Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

Does science prove rich people are jerks?

October 13, 2016

Left wingers obsess over inequality partly because they hate that others are rich and they’re not. It’s more than just envy, but a sense of injustice: they feel morally superior, yet it’s the rotten rich who are rewarded.

unknownSocial science is rife with evidence showing that the rich and powerful are nasty. Is it that being nasty helps one get wealth and power – or that wealth and power corrupt one’s character?

Pertinent here was Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford prison experiment. Student volunteers were assigned to role-play as prisoners or guards. The latter soon became so brutal toward the former that the experiment was stopped. Taken as evidence that power corrupts.

unknown-1A recent article by Matthew Sweet in The Economist’s “1843” magazine starts with a study analyzing behavior at traffic intersections. People in fancier cars behaved worse. And Sweet cites a different Berkeley study summed up as “science proves rich people are jerks.”

But – he says – not so fast.

A 2010 analysis by three European academics, using much larger data sets, found opposite results: privileged individuals were more generous and charitable, more likely to volunteer, more apt to help a struggling traveler, or look after a neighbor’s cat.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. They submitted their paper to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which had published the Berkeley work. “We thought,” said one of them, Boris Egloff, “naïve as we were, that this might be interesting for the scientific community.” The paper was rejected.

 images-1The researchers thereupon extended their analysis to data from America and other countries, becoming more confident they were on to something important. Rejected again. Eventually it was published in an online journal. But meantime Egloff was seared by the experience. “Personally I would have loved the results of the Berkeley group to be true,” he said; that “would provide a better fit to my personal and political beliefs and my worldview. However, as a scientist . . . .” He vowed never to touch this subject again.

But why do studies disagree so diametrically? Sweet suggests this sort of research may be inherently problematical. In 2015 the journal Science reported on a group of 270 academics attempting to replicate 100 psychological studies, succeeding in only 36 cases. unknown-2And this work too has been faulted by yet another group of academics led by Harvard’s Daniel Gilbert (whose book Stumbling on Happiness influenced me greatly). Sweet says Gilbert has a vendetta against replicators, and when questioned on this by a journalist, he hung up.

Comes now Jonathan Haidt (another writer who influenced me greatly with The Righteous Mind), co-authoring a 2015 paper saying that over-representation of left-wing opinion in psychology faculties distorts the research results they report. This helps explain the Egloff paper’s rejection. As I’ve written, academia is becoming a fortress of enforced opinion defensively hostile toward non-conforming ideas.

“Might a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous field undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends?” the Haidt paper said. “We think so.”

images-2In plain words, researchers often find the results they want. During my days as a PSC judge, I recall one hired-gun economist whose analysis attempted to show that something that had quite obviously occurred had not, statistically speaking, happened at all. It prompted me to quote, in my decision, Mark Twain on the three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

Meantime, the reliableness of scientific results more generally is becoming a widespread concern. Much gets published, it seems, that doesn’t hold up. A lot of biases, not just political, operate. For example, researchers like to publish positive results – We found it! : -) – but not negatives ones — We didn’t find it : -(

However, the lesson is not that all science is suspect. New insights or data are not going to overturn something like Darwinian evolution. Instead, it’s that scientists are human, and must not let beliefs compromise objectivity. Take care against telling yourself (and your political bedmates) what you want to hear.

images-3So – are rich people nicer or nastier? I think it’s hard to say – and to generalize. I’m comparatively rich. And very nice.

Book groups and “the good old days”

October 8, 2016

imagesI’m in two book groups. One, for about 25 years, originated among PSC co-workers. (The story goes that it began with two guys expecting two gals at a restaurant; the gals didn’t show; but the book was discussed anyway, and it grew from there). We meet monthly, reading serious fiction and non-fiction; talk about the book for an hour or more amid appetizers; then have dinner. It’s very convivial. And filling.

The other one is the Capital District Humanist Society’s. We read non-fiction books and discuss them intensively, page by page, for two hours, twice a month. We’ve been known to take a year on one book. No food.

unknownThe PSC group in particular has led me into very rewarding books I’d otherwise have missed. Though not all our selections have been winners. We often look back with bemusement on clunkers like Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase (which I still think was highly interesting).

imagesAnd we seem to have a thing for “lifeboat” books: Unbroken, In the Heart of the Sea, The Life of Pi, Ahab’s Wife, Dead Wake, etc. Not to mention Three Men in a Boat.

Recently we read Mary Sharratt’s Illuminations, and before that, Geraldine Brooks’s The Secret Chord, historical novels about the mystic saint Hildegard of Bingen and King David respectively. Both made me really glad to live in modernity. If you doubt progress, read these books.

It’s natural to wonder how I’d have behaved in those past times. Hopefully not like the typical men portrayed. But you can’t graft modern sensibility, even hypothetically, onto long-ago people. Folks acted as they did because that was their world. Though each book did include at least one man we’d call good, they were truly exceptions.

Hildegard lived in 1100’s Germany. At age eight she was sent to accompany 14-year-old Jutta as monastery “anchorites.” I didn’t know what that meant. Neither did little Hildegard. But on the trip, her blood froze when someone used the words “walled in.”

unknown-1That was literal. Jutta and Hildegard were immured in a small bare chamber and the entrance was bricked up. There was one window. A “hatch” delivered food. And if that weren’t awful enough, they were clothed in “hair shirts” – intentionally crafted to lacerate the skin.

“Saintly” Jutta, of noble birth. was there supposedly because being mad she was unmarriageable. Actually it was because she was no virgin – raped by her brother. But if not mad to start with, Jutta soon embarked on a project to starve and torture herself to death.

It took thirty years.*

When Hildegard at last emerged into daylight, amazingly she was not mad too. But by then she’d acquired some fellow inmates who formed the core of an abbey of nuns Hildegard went on to establish; something of a fairy tale after her ghastly beginnings.

images-1If that story was ghastly, King David’s was worse. So blood-soaked, so full of human evil. (It too includes a royal brother-sister rape. Indeed, more than just rape.) Brooks’s novel hews quite close to the Bible’s detailed account. The only saving grace is that that was mostly if not entirely fiction. But the way its authors imagined a “hero” shows the barbarity of their minds and their world. Remarkable that people today consider this a “holy” book.

* An Afterward notes a different account saying the “enclosure” began six years later.


Tattoo nation

September 25, 2016

Going to the beach nowadays is to visit a tattoo exhibition.

images-1Tattooing used to be tantamount to sticking a label on yourself saying “low class” or “no class.” Then it became a question of brash versus demure tattooing. Now it seems almost a rite of passage.

One local blogger (Heather Fazio) even said she does judge tattooed people – she trusts them more. “They’re not afraid to be who they are.”

Even if “who they are” is a low-class freak show?

Sorry for that. I believe in self-expression, really I do. And in every individual’s freedom to do their own thing, even if someone else – including me – disapproves. (As long as no others are harmed.)

unknownSo if you want to decorate your home with paintings of big-eyed tots on black velvet, you’re welcome to do that too – but don’t expect me to applaud this as high art. I have a right too, to make aesthetic and cultural judgments.

You can call this “judgmental” as if it’s a bad thing. But what do we have brains for, if not to make judgments? We make them every minute of the day, about everything. It’s being human. And it’s fine, as long as I don’t try to impose my judgments on you.

Often people wear tattoos, and clothes, to be different, nonconformist, to set themselves apart from the common herd. images-2Ironically, such trappings become uniforms themselves when adopted by part of the herd. Your nonconformism must conform to the currently reigning nonconformist ethos. It’s often really a lack of imagination. There are enough conventional ways to be different that it’s hard to be truly unconventional. Today, having no tattoos may be unconventional.

Tattoos could be beautiful. In principle. In practice, they’re mostly ugly. The fact is that human flesh just isn’t a very good medium for artwork. Maybe I could imagine a kind of advanced high-tech tattooing that would overcome this and produce truly vivid and aesthetically arresting images.

images-3But instead what we mainly get are what look like smeary blobs. Also tribalistic markings (like for sports teams). Or messages that are often inane, or even sometimes in Chinese – on non-Chinese people – being “who they are?”

How often I’ve said to myself: “Nice looking gal there – too bad about the disfiguring tattoo.”

And don’t get me started on all the nose rings, eyebrow rings, rings in the pierced whatevers. Jewelry is supposed to beautify. Earrings, necklaces, bracelets can do so. Nose and eyebrow rings, not so much. images-4Of course, standards of beauty can be culturally determined and can vary from place to place and from time to time. We’re often told in Africa fat women are adored and thin ones shunned. What makes a necklace beautiful and a nose ring ugly to me? Is it just culture, and fleeting? Well, whatever the cultural and even psychological roots, it’s my aesthetic opinion.

To which I’m entitled, just as you are entitled to uglify yourself with tattoos and piercings.

Ban the box?

September 20, 2016

unknown-1Since 2007, eleven states have enacted bans on checking a job applicant’s credit score. The aim is equality and fair hiring – since someone with low credit would more likely be black, poor, and/or young. Yet when two economists (Robert Clifford and Daniel Shoag) studied these bans, they found hiring more racially biased.

Why so? Another well-intentioned liberal utopian idea whacked by the law of unintended consequences. It seems that when employers cannot see applicants’ credit scores (often a good predictor of reliability on the job), they give added weight to factors like educational attainment and experience – on which young, poor, and black people do even worse.

imagesThe Americans with Disabilities Act similarly aimed to help a disadvantaged class, by giving them a litany of on the-job-protections — enforceable through litigation. Thusly turning disabled workers into lawsuit bombs, making employers wary of employing them at all.

Well, you may say, what’s wrong with requiring employers to treat disabled staff fairly, and penalizing them if they don’t? But even an employer with all the goodwill in the world would realize that what she considers fair, someone else might not, and in today’s litigious culture, that’s a big risk. unknown-2Some lawyer sharks make their livings by cooking up dubious ADA cases and shaking down businesses for settlements. (The ADA was a bigger boon for lawyers than for disabled people.)

It’s all part of a trend to see businesses as enemies of society. As if people should provide you with goods and services with no profit, selflessly, as a public service. A friend of mine constantly whines about supermarkets making profits, asking why they can’t just give up some profit and cut prices. But she likes being able choose among thousands of products in one store. Supermarket profit margins average around 1%.

Now we have the “ban the box” movement – referring to the job application checkbox, “have you ever been convicted of a crime?” As though it’s somehow unfair for an employer to know this about a job seeker. Applicants do have rights; but don’t businesses have some rights too? Isn’t it, indeed, unfair to require a business to hire someone without knowing their credit rating, or criminal record? Those tell something about the person. And while people with bad credit or jail time deserve some consideration, are they entitled to be treated as though those facts about them aren’t facts?

unknown-3And I’m dubious anyway that “ban the box” would actually help the intended beneficiaries – let’s face it, mainly young black men. Who, percentagewise, have a greater likelihood of criminal justice encounters. Businesses know that. If barred from learning whether a black applicant has a clean record, a common response would be wariness about hiring him – making it harder for black men to get jobs. Just like with credit scores.

Sometimes the “unintended consequences” are not even a surprise. Sometimes they stare you in the face. But that never seems to daunt liberal do-gooders in their effort to repeal reality.

After I wrote this up, an article in The Economist reported on another study, showing states with “ban the box” laws, sure enough, do experience lower black hiring.

unknown-4And now Massachusetts has banned employers from asking job applicants what their present salary is. Fairness to women is the stated aim.

Why not just go for total fairness and require businesses to hire workers knowing nothing about them at all?

Donald Ainslie Henderson: hero

September 13, 2016

One who saves another’s life is reckoned a hero. Donald Ainslie Henderson is a hero you never heard of, but he saved around 100 million (so far, and counting). He died August 19.

Unknown-1Henderson was responsible for eradicating smallpox, an extremely nasty disease. (If you believe in God, ask him some time why creation included such features.) When Henderson got this assignment from the World Health Organization in 1966, smallpox was still killing two million annually, and no one thought it could actually be eliminated. Except Henderson.

In fact, the WHO put an American in charge so the U.S. would be blamed for failure. They forgot our motto: “The difficult we do at once, the impossible takes a little longer.” In this case it took till 1977. That year the world’s last smallpox case was registered.

Henderson succeeded by doing what humans do: indefatigable hard work, research, figuring out the best methods, and a lot of cooperation. Hundreds of thousands of people ultimately pitched in to this massive effort.

Those who romanticize the natural world should remember that things like smallpox are part of it. Nature is not our friend. Our entire history is our battle against it. Our victories should be celebrated. This was a great one.

I am so proud to be a member of the human race.

Colombia’s peace deal: how to end wars

September 10, 2016

There are important lessons to be learned from Colombia’s recent peace deal with its FARC insurgency, ending a 52-year civil war.



The FARC may have started as an ideological “revolutionary” movement but degenerated into murderous drugs-and-kidnapping criminality. Its atrocities prompted the rise of anti-FARC paramilitaries which behaved just about as brutally. Colombia seemed headed for failed-statehood until President Alvaro Uribe (2002-10) got serious about combating the FARC militarily and also cracked down on the paramilitaries. He was a hero.



His chosen successor, Juan Manuel Santos, capitalized on that progress with painstaking four-year negotiations, culminating in the peace settlement.

The “No-more-war” crowd sacralizes the word “negotiations,” fantasizing that all conflicts can be solved that way. Historically, the vast majority of wars have instead been solved militarily, by one side simply winning. A combatant who sees a chance to win through arms won’t likely make the concessions necessary for a negotiated settlement.

Colombia shows this. Repeated negotiation efforts failed until the FARC was first brought to its knees militarily. Yet the government couldn’t wipe it out entirely, hence both sides now had incentives for concessions to get a deal. The government had to swallow some bitter pills, including a degree of leniency toward people with blood on their hands.

Unknown-1But it was wise to do so. All normal human beings have a powerful inborn justice drive, an instinct that crimes should be punished. And punishment for crimes is indeed just. However, retributive justice is all about the past, while a peace deal like Colombia’s is all about the future, and we mustn’t sacrifice the latter for the former. If leniency is what it takes to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” and lay a foundation for a brighter future, then so be it.

images-3In this, Colombia’s peace deal conforms to what is becoming the modern model for such settlements. We’ve seen broadly similar ones in Northern Ireland, South Africa, El Salvador, and elsewhere, with magnanimous “truth and reconciliation” processes, so that losers aren’t just stamped on, but accommodated back into society. Colombia’s pact enables the FARC to turn into a normal political party.

All this is, quite simply, the way it’s done now, and it’s a very good thing. We may not have “outlawed war” as pacifists dream (though in fact, in history’s broad sweep, war is very much on the decline). But we have gotten a lot better at resolving conflicts, and in ways that are beneficial for the societies involved. This is a very important form of progress, bad news for cynics, and a big point scored for those with an optimistic outlook upon humankind and our world.

Still, conspicuously absent from the growing list of conflicts resolved in this intelligent, foresighted way are any involving Muslims (and a disproportionate number of the world’s violent conflicts involve Muslims). Regrettably, this seems to reflect a cultural difference: most Muslim societies are still locked in a bloody-minded “winner-take-all” mindset regarding conflicts. They have failed to grow to greater maturity in the way so many others (like Colombia) have done. As an optimist, I expect they one day will, but in the meantime it’s frustrating. (However, let me note Tunisia’s progress, the one nation with (so far) a good outcome from the “Arab Spring,” thanks to the kind of modernist mentality I’m talking about.)

imagesColombia is still fighting a smaller but stroppier rebel group, the ELN, and its FARC deal must be approved in a referendum. The vote may be close: the lack of prison time for miscreants is indeed hard to swallow, and Uribe, to his discredit, is campaigning against it. One might think the desire for retributive justice would be strongest in the rural areas that suffered most at FARC’s hands; but because they’ve suffered the most, they are keenest to approve the deal and draw a line under all the suffering. Let’s hope Colombia follows their lead.

Banning the burkini

September 7, 2016
Banned in France

Banned in France

The “burkini” is Muslim swimwear; more burqa than bikini, it enables gals to get wet while still covered. Some French jurisdictions have banned it.

Allowed in France

Allowed in France

French women on beaches go practically naked. Bare skin has long been permitted; but now it is compulsory. Am I alone in finding this bizarro?

The burkini bans follow France’s ban on the burqa. They claimed police need the ability to identify people in public. That’s disingenuous; a reasonable law could simply require face-baring if requested by an officer. Why not be honest about the real reason for the burqa ban: they see it as reflecting a culture that regards women differently.

True, women wearing burqas often do so in subjugation to men, and that’s bad. However, some wear them out of choice, however misguided that might seem, and in any case, this is a matter between women and their husbands or fathers, in which this libertarian doesn’t think government should interfere. Except to protect women from violence if they go against their menfolk.

Everyone should be free to wear what they choose. This includes religious garb; indeed, in this first-amendment country, it especially includes that. We don’t ban people from wearing crosses or yarmulkas; nor should we ban burqas.

images-4Or burkinis. It does seem perverse that France allows immodesty on beaches but won’t allow modesty. This is discriminatory and mean-spirited toward Muslim women, effectively banning them from beaches. France also bans even headscarves in schools.

America seems to do better than Europe at integrating Muslims into society. Don’t be misled by a certain sulphurous presidential candidate and his fans. They are really outside the U.S. mainstream, which is fundamentally open and tolerant, genuinely believing in our founding ideal of personal liberty, and seeing strength and richness in diversity. Read George Washington’s letter embracing as part of America a Rhode Island Jewish congregation (which must then have appeared more foreign and exotic than do Muslims today).

Maybe France, facing repeated acts of violence by disaffected Muslims, should rethink its attitude toward its own Muslim citizens. France’s president says it’s at war. Take care it’s not a civil war.

UPDATE: Since I got this ready to post, news has come that a French court has overturned the burkini bans.

The animal that came in from the cold (My Labor Day tribute to work)

September 5, 2016

There’s a cynical misanthropic mentality seeing humanity as a curse upon the planet, and modern life as a snakepit of psychic malaise. I don’t buy it.

imagesRecently I traveled from Albany to New York and all along the way was struck not just by how humankind has thoroughly transformed the landscape, but by the stupendous amount of work it took. Whether it was the roads with all their vehicles, all the buildings and other infrastructure, the farmlands with endless rows of cultivation – how many man-hours of toil!

Unknown-2And did you ever stop to ponder how much metal we use, everywhere? And where it comes from – all the mining and milling and processing and fabrication? And don’t forget what it took for people to figure out how to do all this. Likewise all the buildings – every brick had to be manufactured, transported, cemented. Again, the colossal amount of sheer effort boggles the mind.

And what’s it all for? Quite simply, so we can live with less pain and more comfort and reward. We’re the animal that came in from the cold. Unknown-1We arrived on this planet with nothing, literally naked. Everything we’ve done, we’ve done ourselves. It wasn’t easy. To me it’s a veritable miracle.

This is Man’s fundamental nature. Believing (despite all religion) not that things are up to some God, or fate, but up to us. Not to accept, but to strive. Not to submit, but to prevail.

Faster: the pace of modern life

August 27, 2016

imagesI picked up James Gleick’s book Faster and read it slowly – something it says people rarely do anymore.

The subtitle is The Acceleration of Just About Everything. I was hoping for some insight into the human condition as affected by modernity; our lives are radically different from what we evolved for. But the book reads more like a Seinfeld monologue than a sociology essay – a string of quickie observations, never connected into some over-arching theory or viewpoint. Unknown-1I was reminded of Churchill saying of a dessert: “This pudding has no theme.”

Yes, in many ways, life has gotten faster. We all know that. But what does it really mean for us? Gleick seems unsure, ambivalent – the book’s tone is bemusement.

He even contradicts himself at times. One chapter (“Short Term Memory”) starts, “As the flow of information accelerates, we may have trouble keeping track of it all.” Gleick explains that the media on which information is recorded quickly becomes obsolete. Tons of data are on floppy disks and microfilms – but can you find the machines today to read them? Et cetera. This is indeed a real problem. Yet then Gleick says: “amnesia doesn’t seem to be [our] worst problem. This new being just can’t throw anything away . . . It has forgotten that some baggage is better left behind. Homo Sapiens has become a packrat.”

But perhaps such contradictoriness really is the essence of this book, in exploring our modern relationship with time. Gleick returns repeatedly to the concept of “saving time,” and how slippery it is. Talking about the genre of self-help books on time-saving, he says this (his emphasis):

Unknown-3“[The authors] reveal confusion about what it means to save time. They flip back and forth between advertising a faster and a slower life. They offer more time, in their titles and blurbs, but they are surely not proposing to extend the 1,440-minute day, so by ‘more’ do they mean fuller or freer time? Is time saved when we manage to leave it empty, or when we stuff it with multiple activities, useful or pleasant? . . . when we seize it away from a low-satisfaction activity, like ironing clothes, and turn it over to a high-satisfaction activity, like listening to music? What if we do both at once? If you can choose between a thirty minute train ride, during which you can read, and a twenty minute drive, during which you cannot, does the drive save ten minutes? . . . What if you can listen to [an] audiotape . . . ? Are you saving time, or employing time that you have saved elsewhere . . . ?”

But Gleick doesn’t really philosophize about the nature of time. In physics, it is indeed a tricky and elusive concept. There seem to be fundamental particles of matter, and maybe of space, but not of time; no unit is the limit of smallness in measuring time. Unknown-5And while we all think we know what time’s passage is, we actually don’t experience it as a sequence of moments; “living in the moment” is impossible because as soon as a moment occurs it’s already in the past. The “now” sandwiched between anticipation and retrospect never actually exists as something we can experience.

Time is the one thing which, once lost, can never be replaced. That might not matter much once we achieve immortality (or near-immortality); but as long as we know our allotment is limited, we value every minute. While people may have a lot of mis-judged values, the quest to save time is not one of them.

In my coin business, I used to mail out price lists (very laborious); then take down all the orders on the phone (even more laborious). Now I post the list on the web, and print out the orders. The time savings is great.

One point the book makes is that time has become a commodity, and a lot of our economy concerns its allocation. A business often tries to get customers to pay not just with money but with their time – “some assembly required” – thereby relieving the business of some costs. images-2Buffet restaurants are another example, the customer doing some of the work theretofore done by restaurant staff. There’s a new buffet concept in Japan – instead of “all you can eat” for a fixed price, or charging by the ounce, this eatery charges by the minute. Diners punch a time clock, then rush to the buffet, and wolf down their food as fast as they can. Conversation among dining companions is a casualty (though they can eat with eyes glued to phones). The advantage to the restaurant is obvious – without gourmands lingering over their repasts, many more of them can be serviced. Yet the scheme is quite popular, Gleick reports; Tokyo residents wait in line for the opening gun.

Speaking of eyes glued to phones, Gleick quotes economist Herbert Stein: “It is the way of keeping contact with someone, anyone, who will reassure you that you are not alone . . . deep down you are checking on your existence. I rarely see people using cellphones on the sidewalk when they are in the company of other people.”Unknown-7

Reading this made me check the book’s publication date: 1999. Seems like ancient history now. Today many folks are fixated on their phones 24/7 – oblivious to people around them.

This is, again, a mode of existence radically different from our evolutionary antecedents. Some see it as dystopian; yet its extreme popularity tells us that it satisfies human needs in a very deep way. People always had a profound yearning for what their phones provide – but until recently, they just didn’t know it.

This is my America

August 11, 2016

UnknownIlhan Omar spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya, fleeing from the turmoil in her native Somalia.

On Tuesday, now 33, she won a Democratic primary for Minnesota state representative. Somali refugees have been drawn to Minnesota by welcoming programs, and are now estimated to exceed 40,000 there. Omar defeated the incumbent, who was the longest serving Minnesota legislator. She is favored to win the November election over her Republican opponent, who is also a Somali immigrant; and would be the first Somali-American state legislator.

In an interview, Omar explained she had sought the support of a broad coalition, not just people of African origin. “I hope our story is an inspirational story to many people,” she said.