22 February 2010

The Zeitgeist Rolls On

In a New York Times article on fraud in a new book on the Hiroshima bomb, a historian describes the book this way:
“This book is a Toyota,” said Robert S. Norris, the author of “Racing for the Bomb” and an atomic historian. “The publisher should recall it, issue an apology and fix the parts that endanger the historical record.”
Just putting down a marker for the first time I saw the phrase "It's a Toyota" used to mean that the subject is a clunker.

20 February 2010

Why Is Internet Advertising So Bad?

We all have, in the back of our minds, the idea that advertising is going to keep giving us our internet for free. But why is internet advertising so bad? If I see another ad about Acai berries, or about how a [fill in your location here] mom makes $77.00 an hour stuffing envelopes, I will cry.

In The United States

One of our faculty members has a habit of adding "in the United States" to any generalized statement made in her presence. If one of us says that pay tends to be the largest factor in employee motivation, she'll say, "in the United States." If we say that investing in research and development tends to be associated with increased profitability, she'll say "in the United States." If we claim that reciprocity is a universal human behavior, she'll say "in the United States."

Her point is two-fold. First, she doesn't believe in universal human behavior. Second, she's reminding even those of us who are positivists -- who believe that there can be generalizable rules of human behavior and thought -- that our conclusions can't outrun our data, and in management almost all data is from the United States. (In the social sciences generally, almost all data is Euro-American. In psychology, most data is from college students. Next time the media tries to tell you about some universal truth derived from psychology experiments -- usually some left wing truth -- remember that all they're really telling you about is how college students behave.)

I'm reminded of this warning by the recent proliferation of supposed "racial code-words" identified by the racialist left and defenders of President Obama. Various observers have suggested that calling Obama "socialist," or "un-American," or "Professor" is subtle racism. As James Taranto notes, "un-American" is not particularly subtle, but it seems odd to object to it as racist. Professor, on the other hand, is a very subtle insult, and not just as racial code.

Why are these insults and honorifics both being described at racist? Partly, I'm sure, simply to deflect criticism of President Obama. But partly for a peculiarity of thought in the United States. For a certain portion of our population, blacks are not only "other," but the only other.

It's fair enough to note that, if asked to imagine the prototypical American, most of us (and not just in the United States) would imagine a white male. "Aha," shout the racialists, "we knew it. Blacks aren't really American." I have a more benign explanation, of course, that allows for the Americanism of women and minorities (who are called minorities for a reason). Our prototypical American is probably also Christian, though probably goes to Church only on Christmas, Easter, to be married and buried. Nonetheless, Jews can be Americans, too. But if you can only imagine one American, you go with the majority.

For the racialists on the left and right, though, our little thought experiment has proved, conclusively, that blacks are the other in the United States. For certain racialists on the left, however, blacks are the only other. They'd admit, if pressed, that women, atheists, Asians, gays, etc., also seem to be other, but only to the extent that their experience is like that of American blacks. When they say that "gay is the new black," they don't mean to imply that black isn't still black.

So, in the United States, the racialists can't admit that calling someone "socialist" or "un-American" or "professor" is really about whatever those words literally signify. Rather, it's a way of pointing out that the object of those words is other than prototypically American, which is to say, black.

18 February 2010

Today Makes Me Think ...

That sanity consists of being able to step outside the logic of your own argument.

RIP Dick Francis

Proof is a nearly perfect book.

17 February 2010

What To Do, What To Do?

Although it's not really my concern, I'm fascinated by the question of what the Democrats should do about health insurance reform between now and the mid-term elections. Should they do nothing, and alienate their base, or should they force it through and energize their opponents even more?

Their base, which might even earnestly believe that HCR will accomplish something good, badly wants reform to pass. They want the Dems in Congress to pull out all the stops, using the reconciliation process (designed for budget changes that reduce the deficit) to nationalize 1/6th of the national economy over Republican opposition. If Congress won't do that, the base at least threatens not to turn out in the fall. After all, what's the point of voting for Democrats if you can't get one measly earth-shattering, unprecedented reform through?

On the other hand, the Tea Partiers and conservative Republicans hate reform, think that it is the tool of the devil designed to make all our lives worse and think that, by electing Scott Brown, we've won. Cheat us of our victory and we'll turn out in droves. Plus, using reconciliation in this way would be, in effect, the end of the filibuster.

Add to this that the Administration probably does truly believe that HCR is not only good, but the culmination of 100 years of striving for national health care and this might be the last real chance of passing it for a generation. What should they do?

12 February 2010

Sometimes I Wonder

why I bother (here and here).

This study is the poster child for bad reporting of social science. The reporting is that the authors found that the judge's race makes an "enormous" or "dramatic" difference in the outcome of discrimination cases. Leaving aside the fact that the study is completely unreliable and doesn't allow us to draw any conclusions at all (which I don't really blame a lay reporter for missing), the fact is that the authors' own results show that the judge's race makes little (R-squared under the best possible circumstance is only 0.03, meaning that judge's race explains only three percent of the variance in outcomes) or no (in the authors' best analysis, judge's race was not significant) difference.

That's actually an interesting result -- if we could rely on it -- since everyone assumes (look at the comments) that judge's race will make a difference. A finding that suggests that we're too cynical is an interesting finding.

P.S. The comment thread at the ABA Journal, which has now degenerated to "it's the JOOOOs," amply demonstrates the problem with bad reporting of bad studies.