Saturday, January 08, 2011

An Intentional Crime Not A Tragedy [Anthony McCarthy]

The early news on the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is confused but as I write this they said that she is alive and out of surgery, having been shot through her head. She is reported to be following commands.

Eighteen people in all were shot with an automatic weapon, a number of them have died including a young child and a federal judge.

The news keeps talking about this mass murder as being a tragedy, it's not a tragedy, it's a crime. While it's not clear what the motive was, Congresswoman Giffords was targeted by Sarah Palin, a map of congressional districts with a distinctive cross hairs pattern was posted during the election campaign by Palin's website in the style that has inspired the assassination of people providing health care to women. Sarah Palin and her people couldn't have missed that people were killed after they were similarly marked for killing. I've read that it has been taken down since the shooting, indeed, several websites I found talking about "targeting" Congresswoman Giffords seem to have been rather hastily removed. Gun nuts held shooting events "targeting" her during the election campaign. There is every reason to suspect that the shooter was inspired by these and, I am certain, other veiled talk which encouraged armed people to "target" her.

The Republican right has been using explicitly violent language for more than a year, encouraging people with guns to insert themselves into politics, in the case of Sharon Angle, explicitly advocating the use of guns when politics doesn't produce the results they want. There is nothing ambiguous about it, this is the open advocacy for assassination. This isn't a tragedy, there is nothing mysterious or unintentional about it. This will not be the last. Sarah Palin was the Republican Vice Presidential candidate, Sharon Angle was a Republican candidate for the Senate, many, official Republican candidates clearly advocated the use of guns in politics during the campaign. The killing has started, the time to let them off the hook for the results of their policy just ended, people are already dying.

This is a result of Republican rhetoric by mainstream, official, Republican politicians and officials. It has been advocated by their talk shows on the radio and Cable, it is directly linked to them. It necessary for our protection and the survival of democracy that they not be allowed to wriggle out of it now. It wasn't an act of the gods that did this, it was an intentional act advocated by the Republican Party.

More On Women's Tears

I have written a somewhat longer media criticism on this topic for the Ms Blog.

The Official Unemployment Rate Is A Conventional Lie [Anthony McCarthy]

Someone had better get through to Barack Obama that a .4% decrease in the official unemployment rate won't get him out of trouble with anyone but the Democratic side of the elite consensus. Hearing his stentorian voice declaring that the economy is improving is not going to go well with the many who can't find work, whose unemployment has already run out, whose resources have already or will soon be used up and those who are their families and friends. If I had to give him some merely political advice, it would be that his strong, confident voice declaiming those lines are a political liability to those who have every reason to believe he is strongly and confidently lying about their lives. His embrace of the conventional, elitist economics that led us into disaster leaves him vulnerable to seeming out of touch, if not dishonest. President Franklin Roosevelt's far more aristocratically accented encouragement would have had the same effect if it wasn't backed up by a vigorous rejection of the orthodoxy that had driven huge numbers of people into destitution.

Barack Obama will cling to a drop in the official unemployment rate as it goes down millimeters at a time, because it's what he's got. But the official unemployment rate is a fraudulent number, excluding those who have been looking for work and not finding it long enough to have stopped looking during the period measured. The number doesn't measure all of the unemployed. But, being a duly credentialed product of our educational elite which trades in the conventional instead of the really honest, I don't think Barack Obama can bring himself to admit the numbers are dishonest as a means of determining the number of people being driven into poverty and destitution through unemployment, it was and continues to be far worse than is measured.

The numbers used to talk about money and its availability for use by people in order to live a tolerable life are created by economists and then are treated as if they had some atavistic power and significance.

And, to an extent, they might have some limited usefulness in thinking about it but, as all formal, conventional, abstractions they quickly take on a life of their own and become useful in creating cover stories that mask reality. Since the use of those numbers is, largely, done by people getting paid to do it, and since those who can pay are primarily interested in their own financial situation, they will tend to serve the purposes of the elites who commission their manipulation. It is in the interest of the elite to not talk about how many people the miraculous, omniscient Market doesn't serve, how large the real number of people without incomes is and has almost always been. It doesn't want the real story of who is sacrificed to their idol to get out because their narrative suffers when reality is the topic.

Earlier this week, I was reading about how one of the foremost economists of my youth, John Kenneth Galbraith, fell out of fashion as his historically based economics was overtaken by the vogue for technical analysis and a scientific approach. This has happened before, in the history of economics, the late 19th century contained an impressive amount of mathematical manipulation. That the massive intellectual effort didn't do much to prevent the economic catastrophes of the time or the subsequent decades, didn't keep it from being an officially impressive exercise and those who did it from being regarded as wise and oracular as they balanced their equations. I don't think that anyone should let the numbers fool them, science is an attempt to find reliable knowledge about the world and universe independent of desired outcomes. One of the most basic requirements of science is that the measures used have to be honest, themselves. The official unemployment rate is clearly a dishonest number and anything mimicking science done with it will extend that dishonesty into false conclusions. This is certainly known to those who do it. Declaring that their intentions take that into account is belied by the language they use as they cite it*.

I'd like an answer as to why a number that is so important in judging, not only the efficiency of the economy but its justice is allowed to be so obviously a lie, why economists from right to left accept it and use it in their manipulations. I can understand why they do it on the right, it serves their purposes which have little to nothing to do with honesty. Why the left accepts it is the real question**.

* As in the defense of the Consumer Price Index, the official dodge is that it's not supposed to be used in the way it is even as they discuss how it is commonly used and, sometimes, that its use gives a false picture of the economic lives of real people, who are often far worse off than the official numbers would lead you to believe.

**I suspect that some of it is the quiet desperation, the result of the pious yearning to be academically respectable, especially for those of us who didn't inherit that form of respectability. For all of the undoubted benefits of formal learing, academic respectability includes the indoctrination into the passive acceptance of vast rangers of merely conventional measures and definitions that have imperfect or even no real existence. You can't be officially well educated, unless you have imbibed large amounts of it. Being academically accepted as a motivation for people to put blinders on their own eyes is another thing that gets far too little notice. The slightest deviation from the common received way of thinking is one of the things which causes the most violent reaction among the soft, complacent, educated class in the English speaking world. Which can be socially, if not economically, catastrophic in a way that constitutes the daily experience of the underclass.

It is possible to have a more realistic view of life and a formal education is useful for that. But it's never possible to have more than a small view of reality. Being honest about the limits of your view is a good way to prevent some of the disabilities of that fact.

Often, the incomes of those with educational credentials are sufficient so they can take the padded numbers reported as a picture of the economy with equanimity as they mask the catastrophic situation for those with smaller incomes. Sometimes they forget or never knew the mixture of unmet needs, insecurity, and the fear of falling into real, homeless, destitution, that is the common experience of a huge percentage of the population. The margins between the official and the real unemployment rates, between the official Cost of Living and the real ones, give them a knowledge based in a direct experience of real life that makes confident declarations based on the phony numbers the basis of lasting distrust. That is the real danger of Barack Obama's economic policy mixed with his deep, confident voice. It's fuel to the fire of their anger.

Not Popularizable! On Men's House Chores And Divorce

The gender studies which get popularized must veer in a certain direction. We all know that. Therefore, this study cannot be popularized:

Divorce rates are lower in families where husbands help more with housework, shopping and childcare, according to new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

A study of 3,500 British married couples after the birth of their first child found that the more husbands helped, the lower the incidence of divorce.
The study has problems, of course. For instance, the estimated amount of the husband's housework was based on the wife's reporting. But the sample size is respectable and the findings should fit beautifully into the American pro-marriage-and-anti-divorce schools of thought! At least as well as the argument that it's wives with paid jobs which destroy marriages. But, alas, no popularizer or pro-marriage organization has grabbed it.

Why not? Because its conclusions are not liked. As simple as that.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Friday Night Music

Stolen from Anthony McCarthy: Big Mama Thornton sings "Ball and Chain"

Hairdresser Observations

I had my hair cut today (humongous amounts of hair on the floor afterward). I also got told off (as usual) for trimming my own bangs (with nail scissors) in-between the visits. (My hairdresser is great, and most of that's just part of our usual bantering. But how odd that it's the very first thing he said to me when I walked in! Are my bangs really that uneven? Don't answer.)

These visits are my time to catch up on women's magazines, and that's what I did today, too. My instant impression: Models are getting thinner. I saw three ads in the last two issues of the Vogue with unnaturally thin models. In one case the upper arms of the model must have been touched up because they were narrower than human arms can be. I thought the fashion folks decided not to push anorexic body images any more?

A recent catalog I got at home had a model on its cover whose knees were the thickest part of her legs.

Anorexia can kill. This is not just some sort of a prudish feminazi concern. Besides, I hate the kind of crap where the firms don't walk their talk.

Today's Electoral Politics

Digby links to an article in the National Journal about the composition of the current Democratic Party and Obama's chances 2012.

I haven't decided on what I think about the piece but it's a good start for discussions. Note, for example, these snippets:

From every angle, the exit-poll results reveal a new color line: a consistent chasm between the attitudes of whites and minorities. The gap begins with preferences in the election.


Meanwhile, Republicans, with their 60 percent showing, notched the party's best congressional result among white voters in the history of modern polling. Media exit polls conducted by Edison Research and its predecessors have been tracking congressional elections for about three decades. In no previous exit poll had Republicans reached 60 percent of the white vote in House races. The University of Michigan's National Election Studies, a biennial pre- and postelection poll, is another source of data on voting behavior dating to 1948. Republicans had never reached 60 percent of the congressional vote among whites in any NES survey. Only in the NES surveys had Democrats reached that 60 percent congressional support level among white voters: in their 1974 post-Watergate landslide and in Lyndon Johnson's 1964 rout of Barry Goldwater.


Democrats have been losing support among blue-collar white voters since the 1960s, but in this election, they hit one of their lowest points ever. In House campaigns, the exit poll found, noncollege whites preferred Republicans by nearly 2-to-1 with virtually no gender gap: White working-class women—the so-called waitress moms—gave Republicans almost exactly as many of their votes as blue-collar men did.


White-collar men and women also parted ways much more significantly than their blue-collar counterparts did. College-educated white men backed Republican House candidates and registered negative views of Obama's job performance as overwhelmingly as blue-collar whites did. College-educated white women, though not immune to these trends, displayed more resistance. Although traditionally the most liberal portion of the white electorate, even these women cooled toward Democrats last year. In contrast to the majority support they provided Obama in 2008, they voted 55 percent to 43 percent for Republicans in 2010 House races. In the exit poll, most of them agreed that government was trying to do too much, and a slim majority of them said they wanted Congress to repeal the health care law.
Slightly off the topic, it seems to me that articles like this are never written about the negatives of the Republican Party when it does poorly.

Thursday, January 06, 2011


I've had the links to Scalia's statement concerning the 14th Amendment not applying to women or to gays and lesbians for a while but I haven't written anything about it, mostly because anyone who already didn't know what Scalia thinks about women must have just arrived from some other planet. Likewise, anyone who didn't realize that the Republican seeding of the Supreme Court is partly aimed at keeping wimminz in their proper places must also have come out of outer space.

But people are talking about it, perhaps because Scalia has also made friends with the tea partiers, so it's worth looking at what he said

First, here's the first section of the 14th Amendment:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Second, here's Scalia:
In 1868, when the 39th Congress was debating and ultimately proposing the 14th Amendment, I don't think anybody would have thought that equal protection applied to sex discrimination, or certainly not to sexual orientation. So does that mean that we've gone off in error by applying the 14th Amendment to both?
Yes, yes. Sorry, to tell you that. ... But, you know, if indeed the current society has come to different views, that's fine. You do not need the Constitution to reflect the wishes of the current society. Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't. Nobody ever thought that that's what it meant. Nobody ever voted for that. If the current society wants to outlaw discrimination by sex, hey we have things called legislatures, and they enact things called laws. You don't need a constitution to keep things up-to-date. All you need is a legislature and a ballot box. You don't like the death penalty anymore, that's fine. You want a right to abortion? There's nothing in the Constitution about that. But that doesn't mean you cannot prohibit it. Persuade your fellow citizens it's a good idea and pass a law. That's what democracy is all about. It's not about nine superannuated judges who have been there too long, imposing these demands on society.
I guess this is what an originalist interpretation of the Constitution and such means: A "person" or a "citizen" is a man. It also means that a Supreme Court made out of nine Scalia clones would gladly regard women as some sort of second class non-citizens.

Today's Shalllow Thought

This is the bran-and-cod-liver-oil department of feminist blogging.

Today's Teh Stoopit

The headline:
Stop the waterworks, ladies. Crying chicks aren't sexy

Now what on earth could that be about? It's about an Israeli study:

In a study published Thursday in the journal Science, the Weizmann Institute of Science researchers collected emotional tears from female volunteers by showing them sad movies. Then they had male test subjects sniff the actual tears and fake tears comprised of saline.

A whiff of the real deal caused testosterone levels in the men to drop significantly. They found pictures of women less sexually attractive. When the men were sent into brain scanners, and shown a sad film, the men who were exposed to the fake tears didn't show much lower activity in a region associated with sexual desire, but the activity in the same region was greatly reduced in men who breathed real tears.

The brain scans, the big yawn over alluring pictures and the drop in the he-man hormone led the scientists to conclude that "women's emotional tears contain a chemosignal that reduces sexual arousal in men."
The popularizer's conclusion?
Bottom line, ladies? If you're looking for arousal, don't turn on the waterworks

Hmm. Here's my alternative interpretation:
It's good to know that when you first hear your father has died the men in the room won't try to hump you, right?
In fact, we should test the effect of children's tears on male arousal, too. Everybody's tears on everybody's arousal, really, because to me it seems like a very useful and common-sense conclusion that another person's tears will reduce your sexual arousal. Something tear-worthy is happening and perhaps it's an important survival cue to pay attention to.

This stoopit popularization is what us chicks and ladies get all the time, though. That's why I keep writing about it.

But I also wonder what on earth the purpose of the initial study might have been. Were they looking for the opposite finding? And just imagine how that one would have been popularized! This finding, after all, makes sense, and us chicks and ladies still got whupped.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Birds

Falling dead from the sky. It's either biological weapons or the apocalypse, I read. Or just lots of coincidences, or something else.

Here's a really weird coincidence: I was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez' short stories the other night, in particular one of them, "One Day After Saturday," probably just around the correct time:

"The birds!" she exclaimed.
"The birds,: the Mayor concurred. "It's strange you haven't noticed, since we've had this problem with the birds breaking windows and dying inside the houses for three days."
I'm sad about the birds.

We Are Gonna Blow More Bubbles!

Like the 1990s Internet bubble and the 2000s housing bubble! Yes, we are. No, we have not learned anything whatsoever and, yes, we have bailed out the culprits of the previous crisis so that they will be in a good position to initiate the next one.

Goldman Sachs is investing in Facebook:

Can Goldman Sachs, the profit-seeking missile of high finance, really make money by investing $450 million in Facebook, at a vertigo-inducing price that values the social-networking company at $50 billion?

On first blush, the answer would appear to be no. After all, in May 2009, the company was valued at $10 billion. Last August, Facebook was valued at $27 billion and now it's $50 billion — for a company with a reported $2 billion in revenue and negligible profits. If General Electric, with 2010 revenue of around $150 billion, traded at a similar multiple of revenue, it would be worth $3.75 trillion instead of $200 billion. Facebook is now considered to be worth more than Time Warner, DuPont and Goldman's rival Morgan Stanley.

Just last week, Facebook's shares were said to be trading on a private-market exchange at a valuation of $42.4 billion. Thanks to Goldman's imprimatur, Facebook's value increased 20 percent virtually overnight. Can Goldman really expect to squeeze more water from this stone?

Sadly, yes.

To understand why, we have to go to the heart of the many problems in the way the Wall Street cartel does business, despite the promised reforms of the Dodd-Frank law. With Goldman's investment in Facebook, we have a front-row seat to the process by which Wall Street creates and inflates financial bubbles.
Read the whole thing to learn about the next bubble, always remembering that it will burst, too, and that the ones with soap on their faces will not be the stockbrokers. They are doing astonishingly well, by the way.

In fact, they seem to be in power in this country.

Curiouser And Curiouser. Or the Media Bias About Gender

Jennifer Armstrong provided a link to a British financial website article, with the interesting title "Women want rich husbands, not careers." A snippet from the piece itself:

Women still want to 'marry up' and naturally choose husbands who earn more than themselves, a report suggests.

The idea of most women wanting to be financially independent is a myth, according to Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics.

Despite years of equality campaigning, more women are choosing to marry wealthy men than in the 1940s, the expert claims.
Fun stuff, don't you agree? The comments to the piece certainly do:

At last someone in this PC age has awoken to the unspeakable truth! The fact that she is a woman gives much greater significance to her findings.
This is only natural. A womans place is at home bringing up the children. It is a very important job, and women are ideally suited for it.

Far too many women force themselves into male roles, for which they are not mentally suited, and end up being stressed and unhappy.

Women have many virtues, but pretending to be a man is not one of them.
Oldest profession in the World.
They won't post my comments for some odd reason. Perhaps I didn't make them adequately stupid.

Never mind, I then Googled the author of that initial piece, Catherine Hakim, and found the piece posted on an arch-conservative British website. It's a bit like picking something from the Independent Women's Forum, the gals' auxiliary to the American wingnuts. I also found a BBC reference to this same piece of news. Its summary:

According to a new study more women are are marrying for money than did in the 1940s.

The author of the report, Dr Catherine Hakim, tells BBC Radio 5 live "there is this myth that women invariably choose to have a relationship of total equality".

Speaking to Victoria Derbyshire, Dr Hakim continues: "More and more women are choosing to marry men who are substantially better educated than them, and therefore have higher earnings capacity."
By then I was truly excited about this new research, for all sorts of reasons, and not the least because close to 100 percent of well-educated men in the 1940s had to be marrying "down", given the gender percentages then prevailing in institutions of higher education. That, in turn must mean that loads more highly educated men are NOT marrying "down" today which, based on Hakim's arguments, means that men are seeking a more egalitarian relationship than in the past!

Or something like that. It's as good as Hakim's arguments, in any case, given that adding-up problem: If a country is fairly egalitarian in education, how can "more and more" women marry "up" compared to, say, 1940s?

But I digress from the purpose of this post which is to tell you that after carefully reading through Hakim's report, I found no new study. She links to her book published in 2000 and to a Polish paper from 2007 which is unavailable through Google. But no new study. Where did the BBC get that from?

Nowhere, is my guess. My second guess is that anything of this sort (good, juicy stuff about women) will pass through the most rudimentary filters many media sites might have. So now we are going to discuss work Hakim did in the 1990s as a new study! Because that's what it seems to be about:

Women's aspiration to marry up, if they can, to a man who is better-educated and higher-earning persists in most European countries,' she said. 'Women thereby continue to use marriage as an alternative or supplement to their employment careers.'

The research, which drew on existing data drawn from Britain and Spain, showed that 20% of British women married husbands with a significantly better education than their own in 1949.

By the 1990s, the percentage of women deciding to 'marry up' had climbed to 38% - with a similar pattern repeated in the rest of Europe, the US and Australia.

The report concluded that equal roles in the family, where husband and wife shared employment, childcare and housework, was 'not the ideal sought by most couples'.
Let's assume that this quote is all true, for the time being. Let's then compare it to that headline: ""Women want rich husbands, not careers." Notice anything odd? Thirty-eight percent is not all women, not even the majority of women, but both and the BBC have happily skipped to much more extreme interpretations, such as this one:

Women still want to 'marry up' and naturally choose husbands who earn more than themselves, a report suggests.

The idea of mostt women wanting to be financially independent is a myth, according to Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics.
Thirty-eight percent, remember? In the 1990s, by the way (are you listening, BBC?)

It pains me deeply that I cannot get hold of Hakim's book from the year 2000, because I'm salivating at the thought of seeing her original research. Though I can make a guess about what might drive her findings, assuming the study is otherwise properly done.

My guess goes like this: Start with a fairly small percentage of educated men and a much smaller percentage of educated women in the 1940s Britain or Spain. Most educated men will have to marry "down" in this scenario, whereas only a fairly small percentage of all women can marry "up", given the rarity of higher education even for men.

Now note the great increase in higher education after the 1940s, and add to that the fact that the increases were at first much more rapid for men than for women. What this means, essentially, is a situation where more women will marry "up", given that now a larger percentage of men will have a college degree or something similar. The percentage of women with higher education degrees has also grown but not by as much. The overall effect of these two stages is -- what?

Probably the kind of picture Hakim paints, of apparent increases in the percentage of women who are marrying "up", even if there is no particular reason for that except a greater number of men with college degrees, say.

It is only in the third stage, one where the percentage of individuals with college degrees is essentially equal between men and women or even higher for women, that we could really apply Hakim's theory to a test. But even then we cannot assume that it's only women who decide whom to marry! Even evil feminists don't go so far as to deny men any say in that. So a more complicated model would certainly be needed.

But that is only an aside. This post is really about the horrible and ethically unacceptable sloppiness shown by the popularizations here, especially as there seems to be no study for them TO popularize. The BBC, in particular, is to blame here, because they give us the impression of some brand new research in the year 2011, whereas the research seems to come from the 1990s or perhaps even earlier.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Studying The Sex Differences In Science: A Story

In 1995 a wife-husband research team published the first study appearing to show that men and women process language differently in their brains. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz used functional MRI to study the brains of nineteen women and nineteen men during three different language tasks.

One of the tasks, identifying rhymes, showed gender differences in the relative activation levels of the brain. Lise Eliot in Pink Brain. Blue Brain. writes (pp. 185-6): exhibited strong activation of the lower portion of the left frontal lobe, while women tended to activate the same frontal area but on both sides of the brain. Of the nineteen women, eleven exhibited this bilateral pattern and eight activated just the left hemisphere (like men). So the results of this study seemed to indicate that in processing language, or at least during this particular rhyming task, women were more likely to use both hemispheres while men used exclusively the left hemisphere. As one of the first reports to find a sex difference by using functional MRI, this study got a lot of press. An article in the New York Times Science section promptly declared: "Men and Women Use Brain Differently, Study Discovers," and the findings continue to be highlighted even in recent popular works.
I remember the publication of those popularizations and the mileage they went. Like from here to sun and back again! Take into account the fresh interest in the genome study and the soil was well prepared for something like this to be interpreted as evidence of permanent, stable and innate differences between men and women. In many places it was.

What happened next in this interesting field, you might ask. Two things. On the one hand the research in the field continued. On the other hand, several popularizers harnessed the idea that men and women have totally different brains, that this difference is innate, and that the world should be organized to respect those differences. Part of that organizing was the idea that boys and girls should be educated separately and with different methods. Michael Gurian and Leonard Sax are famous advocates of innate sex differences as the basis for single-sex schooling, and Gurian, in particular, keeps appealing to the fMRI and PET scans to make his point*.

Sadly, what has happened in studies which use those methods has weakened the arguments of guyz like Gurian and Sax. It turns out that the way the brain looks in those scans can change based on how it is used. This means that the kinds of differences that 1995 study found don't necessarily tell us anything at all about the innateness of the observed differences in use.

Even more sadly for Gurian and Sax, later studies failed to replicate Shaywitzes' original finding. Eliot again (pp. 186-7):

Like any good research, the Shaywitzes' study inspired many attempts at replication. By 2008, twenty-six comparable brain-imaging studies were available for Iris Sommer and her colleagues at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands to synthesize using meta-analysis.

Their overall conclusion: there's no sex difference in language processing. While some studies reported results similar to the Shaywitzes', others did not. Some even found that women processed language more strongly on the left side. When you put all the findings together, it's a wash; there is no significant difference in the way men's and women's right and left hemispheres are activated by language.
All this has to do with the idea that brain lateralization might differ between men and women in language use. This doesn't seem to be the case. But no worries! We still get a lot of popularizations based on exactly that idea, even though it has now been removed from the relevant university-level textbooks.

As Cordelia Fine puts it in Delusions of Gender, after discussing the above study and some additional research (p. 138):
So let us , with healthy skepticism, summarize all of this as clearly as we can. Nonexistent sex differences in language lateralization, mediated by nonexistent sex differences in corpus callosum structure, are widely believed to explain nonexistent sex differences in language skills.

Why does this story matter? Because the popularizations of research such as the Shaywitz study were seeds to the new single-sex education movement and also because of statements like this one (from Fine, p. 139):

For example, a consensus statement titled "The Science of Sex Differences in Science and Mathematics" links female "interhemispheric connectivity" to an advantage in language skills and male within-hemisphere connectivity to superiority in "tasks requiring focal activation of the visual association cortex", that is, visuospatial tasks.
That women don't appear to have any language skills advantage in interhemispheric connectivity is worth remembering.

The morale of this story? Perhaps the fact that it's one of many similar ones, as far as I can see. Almost any study finding sex differences will be given powers it should not have, as the final and eternal explanation of all observed gender differences. Whole edifices will be built on that one finding. When it's ultimately accepted as a false lead, the process begins anew with some other study. All this has real costs, psychological as well as monetary, which could be avoided if popularizers took more care and if researchers themselves played a role in explaining the limited role of such findings.
Cordelia Fine's Delusions of Gender discusses the imprecision of these imaging techniques and the meaning of the "blobs" one sees. They are nowhere near as easy to interpret as one tends to assume.

Researchers Are Human: The Cyril Burt Affair

I wanted to write a short post just pointing out that my previous post on the "decline effect" in fact has a positive message: The effect itself is now talked about and this discussion may lead to better research and better science in the longer run.

But I got side-tracked, as I often do, in the nasty slimy roots under the surface of the clear intellectual waters. I intended to use the Sir Cyril Burt case as an example of how science corrects itself, but the first five references my Googling brought up are all over the place.

Did Burt meddle with his data? And if so, was it just an innocent problem, caused by old age, or did he create fake results on purpose? To give a short summary of the scandal:

Over the course of his career Burt published numerous articles and books on a host of topics ranging from psychometrics to philosophy of science to parapsychology. It is his research in behavior genetics, most notably in studying the heritability of intelligence (as measured in IQ tests) using twin studies that have created the most controversy, frequently referred to as "the Burt Affair."[13][14][15][16] Shortly after Burt died it had become known that all of his notes and records had been burnt, and he was accused of falsifying research data. The 2007 Encyclopedia Britannica noted that it is widely acknowledged that his later work was flawed and
many academics agree that data were falsified, though his earlier work is often accepted as valid.[17]

From the late 1970s it was generally accepted that "he had fabricated some of the data, though some of his earlier work remained unaffected by this revelation."[17] This was due in large part to research by Oliver Gillie (1976) and Leon Kamin (1974).[18][19] The possibility of fabrication was first brought to the attention of the scientific community when Kamin noticed that Burt's correlation coefficients of monozygotic and dizygotic twins' IQ scores were the same to three decimal places, across articles – even when new data were twice added to the sample of twins. Leslie Hearnshaw, a close friend of Burt and his official biographer, concluded after examining the criticisms that most of Burt's data from after World War II were unreliable or fraudulent.[20]
If you read the sites thrown up by the Google machine, you find pretty much what you'd expect. Wikipedia has a whiff of something (perhaps of the he-said-she-said with no real conclusions), only noticeable after you read the other sites. Friends of Burt rise up to defend him! Utter weirdos also rise up to defend him! After a while you no longer know what to think of that famous Sir Cyril Burt affair!

Yet I was taught it in my statistics classes as an obvious case of fraud, both because the correlation coefficients remained essentially constant (.770 or .771) after new data was twice added, and because the number of identical twins reared apart, Burt was able to find, 53 pairs, appeared far too large to be credible. Note that we are talking not just about identical twins, but identical twins not growing up in the same family.

That more recent identical twin studies find correlation coefficients in the same range is not a defense of Burt's integrity unless the new studies also analyze identical twins reared apart.

I'm writing about this because what motivates researchers is not only some desperate desire for "truth." They are motivated, as are human beings in general, by friendship, by the need for money, by prior biases, by that case where your own earlier work becomes part of how you define yourself and thus attacks against it violate you, and so on. And "truth" is an elusive concept, data can be unavailable, biased or too scanty, yet time hammers on and forces researchers to publish. Paraphrasing Rumsfeld, one does research with the biases and data one has, not the biases and data one wishes to have.

Ultimately this post is in support of the criticisms of scientific research studies. I have often read arguments that something must be true because scientists said it was so. Who are we, ordinary people, to question Science?

But scientists are ordinary people, too.

My Apologies

I turned on full moderation and then got sick for the rest of the day. So none of you were put in the moderation queue for some horrendous crime.

Monday, January 03, 2011

News from Afghanistan

The bad ones: It's mostly girls who are not going to school. The reasons vary from family opposition to threats of violence:

Worsening security and enduring conservative Islamic customs prevented almost five million Afghan children from going to school in 2010, a government official said on Saturday.

The strict Islamist Taliban were ousted from power by U.S.-backed Afghan forces nearly a decade ago, but many women are still not able to work outside the home and girls are prevented from attending school in remote parts of the country.

Under the Taliban, women were barred from accessing health care and education and made to wear burqas covering them from head to toe. Only boys were allowed to attend school. Many of these customs are still widespread.

Girls have had acid thrown in their faces while walking to school by hardline Islamists who object to female education. Several girls' schools, including some in Kabul, have also been hit by mysterious gas poisonings blamed on Islamists.
Then the good news: The Women's Garden in Kabul is reopening:

The Women's Garden, an 8-acre oasis in this country's capital, reopened in November after seven months of reconstruction and funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The park gives Afghan women a place where lush trees protect them from the brutal sun and they can distance themselves from the hardships of life and strict Islamic doctrine.

Behind its walls, Afghan women find the freedom and empowerment lacking under Islamic or sharia law. The law, strictly enforced under the Taliban, forbids a woman to go to a public park without a male escort. Many wait for the fledgling democracy to formally renounce the practice, but until then, the garden provides a unique opportunity for women to chum unescorted with other women.
Note that the park is reopening. It's not something new but an attempt to return to pre-Taliban levels freedom for women in Kabul, and it doesn't wipe out the problem of girls not getting educated. But it's still good news.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Sunday Dog Blogging

Picture by Evan.

Looking To Finland Instead of The Finish Line in Education Policy [Anthony McCarthy]

One of the early warning signs that there are basic flaws in the Obama administration was his Race to the Top program, the kind of thing that is called education reform. Basic because setting up education reform as a race begins with the idea that there are going to be LOSERS and winners. I emphasize LOSERS because in a race there are far more losers than winners, though its the winners that a competitive system concentrates on. But it is the creation of losers that is the big problems with education in the United States. The entire concept is inherently structured to produce failure, the competition among the states for federal money, with a limited number of “winners” guarantees “losers”. That is a guarantee of inequality, it is a guarantee that he public schools will be segregated by some ordering into winners and losers, and so their students will be.

I don't think that Barack Obama or his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, should be expected to understand the problems with their program for two reason. Neither of them graduated from public schools. Indeed, I believe neither of them ever attended a public school in the United States in any part of their education. Another reason is that both of them are jocks, who have a blind spot for the defects in a competitive system which produces many more losers for the relative handful of winners. The model of athletics is an especially bad one for the public schools because of that. The purpose of the public schools must be to encourage everyone to learn to the best of their abilities. It must teach its students the values of democracy, equality, the respect of other people and the pursuit of the common good highest among those. I think the increasing focus on athletics in education has been a major component of the decline of, not only education, but the American culture in general. An educational system that isn't founded in those moral values is bound to lose its direction and lose focus on the results of such education, democracy and a sense of civic decency, and a belief in the good of learning.

If using the shame and humiliation of losing was going to produce better education, it would have by now. Our schools have been set up to produce losers for the past thirty or so years. It simply hasn't worked, it produces discouragement and failure, something which those who have been the winners in the present system apparently don't notice as they bask in the glory of their achievement.

The problems in public education in the United States are many and almost infinitely varied. That variety comes begins with the fact that there is no such thing as an American Public Education system. There are a myriad of local and state entities that administer public schools, very often badly and almost always unequally funded by some of the more regressive forms of taxation. They are governed by school boards, which are more often than not a public joke, filled with ignorant egomaniacs who don't understand the issues of their schools and in many if not most cases can't even understand the budgets they vote on. I doubt that most school board members even do their required reading. Most of them are rubber stamps to the superintendents – many of whom are elevated on the basis of their athletic coaching, far more than their academic background - except in the rare exceptions when local taxpayers revolt.

There was an op-ed in the Boston Globe a few days back which advised the United States to look at how Finland turned around a lagging educational system. It looks like we are headed in exactly the wrong direction if that's the case. Here are the most interesting parts of the piece:

Another difference is that Finland has created an inspiring and respectful environment in which teachers work. All teachers are required to have higher academic degrees that guarantee both high-level pedagogical skills and subject knowledge. Parents and authorities regard teachers with the same confidence they do medical doctors. Indeed, Finns trust public schools more than any other public institution, except the police. The fact that teachers in Finland work as autonomous professionals and play a key role in curriculum planning and assessing student learning attracts some of the most able and talented young Finns into teaching careers.

Educational leadership is also different in Finland. School principals, district education leaders, and superintendents are, without exception, former teachers. Leadership is therefore built on a strong sense of professional skills and community....

... What could the United States learn from the Finns? First, reconsider those policies that advocate choice and competition as the key drivers of educational improvement. None of the best-performing education systems relies primarily on them. Indeed, the Finnish experience shows that consistent focus on equity and cooperation — not choice and competition — can lead to an education system where all children learn well. Paying teachers based on students’ test scores or converting public schools into private ones (through charters or other means) are ideas that have no place in the Finnish repertoire for educational improvement.

Second, provide teachers with government-paid university education and more professional support in their work, and make teaching a respected profession. As long as teachers are not trusted in their work and are not respected as professionals, young talent in the United States is unlikely to seek teaching as a lifelong career.

It looks like this might be good advice to me. Of course, given the insularity and ignorance produced by much of our educational system, a lot of the administrators and school board members in the United States might have to look in an encyclopedia to find out where Finland is. That is if they can overcome the idiocy of American exceptionalism enough to believe that they might learn something from its example. If Finland has found a way to distinguish between real life and the structure of competitive sports, it could be exactly the lesson we need.

Update: Echidne has graciously provided a link to a site which has more information about the Finnish education reform.