Archive for November 2011

In Which I Find Myself In Total (and Gobsmacked) Agreement With Jeffrey Goldberg

November 30, 2011

If you want to know why supporting Israel — in any meaningful sense of the term — has to be different from supporting Likud/Netanyahu, check this out from Goldberg.  (If you don’t think that supporting Israel in any context is a good idea — well, we disagree, but you can still marvel at the Netanyahu administration’s truly impressive, the-wheel-is-spinning-but-the-hamster’s-dead stupidity.)  Golberg’s concluding passage:

The idea, communicated in these ads [created by the Netanyahu govt. for American TV], that America is no place for a proper Jew, and that a Jew who is concerned about the Jewish future should live in Israel, is archaic, and also chutzpadik (if you don’t mind me resorting to the vernacular). The message is: Dear American Jews, thank you for lobbying for American defense aid (and what a great show you put on at the AIPAC convention every year!) but, please, stay away from our sons and daughters.

Let me go further:  not only is this latest absurdity proof that there is a vast gulf between a commitment to Israel and a defense of its current government — the two are actually in conflict.  Likud and Netanyahu and their further-right allies are doing lots of things that I think weigh down the long-term prospects for Israel’s survival.  But I have to say that if they want to make things worse much sooner, potentially alienating a significant  fraction of the most committed American supporters of Israel is a pretty good way to go about it.

To steal a term:  Morans!

Image: Jozef Israëls,A Jewish Wedding, 1903

For A Good Time In Cambridge: TNC on Tuesday edition

November 28, 2011

Just to add to Ta-Nehisi Coates day at the blog, one last reminder:  any Balloon Juicers in the greater Boston area are more than welcome at Ta-Nehisi’s reading/talk at MIT tomorrow night — Tuesday, 29 November.  The festivities start at 7 in MIT’s building/room 6-120.  (Interactive map here.)

Ta-Nehisi will be starting from his work-in-progress, a historical novel set before during and after the Civil War, told through multiple voices — of slaves and former slaves, slave-holders and more.  Readers of this blog will remember Ta-Nehisi’s exceptional work on recovering some of the willed forgetting that marks so much Civil War history during “Confederate History Month” a year or so ago – DennisG highlighted that work as he added his own contributions to the effort.  This latest work is the next iteration of that inquiry — and Ta-Nehisi will talk about some of the specific challenges he’s facing as he tries to write through facts into the sound and texture of the past.

Should be a great time. Come if you’ve the necessary proximity and the interest.  (BTW:  in response to a question on my earlier announcement of this event: it’s free and open to the public, no tickets required.)


“a bias toward knowing what I’m talking about”

November 28, 2011

That’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’ credo as stated in the post disembowling Andrew Sullivan that John linked to below.

In that piece, Ta-Nehisi writes of his having mostly avoided the race-intelligence pit o’ fail, because he does not to his own satisfaction know enough about the technical arguments there.  As John says, that doesn’t prevent Ta-Nehisi from accurately diagnosing the moral bankruptcy of Sullivan’s thinking.

But his framing of the post did drive me back to one of the best web sources of insight on issues of method and meaning in statistical reasoning, the invaluable Cosma Shalizi, proprietor of the Three Toed Sloth blog.  Given that Ta-Nehisi provided an implicit shout out for such sources, I thought I’d dig back into Cosma’s work to provide some context.

Back in 2007, when William Saletan decided to trumpet the “work” of notorious race/IQ “scientist” J. Philippe Rushton, in seeming ignorance of Rushton’s long and well documented record as an associate and aider-and-abetter of overtly racist segregationists,* Cosma wrote a series of long and very carefully reasoned posts explaining what’s goes terribly wrong with most writing about IQ and anything — not just race.  For an overview of the problems with concept of “g” — a general intelligence trait — see this honking elephant of a post.  I can recommend two much shorter and nicely wicked dialogues on the question of intelligence and plasticity — or, really, on the ease with which really bad thinking slips into such questions.

The point of all this, worked through in some detail in the third of his four posts on the subject, is that studies of intelligence that assert “truths” about connections between some conception of the heritability of IQ and race do so from a position of what may most kindly be assumed to be simple incompetence — though in some cases a presumption of malice seems justified.

As Cosma himself warned his readers, any honest confrontation with the methodological hell that is IQ research leads one into a quagmire.  I think I’ve pointed you towards close to 20,000 words (and figures) of his attempt to navigate the mire.  So, if you want to skip the some thousands of words towards which I’ve pointed you, here are his conclusions in nice, compact form:

  1. The most common formulae used to estimate heritability are wrong, either for trivial mathematical reasons (such as the upward bias in the difference between monozygotic and dizygotic twins’ correlations), or for substantive ones (the covariance of monozygotic twins raised apart neglects shared environments other than the family, such as maternal and community effects).
  2. The best estimate I can find puts the narrow heritability of IQ at around 0.34 and the broad heritability at 0.48.
  3. Even this estimate neglected heteroskedasticity, gene-environment interactions, gene-environment covariance, the existence of shared environment beyond the family, and the possibility that the samples being used are not representative of the broader population.
  4. Now that people are finally beginning to model gene-environment interactions, even in very crude ways, they find it matters a lot. Recall that Turkheimer et al. found a heritability which rose monotonically with socioeconomic status, starting around zero at low status and going up to around 0.8 at high status. Even this is probably an over-estimate, since it neglected maternal effects and other shared non-familial environment, correlations between variance components, etc. Under such circumstances, talking about “the” heritability of IQ is nonsense. Actual geneticists have been saying as much since Dobzhansky at least.
  5. Applying the usual heritability estimators to traits which are shaped at least in part by cultural transmission, a.k.a. traditions, is very apt to confuse tradition with genetics. The usual twin studies do not solve this problem. Studies which could don’t seem to have been done.
  6. Heritability is completely irrelevant to malleability or plasticity; every possible combination of high and low heritability, and high and low malleability, is not only logically possible but also observed.
  7. Randomized experiments, natural experiments and the Flynn Effect all show what competent regressions also suggest, namely that IQ is, indeed, responsive to purely environmental interventions.

In other words:  Sullivan is not just wrong; he is not only trafficking in just the all-dressed-up-for-the-21st-century version of the slave-holder’s self justification — as Ta-Nehisi so clearly demonstrated; he is not playing the honest broker, merely seeking research to settle vexing questions; he is writing in what can at this point only be chosen ignorance of what those with actual understanding of the methods and pitfalls of social science have been trying to tell him for lo-these-many years.

I know that I sometimes praise Sullivan for his moral acuities:  his strong stand against torture, his long advocacy of civil equality in the GBLT arena, his belated and partial recognition of the flaws of the Republican party.  But when you stack up his role in creating myths about health care in the Clinton years, and his championing of this kind of stuff, I don’t see how you can count his career as a net positive for the society.

*My only Rushton story:  I was in the room at a mid-’80s AAAS meeting when Rushton was just breaking on the scene with his attention grabbing assertion that intelligence was inversely correlated with penis size, which was in turn specifically correlated with particular races.  It was a day that made me proud to be a science writer, as the great SF Chronicle¹ science editor David Perlman got up in that session and just roasted Rushton.  None of this, “some say, others disagree” transcription-monkey reporting.  Just a thing of beauty and a great lesson in the need to build and pay attention to one’s bullship filter.  That is, of course, exactly what Saletan failed to do.

¹Yes. That paper, which, like lots of Bay Area folk, we regularly referred to as the SF Comical, did/does have some truly first class writers and   reporters, among whom Perlman is one of the best.

Image: Adriaen Pietersz.van de Venne, Fools Have the Most Fun, 1661

Mnookin and Me

November 16, 2011

Hey, all:

This is just a reminder of tonight’s internet radio and/or Second Life* farrago, me and Panic Virus author Seth Mnookin in conversation.  Here’s Seth’s take on what we’ll be doing.

For my part, the first goal is to get some distance into why it’s so hard to get scientific thinking — and not just results — into the civic conversation.  Seth’s work on autism/vaccine tribulations is a path into that question that starts us off outside of politics, which I think is important.  That is: it’s not just overt malign interest that makes people reject settled conclusions and resist arguments that would seem (to folks already inside the tent) to be persuasive to anyone who just doesn’t know the details of this or that yet.

As commenter Linnaeus on the last thread I posted on tonight’s conversation pointed out, the Science Studies gang has in fact developed a name for the problem: agnotology.  We live in a culture that has taken the genuine scientific value of skepticism, and has turned it into a rhetorical tool to frame public attitudes towards and constrain access to knowledge about science.

It’s my view that as the weapons used are those of rhetoric, the counter will have to come from some understanding of what it takes to persuade (and move) people, given our current media landscape.

A big job and question, and one to which I doubt either Seth or I will have any conclusive answers — but worth thinking about.  Come along, shoot some questions at us, and have a good time.  Plus, we’ll probably say some stuff about Jenny McCarthy.  I mean, how not?

*Second Life venue:

Image: Jan Steen, The Crowned Orator, before 1675.

By The Way, David Brooks Is Still Always Wrong

November 13, 2011

I know this is already long since fishwrap, but amidst the many disembowelings of David Brooks discovery that he has always been at war with Eurasia   always  loved Mittens, I have to rage, rage, at the relentless, endless, fetishization of the deepest, most degrading fantasy of the right.  No, not that one.  Nor that one either.  Nor this.

No it’s the almost touching faith evinced by Mr. Brooks and the entire GOP presidential field in the existence of a free market in health care.  So, just to flagellate a truly dead horse, let’s take a look at one specific passage from Our Lady of Perpetual Broderism’s Romney tongue-bath:

True Medicare reform replaces the fee-for-service system with premium support. Government gives people money, rising slowly over time, to shop around for their own private insurance plans. The system would reward efficiency and quality, not just quantity. Competition between providers would unleash a wave of innovation.

The only problem is that the marketplace for health care that exists in the world real people inhabit bears little or no resemblance to Brooks’ pleasant vision of informed consumers, with full information in hand, shopping around for the perfect combination of benefits and price they need — not just now, but through the life (and death) cycle all of us endure.


That is: most evocations of the free market in just about anything call up spherical cows, simplified (and dangerously convincing) models of what actually happens in the world.  But to imagine a genuine Ec. 101 free market in health care — and to praise someone as “serious” for building policy on the assumed reality of such delusion — that takes real effort, a true commitment to avoid knowing inconvenient facts.

At least, so says such a DFH as Daniel McFadden.  That would be the 2000 Nobel laureate in economics who has taught at such dens of raving lefty lunacy as USC, UC Berkley, and (ahem) MIT.  And that would be the same fellow who has spent quite a bit of time analyzing the notion of consumer driven health care.  Here’s what he had to say in 2008 in a working paper co-authored with Joachim Winter and Florian Heiss:

Most, but not all, consumers are able to make health care choices consistent with their self-interest, even in the face of novel, complex, ambiguous alternatives. However, certain predictable irrationalities appear – excessive discounting of future health risks, and too much concentration on dimensions that allow easy comparisons, such as current cost and immediate net benefit. Some consumers are inattentive, particularly when prior choices or circumstances identify a default “Status quo” alternative.

These behavioral shortcomings imply that some degree of paternalism is essential if Consumer Directed Health Care is to allocate resources satisfactorily. Health care markets need to be regulated to keep out bad, deceptive products, particularly those that offer “teaser” current benefits but poor longer-run benefits. Consumers need good comparative information on products, and they need to have this information brought to their attention. Consumers appear to underestimate the probabilities of future health events, [or] anticipate the resulting disutility, and as a result they systematically underspend on preventative or chronic care. Socially optimality will require that these services be subsidized, or choices regarding them be framed, to induce desired levels of utilization.

[From the second paper listed on McFadden's website, linked above: "Consumer-Directed Health Care: Can Consumers Look After Themselves?" pp. 19-20]

Note what McFadden et al. do not say.  They don’t say market mechanisms can’t work.

They do say that human beings display predictable behavior that makes it impossible to rely on an unregulated market to deliver health care.  They point out that those irrationalities fall most heavily in the area of guessing what you or I might need some years down the road…i.e. when we are likely to need good care the most.*

Hence, the need for what the authors above call “paternalism,” and what I would term the normal function of the concept of universal insurance — mandated if necessary under the particular policy choice — against risks all members of a society face.

McFadden and his colleagues are hardly the only ones who get this.  This paper is exemplary, not determinative.  And again, it’s not that these writers represent some radical wing of anti-classical economics clinging to the margins of the profession.  In fact, McFadden and his co-authors display some familiar, reflexive thinking.  I’d argue with the Nobel laureate in his offhand dismissal of a different approach, what he terms “a government single payer/single provider program.”

Partly, the difficulty I have with the expert here is that single payer is not the same as single provider.  Conflating the two allows one to damn one with the flaws of the other — which is hardly cricket in a serious policy discussion.  And when anyone — even a distinguished fellow like McFadden — says that he “believes” the problems of such a system will be the same as for private plans, then I become an honorary Missourian: “Show me.”

But that’s an aside.  The core point is that even folks with a deep institutional and disciplinary engagement with the idea of markets understand that you can’t run health care on the principle that the customer knows best.  We don’t — we can’t, really.  And that’s why Romney, and Ryan, and all the other GOPsters trying to transfer risk to the American people and profits to American insurers are never, ever “serious.”

Which is just another long way round to repeating the obvious. David Brooks is always wrong.  He kind of has to be, given how he has dedicated his career to the notion that Republicans belong in power, no matter what.

*Brooks — like the GOP candidates — might argue at this point that they never have contemplated an unregulated private market in health care.  Which may be accurate, but not true (to channel my inner Sally Field).  That is — the degree of regulation in the market to which all calls to repeal Obamacare would return us was the one in which a host of problems along the lines McFadden et al. point out, and many more besides.  More broadly — even if you take the GOP as sincere in its stated principles, they oppose “paternalism” in individual decisions.  Which means they oppose exactly what is needed in the delivery of health care.

Images:  Edouard Manet, The Dead Bullfighter, 1864-1865

Pompeo Batoni, Time Orders Old Age to Destroy Beauty, c. 1746

A Thought I Wish I Could Get Out Of My Head

November 12, 2011

I read in TPM that Herman Cain said this in the debate tonight:

“I do not agree with torture, period,” Cain said to start the exchange. “However, I will trust the judgment of our military leaders to determine what is torture and what is not torture. That is the critical consideration.”

Asked specifically about waterboarding, Cain tipped his hand. “I don’t see it as torture,” he said. “I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique.”


I hear that, and I find mindself performing a thought experiment that leaves my stomach in knots.  What if someone in State College had said something like this:

“I don’t see it as molestation….I see it as an enhanced interrogation technique.”

The moral catastrophe speaks for itself, right?

That’s the problem with the failure to call things by their right name.  No one in the Penn State scandal has tried to term what happened there as anything other than the misery it was, child rape and a fundamental betrayal.  We aren’t that far gone yet.

But the repeated use — and the authorization at the highest level — of acts we hanged people for after World War II?  Those are just “enhanced techniques.”  To this day even the liberal New York Times can’t bring itself to say that inconvenient word “torture.”

That Herman Cain is no fit president is hardly news.  I just wish this particular pathology were confined to him.  It’s not.

Image:  Dieric Bouts, The Martyrdom of St. Hippolytus,1470-1475.

The Political Folly of the Middle

November 12, 2011

Jim Bales here, with my thanks to Tom for the loan of his soapbox.

Megan McArdle has a new post up at The Atlantic, entitled “The Financial Folly of Fairness” that makes some important points, including:

The solution to the problem [of the Great Depression] turned out to be throwing money at it: going off the gold standard, devaluing, and guaranteeing everyone’s bank accounts. Oh, yes, there was moral hazard. There still is. What there aren’t, is bank runs that wipe out peoples’ life savings overnight, or an unemployment rate of 25%.

One can name dozens of examples of things that violate our sense of fairness and obligation, and thereby make us all richer, from limited liability to bankruptcy.

The “just world” described above is not some bourgeois paradise; it is the western world during the Great Depression. It was not a better world for everybody; it wasn’t even a better world for anybody that I can think of. After it had finished punishing people who made stupid decisions, it went on to wreak brutal vengeance on a lot of people who had been quietly minding their own business.

Sadly, she then tries to position this as steering between the Scylla of the Left and the Charibdys of the Right. She tries to contrast herself with most people (who are of one of the two extremes), claiming that they “may believe the part of it that supports some larger “fairness” agenda they’re committed to. But their support is almost always piecemeal: try getting a liberal who loves easy bankruptcy to give a second chance to bankers who made a few stupid money decisions, or convincing conservatives …” [Emphasis in the original]

Now, if anything constitutes giving a second chance to bankers who made many massively stupid money decisions, it is TARP. TARP didn’t just give banks a second chance; it gave bankers a second chance by leaving the leadership and ownership of participating banks in the hands of those whose actions caused the crisis.

If Ms McArdle is correct in characterizing liberals as unwilling to “give a second chance to bankers who made a few stupid money decisions”, then TARP must have passed with overwhelming Republican support and despite determined Democratic opposition.*

The final vote on TARP? In the House 73% of Democrats voted for the bill compared to 46% of Republicans. In the Senate 80% of Democrats voted for the bill compared to 69% of Republicans.

So, when the chips were down, liberals quite literally gave a second chance to bankers despite their massively stupid money decisions, decisions that damaged our economy and put millions out of work. Utterly unfair, but necessary, as the liberals recognized!

Ms McArdle does us all a service in reminding us to place the well being of our people ahead of our desire for fairness. However, she does us a disservice in pretending that there are two extreme views in our discourse.

For, in addition to the “folly of fairness” there is the “folly of the middle” — the belief that the safe course is the always the one between left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican. In today’s America, one can embrace the middle only by twisting oneself into a pretzel. One must simply believe that liberals would never give a second chance to bankers who made stupid money decision, and not actually look at the evidence.

In today’s America, there is only one extreme view of import, the view embraced by the Republican Party. This is the belief that defeating Obama in 2012 is “the single most important thing we want to achieve”, far more important than creating jobs for those who wish to work but cannot find employment.

The moderate position in today’s America is the Democratic position. Today’s Democratic party has been — and is even now — striving to protect “people who had been quietly minding their own business” from having “brutal vengeance” wrecked upon them. They are not succeeding because of the consistent and systematic obstruction of the Republican Party.

It is not enough to reject the “folly of fairness”. We must also reject the “folly of the middle”. The two parties are not cut from the same cloth, and we cannot pretend otherwise.


Jim Bales

[*] One might claim that Democrat is not synonymous with “liberal”. I will simply note that Democrats in White House and Congress are actually in a position to change people’s lives, while the extreme liberals who might otherwise fit Ms McArdle’s description lack that power. To ignoring Democrats while fretting about the out-of-power hyper-liberals is another contortion required to embrace the folly of the middle.

Image:  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Folies Bergere: The Brothers Marco, c. 1895


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