Monday, May 30, 2016

A Memorial Day Reminder

As always, Uncle Kurt says it best (from Cat's Cradle):
 I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. 
But they are murdered children all same. 
And I propose to you that if we are to pay our sincere respects to the hundred lost children of San Lorenzo, that we might best spend the day despising what killed them; which is to say, the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind. 
Perhaps, when we remember wars, we should take off our clothes and paint ourselves blue and go on all fours all day long and grunt like pigs. That would surely be more appropriate than noble oratory and shows of flags and well-oiled guns. ... If today is really in honor of a hundred children murdered in war ... is today a day for a thrilling show? The answer is yes, on one condition: that we, the celebrants, are working consciously and tirelessly to reduce the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind.

So today, as you remember fallen veterans of military service, don't forget to remember the many, many people who have worked consciously and tirelessly to reduce the stupidity and viciousness of all mankind, in the hopes that someday we won't need to have veterans or a memorial day for them.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Someone Else Wrote It Better: On the Magic of Numbers and Subservience

I had planned to pen an overly-long blog post on this, but then I stumbled across an article here that makes the point I was getting after far more eloquently and with significantly more documentation. It's super and interesting and very much worth your time. So here's a short blog post getting at why I think it's so interesting and worth your time:

Not too long ago I was at a sociology conference on a panel with a well-known (well, for a sociologist) old timer making an argument about why economics is more influential than sociology (as evidenced by the number of times either is cited in the New York Times, a terrible metric for measuring such things, but that's a different argument). To drastically over-simplify his argument, he pointed out that while pretty much all sociologists are liberals (as measured by their affiliation to or ideological closeness to the Democratic party, a similarly terrible metric for measuring such things), while economics departments have a decent number of Republicans (though they'll still heavily outnumbered by Democratic-identifying peoples). As such, sociologists come across as partisan and biased, while economists appear to be objective and balanced, with a much greater diversity of thought.

To put it politely, I think this argument is dumb and wrong for many, many reasons, but two in particular stand out: 1) "right" and "popular" are often very different things!, and B) a major reason economists are granted more mainstream coverage than sociologists is that they've been better at cloaking themselves in the mantle of "pure" science. Mainly because they use more math than sociologists do (as a whole; plenty of sociologists rely solely on math in their research).

And this largely comes down to the fact that: A) math eduction in America is terrible, so B) most Americans don't understand basic math, so C) anything that has even slightly complicated math in it impresses most Americans, as they confuse complexity for meaningful knowledge or understanding.

You can see this in political horse race coverage: while all pundits are generally wrong in their predictions (and hilariously so!), those that use math, like 538, are seen as not just speculating, but scientifically predicting outcomes. Of course, 538 is just as hilariously wrong as everyone else, but look at all the complicated models they use! So complex! So many different letters and numbers! As such, 538 tends to be seen as sober political scientists rationally examining empirical evidence, other than just another set of political pundits spinning shit out of their ass.

And this is more-or-less how the field of economics has bamboozled so many, or in the words of this philosopher (which, again, you should really just go read): "world history tells a story of mathematical models masquerading as science and a public eager to buy them, mistaking elegant equations for empirical accuracy."

In this fascinating piece, we learn that apparently astrologers used to use this very same model of complicated mathematical bullshit signifying nothing to spin themselves as a legitimate scientific enterprise. At the turn of the previous century, many top leaders in politics and business used astrologers to "scientifically" plan their investments, production rates, etc. To make another snotty point about how much I disagreed with that presentation mentioned above, I bet astrologers outnumbered sociologists in the pages of the NYT during that period as well, but I also don't see that as a terribly big problem.

But in addition to the fact that this math-humping "imbues economic theory with unearned empirical authority," this article does touch upon the other problem I noted in that argument when it quotes a tenured economics prof on what influences the models he develops:
‘In economics and finance, if I’m trying to decide whether I’m going to write something favourable or unfavourable to bankers, well, if it’s favourable that might get me a dinner in Manhattan with movers and shakers,’ Pfleiderer said to me. ‘I’ve written articles that wouldn’t curry favour with bankers but I did that when I had tenure.’
And this, to me, is the real heart of the matter: basically, whatever a sociologist writes is not going to win them much political esteem or favor in the business world. However, an economist can add several hundred thousand a year to their bank account if their models just happen to be pleasing to those with a lot of money. Now, I'm not saying they simply invent complicated mathematical models that have no connection to empirical reality solely to please those in positions of wealth and influence, making them little more than modern court jesters, but...well, I guess I'm more or less saying that. But Dr. Levinovitz says it much better, so go read that.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Do You Live In A Bubble? Why Not Let Some Asshole With An Agenda Decide For You!

Recently a friend, whom I otherwise respect, posted this link to face book exhorting his friends to take this test and see if they live in a bubble. This is exactly the kind of self-flagellating thing liberals love to do, wherein they mistake punching themselves repeatedly in the stomach for meaningful social action. "Oh no! Do I live in a bubble?" they ask themselves, as if this is a question that a) has any actual objective answer, or b) would mean anything if it did. But by engaging with such a stupid conservative straw man they can feel smugly self-satisfied with their commitment to open-minded bi-partisanship, again as if that means anything.

The test is designed to see how much of a sheltered bubble you live in versus how much you interact with other people. Which, in theory, is not such a bad idea. It's good to know people with different perspectives! It's not a particularly great thing to live in a tiny echo chamber!

But you can take one look at the author of this quiz and know exactly where it's going. It was created by Charles Murray, who works for the American Enterprise Institute. While the name sounds fairly neutral, it should more properly be labeled "Incredibly Regressive Billionaire Thinktank About How The Gubmit is Bad And Anything to the Left of Attila the Hun is Communism and Should Be Destroyed For the Sake of America's Future." But I guess that isn't as snappy and would probably lead to really expensive letterhead.

Anyway, I took the quiz myself and it would surprise anyone who knows me, and therefore knows how carefully I cull my circle of friends and avoid at all times interaction with anyone who doesn't agree 100% with me on every possible issue, that I actually have a pretty large bubble! Crazy, right?

Well, not really. Because of the many, many problems with this quiz, it assumes whomever is taking it is a big city liberal (which, given that it's being hosted on NPR's website, is probably a fairly safe guess, but it purports to be for everyone). So it doesn't actually measure how much you interact with people who are genuinely different than you in anyway, it measures how much you interact with working class people in small towns (who are assumed by this quiz, and the assholes who write these sorts of things, to be the exact opposite of big city liberals). The reason I supposedly have a much larger than average size bubble is because I grew up in a rural small town and have had my share of manual labor jobs over the years. That's it, that's why my bubble is so much bigger than most other people's.

Hell, if you live in a small town and have a working-class job, even if every person you knew was exactly like you, thought exactly like you, did all the exact same things you do, and were in every way what we would think of as living in a bubble, you would score as having a giant bubble. Which makes this a fucking terrible test from a measurement perspective, since it doesn't even come close at all to measuring what it purports to measure.

But an even bigger problem is the way this is just a gussied-up version of the "real America" versus...well, they never say what everyone else is living in. "Fake America?" "Unreal America?" "The Loose Federation of States Formerly Known as America?"*

I mean, they could have saved a lot of time and trouble if they just asked what they're clearly getting after. Instead of a 25 question quiz, Murray could have just written "When's the last time you left your vegan cafe and changed your own oil, homo?!?" and that would have just as thoroughly gotten to the point he's trying to make without wasting nearly as much time or involving nearly as much obfuscation.

To make it even funnier, it turns out the hypothetical all-white, working-class, small town, Reagan masturbation fantasy that Murray is using as his comparison point for real American is actually, statistically speaking, a terrible representation of "real America."

So in a turn no one could have predicted**, this quiz is not actually about encouraging people to examine their possibly-cloistered lives to see if they couldn't include more and different people in their social circles, but is instead just another completely-inaccurate fantasy of the right-wing culture wars. And while it's at it, it fails both in terms of science and ideology! What a great quiz! Take it right away!

*Unrelated fun story: whenever assholes go on about "real America" I always feel compelled to ask them if Manhattan is part of "real America." Of course it is not, they'll gladly let you know. NYC generally, but Manhattan specifically, is pretty much exactly what these assholes are trying to juxtapose "real America" against. Once that is established, I tell them I assume they must not be too upset about the September 11 attacks, since they didn't happen to America by that logic. This usually ends in that person getting very angry at me.

**Just kidding! Literally anyone with a functioning adult brain could have easily predicted that!