewers, stand mixers, blenders, food processors, or crock pots.” I countered by documenting the history of stand mixers (sold to the public in 1918, widely disseminated in cheaper models through the 20s and 30s); blenders (invented in the twenties, sold in mass quantities in the 30s) and of electric coffee makers, common since the thirties.

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In response to this impressive record of error, McArdle complains I should have understood that what she meant was not that the 50s kitchen lacked this or that, but that it did not possess versions of these inventions that would have been acceptable to one Megan McArdle:

I thought it was obvious why I was specifying drip coffeemakers:  at least for people from my generation, percolated coffee tastes horrible. I do not think of percolators as drip coffee equivalents, I think of them as something close to crime against humanity.

Note at least three things:  first and least, she’s simply trying to baffle with bullsh*t, replying to a claim unmade.  As it happened, as examples of pre-1950 electric coffee makers, I offered not percolaters, but the vacuum coffee maker, a very different technology that the steampunk caffeinistas among us rate highly.  These were indeed generally available in the thirties and are still prized.

Second, and really all in all, recall that the theme of all this is innovation.  The question she herself raised was whether or not there were in the fifties the means to automate a common kitchen task, brewing up a cup of coffee?

Well, yes, there were, as she in fact admits.  Which is what she hopes to keep you from noticing when she decides to wrangle over whether she would actually drink such brew.

Which leads me to this:  it did give me pleasure to read the sentence above, because in a sense it captures all you ever need to know about McArdle.  She decides the facts worth knowing by a simple criterion: do they meet her exquisite standards.

Percolators? Get me The Hague on line one!

Moving on: for an example of the next of McArdle’s favorite tricks to hide her failings, check out this attempt to persuade the reader that she may have been wrong … but not really:

As for the rest, my understanding is that the stand mixer was not widely dispersed in American households until the early 1960s; the stand mixer invented in 1919 was commercial grade; the home versions appeared in the 1930s and sold well, but were somewhat derailed by the dearth of consumer production during World War II.   Of course, if anyone has data better than I was able to find, I am open to correction.

Again, errors, minor, but still there:  according to the Kitchenaid company the commercial stand mixer was first produced (not invented) in 1915, and the first home models were sold in 1919. Perhaps McArdle may asssert that by “commercial grade” she means “home,” but I think a reasonable person would find that disengenuous at best.

She admits, though that mixers sold well — Sunbeam, makers of cheaper models than Kitchenaid, topped 1 million sold before World War II.  But, argues McArdle, she’s still right, despite all this, writing that “some of this, however, may simply be an argument about what constitutes ‘common.'”

I didn’t think she loved Bill Clinton so much that she’d expropriate his “defintion of ‘is'” defense so readily.

She goes through a similar exercise for the blender, and then concludes that after all, maybe she and I were both right:   “I lean towards requiring some amount of broad diffusion, [of appliances] but I can see the argument for the other side–indeed, that’s what I was getting at in the post, that the definition of a “1950s kitchen” is tricky.

Well, I guess.

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Just to be as blunt as possible:  by “common” or “broad diffusion” she seems to mean whatever number is just a little bit higher than those actually use in the 1950s.  That’s a child’s bob and weave, not an argument from anyone who wishes to be taken seriously.

Oy.  This will never end, will it — which is, of course, McArdle’s true genius.  She throws up such an endless spray of word salad that actually pulling apart each and every one of her distortions, errors, and outright lies takes much longer than anyone wants to either write or read.  So I’ll just give the slightest of glosses on the third attempt McArdle makes to defend herself, in her discussion of the emergence of container shipping.

As noted above, she does so in a way that emphasizes her mock horror that a professor at MIT should mistake refrigeration for containerization– which would indeed have been a simpleton’s error had it been made.

But the problem is that the discussion was, in McArdle’s own framing, about whether or not people in the 50s had access to fresh produce:

I don’t believe that they have gone without fresh produce for six to eight months at a time, as my mother did in her childhood–and was told to be grateful for the frozen vegetables which hadn’t been available when her mother was young….

Is the shift to flash frozen produce greater, or less great, than the shift from flash frozen to the fresh produce made possible by falling trade barriers, rising air travel, and the advent of container shipping?

McArdle’s gaming the question here of course, asserting her assumptions as the answer:  fresh produce in her telling could only arrive on American tables through her triad of trade (which, I guess, could only have happened post 1960, to the great surprise of the United Fruit Company and Dole), air travel (fresh fish was delivered by air to Moscow in 1945!) and containers, a genuinely post 1960 innovation, (one that I actually witnessed transforming my home town; I was a child when San Francisco’s docks died and the upstart Port of Oakland’s container terminal came to dominate freight traffic to the Bay Area).

But if you were to make the mistake of taking McArdle’s question more seriously than she herself does, then what we want to know is what innovations were most important in delivering fresh food to distant markets.  And there, the answer you find again and again in histories of food was rolling refrigeration, which, as I gabbled on at length last time, is a development that has a history in the US dating to before the Civil War.  Last time, I talked of meat — but just in case you were wondering, the first American shipment of fresh produce — strawberries –rode the rails of the Illinois Central in 1867, which is a factoid that makes this quote from McArdle at once pathetic and telling:

When my mother was growing up, it was  theoretically possible to buy fresh strawberries or asparagus in December, shipped in a refrigerated boxcar from a hothouse or maybe California.  But I doubt the grocers in her small town would have stocked them, and if they did, my grandparents, who were solidly middle class but whose memories of the Great Depression died hard, would never have dreamed of buying them…

Yup.  We’re back to that again. This or that is unpossible because I or mine can’t imagine it.

And so on and on.   There’s more, but I’m done.  There isn’t time in the day to fisk out every last bit of nonsense showering forth from McArdle’s keyboard.

So I’ll just leave you with one last thought.

As in my earlier post, let me explicitly call out The Atlantic. For all that there are good people doing good work over there — for one example, have you seen the folks posting at Fallow’s blog lately?  They’re going great guns — the bottom line is this:

A major media operation resembles an old fashioned World War II convoy, at least in one respect:  just as those gaggles of vessels traversing the North Atlantic couldn’t travel faster than the slowest ship, over time, publications can’t be seen as more reliable than their least trustworthy writer.

Just sayin.

*Perhaps it’s because the indictment hit just a little too close to home, and she has opted for one of the traditional tactics of those in peril with the truth: “When the law is against you, argue the facts. When the facts are against you, argue the law.  When both are against you, attack the plaintiff.”

Images:  Georg Flegel, Pantry by Candlelight, c. 1630-1635.

Ivana Kobilca, Coffee Drinker 1888.

Willem Frederik van Royen, The Carrot, 1699.

Reality Has A Well-Known Liberal Bias, Wisconsin Edition

February 25, 2011

I know that probably everything below is obvious to this audience and/or already presented better by someone else here, but anyay:  following up John’s post on the deliberate deception behind “contribute more” demand of public service workers in Wisconsin, here’s some inconvenient data.

The shorter:  public service workers are not overpaid.  Not even a little bit.*

Let me turn it over to an MIT colleague (one vastly more accomplished than I), Thomas Kochan,

Kochan is a Wisconsin native and a University of Wisconsin graduate.  He’s recently been involved in some creative and effective labor negotiations in Massachusetts, notably the exceptionally tricky (and successful) effort to merge several state transportation agencies with a variety of unions and contracts into one big happy family.  In his day job, he studies industrial relations and labor policy at MIT in both the Engineering Systems Division and the Sloan School of Management (i.e. not habitats exactly  overpopulated with DFH’s).

Here’s what he had to say to his home state:

It has to start by getting the facts right. Wisconsin’s public service employees are not overpaid relative to their private sector counterparts. Rutgers University professor Jeffrey Keefe has done the analysis. (See his complete study on our Employment Policy Research Network website: www.employmentpolicy.org.) Controlling for education and other standard human capital variables he found that Wisconsin’s public sector workers earn 8.2 percent less than their private sector counterparts in wages and salaries. Taking fringe benefits into account shrinks the difference to 4.2 percent. Thus, public sector workers have lower wages and higher fringe benefits (yes, pensions and health care benefits are the two standouts). But overall, they are not overpaid compared to the private sector. No easy scapegoat here.

That is:  Wisconsin state workers are living exactly the way their fellow citizens  should want them to:  they are deferring present consumption for  income security in retirement.  This is what every financial counselor begs their clients to do.  It is what as a society we want to happen — better by far that our citizens anticipate and prepare for life after work than to hit the bricks with a grin and a sawbuck in their pockets.

And  Wisconsin civil service is exercising such prudence at a cost to the taxpayer lower than that of private sector workers.  You can argue whether or not that 4% figure is a sufficient price to pay for the (at least partly) notional job security public employees possess, but the basic point is clear:  Wisconsin state workers are hardly bilking the tax payer to enjoy lives of sloth and opulence.

And as for Governor Walker — this is just the (n)th over determination of the fact that his attack on public unions has nothing to do with underlying issues of state finance.

Rather, it is both malign — an attempt to complete the transfer of wealth from the middle to the affluent begun with the recent tax cuts he championed — and dumb, another way to undermine the state’s economy in the midst of recession, according to an analysis by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future.

Is there a better way?

Kochan thinks so.

Given that the evidence seems to me to be overwhelming that the GOP both in Wisconsin and nationwide does not actually seek ways to govern well, such optimism could be dismissed as feckless idealism, yet one more out-of-touch professor’s dream of the way things ought to work in a world that we do not inhabit.

Except for this:  Kochan has just recently completed his participation in what any observer of Massachusetts politics would have told you is impossible:  to secure a policy and employment practice (and pay) bargain in the context of a merger of six state agencies and a bunch of unions and contracts.  (see the linked op-ed. for a bit more on this).

It can be done, in other words — though only if the parties recognize some common interest.  Here’s Kochan’s thumbnail sketch of what Wisconsin could do (were it only governed by grownups — which is my snark, not that of my far more genial and patient colleague):

1. Get the facts right and communicate them to the public. Create an expert panel to document and generate options for addressing your pension and health care issues. Have this panel report within three months.

2. Use these findings as inputs into your own “Grand Bargain” by bringing together state officials, representatives of all public sector unions, and neutral facilitators experienced in interest-based negotiations (you have some of the best in the country living in Wisconsin) and instruct them to negotiate solutions to the problems and to communicate their solutions to the public.

3. Use the lessons learned from this experience to carry out an evidence-based analysis of how to modernize the state’s public sector bargaining statute to fit the needs of today’s more transparent and financially strapped environment. That approach worked well before — a similar expert panel provided the ideas that were enacted into Wisconsin’s public sector statute in 1962. You can do it again, and if you do Wisconsin will again lead the nation in the practical, forward-looking problem solving that us ex-Wisconsinites brag about almost as much as we brag about the Packers.

I’m beginning to get the sense that some real buyer’s remorse is sinking in over in Packerland.

I certainly hope so.  For this isn’t just a battle about unions and worker’s rights and futures — though it certainly is all of that.  But layered over those battles is the big one:  does the idea of a social contract stand a chance in America anymore?  If not, then it’s decline and fall time, I’m fearing:  the cocktail that Gov. Walker is mixing for Wisconsin — more income inequality (and lives made harder to live) and less wealth overall in the long term — is the bitter cup the rest of us will taste soon enough.

*It’s certainly true you can get local exceptions like the notorious Vallejo public safety contracts implicated in that city’s bankruptcy in 2008.  But nationwide, the numbers are clear.  Just to anticipate the use of data points like that coming from this one badly run small city, the old trick of pulling out the extreme tail of a distribution and deeming it typical is effective in media terms; it’s a disgraceful and stupid way to make policy.

Images:  Rembrandt van Rijn, An Elderly Woman (in widow’s dress and black gloves), 1632-1635

William Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode (No. 2), c. 1743

The GOP War on Women (And Families) Continues

February 18, 2011

Deep thinker Mike Pence’s amendment banning federal funding for Planned Parenthood has passed the House, 245-180.

This cuts $363 million that would otherwise pay for the full range of family planning services Planned Parenthood provides.

That would be this operation:

Our skilled health care professionals are dedicated to offering men, women, and teens high-quality, affordable medical care. One in five American women has chosen Planned Parenthood for health care at least once in her life.

The heart of Planned Parenthood is in the local community. Our 85 unique, locally governed affiliates nationwide operate more than 820 health centers, which reflect the diverse needs of their communities.

These health centers provide a wide range of safe, reliable health care — and more than 90 percent is preventive, primary care, which helps prevent unintended pregnancies through contraception, reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections through testing and treatment, and screen for cervical and other cancers. Caring physicians, nurse practitioners, and other staff take time to talk with clients, encouraging them to ask questions in an environment that millions have grown to trust.

….

Planned Parenthood is a respected leader in educating Americans about reproductive and sexual  health. We deliver comprehensive and medically accurate information that empowers women, men, teens, and families to make informed choices and lead healthy lives. Planned Parenthood is proud of its vital role in providing young people with honest sexuality and relationship information in classrooms and online to help reduce our nation’s alarmingly high rates of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. More than 1.2 million youths and adults participate in Planned Parenthood educational programs every year.

It is certainly true that Planned Parenthood provides abortion services, none of which are paid for by federal tax dollars.*  Mostly, though this is what it does:

In 2008, they reported that contraception constituted 35% of total services, STI/STD testing and treatment constituted 34%, cancer testing and screening constituted 17%; and other women’s health procedures, including pregnancy, prenatal, midlife, and infertility were 10%. According to Planned Parenthood less than 2% of visits involve abortions.

So, in essence, the House GOP has decided that in order to prevent federal tax dollars from paying for abortions they already don’t pay for, they are willing to see more — many more — Americans suffer sexually transmitted infections, die of cancer, endure untreated complications of pregnancy, menopause and the inability to bear longed-for children.  Say that again: to prevent any federal dollar from passing in close proximity to a private one that paid for an abortion, GOP religious zealots are willing to make it harder for infertile couples to bear children.

Why, I ask, do the modern Republican party and all those self-styled “conservative” radicals hate women — and America — so very, very much.

*Except, possibly, in cases where the abortion is necessitated by an act of rape or incest.

Image: attributed to Albrecht Dürer, Syphilis, 1496.

Yup, I Do Need A 12 Step Program: McArdle’s Calculator Is Acting Up Again, Social Security edition.

February 18, 2011

Oh boy.  Speaking of faux hawks, Megan McArdle yesterday decided to start getting serious about the deficit.*

In McArdle’s playpen, that means we’ve got to eliminate Social Security for the middle class (and the rich), shifting instead to covering only low-lifetime earners.**  There’s more:  She offers a Medicare budget “plan” designed to replace the lower cost provider of medical care with more expensive private insurance ones.  I’m not going to bother applying a beat down to what she suggests on health care because it is (a) at least partly incomprehensible — what is “long term care insurance for the carriage trade?”*** and because I really do have a day job and thus don’t have the spare minutes to do my usual John Foster Dulles on this subject right now.

No, here I just want to offer one more ranging shot in my ongoing attempt to demonstrate that McArdle’s serial errors of journalistic craft, large and small, are on their own, divorced from her politics, sufficient reason to dismiss her as a particpant in any civic conversation.  That such failings support her disastrous views is, to be sure, a feature and not a bug — but what continues to amaze me is that she doesn’t even meet the minimum threshold for the career in which she has had such institutional success.  It’s as if she were a cop who never got the hang of that radio thingy.

So what is it this time?  Try this passage:

But people looking at percentages of GDP are dramatically underestimating the scale of what’s involved.  For example, I was on a panel where someone told me that “all” we had to do to salvage Social Security was lift the cap on social security earnings. My reaction was:  all?  That’s a fifteen percentage point tax hike on all income above $106,000, much of which is supposed to be taxed, as of 2014, at 39.5%.  On top of the 55% marginal tax rates you’re proposing on top incomes, you need to add in state and local taxes, and the already uncapped Medicare taxes, plus the Medicare surcharge, pushing the marginal tax rate on  those incomes well over 60%.  To look at it from the point of view of the wealthy, you’re proposing to slash their current after-tax salary income by about a quarter in one fell blow.

What’s wrong here?  Well, to be going on with, there’s an elementary mistake about the Social Security portion of FICA.   Lifting the cap on earnings taxed for pensions would increase tax levels on those extra dollars by 12.4 %, not 15 %.****  That would be because, as McArdle seems to remember in a sentence or two, 2.9% of the payroll tax total of 15.3 % goes to pay for Medicare, and already is not subject to an income cap.

It’s a little error, I’ll admit, perhaps genuinely a careless one.  It is notable (at least to me) that the error falls on the side of making the case for the poor worse and the concern for the rich greater — all SOP in McArdle’s stuff.  But maybe this truly was just a slip of memory, an instance of sloppiness rather than malice.

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In the end, of course, the question of rhetorical intent doesn’t matter much, at least not from my perch as an observer and teacher of writing for the public.  If you can’t get things right, big or little, to some quite high level of performance, you just shouldn’t stay (or be allowed to remain) in this business.

Still, as so often with McArdle, there’s more to this mistake than meets the eye.  She accepts her interlocutor’s premise that it would take a really big tax — whether her 15% or the real 12.4% number — to restore Social Security to perpetual balance.  But is this true?

No. (Surprised?)

I don’t have the full range of calculations in front of me, but it happens that last year Rep. Robert Wexford (D-FL) asked the Social Security Administration to calculate the effects of imposing a 6% tax on all income above the current cap.

The results: that change alone would eliminate more than half of the projected shortfall in Social Security as of 2083.  In that context, relative minor changes to the benefit structure (e.g. a change in the indexing calculation to shift the index applied to higher earners from wage growth measures to the consumer price index) would render the system in balance indefinitely.

Now, apply Wexler’s six percent number and get rid of McArdle’s double counting of the Medicare charge, you get to a federal maximum marginal income + FICA rate of 48.4 %.

Next, to return to McArdle’s  calculation:  the Medicare surcharge McArdle mentions for those above the current Social Security income cap level of $106,000 will run from about $1,000 a year to about $3,200 for the highest earners.  Which means we’re  talking about maxing out at a marginal, not total, federal tax burden of about 50% — instead of the McArdle preferred rate of roughly 44%.  The difference between a take home of 50% of (marginal) adjusted gross income as opposed to 56% is, of course, a big chunk less than one quarter.  Which is to say that McArdle’s calculator is broken again.

I’ll reiterate that the Wexler number doesn’t entirely close the 75 year gap. But it gets damn close — and the point is that McArdle postulates in her post that we have to kill Social Security (as a universal program) to save it.  Not so:  real calculations with honest numbers show that much less drastic treatments can cure the pension program’s ills.

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The point:  yup, Social Security has a long term solvency concern.  It is, as everyone here knows, far from the biggest budget issue we face — that would be health care costs — and there are a number of paths out there to get to decent outcomes for the aged.*****

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Enough.  You get the idea:  McArdle fails on the elementary journalistic task of reporting the most basic facts within her story correctly.  Those errors support larger failures of interpretation and intellection, to the detriment of her own reputation, to the discredit of her venue, and to the disadvantage of the republic.

And with that I’m off the McArdle beat for a while, except for tying up the loose ends of kitchen folly. I’m just not going there for as long as possible.  There is a whole web out there; why spend any more time than one must mucking about in the swamp?

*Yes, I know.  I need a twelve step program.  I promise that this is the last McArdle post for a while, but for my promised response to her bit of silliness attempting to excuse her kitchen follies. But she does provide such a tempting target…

**This is the kind of manure advanced by  folks who either no nothing about a subject or whose real goal is not the stated one.  In this case:  look at national support for transfer payments to the poor and ask how long Social Security transformed into a welfare payment of the elderly poor will remain unscathed.  This is pure opinion, of course, but it is a historically informed one:  Social Security works because the middle as well as the poor understand its value.  Erode that, and the whole structure is at risk — and grandma will count herself lucky if she can dine on cat food. Whether this is a bug or a feature for McArdle I’ll leave for others to ponder.

***McArdle’s full “plan” (sic-ed) for health care cost containment:   “You put tight(er) means tests on Medicare and Medicaid to encourage the development of markets for private health insurance and long term care insurance for the carriage trade.” Because our private market for health care has tested out so well already, no doubt.

****For 2011, the total SSI tax rate goes down 2% under the tax deal reached during last year’s lame duck session.  It won’t last.

*****You can see a wider range of options of both benefit cuts and payroll tax increases in another calculation that the SSA ran in response to a National Research Council/National Academy of Public Administration study.****

Images: Laurent de La Hyre Allegory of Arithmetic,  c. 1650
Theo van Doesburg, Study for Arithmetic Composition, 1929-1930.
Francisco de Goya, Old Man and Woman Eating Supper, 1821-1823.

Megan McArdle is Always Wrong: Reading Papers Is Hard edition.

February 16, 2011

(BTW: Apologies in advance for the length of this screed.  You can always think Playboy and/or wherever it was my junior senator offered his cheesecake and “read” it for the pix. ;)

I know that Megan McArdle is a bagatelle in the supermarket of awful opened by the current (and hopefully temporary) right wing ascendancy.  But even if there’s nothing she does that rises to the consequence of our recent theme, for example, in which the forced-birth, pro-rape party continues to advance its claims, she still finds her own ways to damage the Republic.  So please excuse yet another detour into the eternal sunshine of the McArdle mind.

DougJ has already written about her latest — how to describe it? — special attempt to bolster the long standing conservative attack alleging bias against conservatives in the academy.*

I’m completely down with his take on the matter, unsurprisingly, but here I want to add the dimension of McArdle’s continuing failure to attain minimal standards of journalistic competence.  (I’ve got some unfinished business on this btw, given her recent squib of rage at being called out on errors in kitchen history.  If boredom with the company of McArdle’s prose and the day job don’t overwhelm me, I’ll post on that in a couple of days.)  Here, I’m want to pound on the way McArdle misleads her readers on what is clearly a more consequential subject.


That would be her use of citations to scholarly literature that, if read, would reveal profound differences between what she says the research reveals and what in fact you find should you read the stuff yourself.

So, consider this from McArdle:

One of the things the legacy of racism has taught us is just how good dominant groups are at constructing narratives that justify their dominance.  Somehow, the problem is never them.  It’s always the out group.  Maybe the out group has some special characteristic that makes them not want to be admitted to the circle–blacks are happy-go-lucky and don’t want the responsibility of management, women wouldn’t deign to sully themselves in commerce, Jews are too interested in money to want to attend Harvard or go into public service.  These explanations always oddly ignore the fact that many members of the out-group are complaining about being excluded.
More troubling is that these volitional arguments are almost always combined with denigration: the out group is stupid, greedy, mean, violent, overemotional, corrupt . . . whatever. As indeed these arguments are when they’re deployed against conservatives in my comment threads.  In fact, it seems clear to me that many commenters have taken the underrepresentation of conservatives in academia as vindication of their beliefs–if conservatives can’t make it in academia, that proves that conservatives are not smart, and liberal ideas must be better.  This is possible, of course.  It’s also possible that academics are validating their own bias by systematically excluding those who disagree with them.
So while in theory, it’s true that you can’t simply reason from disparity to bias, I have to say that when you’ve identified a statistical disparity, and the members of the in-group immediately rush to assure you that this isn’t because of bias, but because the people they’ve excluded are all a bunch of raging assholes with lukewarm IQ’s . . . well, I confess, discrimination starts sounding pretty plausible.
When that group of people is assuring you that the reason conservatives can’t be in charge is that they do not have open minds . . . when the speed and sloppiness of their argument make it quite clear that they rejected the very possibility of discrimination without giving it even a second’s serious thought . . . well, I confess, it starts sounding very plausible.  More plausible than I, who had previously leaned heavily on things like affinity bias to explain the skew, would have thought.
Moreover, what evidence we have does not particularly support many of the alternative theories. For example, the liberal skew is strongest at elite universities.  This is not consistent with the notion that education is turning all the conservatives into liberals, or that they’re not interested in becoming professors.  I’d say it’s more consistent with the possibility that they’re disproportionately having a hard time getting hired, or retained.

I quote at length to avoid McArdle’s common dodge when caught in hackery that crucial context has been omitted that would reveal her ultimate wisdom.

So, here’s how I gloss the above, trying to ignore the “I never (emotionally) escaped seventh grade” affect of the passage.

She is saying that the dominance of liberals over conservatives in the academy is a fact.  Liberal academics and their defenders assert that mere numerical disparities do not require an explanation of bias or discrimination, but those who discriminate always say that.  Thus, because her commenters have told her that conservatives are excluded because they are stupid, this serves to confirm that liberal academics are simply educated versions of common or garden-variety bigots.  And because, in McArdle’s version her critics only make the worst arguments, this in turn makes the charge of active discrimination “very plausible.”

I leave to the commenters a full dissection of the problems of “research” and interpretation based on the ways in which McArdle presents her critics’ perspectives.  I’ll just say here one of the fundamental lessons we try to teach in our journalism segments of MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing is that when presenting views in dispute, the writer has the obligation to present opposing arguments in their strongest possible light.  This does not seem to be a part of the journalistic toolkit with which McArdle is familiar.

But all that aside, look to that last paragraph:  “what evidence we have does not particularly support many of the alternative theories (to bias).”

The “evidence” at that link is a study by two social scientists, Neil Gross of Harvard and Solon Simmons of George Mason University, titled “The Social and Political Views of American Professors,” distributed in 2007.  A reasonable person would, I think, interpret McArdle’s cite of this paper as claiming that Gross and Simmons’ research supports her statement that the most plausible explanation for the ratio of liberals to conservatives in the academy is bias.

I’m guessing folks know what’s coming next:

What happens when some unruly types (as they have done before) actually read the research in question — in this case a 70 page, 25,000 word article?

I’ve now read the whole damn piece.  I won’t burden you with every last quote I pulled (I stopped at about 2,500 words of excerpts) but it’s there if anyone wants to call me on it.  Here, I’ll try to keep  it down to a dull roar of passages that should have given McArdle pause.

So:  does the paper McArdle relies on for her claims of bias state that the academy is clearly overwhelmingly liberal?

No:

Where other recent studies have characterized the American college and university faculty as not simply extremely liberal, but nearly uniformly so (Klein and Stern 2004-5; Rothman, Lichter, and Nevitte 2005; Tobin and Weinberg 2006), we show that while conservatives, Republicans, and Republican voters are rare within the faculty ranks, on many issues there are as many professors who hold center/center-left views as there are those who cleave to more liberal positions, while the age distribution indicates that, in terms of their overall political orientation, professors are becoming more moderate over time, and less radical. [page 3]

What does academic faculty actually look like?:

Collapsing the data accordingly to a three point scale, we find that 44.1 percent of respondents can be classified as liberals, 46.6 percent as moderates, and 9.2 percent as conservatives.  Such a recoding thus reveals a moderate bloc that – while consisting of more liberal- than conservative-leaning moderates – is nevertheless equal in size to the liberal bloc. [p. 27]

Well, maybe that just reflects an aging, embattled cohort of moderation losing ground to ivy-covered radicals.  Or maybe not:

Table 4 shows that the youngest age cohort – those professors aged 26-35 – contains the highest percentage of moderates, and the lowest percentage of liberals.  Self-described liberals are most common within the ranks of those professors aged 50-64, who were teenagers or young adults in the 1960s, while the largest number of conservatives is to be found among professors aged 65 and older (though the age differences in terms of the number of conservatives are small, problematizing Alan Wolfe’s [1994:290] assertion that “the cultural war in the universities is a generational war.”)  These findings with regard to age provide further support for the idea that in recent years the trend has been toward increasing moderatism. [p. 29]

Is there nonetheless a monolithic culture of opinion in the classroom or on tenure review boards?

What overall conclusion can be drawn from our analysis of the attitudes items? What we wish to emphasize is simply that there is more attitudinal complexity and heterogeneity in the professorial population than second wave researchers have attended to.  It seems to us unlikely that a simplistic notion like “groupthink” – more of a political slur than a robust social-scientific concept – can do very much to help explain the specific configurations and distributions of attitudes our survey reveals. [p. 61]

Finally, is bias really the one best explanation social scientists see to explain the political landscape of American universities?    As discussed in Neil Gross’s paper with Ethan Fosse “Why Are Professors Liberal” (2010 – link at Gross’s webpage), the answer is again (guess!)…No:

For example, Woessner and Kelly-Woessner (2009) find that twice as many liberal as conservative college students aspire to complete a doctorate.  In interviews, Binder (2009) finds that conservative students at a major public university regard faculty members disparagingly and do not seek to emulate them in any way. Ecklund (forthcoming), studying the religiosity of academic scientists at elite schools, finds that high levels of religious skepticism result not from professional socialization, but from the greater tendency of religious skeptics to become scientists, a finding that echoes Finkelstein’s (1984) earlier review of the evidence. Gross and Simmons (2006), analyzing public opinion data, find that conservatism, Republican Party affiliation, and evangelical identity are associated with less confidence in higher education and diminished evaluations of the occupational prestige of professors. [p. 50]

There’s lots more, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now.  But I think y’all get the idea:

There is,  contra McArdle, plenty of research out there on academic political attitudes.  That which she invokes, does not conform to the myth she wishes to advance here.  The specific paper she cites explicitly contradicts the thrust of her argument.

In other words, McArdle has chosen to deceive her readers.

That is, the issue here is not that she got simple, quanta of “fact” wrong.**  She advances few in this particular post, preferring instead to remain safely behind the deniability afforded by putting words in the mouths of anonymous interlocutors.  Here it is a matter of false reporting, claiming that research with which she asserts personally familiarity supports her case when, by any reasonable reading, it does not.

Such intellectual dishonesty has to be named and shamed. First and most important, of  course, because McArdle here advanced an attack whose aim is to discredit what academics have to say.  The existence of an even marginal voice independent of the right wing consensus is both a threat and emotionally intolerable.

Thus, I’d guess, McArdle’s “mean-girl” slashes against critics of her original post on this subject.  If it is liberals who are the racist scum here, no need to listen to any actual evidence they might advance on this or any matter.  And as for McArdle, so for the broader right-wing attack on independent expertise and the exercise of reason.

This is, of course, disastrous for a working democracy.

And its not good for The Atlantic either.  I suppose I shouldn’t care, but I do.  In the great scheme of things, the fate of that masthead may not matter much, but each time McArdle  misleads her readers to advance her cause it cuts away at the foundation of trust a reader may have in anything published there.

And when you get flurries of reports of bad journalism — think the latest Friedersdorf craptacular — it gets harder and harder to avoid the thought that the operation as a whole is losing its way.  There are great people who work there — I’ve named some of my favorites before, and I’m not going to keep calling out folks who are trying to produce good work in what must be an often difficult situation.

But the bottom line doesn’t change:  obvious, overt bad craft costs any publication something.  It may take a while for the rot to show, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t griping away at the foundation.  And while it’s none of my business, really, The Atlantic has given me enormous pleasure and food for thought over many years.  I’d hate to see it go the way of The New Republic.

*Here’s my recent take on what launched this latest salvo.  There is a deep history to all this, of course, with one possible start date coming with McCarthy, and another with the Nixon-Agnew attack on knowldege.  But this latest round is an offshoot of the culture wars, and in “scholarly” — sic — form dates back  a couple of decades, and has been pushed by the usual suspects, as reported in the study much referenced above:

It was in this context that a new wave of faculty studies appeared.  Where earlier studies had been thoughtful social scientific investigations, the new studies were closer to thinly disguised works of political advocacy intended to back up the charge of “liberal bias” in academe.  The first to appear and grab headlines – columnist John Tierney devoted an entire New York Times piece to it (Tierney 2004) – involved two interrelated inquiries led by economist Daniel Klein that were initially published in Academic Questions, the journal of the conservative National Association of Scholars.

**Well, she does, a bit.  According to the Gross and Simmons paper, elite universities are slightly less the hotbeds of liberalism that four year liberal arts colleges are, contra her assertion following her cite of this paper.  But the numbers are pretty close, and that claim is published elsewhere, so I’m not going to bang that drum this time.

[Cross posted at Balloon Juice]

Images:  Margret Hofheinz-Döring/Galerie Brigitte Mauch Göppingen, Women Talking in the Rain, 1963.

Pierre-August Renoir, Madame Monet Reading Le Figaro, 1872.

Paul Gaugin, Eve–Bretonne. (An alternate version of this scene is titled Eve–Don’t Listen to the Liar), 1889

Guest Post: Friends vs. Reason, or the Cost of Being Wrong

February 15, 2011

Please welcome my MIT colleague Jim Bales, who is the only teacher I know who has to weigh the pros and cons of handing his T. A. the rifle.  He writes here on a post over at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen that I meant to excoriate myself…only he got there faster and better.

_________

Our host (and my colleague) Tom Levenson was kind enough to loan me his soap box, so let me introduce myself. I’m Dr. Jim Bales (Ph.D., Physics, MIT ’91), I teach Strobe Project Lab here at MIT.

Over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Mark Thompson weighs in on the debate sparked by DougJ’s two questions over at Balloon Juice. (Namely, “Do you believe in Evolution?” and ” Do you believe that the average temperature on earth has increased over the past 30 years?”)

What struck me were Mr. Thompson’s words (in the context of the climate change debate):

Why would only an unreasonable person trust one’s ideological compatriots (whom you know to have expended far more effort into understanding a given issue than you have) more than one trusts a group of self-appointed experts whom one has never encountered and who you know to have a vastly different set of priorities than you?

Who, I asked myself, are these “self-appointed experts”? On climate change, the widely acknowledged “experts” are those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I wondered when they appointed themselves as “experts” on Climate Change?

So, I turned to Wikipedia and found:

The panel was first established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), two organizations of the United Nations—an action confirmed on 6 December 1988 by the United Nations General Assembly through Resolution 43/53. The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President of the United States Al Gore.

OK, so they are not self-appointed. However, they must be a bunch of cranks right?

” The IPCC bases its assessment mainly on peer reviewed and published scientific literature.[5] … IPCC reports are widely cited in almost any debate related to climate change.  National and international responses to climate change generally regard the UN climate panel as authoritative.[8]“

Ok, they aren’t crackpots. But, I think, no doubt, I’ll find it’s a handful of ideologues banging out propaganda with no oversight or review. Digging into the IPCC web site I learned that the 4th Assessment Report (AR4) is the product of “more than 500 Lead Authors and 2000 Expert Reviewers, building on the work of a wide scientific community and submitted to the scrutiny of delegates from more than one hundred participating nations.”

In other words, Mr. Thompson created a strawman with the words “self-appointed experts” to avoid dealing the simple fact that the IPCC’s authority over its subject matter derives from the demonstrated accomplishments of its member scientists. These are not “self-appointed experts”, these are, by any objective standard, experts.

At which point, my answer to his question is:

The reason to trust the IPCC over one’s “ideological compatriots” is because the IPCC’s reports are the broad consensus of a body of bona fide experts, appointed to investigate climate change, and whose work is subject to extensive technical review prior to publication, with no ideological position outside of a) getting the science right, b) extracting the most accurate picture possible of the current state of the world’s climate and c) discerning the trends of climate change. Given the facts to date, one could only trust one’s “ideological compatriots” if they could present direct, unequivocal, empirical evidence that the IPCC has consistently and systematically made assertions or predictions that are demonstrably false.

Notice the very high bar I set here: “direct, unequivocal, empirical evidence that the IPCC has consistently and systematically made assertions or predictions that are demonstrably false.” It is not casting doubts on selected conclusions of the IPCC. It is not showing that, out of the massive amount of work published by the IPCC, some assertions or predictions are false. To cast valid doubt on the IPCC requires showing that the IPCC has a pattern of getting the science wrong. If Mr. Thompon’s unnamed “ideological compatriots” have such evidence, they have hidden it very well.

The bottom line is that reasonable people trust reason over ideology.

Finally, Mr. Thompson asks:

What if, as is the case with global warming, there are a handful of experts with facially similar qualifications to the main group of scientists who: 1. share your ideological or religious predispositions; and 2. dissent from that main group? Is it the mark of an inherently unreasonable person to trust the former over the latter?

Mr. Thompson’s unstated concern seems to be that some scientists may allow their ideology (or religion) to color their interpretation and understanding of the evidence, leading them to false conclusions. He has two, and only two choices. Either i) he will blindly trust his minority “ideological compatriots” because the stakes of being wrong are so low that it isn’t worth the effort to assess who is trustworthy, or ii) he will make the effort to figure out who is trustworthy because the cost of being wrong is too high.

For the issue of climate change I would hope he feels obligated to follow the second path, and engages in “the heavy lifting that is necessary for a political system to function” by digging in and establishing for himself the credibility (or lack) of the IPCC. It is what a reasonable person would do.

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1808

February 13, 2011

I mentioned earlier this week Bernard Avishai’s piece on the almost-nearly-but-not-quite peace deal Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas all but consummated in 2008.

Read the whole thing. Weigh it in light of what Avishai (and others, including your current absolutely non-expert correspondent) think is a last-best-hope raised by the Egyptian political earthquake.

Pay particular attention to this paragraph from the end of the piece:

Olmert and Abbas conveyed the details of what they had achieved to both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell, the Middle East envoy. Condoleezza Rice, Olmert said, prepared a confidential memo for the incoming administration. He could not understand why Obama “did not adopt these achievements as policy.” Abbas told me he is still waiting for an American initiative: “America is the broker; we cannot replace it.” Did he want the understandings he reached with Olmert to become the basis of new American-sponsored talks with Netanyahu? “I demanded this,” he said.

Avishai emphasizes that the missed opportunity of late 2008-early 2009 is still potentially achievable:

Olmert made his offer as a sitting prime minister familiar with the views of the Israeli general staff and military intelligence. Now, with a new regime taking shape in Egypt and serious changes under way in Jordan, Israel will be more dependent on American diplomacy and military support than ever. It is hard to imagine Netanyahu resisting an Obama initiative should the president fully commit to an American package based on these talks and rally the E.U., Russia and the United Nations.

Avishai, who has spoken directly to Abbas (and Olmert, and others) believes that Israel does in fact have a viable partner in this plan:

Abbas, for his part, still leads the P.L.O. and governs the West Bank. Hamas controls Gaza but has committed to honoring any deal Abbas negotiated for the 1967 borders as long as its terms would be submitted to a referendum, which Abbas has solemnly promised to call.

And Olmert at least, speaks as an Israeli with the full range of experience needed to judge, and concludes that this is truly a moment of opportunity:

“There is a danger that the events in Egypt will mislead some to lose hope in peace,” Olmert told me pointedly in an e-mail. “I think the opposite, that there can be another way to challenge the events near us. This is the time to move forward, fast, take my peace initiative with the Palestinians and make a deal. This will be my advice to Prime Minister Netanyahu. Don’t wait. Move, lead and make history. This is the time. There will not be a better one.”

All of which is to say that I will tomorrow morning be calling my  representative and senators and leaving messages at the White House and State Department switchboards to say that I support the rapid resumption of a strong US – led effort to bring the Olmert-Abbas almost-deal to fruition.  Follow suit as your judgment suggests.

__

In the meantime, again, I urge y’all to read what Bernie has to say.

Image:  Corrado Giaquinto, Justice and Peace, 18th c.


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