Saturday, September 22, 2007

Tell It. Watch a 12-Year-Old Cringe. Posted by olvlzl.

See that man over there?
- That farmer?
Yeah, he’s a really good farmer, really excellent.
- Oh, you know him?
No, I never met him.
- Well, what’s his name?
I don’t know. I never saw him before.
- Well, then how do you know he’s such a great farmer?
Duh! He’s out standing in his field.

Believe It Or Not I Read The Mother Teresa Letters. Posted by olvlzl.

Being exposed to cable TV during my break, I saw Matthews hold a fight between Christopher Hitchens and Bill Donohue on the subject of the Mother Teresa letters. No reason, no light, just mashed potatoes everywhere. What Donohue had to say was too predictable to bother. Hitchens too but his predictable line holds some interest. Seeing no reason to believe any of what was said, I read the book, something I doubt any of them had done before they expounded on the subject.

Growing up in a very liberal Catholic family and having left organized religion a while back, I’d never been enamored of the Mother Teresa cult. While preparing this post I asked my old, Irish, Catholic mother if she had any books by or about her and she was surprised I’d think she might. Having been familiar with the stories and some of the actual people who risk and lose their lives to provide medical, educational and political aid to those who do the even harder work of living the life of abject poverty, we had other heroines and heros. Many of them had religious and political positions we agreed with. Mother Teresa didn’t. Mother Teresa wasn’t any feminist or liberal, after all. Her position on reproductive rights and the rights of women alone would have been enough to ignore her on most issues.

Still, you respected her intentions, regretted her unfortunate medieval religious attitudes and, as more became known about what was actually happening in the institutions she had built, you worried about her limits as an administrator. It’s too bad that those institutions didn’t have more effective administrators and financial officials who knew about modern medicine, palliative care and accounting.

The vulgarity and hypocrisies of the cult that built up during her last years, while unprecedented in the sugar and aniline dye content, wasn’t unprecedented in its motives. Those are depressingly, always with us. But, to some extent, that was a self-generating thing and I didn’t think it was fair to blame all of it on Mother Teresa. I saw her as a fairly uneducated person who had done and continued to do good if imperfect work but who was oversold and was in over her head. If she was the prisoner of that machine in the end, I don’t know. The only person who could possibly know is dead.

Reading her record of the spiritual sterility of her inner life wouldn’t be a great shock except to people who have never read much of the literature of religion. Long stretches of even a complete lack of belief is fairly unremarkable in a person who ends up as a religious figure. Writings by people who take up full time prayer and meditation is full of periods of emptiness. While hardly alone among religions, Zen Buddhism dedicated to the emptiness. Getting past the elaborate idols we carry with us seems to be a part of getting past those dry patches. Maybe those idols, the entirely inadequate representations of infinitely more, have to be killed before progress can be made.

Mother Teresa’s life, mixing the large amounts of time involved in active charity with what I’d guess was a rather old line set of expectations derived from the romantic literature of the cult of the saints, might not have provided her with the tools or time necessary to simplify those expectations and to overcome the limits they impose. She might have been too busy to devote sufficient time to look past the kind of experience she expected and so ended up in the desert between the expectations and what you can find. Maybe her traditionalism wouldn’t allow her to get past her preconceived ideas. Maybe giving up the conventional expectation seemed too impious to her. Reading her letters I didn’t find what Hitchens said was there but something outside of what I’d expected or could have expected. Maybe the joke is on those of us who look for an experience of personal transcendence. It could be that this isn’t the way for everyone. Maybe Mother Teresa found an impersonal spiritual life, the point of which couldn’t be personal fulfillment. Who knows, maybe that was the better way?

The contrast between the letters that are full of darkness when put against her decades of what must have been long stretches of depressing, heartbreaking, boredom and the minute upon minute upon year after year of sheer unpleasant drudgery raises the really interesting question. How did someone who obviously wasn’t getting much inner satisfaction or her expectations met, live the life she did? The letters aren’t a lot of help. I didn’t find an explanation there. Maybe she didn’t know how she did it.

We remember the Mother Teresa of the period after the pudding-headed hack Malcom Muggeridge made her a cult figure complete with photo-effect halo. A lot of the cloying sanctimony and uncritical adulation stems from that last period of her life. But there wasn’t just that going on. While the MT cult was entirely annoying, Hitchen’s Missionary Position, full of his own inner sterility and bigoted savagery wasn’t sufficiently objective to act as a corrective except for those who didn’t need one. It’s interesting now that Hitchens who was then insisting, rightly, that her actions be the standard for judging her and not her reputation is now ignoring the actions in favor of these letters which suit his new position as the hatchet wielding evangelist of neo-atheism. Hitchens is now telling us her own view of herself is the decisive factor in judging her life.

But it is exactly the actions in all their ambiguity that make her at all interesting. Who would read her letters if she’d spent her life sewing vestments and making hosts or, indeed, sitting on the papal throne? And of the various Mother Teresas the interest is found in the pre-fame Mother Teresa. How did someone who wasn’t fulfilling the prescriptions of the hedonistic school of cynicism, imagining herself as an exalted investor saving up in the mother of all Christmas Accounts, keep on with the daily grind? She doubted that there was going to be a glorious reward for what she was doing.

And it wasn’t as if she was exactly stuck. She wasn’t highly educated but, certainly, in the post-war period when the position of workers in Europe and North America was greatly improved, she could have enjoyed a far different life than the one she had. As a nominally religious and presumably anti-communist Albanian she could have emigrated here or in Western Europe, worked in a factory, married if she wanted to, gone out to the movies and watched the Hollywood lives of the saints and gaudy religious epics, leaving behind the bodily decay of terminally ill strangers. How did someone who was in a position to chuck the depressing grind of taking care of dying people one after another after another... and go for a bit of fun in life keep on with it when rewards weren’t in sight?

The period after fame struck isn’t useful for thinking about that but the window between the war and the glamor of living sainthood is. It’s there that the real interest lies, but these letters are no help.

Art And Life Posted by olvlzl.

Or, we’ve had so much bullshit "art" over the past sixty years that it's entirely old now.

I’m glad to see that there is less hilarity over the foolish MIT student who walked into Logan Airport with a home made electronic device attached to the front of her sweatshirt than the incident in Boston last winter. Maybe it’s because so many people in the white collar, commenting class fly. In yesterday’s incident, a homemade electronic device with wires visibly going into her sweatshirt with a hand written message that would have looked odd and cryptic to anyone who wasn’t familiar to the rather odd seeming program designation system at her university worn by a 19-year-old carrying around playdough which apparently even the experts said looks remarkably like some forms of plastic explosive set off the security at the airport. It should be noted in passing that when Star Simpson was given the chance to answer an airport official’s question about what she was wearing she walked away without answering.

When Maria Moncayo, who worked at the information counter, asked Simpson what the device was, she walked away without responding, according to the police report. Moncayo then called police.

I won’t ask for forgiveness for suspecting it. I fully believe that Star Simpson, who by her own admission wanted to get attention with her art, really wanted to to get lots and lots of attention. It will take a lot of evidence to the contrary to make be not believe that the reportedly intelligent MIT student intended to get it by causing a sensation at Logan Airport. That the student in one of the most competitive and demanding universities of science and technology in the Unites States didn’t know that she would almost certainly be noticed through her antics at one of the airports from which 9-11 was launched strains credulity.

Since, according to her lawyer, Simpson believes that what she was wearing was “art” which she had worn for several days explicitly for the purpose of attracting attention of prospective employers (I don’t know if the playdough is part of the “art” or not, though I'd hope playdough isn't a job recommendation in and of itself) I’ve read a few blog comments defending her clearly idiotic actions. Apparently anyone who had experienced directly Simpson’s “art” was deficient if they didn’t “get it” in all its brilliance instead of mistaking it as a “hoax device”, a fake bomb, in short. I’m so sorry to have to put this kind of “art” into context but when “art” impinges on as real world a situation as Logan Airport making these “artistic license” arguments are dishonest hogwash in defense of clear stupidity and irresponsibility. No, let’s call it what it is, it is lying bullshit. No amount of libertarian blog babble changes the fact that Star Simpson’s attention getting stunt could have gotten her, and possibly others, killed.

If her “art” had turned out to not be simply “art” but the product of a disturbed techie (of which the university saturated Boston area has, one might be forgiven for suspecting, one of the world’s largest concentrations) and the information person had stopped to wonder if she was experiencing a work of “art” instead of a possible incipient crime, we could be talking about how useless the police and other first responders are even after 9-11.

At risk of lowering the tone of the elevated artistic discussion with too much reality, I think that Scott Pare of the Massachusetts State Police said it as eloquently as it could be put.

"Thankfully, because she followed our instructions, she ended up in our cell instead of a morgue."

The circuit board was juvenile attention getting, Pare’s statement, now that’s art. I’d nominate it for a major prize, it’s likely to be better than what wins.

Note to MIT: That friend of Simpson's quoted in the Globe who says that all the male Techies at MIT wear circuit boards? Maybe you should clue the bright boys in that their fashion statement is unwise outside the citadel of cleverness that we have reason to wish MIT is. We plebs just won't get it.

The Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague

I'm re-reading them, for the pure pleasure of locating the funny bits. Here is one (dated 1712):

Mr. Sterne, the titular bishop, was last week married to a very pretty woman, Mrs. Bateman, whom he fell in love with for falling backward from her horse leaping a ditch, where she displayed all her charms, which he found irresistible.

And here is something about the fate of a writer who wrote something scandalous (1709):

But do you know what has happened to the unfortunate authoress? People are offended at the liberty she uses in her memoirs, and she is taken into custody. Miserable is the fate of writers: if they are agreeable, they are offensive; if they are dull, they starve.

And these from only the first ten pages or so. It's also interesting how often she has to defend some woman's behavior, because it is seen as the way "all women behave", not as something one individual did, or how often she is trying to assure someone that she is not like those other women. I may pick more quotes about that later on. - Of course the major interest in her letters has to do with her descriptions of Turkey where she lived for a while with her husband who was the British Ambassador to Turkey.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Debating Debates

I found this piece while looking for something else. I wrote it before I realized how very naive I used to be. The writing is stiff but the points might be worth debating!

I have always hated public debates on issues, whether in politics, academia or the general media. For a long time I felt that this was due to some personal defect in my character or my intense dislike of gratuitous aggression, a common flavor of these encounters. But I have finally come to understand that the defect is not in me.

Public debates stink from an intellectual point of view. They are based on the innocent-seeming assumption that the best way to learn about a controversial question is to have the proponents of each side openly discuss their arguments with each other, and then to decide on "the truth" by declaring one side as "the winner". But in reality almost all controversial topics have many more sides than two, the discussion is anything but open, the meaning of "truth" is frequently unclear and the concepts of winners and losers much more difficult to define than a superficial glance might suggest.

Most debated questions are treated as if only two initial opinions on them mattered: the most extreme ones. These are then marshalled forwards as the two "sides" in the debate. Consider a trivial example: whether people like the taste of broccoli. In reality most people probably enjoy broccoli in varying degrees, depending on the foods it is combined with, the time of the day, the season, the eater's nutritional requirements, the skills of the chef. But if a debate was held on this matter, only extreme broccoli lovers and haters would be asked to represent a "side" in this debate. What about all the other perfectly reasonable positions? The example may be trivial but the principle it shows is not: most public debates are caricatures of the ideal debate.

The dualism of choosing two views for debates would be pernicious even if these views were not the most extreme ones. But their extremeness makes the situation even worse: it suggests that the proper stance to adopt is at one endpoint of a dimension (such as the preference for broccoli). When one considers that in many cases the extreme views are initially quite rare, the overall impact of debates may well be one of polarizing views and ignoring the initially existing consensus.

But surely, you might say, the audience of a debate is capable of seeing this and coming to a critical conclusion possibly indicating some third more moderate position? Yes and no. Some people certainly do exactly this. But many won't. My experiences in highly competitive colleges have shown me that it is a rare student who can easily deviate from the dualistic script before the junior year. Even many graduating seniors fail to reach this point. If many intellectually gifted students have difficulty accomplishing synthesis, what about the rest of us?

Debates are often seen as a way to "air" a topic, as an honest, open exchange. But most debates are neither open nor honest. Not only are there "sides" which remain unrepresented but even the represented ones seldom present anything but partial arguments. It is regarded proper in most academic debates to deny any weakness in ones own arguments even when such weaknesses exist. The task of unearthing them is left to the opponent. If the opponents skills are insufficient, the weakness remains hidden. If the opponent manages to raise a relevant criticism, the proper response, once again, is not to acknowledge it, or to acknowledge it but argue that it is insignificant, or to acknowledge it but argue that the opponent's views are even more riddled with similar holes. Yet all the time the researcher advocating a point of view is the one most likely to have spent time carefully thinking about its weaknesses and the one with most information on the topic. This information is not made readily available in the debate format.

Things are much worse in political and media debates. At least academics respect their sources. More general debates routinely employ unfounded arguments and appeals to supposedly credible research findings which turn out not to be credible at all. Because debaters in such a forum are selected mainly for their popularity, shock value or other characteristics only vaguely related to expertise, they are often unqualified to demonstrate that their opponent's argument is based on false evidence. Even in the best circumstances media debates deny the debaters the time needed to explain difficult evidence to an uninformed audience.

Debates are intended to get us closer to "truth". But as I have already argued, we are normally presented only two views, often extreme ones, and the arguments may be neither open nor honest. Add to this the importance of all sorts of characteristics of the debaters, such as their looks, voices and rhetorical abilities, none of which are likely to be related to the "truth", yet important in determining the final appeal of the defended positions, and it is easy to see why debates are as likely to confuse as to clarify. Rhetorical ability and training are, in particular, crucial and well known determinants of the audience's final perception as to the "winning" side of the debate. Yet there is no necessary correlation between being good at making a point and the relevance of that point.

Finally, debates are frequently viewed as games or wars where one side is declared the winner, the other the loser. Given my earlier arguments it should come as no surprise that I believe the real loser is the honest search for facts. This makes the audience of most debates also into losers.

What are the alternatives to the polarized dualistic lip wars? I would argue that there is no substitute for allowing more sides to the debates and more time to make and clarify arguments, or for requiring the audience to make a greater effort to become informed about the issues beforehand. But more importantly, we should cease the practice of regarding debates as battles or wars. A much better analogy is that of a cooperative construction of a jigsaw puzzle. While each player can argue about the size and shape of a missing piece and try out different options, the focus of the game is not in determining whose puzzle pieces fit best but in the completion of the puzzle.

Granted, constructing a jigsaw puzzle doesn't give one the same heightened sense of excitement and self-worth as going to war for an idea. But the former also produces many fewer casualties than the latter, and may in the end save the most severe casualty of the warlike debates, the elusive truth.

Some Friday Reading

Check out Lynn Paltrow's letter in the New York Times on the question whether women who seek abortions are insufficiently informed. She makes important points in that letter, especially now that the Supreme Court of the United States has picked up the old thinking that women just aren't mature human beings but must be protected from any bad consequences of the choices they make -- by not letting them choose in the first place!

And for something uplifting and wonderful, read about the pink day in a Canadian high school.

Meanwhile, in Aurora, Illinois

Planned Parenthood is trying to open a new medical clinic which would, among other services, also offer abortions. The anti-choice forces are trying to stop the clinic from opening altogether, but there might also be a "not in my backyard" vibes about the resistance. For more on the issues, check out the PP Aurora blog.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Today's Bad Poem

I like this one a lot because it's about my bird envy:

Here sleep the birds,
their heads under the wings.
They do not dream.
They do not seem to dream,
if dreams are words.

They gave up words
for two perfect things:
the egg without a seam
(it does not need a seam)
and the life of birds.

Which is soaring.

On the MoveOn Ad

I must be scraping the bottom of the creativity barrel to want to write on this. Or perhaps it's a side-effect of the seasickness caused by sitting in my own house but by being surrounded by heavy construction work on two new McMansions, destined not to be sold for the imagined rewards? Yes, my house is actually shaking, and, no, there is not much I can do about that legally except to take pictures now before it has collapsed on me and then to take pictures, after the collapse, of my left foot sticking out from under the rubble.

Hence the sudden urge to write about the MoveOn ad, the one which called General Petraeus General BetrayUs, and the great furor that this has caused. Even the president was all upset by such vile language. Because the language is seen as implying that a military authority, just doing his job, is guilty of treason. The Senate has voted to disapprove of the ad:

Correct me if I'm wrong here. But by my calculation, more U.S. senators (72) voted today to condemn a newspaper ad attacking Gen. Petraeus than voted yesterday (56) to lengthen the time off troops get from the frontlines in Iraq, thereby reducing individual soldiers exposure to actual attacks. Am I missing something, or is that about right?

Of course choosing that specific phrase for the ad was idiotic if the goal of the ad was to gain influence, make friends and change the minds of conservative war supporters. But then those goals were pretty unlikely to happen even without the silly phrase. The real problem the "BetrayUs" snark caused was the need for everybody and their grandmother to distance from it and therefore from the general message in the MoveOn ad. The real problem was the opportunity this offered for the conservatives to strengthen their flawed message, and to turn some of the scrutiny that should have gone into studying the contents of what General Petraeus said into a totally different story about the MoveOn organization.

Still, when I first read the mainstream political reactions to the ad I was surprised by their intensity. Was the reaction to the Swift-Boating of Kerry equally strong? Were all conservatives required to publicly state that they don't support the Swift Boaters? I also wondered if my tenure here in the land of blogs has made me hardened to an extent that insults no longer shock me. On the other hand, Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and others of their ilk have insults as their stock-in-trade. Have we had votes in the Senate to disapprove of the messages of the conservative pundits?

In short, the problem with the MoveOn ad was that it was a stupid choice for a theme, but an even bigger problem is the fact that this insult-game is rigged to benefit the right. Their insults are not as insulting, it seems.

Today's Saying

This is from an interview with Gloria Steinem, via Jill at Feministe:

Q: Do you see the world through the prism of gender?

A: No, the world looks at me through the prism of gender.

There is much truth in what she says, or rather in that so many people assume that the answer for a feminist would be "Yes." It is the coding that so many of us have experienced, the coding which classifies us into "female, of minor importance" in so many different social and economic situations that can create that famous feminist "click", the click which sometimes shatters a woman's worldview completely and forces her to painfully rebuild a more realistic frame of reference.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Compulsory Christian Religious Practices?

The military has had its share of religious suits recently. Here's a new one:

A soldier whose superior prevented him from holding a meeting for atheists and other non-Christians is suing the Defense Department, claiming it violated his right to religious freedom.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., alleges a pattern of practices that discriminate against non-Christians in the military. It was filed Monday to coincide with the 220th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.

The lawsuit names Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Maj. Paul Welborne as defendants.

According to the filing, Spec. Jeremy Hall, a soldier assigned to Fort Riley's 97th Military Police Battalion, received permission to distribute fliers around his base in Iraq for a meeting of atheists and non-Christians.

When he tried to convene the meeting, Hall claims, Welborne stepped in, threatening to file military charges against Hall and block his reenlistment.

Attempts to reach Welborne through an Army spokesman weren't immediately successful.

Earlier cases were also about something that is beginning to look like enforced Christianity of the fundie type. Remember how a Wiccan pentacle was initially determined not to adequately religious to be put on the tombstone of a Wiccan soldier who died in Iraq, the way crosses and crescents and so on are used? Then there was this case:

Separately, seven Army and Air Force officers, including four generals, face possible punishment for violating ethics rules by helping a Christian group in the production of a fundraising video.

A Pentagon inspector general's report released this month found the officers were interviewed in uniform and "in official and often identifiable Pentagon locations."

The report found that none of the officers received approval from superiors to participate in video interviews in an official capacity or in uniform. Air Force and Army officials are reviewing that report.

I'm not sure what the legal implications of all this pro-Christian bias might be but it looks to me an awful lot like promoting one religion within the government.

In Honor of the "Speak-Like-A-Pirate" Day

I translated the next post below into pirate speech, supposedly, by using this translator.

Here is the result:

Hardball had a section on a sex discrimination suit havin' to do with th' use 'o th' word "scallywag" and th' possible double-standard 'o usin' it across ethnic lines. Three men discussed this on air. ye can see th' video here (though I don't think this be a permalink). 'tis extra cute how Chris Matthews realizes th' lack 'o any women's opinions on th' scallywag-word at th' extra end 'o th' debate. One 'o those feminist "aha" moments fer him?I wouldn't hold me breath.


Hardball had a section on a sex discrimination suit having to do with the use of the word "bitch" and the possible double-standard of using it across ethnic lines. Three men discussed this on air. You can see the video here (though I don't think this is a permalink). It's very cute how Chris Matthews realizes the lack of any women's opinions on the bitch-word at the very end of the debate. One of those feminist "aha" moments for him?

I wouldn't hold my breath.

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia

Some women are lobbying the king for the right to drive. This effort will not work, because:

The government is unlikely to respond because the issue remains so highly sensitive and divisive. But committee members say their petition will at least highlight what many Saudis - both men and women - consider a "stolen" right.

"We would like to remind officials that this is, as many have said, a social and not a religious or political issue," said Fowziyyah al-Oyouni, a founding member of the Committee of Demanders of Women's Right to Drive Cars. "And since it's a social issue, we have the right to lobby for it."

Committee members want to deliver their petition to the king by Sunday, Saudi Arabia's national day.

The driving ban applies to all women, Saudi and foreign, and forces families to hire live-in drivers. Women whose families cannot afford $300-$400 a month for a driver must rely on male relatives to drive them to work, school, shopping or the doctor's.

The last time the issue was raised was two years ago, when Mohammed al-Zulfa, a member of the unelected Consultative Council, asked his colleagues to think about studying the possibility of allowing women over age 35 or 40 to drive - unchaperoned on city streets but accompanied by a male guardian on highways.

The suggestion touched off a fierce controversy that included calls for al-Zulfa's removal from the council and stripping him of Saudi citizenship, as well as accusations he was encouraging women to commit the double sins of discarding their veils and mixing with men.

What is astonishing about the need to have a driver is that the driver will be a man and often one unrelated to the woman he is driving around. This inside a car. If anything could contribute to further intimacy it would be this. But of course the real reason for banning women from driving has nothing to do with sex and such: it is all about the need to control women, sadly. The caged pet birds.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Where In The World Is Habeas?

Time to call your representatives. Firedoglake has the information.

On Interior Decoration, Salvation Army Style

Truly. This is not a funny title for a politics post, but a post on interior decoration, or rather on fixing your place to be at least somewhat livable. It's caused by a book I bought at the flea market on Saturday, titled Flea Market Style.

The book, given to someone for Christmas 1999, has lovely pictures about interiors full of junk from flea markets and projects where you can take a lampshade, wrap it in some threads and then stick old postcards under the threads to make a lampshade which won't let any light through.

Another project tells you how to cover a vase with broken china shards to a lovely effect. I once read an article about a French man who covered his whole house, inside and out, in pottery shards, including all the furniture and his wife's sewing machine, including all the working parts. Now that is the essence of interior decoration gone haywire. But very fascinating, all the same.

For practical reasons I have always been a fan of the Salvation Army style of interior design. The prices are good, the selection pretty bad, but if you have some chisels, paint stripper and time you can get furniture that is better made than the new junk sold cheaply. Over time my house has developed an odd mixture of Salvation Army furniture and some very nice pieces I've inherited or bought during the more affluent times. It all goes together very well, given the general cover of dust, dog hair and spider webs.

The sad thing is that what I'd really love is a house full of air, space and a few modern furniture masterpieces. That apparently modest list of demands is actually a very expensive one. It's much cheaper to have a house full of Victorian monstrosities and books, and they age better than most modern furniture.

The main reason is the bones of the furniture. Older furniture tends to be made of solid wood and if it is broken it can be fixed at home. I always look at the bones of the furniture, the skeleton, really, and if those are good most other problems can be fixed: chairs can be reupholstered, horrible trim can be removed, casters can be added, veneer can be fixed, knobs can be changed. Of course all this costs me in time and effort and the need to learn how to do these things, so not every old piece of furniture should be given this treatment.

But sometimes one finds treasures this way. I bought an open-armed mahogany armchair for 35 dollars once. It was covered in dirty and cracked pink vinyl, so I reupholstered it. Inside the seat I found a couple of pieces of old jewelry and a little medal with the picture of Napoleon Bonaparte in it and a text saying "Napoleon Empereur". The chair looks lovely with a cream-colored linen cover on it. Or looked, until the dogs chewed rawhide bones on it. It looks a little like this chair except more Empire style with a fatter bottom and shorter legs:

What is the point of this post? Just rambling, probably. But I think many of those new and eager college students might do better than Ikea by checking out the local second-hand stores. They might even find something that will become the family heirloom for future generations.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Question To My Readers

Here's something that I've been thinking about recently, because of a comment I got from someone (not on this blog): Am I stuffing too much into blog posts? Would it be better to divide longer posts into shorter ones and to make them into a series, say?

Which type are you more likely to read?

Scrutinizing Science

John Ionniadis is an epidemiologist who has decided to focus his critical eye on the published medical research findings. And he has come up with something a little worrisome: According to Ionniadis, false findings may be the majority of published scientific results:

These flawed findings, for the most part, stem not from fraud or formal misconduct, but from more mundane misbehavior: miscalculation, poor study design or self-serving data analysis. "There is an increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims," Dr. Ioannidis said. "A new claim about a research finding is more likely to be false than true."
The hotter the field of research the more likely its published findings should be viewed skeptically, he determined.

Take the discovery that the risk of disease may vary between men and women, depending on their genes. Studies have prominently reported such sex differences for hypertension, schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis, as well as lung cancer and heart attacks. In research published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Ioannidis and his colleagues analyzed 432 published research claims concerning gender and genes.

Upon closer scrutiny, almost none of them held up. Only one was replicated.

Statistically speaking, science suffers from an excess of significance. Overeager researchers often tinker too much with the statistical variables of their analysis to coax any meaningful insight from their data sets. "People are messing around with the data to find anything that seems significant, to show they have found something that is new and unusual," Dr. Ioannidis said.

Medical sciences are not the only fields where researchers are expected to come up with new and astonishing findings. Most social science research works under the same pressures. Imagine how much success a researcher might have in getting a no-difference-found paper published in, say, the field of gender differences? And note that in most traditional fields the researchers are mining an increasingly empty mine, where most of the really valuable lodes have already been exploited. Hence, it is the peripheral and more speculative ideas which are now increasingly presented as important new findings.

All this matters in political research, too. An additional twist to trying to understand the meaning of new research findings in a field related to some important government policy is that much of the research is now done within politically motivated think tanks, and such research is not subjected to the peer review process, however faulty that might be. Despite that flaw, the studies are routinely referred to as important scientific results, worthy of affecting public policy decisions.
Cross-posted on TAPPED.

A New Feminist Pet Peeve!

I just realized what it is this morning! What joy! What dancing around the house and kissing the snakes on their cute little noses! A new thought. I love new thoughts.

The new thought is this: Remember all those long and learned diatribes against feminism? All those stern and neutral discussions of why and how women indeed are incapable of doing science or of thinking clearly or of anything much except vacuuming under the sofa? If you don't remember them, scroll down two posts and read the next long-looking one.

Well, Ken C. in the comments thread for that one made me go and look for an article discussing the extreme-tails-of-distributions argument as the reason why men are on top everywhere you look: It's because they are also at the bottom everywhere you look (which actually isn't true in poverty, say). Anyway, as I glanced through the article I found I noticed this bit:

The problem was that unlike Galileo versus the Catholic Church, Summers provoked a debate in which his academic interlocutors were, if not smarter in the average, then smarter on the particulars of this issue. And so when the pundits thundered about academic freedom being imperiled after Summers was driven to apologize for his comments, it was a distinctly dumbed-down, esteem-raising vision of academic freedom that was being advanced: that of the amateur to expound without getting a slap down from an expert.

And I went YES! That's it. The other side talks to us in condescending and quasi-scientific tones without actually bothering to do much reading on the issues, except for those bits which support their original biases.

That was what I found so anger-causing about Summers' original comment: How clearly it showed he had read none of the relevant literature, not even the one that has been written in his own field, economics. Yet he thought he could blurt out stuff in front of an audience which mostly consisted of people whose specialty that very research is and he thought that he could do that without being severely criticized for it.

That was also what I found annoying about Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate. The chapter in which he uses economics, for instance, appears to argue that economists have never studied discrimination! His references are almost solely to people who are not economists by training, and the quotes he gives are all from conservative economists.

Professor Kanazawa takes the same track. I remember finding an article by him explaining why women don't earn as much men because of evolutionary explanations. There you go, economists! Silly of you to have created a whole subfield to study these questions! Silly of you to have hundreds of studies on the topic. One Kanazawa can just stumble in and point out the truth to you. Without doing much reading at all.

Now, you probably have already had this thought. But it's all new for me and so lovely. It's a good thing to realize where some of my feelings of outrage come from, and also good to realize the contempt these people hold towards those who think differently.
More on Pinker here.
More on Summers here, here and here.

From My Monday Mailbag

Do you read Science Blogs? If so, go and take their survey so that it becomes more representative by including you, too. Here.

Two commentaries on the Emmies with some feminist thoughts: Shakes and Jennifer Pozner.

Then there is this video sent to me by a reader of this blog. It's about spousal abuse and pretty upsetting but well worth watching for the extra understanding it offers into what such abuse actually does.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Pictures and Videos from Yesterday's March

PaxAmericana has a video about the anti-anti-war protesters, also pictures from the march itself. And check out DependableRenegade for more pictures.

Is There Anything Good About Men?

This is the title of a speech to the American Psychological Association by one Roy F. Baumeister. The speech starts most promisingly, by Professor Baumeister promising that he will be neutral and objective. He even tells gender warriors to leave the room!

That's the way you know that Baumeister is not a gender warrior himself, obviously. Never mind that someone called Roy F. Baumeister, from Tallahassee, Florida, sent this to the Economist magazine's blog:


Your otherwise fine magazine routinely loses its objectivity when discussing gender, descending instead into sloganeering and bias. Whenever you address the shortage of women at the top of corporate hierarchies, you blame bias, macho cultures, and taking clients to strip clubs. Somehow you forget your own prior reports that 80% of people who work more than 48 hours per week are men. I'll bet that if you spoke to corporate executives about how to succeed, both men and women there would tell you that 50-hour weeks accomplish more than visiting striptease clubs. If so, then ending the gender gap in pay will require a legislative commitment to equal pay for less work.

You find women victims but not male. It's surprising that you can end your report on how women will soon control most private wealth by whining that "It's still hard to be a woman," yet you pass over the apparent fact that many women still amass their wealth because their overstressed husband, who earned the money, dies prematurely. A more evenhanded approach might recognize the gender gaps in pay and longevity as related problems with related solutions, if any.

Roy F. Baumeister
Tallahassee, Florida

It could be some other Roy F. Baumeister? Who knows, but this one does sound like a gender warrior to me.

Anyway, to return to the speech. What motivated Professor Baumeister to give it? Astonishingly, it is the way everybody now likes women better than men:

You're probably thinking that a talk called "Is there anything good about men" will be a short talk! Recent writings have not had much good to say about men. Titles like "Men Are Not Cost Effective" speak for themselves. Maureen Dowd's book was called "Are Men Necessary?" and although she never gave an explicit answer, anyone reading the book knows her answer was no. Brizendine's book "The Female Brain" introduces itself by saying, "Men, get ready to experience brain envy." Imagine a book advertising itself by saying that women will soon be envying the superior male brain!

At this point I had to lie down for a few minutes. Maureen Dowd and Louise Brizendine as feminists! Wonders never cease. Just to make sure, I scrolled down the speech and found it again: It's women who are the favored sex:

I said that today most people hold more favorable stereotypes of women than men. It was not always thus. Up until about the 1960s, psychology (like society) tended to see men as the norm and women as the slightly inferior version. During the 1970s, there was a brief period of saying there were no real differences, just stereotypes. Only since about 1980 has the dominant view been that women are better and men are the inferior version.

I wonder what color the sky is in Baumeister's world. Hasn't he read professor Kanazawa's book about politically incorrect truths (i.e. that men have power naturally and it's ok) or Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate or the many other books by his brethren-in-despair-over-the-end-of-patriarchy?

Well, he is going to remedy the bad treatment of men in his speech, by showing that men are both better and worse than women and by arguing that men are the creators of that thing called culture. You know, literature, science, history, architecture. Those things. Women are of course valuable, too, because they give birth. All this is arrived at not through patriarchy (a silly feminist concept) but through an open and friendly partnership between men and women which has just made certain cultures (such as that of Saudi Arabia*) to thrive, while other, more egalitarian cultures (such as what?) have disappeared down the drain of evolutionary dead-ends.

That men are both better and worse than women, according to Baumeister, is because men are more likely to be found in the tails of various test distributions, even if the average scores are the same for men and women. This means that there are more men in the upper tail, and it is those men who run everything and build the boats they then take out to make discoveries and to amass treasure which they then take back home and get to mate with most of the women. The guys in the lower end are the ones who commit murders and such and never get to mate at all. But almost all women get to mate, you see?

Ok. Let's do that again: HISTORICALLY speaking, the men in the upper tails of various distributions were more likely to build the boat and bring back the treasure and mate with all those women. That's why today's men should be ON AVERAGE better than today's women if Baumeister's argument made sense. But it doesn't have to make sense, so men and women are still equal on average in various abilities but men are more likely to be really bad or really good. The only way all this would make sense is if men started a lot less able than women and only slowly, over centuries, managed to crawl up the frequency distributions. OOPS. We don't want that.

So let's tell the same story about motivations! Yes, that's the ticket, because there is no way of properly measuring motivations or their environmental component, so discussing the evolutionary inheritance of motivations by gender will work! Never mind about the genetic explanation for such an inheritance. We'll worry about that later.

Yes, I know that my writing isn't the clearest possible here, but you could go and read Baumeister's speech first. Then you would truly appreciate my creative style here. Except that according to Baumeister women aren't that creative. He knows this because women don't improvise in jazz or create beautiful symphonies, even though poor black men do and it's harder to buy instruments when you are that poor (and no, Elizabeth Cotten doesn't count as a counterexample here). Then, of course, poor black women have also created fantastic improvised quilts but that must be a mistake as women lack that creative juice. And no, there was nobody who made it hard for Clara Schumann to compose, not at all. Instead:

I suppose the stock explanation for any such difference is that women were not encouraged, or were not appreciated, or were discouraged from being creative. But I don't think this stock explanation fits the facts very well. In the 19th century in America, middle-class girls and women played piano far more than men. Yet all that piano playing failed to result in any creative output. There were no great women composers, no new directions in style of music or how to play, or anything like that. All those female pianists entertained their families and their dinner guests but did not seem motivated to create anything new.

Do you see how neutral and even-handed professor Baumeister is here?

He does tell us that women are really good in intimate groups, such as the family, but that men are much better at other types of groups, such as the firm, the army, the country and the world. It is in the latter groups that creativity, being special and working hard really pay off! Hence it's men who control most everything, but it all pans out equally, because women are needed to tend to children. And none of these differences have anything to do with sexism. It's just how things have worked out on their very own.

No, Baumeister doesn't mention that most cultures have had very clear laws banning women from most occupations, or from owning money. Those two would have made discovery voyages by female adventurers a little bit difficult, but Baumeister assures us that the reason men took such trips is just biology:

Later in this talk we will ponder things like, why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and build a ship and sail off to explore unknown regions, whereas men have fairly regularly done such things? But taking chances like that would be stupid, from the perspective of a biological organism seeking to reproduce. They might drown or be killed by savages or catch a disease. For women, the optimal thing to do is go along with the crowd, be nice, play it safe. The odds are good that men will come along and offer sex and you'll be able to have babies. All that matters is choosing the best offer. We're descended from women who played it safe.

Why was it so rare for a hundred women to get together and build a ship? Hmm. A tough question, if one assumes that there were no restrictions on the movements of young women away from their homes (because they might be raped, say, or because they might no longer be able to prove their virginity) or if one assumes that young women had access to money and time to hang out with those other ninety-nine other women, unsupervised.

In professor Baumeister's view of history women were never banned from doing such things, even though in reality women were legally banned from the majority of occupations and most everything that didn't have to do with giving birth within a marriage, and those children were the children not of the woman who gave birth to them but of the man who sired them. Why was it important in medieval Germany to ban women from guilds? What happened to female midwives, really? Why could women not own property? Why bother banning women from the military if women had no inclination to join it in any case? Why did women not have the vote until quite recently?

Baumeister doesn't answer my questions because his view of the history has no laws or misogynistic religions or misogynistic traditions. Everything that has happened has been for the best, without any oppression at all, rather the reverse: Women are favored because the lives of women and children are not seen as fair game in wars or accidental deaths. Of course, women and children have traditionally not been active participants in wars, and the property value of a woman is a very different thing to value than her individuality. It is the former that is valued, rather than the latter.

Now I feel all guilty about not staying as neutral and cordial as professor Baumeister, who even says this:

Giving birth is a revealing example. What could be more feminine than giving birth? Throughout most of history and prehistory, giving birth was at the center of the women's sphere, and men were totally excluded. Men were rarely or never present at childbirth, nor was the knowledge about birthing even shared with them. But not very long ago, men were finally allowed to get involved, and the men were able to figure out ways to make childbirth safer for both mother and baby. Think of it: the most quintessentially female activity, and yet the men were able to improve on it in ways the women had not discovered for thousands and thousands of years.

Wow! Men do even births better than women! That shows the true neutrality of professor Baumeister. Maybe the gender warriors he asked to leave the room at the beginning of the speech should now be invited back so that Baumeister wouldn't look quite so much a misogynistic ass, standing there all alone.

Oh, I forgot. He's not just some misogynistic ass. He's a professor of Social Psychology. Goddess help us all.
*My example, not Baumeister's. I apologize for trying to be creative here. I also apologize for all the bits I decided to leave out so that people would read the post; bits about how Baumeister ignores the hours of childcare as an explanation why more men than women burn the midnight oil at work and bits such as the quandary one reaches when trying to fit Baumeister's thesis into the facts of fairly rapid change in women's roles in the last century or so. Because his theories would assume that such change will not happen. Damn! There I go again, apologizing and shit. Please note that the apologies are sarcasm and therefore creative, too.