Saturday, August 31, 2013

One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.

From Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell. I had gone looking for a particular quotation but found the whole essay an intriguing time capsule of the past and yet also an accurate reflection of the present as well.

Orwell is discussing the different forms of intellectual hubris; Trotskyism, Irish Nationalists, Communists, Pacifists, Tories, etc. He lumps then all into forms of nationalism which he describes as "the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled [sic] "good" or "bad." But secondly -- and this is much more important -- I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests." In contemporary parlance, something more akin to ideology.

He is writing in May 1945, and yet the tenor of ideological commitment is everywhere you turn today - debates about abortion, or gun rights, or capital punishment, or how to best ensure adequate health, etc.. When we ought to be discussing things as respectful individuals, judging on fact and logic, extending tolerance, debates are instead marked by all the issues Orwell raises - isolating the other as evil, engaging with alternative ideas not to test our way towards truth but rather to destroy the enemy, and always, willful blindness to plain realities.
All of these facts are grossly obvious if one's emotions do not happen to be involved: but to the kind of person named in each case they are also intolerable, and so they have to be denied, and false theories constructed upon their denial. I come back to the astonishing failure of military prediction in the present war. It is, I think, true to say that the intelligentsia have been more wrong about the progress of the war than the common people, and that they were more swayed by partisan feelings. The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. When Hitler invaded Russia, the officials of the MOI issued "as background" a warning that Russia might be expected to collapse in six weeks. On the other hand the Communists regarded every phase of the war as a Russian victory, even when the Russians were driven back almost to the Caspian Sea and had lost several million prisoners. There is no need to multiply instances. The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when "our" side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified -- still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function.

The reason for the rise and spread of nationalism is far too big a question to be raised here. It is enough to say that, in the forms in which it appears among English intellectuals, it is a distorted reflection of the frightful battles actually happening in the external world, and that its worst follies have been made possible by the breakdown of patriotism and religious belief. If one follows up this train of thought, one is in danger of being led into a species of Conservatism, or into political quietism. It can be plausibly argued, for instance -- it is even possibly true -- that patriotism is an inocculation against nationalism, that monarchy is a guard against dictatorship, and that organized religion is a guard against superstition. Or again, it can be argued that no unbiased outlook is possible, that all creeds and causes involve the same lies, follies, and barbarities; and this is often advanced as a reason for keeping out of politics altogether. I do not accept this argument, if only because in the modern world no one describable as an intellectual can keep out of politics in the sense of not caring about them. I think one must engage in politics -- using the word in a wide sense -- and that one must have preferences: that is, one must recognize that some causes are objectively better than others, even if they are advanced by equally bad means. As for the nationalistic loves and hatreds that I have spoken of, they are part of the make-up of most of us, whether we like it or not. Whether it is possible to get rid of them I do not know, but I do believe that it is possible to struggle against them, and that this is essentially a moral effort. It is a question first of all of discovering what one really is, what one's own feelings really are, and then of making allowance for the inevitable bias. If you hate and fear Russia, if you are jealous of the wealth and power of America, if you despise Jews, if you have a sentiment of inferiority towards the British ruling class, you cannot get rid of those feelings simply by taking thought. But you can at least recognize that you have them, and prevent them from contaminating your mental processes. The emotional urges which are inescapable, and are perhaps even necessary to political action, should be able to exist side by side with an acceptance of reality. But this, I repeat, needs a moral effort, and contemporary English literature, so far as it is alive at all to the major issues of our time, shows how few of us are prepared to make it.

Friday, August 30, 2013

I ought to have eaten a pretzel in the first place!

From Fables and Fairy Tales by Leo Tolstoy, page 37.
Three Rolls a Pretzel

Feeling hungry one day, a peasant bought himself a large roll and ate it. But he was still hungry, so he bought another roll and ate it. Still hungry he bought a third roll and ate it. When the three rolls failed to satisfy his hunger, he bought some pretzels. After eating one pretzel he no longer felt hungry.

Suddenly he clapped his hand to his head and cried:
"What a fool I am! Why did I waste all those rolls? I ought to have eaten a pretzel in the first place!"

To be, or not to be - that is the question

From William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Act 3 scene 1, the famous soliloquy,
To be, or not to be--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep--
No more--and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep--
To sleep--perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprise of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. -- Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia! -- Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.

Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement

PERMA, a concept of life outcomes, developed by Martin Seligman of University of Pennsylvania.
Positive emotion — tunable by writing down, every day at bed time, three things that went well, and why
Engagement — tunable by preferentially using one's highest strengths to perform the tasks which one would perform anyway
Relationships — tunable, but not in a way that can be explained briefly; listen to timestamp 15:12 and following of the audio
Meaning — belonging to and serving something bigger than one's self
Achievement — determination is known to count for more than IQ

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Progress doesn't come from early risers — progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.

From The Shape of History: Ian Morris, historian on a grand scale by Marc Parry.
Social behavior boils down to the "Morris Theorem": "Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways to do things." These people are much the same everywhere. Their societies develop along similar paths. Geography explains different outcomes. "Maps, not chaps," as Morris likes to say.
The Morris Theorem sounds a lot like Heinlein. From Time Enough for Love,
Progress doesn't come from early risers — progress is made by lazy men looking for easier ways to do things.

Without mathematical language one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth

The Assayer (1623), by Galileo Galilei, as translated by Thomas Salusbury (1661), p. 178, as quoted in The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science (2003) by Edwin Arthur Burtt, p. 75
Philosophy is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes — I mean the universe — but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols, in which it is written. This book is written in the mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.

The greater part of progress is the desire to progress

On the Supreme Good, Letter LXXI by Seneca
That which is short of perfection must necessarily be unsteady, at one time progressing, at another slipping or growing faint; and it will surely slip back unless it keeps struggling ahead; for if a man slackens at all in zeal and faithful application, he must retrograde. No one can resume his progress at the point where he left off. Therefore let us press on and persevere. There remains much more of the road than we have put behind us; but the greater part of progress is the desire to progress.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country

From How the Post Was Lost by Ross Douthat
The nature of that role is suggested by a scene in the Thatcher-era British sitcom “Yes, Prime Minister” in which a politician explains who actually reads the British papers.

“The Daily Mirror is read by people who think they run the country,” he tells his aides. “The Guardian is read by people who think they ought to run the country. The Times is read by the people who actually do run the country. The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country. The Financial Times is read by people who own the country. The Morning Star” — a paper founded as a Communist organ — “is read by people who think the country ought to be run by another country. And The Daily Telegraph is read by people who think it is.”

Back when “Yes, Prime Minister” aired, this comic analysis didn’t really fit the American journalism scene. There were ideological and interest-based papers, especially in the big cities, but mostly geography rather than identity determined what newspaper you read.

With the arrival of the Internet, though, the American media landscape began to look more British. Once you could read any paper from anywhere, the advantage went to properties that could brand themselves nationally, and define themselves by their audience as much as their city.

If you want Wal-Mart to have a labor force like Trader Joe’s and Costco, you probably want them to have a business model like Trader Joe’s and Costco

From Why Wal-Mart Will Never Pay Like Costco by Megan McArdle.
In other words, Trader Joe’s and Costco are the specialty grocer and warehouse club for an affluent, educated college demographic. They woo this crowd with a stripped-down array of high quality stock-keeping units, and high-quality customer service. The high wages produce the high levels of customer service, and the small number of products are what allow them to pay the high wages. Fewer products to handle (and restock) lowers the labor intensity of your operation. In the case of Trader Joe’s, it also dramatically decreases the amount of space you need for your supermarket ... which in turn is why their revenue per square foot is so high. (Costco solves this problem by leaving the stuff on pallets, so that you can be your own stockboy).

Both these strategies work in part because very few people expect to do all their shopping at Trader Joe’s, and no one expects to do all their shopping at Costco. They don’t need to be comprehensive. Supermarkets, and Wal-Mart, have to devote a lot of shelf space, and labor, to products that don’t turn over that often.

Wal-Mart’s customers expect a very broad array of goods, because they’re a department store, not a specialty retailer; lots of people rely on Wal-Mart for their regular weekly shopping. The retailer has tried to cut the number of SKUs it carries, but ended up having to put them back, because it cost them in complaints, and sales. That means more labor, and lower profits per square foot. It also means that when you ask a clerk where something is, he’s likely to have no idea, because no person could master 108,000 SKUs. Even if Wal-Mart did pay a higher wage, you wouldn’t get the kind of easy, effortless service that you do at Trader Joe’s because the business models are just too different. If your business model inherently requires a lot of low-skill labor, efficiency wages don’t necessarily make financial sense.

That’s not the only reason that the Trader Joe’s/Costco model wouldn’t work for Wal-Mart. For one thing, it’s no accident that the high-wage favorites cited by activists tend to serve the affluent; lower income households can’t afford to pay extra for top-notch service. If it really matters to you whether you pay 50 cents a loaf less for generic bread, you’re not going to go to the specialty store where the organic produce is super-cheap and the clerk gave a cookie to your kid. Every time I write about Wal-Mart (or McDonald's, or [insert store here]), several people will e-mail, or tweet, or come into the comments to say they’d be happy to pay 25 percent more for their Big Mac or their Wal-Mart goods if it means that the workers are well paid. I have taken to asking them how often they go to Wal-Mart or McDonald's. So far, no one has reported going as often as once a week; the modal answer is a sudden disappearance from the conversation. If I had to guess, I’d estimate that most of the people making such statements go to Wal-Mart or McDonald's only on road trips.

However, there are people for whom the McDonald's Dollar Menu is a bit of a splurge, and Wal-Mart’s prices mean an extra pair of shoes for the kids. Those people might theoretically favor high wages, but they do not act on those beliefs -- just witness last Thanksgiving’s union action against Wal-Mart, which featured indifferent crowds streaming past a handful of activists, most of whom did not actually work for Wal-Mart.

If you want Wal-Mart to have a labor force like Trader Joe’s and Costco, you probably want them to have a business model like Trader Joe’s and Costco -- which is to say that you want them to have a customer demographic like Trader Joe’s and Costco. Obviously if you belong to that demographic -- which is to say, if you’re a policy analyst, or a magazine writer -- then this sounds like a splendid idea. To Wal-Mart’s actual customer base, however, it might sound like “take your business somewhere else.”
Excellent article. It touches on something that occurs time and again in arguments around variable outcomes and disparate impact. People argue from false analogies to get to the point that that they want to make without actually understanding the context and causative forces. In McArdle's example, people are arguing that Walmart ought to pay their employees the same way Trader Joes and Costco pay their employees, ignoring or not understanding that they have a false premise and false analogy - Walmart and Costco have different target markets, different business models and therefore different trade-offs that have to be made (see Fred Crawford's Myth of Excellence for a good discussion regarding the different trade-offs required of different business models).

If you want to change outcomes, you have to address the goals and causes of the model, not look at surface similarities. Government policy falls victim to this issue of arguing from false premises and false analogies. In the most recent housing debacle, government policy was aimed at increasing home ownership by reducing the financial requirements for mortgages (no down payments, reduced credit requirements, etc.). The goal was to increase the number of people in the middle class and the assumed premise was that if people look like the middle class (i.e. live in middle class homes), then they would behave like the middle class.

This is of course exactly opposite of reality when you look at the context and causation of outcomes. Nobody assumes that, having observed that the upper middle class tend to drive higher end cars, that you can make people middle class by enabling them to own a higher end car. Causation and context tell you that middle class people are middle class because of their goals and behaviors (work hard, stay married, consume less than you earn, invest in the future, be generous, etc.) not because of the trappings such as home and car. If you want more people to be middle class, reward the behaviors that enable them to be middle class.

Beware false analogies and ignorance of context and causation.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

There is a correct answer to that question, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever know what it was

From Why Do Education and Health Care Cost So Much? by Megan McArdle. a great example of the challenges related to causal density. We may accurately identify all the causes of an outcome but still not be able, because of poor understanding of the relationships between root causes, to predict outcomes. Absent accurate prediction, we don't really understand the nature of a problem at all.
So how do we explain health care and college cost inflation? Well, health care economist David Cutler once offered me the following observation: In health care, as in education, the output is very important, and impossible to measure accurately. Two 65-year-olds check into two hospitals with pneumonia; one lives, one dies. Was the difference in the medical care, or their constitutions, or the bacteria that infected them? There is a correct answer to that question, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever know what it was.

Similarly, two students go to different colleges; one flunks out, while the other gets a Rhodes Scholarship. Is one school better, or is one student? You can’t even answer these questions by aggregating data; better schools may attract better students. Even when you control for income and parental education, you’re left with what researchers call “omitted variable bias” -- a better school may attract more motivated and education-oriented parents to enroll their kids there.

So on the one hand, we have two inelastic goods with a high perceived need; and on the other hand, you have no way to measure quality of output. The result is that we keep increasing the inputs: the expensive professors and doctors and research and facilities.
I would quibble with McArdle. There are actually two problems. It is true that it is hard to measure education and health outcomes and that is a challenge. But even if we were able to measure with great precision and accuracy, that is still not the same as forecasting. Measuring is a predicate to forecasting.

If we precisely and accurately measure our initiating action X, we want to know with some level of accuracy and certainty that X will lead to Y, the outcome we desire. If we cannot predict the outcome, it means we don't understand to relationship between and among the various causes.

Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice

E.M. Forster, A Room With A View
Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Statute Forbidding Any One to Annoy or Unduly Injure the Freshmen

How to Treat the Freshmen, 1495 by Elizabeth Archibald. Leipzig University Statute (1495):
Statute Forbidding Any One to Annoy or Unduly Injure the Freshmen. Each and every one attached to this university is forbidden to offend with insult, torment, harass, drench with water or urine, throw on or defile with dust or any filth, mock by whistling, cry at them with a terrifying voice, or dare to molest in any way whatsoever physically or severely, any, who are called freshmen, in the market, streets, courts, colleges and living houses, or any place whatsoever, and particularly in the present college, when they have entered in order to matriculate or are leaving after matriculation.

You must work at it constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, exercising your will.

From Every Hour is Precious by Shaun Usher. A letter from Anton Chekhov to his dissolute brother, outlining the requirements of civilized behavior.
To my mind, civilized people ought to satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite and compliant. They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser. When they move in with somebody, they do not act as if they were doing him a favor, and when they move out, they do not say, "How can anyone live with you!" They excuse noise and cold and overdone meat and witticisms and the presence of others in their homes.

2. Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats. They are hurt even by things the naked eye can't see. If for instance, Pyotr knows that his father and mother are turning gray and losing sleep over seeing their Pyotr so rarely (and seeing him drunk when he does turn up), then he rushes home to them and sends his vodka to the devil. They do not sleep nights the better to help the Polevayevs, help pay their brothers' tuition, and keep their mother decently dressed.

3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts.

4. They are candid and fear lies like the plague. They do not lie even about the most trivial matters. A lie insults the listener and debases him in the liar's eyes. They don't put on airs, they behave in the street as they do at home, and they do not try to dazzle their inferiors. They know how to keep their mouths shut and they do not force uninvited confidences on people. Out of respect for the ears of others they are more often silent than not.

5. They do not belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy. They do not play on people's heartstrings to get them to sigh and fuss over them. They do not say, "No one understands me!" or "I've squandered my talent on trifles!" because this smacks of a cheap effect and is vulgar, false and out-of-date.

6. They are not preoccupied with vain things. They are not taken in by such false jewels as friendships with celebrities, handshakes with drunken Plevako, ecstasy over the first person they happen to meet at the Salon de Varietes, popularity among the tavern crowd. They laugh when they hear, "I represent the press," a phrase befitting only Rodzeviches and Levenbergs. When they have done a penny's worth of work, they don't try to make a hundred rubles out of it, and they don't boast over being admitted to places closed to others. True talents always seek obscurity. They try to merge with the crowd and shun all ostentation. Krylov himself said that an empty barrel has more chance of being heard than a full one.

7. If they have talent, they respect it. They sacrifice comfort, women, wine and vanity to it. They are proud of their talent, and so they do not go out carousing with trade-school employees or Skvortsov's guests, realizing that their calling lies in exerting an uplifting influence on them, not in living with them. What is more, they are fastidious.

8. They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities. They cannot stand to fall asleep fully dressed, see a slit in the wall teeming with bedbugs, breathe rotten air, walk on a spittle-laden floor or eat off a kerosene stove. They try their best to tame and ennoble their sexual instinct... What they look for in a woman is not a bed partner or horse sweat, [...] not the kind of intelligence that expresses itself in the ability to stage a fake pregnancy and tirelessly reel off lies. They—and especially the artists among them—require spontaneity, elegance, compassion, a woman who will be a mother... They don't guzzle vodka on any old occasion, nor do they go around sniffing cupboards, for they know they are not swine. They drink only when they are free, if the opportunity happens to present itself. For they require a mens sana in corpore sano.
He then notes
That's how civilized people act. If you want to be civilized and not fall below the level of the milieu you belong to, it is not enough to read The Pickwick Papers and memorize a soliloquy from Faust. It is not enough to hail a cab and drive off to Yakimanka Street if all you're going to do is bolt out again a week later.

You must work at it constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, exercising your will. Every hour is precious.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Toiling upward in the night

From Thanks, Mr. L: Elmore Leonard’s life-changing advice by Robert Ferrigno. During an interview, the author finds himself lamenting the challenge of writing a novel while working a job and raising a family. Elmore Leonard advised him to rise early, at 5am, in order to get in a couple of uninterrupted hours of writing. Later, after the publication of his first novel,
I got a call at home from Mr. L. He was genuinely happy for me. I thanked him, told him he had changed my life and the life of my family, and I would always be grateful. He said he gave that advice all the time and that most writers lasted about a week on the schedule before falling off the wagon. I told him I had lied to him when I said I would get up every day at five a.m. as he had suggested. Yeah? His voice on the line tense now. Yes sir, I told him, I got up at four a.m. every day for the last year and a half. You’re a better writer than I am, so I figured I needed the extra hour. It made him laugh, a dry cackle that kind of hung up at the back of his throat. A beautiful laugh.
The vignette reminded me of a stanza from Longfellow's The Ladder of St. Augustine.
The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives

Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 29 October 1775
It should be your care, therefore, and mine, to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty, and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives.

But their bodies must be hardened, as well as their souls exalted. Without strength and activity and vigor of body, the brightest mental excellencies will be eclipsed and obscured.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

What value do they add?

A very interesting example of false meme propagation. It appears that the initial report is produced in Huffington Post indicating that were McDonalds to double their employees' salary, the cost of McDonalds' food would only increase by 17%. The research was originally indicated to have been produced by a researcher at University of Kansas.

It then turns out that the author of the original article, Arnobio Morelix is not, in fact, a researcher but an economics student at University of Kansas. The deconstruction of the very basic accounting and economics errors which allowed Morelix to reach his conclusion are more or less documented here, McDonalds Math, Or, Latest Lib Talking Points Fail by Tom Maguire.

There are a number of observations arising from this incident.

The errors in Morelix's logic and reasoning were apparent on the face of it. You don't have to be an accounting major or an economics major to be passingly familiar with quotidian concepts such as supply and demand elasticity, proportionality, capital/labor substitution, market competition, ceteris paribus fallacy, cost-push inflation, etc. Each and all of these concepts completely undermine Morelix's argument. By assuming a ceteris paribus world where actions (increase wages) have no consequences (higher inflation, increased unemployment, reduced revenue for McDonalds, increased cost of living for the poorest people, etc.) Morelix is able to conjure a wonderful outcome. Meanwhile, in the world where magical thinking is not the currency of intellect, all sorts of bad things happen as a direct result of this mode of presumptuous thinking (thinking that presumes that ideology trumps reality, where opinions matter more than facts, where other peoples' choices are deemed irrelevant, where there is no linkage between causes and consequences).

An incapacity to think conceptually (economics and accounting) was exacerbated by an inability to think contextually. Morelix's erroneous conclusion was that a doubling of McDonald's employee income would only increase the cost of food by 17%. Notice that only. Even if you are so besotten with the desirability of conclusion, you would still think that there was the ability to take the thinking just a couple of steps further. Step 1) Who are the primary consumers of McDonalds food? - almost certainly people in the bottom three quintiles of income. Step 2) Is a 17% increase in the cost of food a significant factor for those people? - For the poorest 20% of Americans (the bottom quintile of income), expenditures on food represent nearly 25% of their income. If they are spending $500 a month on food, then, per Morelix's erroneous calculations, they will now need to find only another $85 a month (an extra $1,020 a year) to keep eating only as well as they have in the past. If you are a privileged student at a state university, that might seem entirely inconsequential. If you are in the bottom quintile, that might seem an entirely arrogant, unconscionable, cruel and catastrophic assumption.

The conclusion was more important than the logic and the data. Huffington Post, TruthDig, Daily Kos, ABC, UPI, MSNBC, all ran with this story without any apparent effort to consider the validity of the study. These are just the mainstream outlets with reputations and awards and supposedly with bright reporters and layers of fact checkers. Really? These are supposed to be media on which we can rely in order to make sense of our complex world. If they can't even vet the most obvious fallacies, then what value do they add?

So a deeply flawed and erroneous opinion, masquerading as a research study, is picked up and propagated through the cognitive ecosystem simply because it fits a set of ideological assumptions and without any effort to apply common knowledge, experience and critical thinking to the proffered argument. No wonder we waste so much collective time on non-productive discussions.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Thou shalt not sit with statisticians nor commit a social science.

I began reading W.H. Auden a few years ago. There were a handful of clever shorter poems that the children particularly enjoyed when they were younger. As with most poets I read, I find myself searching through a lot of material, getting fractious and irritated, just before I discover a gem to be treasured.

I came across this poem, Under Which Lyre, which I have not heard of before. Here is some background from Harvard Magazine.
Under Which Lyre
A Reactionary Tract for the Times

(Phi Beta Kappa Poem, Harvard, 1946) by W. H. Auden

Ares at last has quit the field,
The bloodstains on the bushes yield
To seeping showers,
And in their convalescent state
The fractured towns associate
With summer flowers.

Encamped upon the college plain
Raw veterans already train
As freshman forces;
Instructors with sarcastic tongue
Shepherd the battle-weary young
Through basic courses.

Among bewildering appliances
For mastering the arts and sciences
They stroll or run,
And nerves that steeled themselves to slaughter
Are shot to pieces by the shorter
Poems of Donne.

Professors back from secret missions
Resume their proper eruditions,
Though some regret it;
They liked their dictaphones a lot,
T hey met some big wheels, and do not
Let you forget it.

But Zeus' inscrutable decree
Permits the will-to-disagree
To be pandemic,
Ordains that vaudeville shall preach
And every commencement speech
Be a polemic.

Let Ares doze, that other war
Is instantly declared once more
�Twixt those who follow
Precocious Hermes all the way
And those who without qualms obey
Pompous Apollo.

Brutal like all Olympic games,
Though fought with smiles and Christian names
And less dramatic,
This dialectic strife between
The civil gods is just as mean,
And more fanatic.

What high immortals do in mirth
Is life and death on Middle Earth;
Their a-historic
Antipathy forever gripes
All ages and somatic types,
The sophomoric

Who face the future's darkest hints
With giggles or with prairie squints
As stout as Cortez,
And those who like myself turn pale
As we approach with ragged sail
The fattening forties.

The sons of Hermes love to play
And only do their best when they
Are told they oughtn't;
Apollo's children never shrink
From boring jobs but have to think
Their work important.

Related by antithesis,
A compromise between us is
Respect perhaps but friendship never:
Falstaff the fool confronts forever
The prig Prince Hal.

If he would leave the self alone,
Apollo's welcome to the throne,
Fasces and falcons;
He loves to rule, has always done it;
The earth would soon, did Hermes run it,
Be like the Balkans.

But jealous of our god of dreams,
His common-sense in secret schemes
To rule the heart;
Unable to invent the lyre,
Creates with simulated fire
Official art.

And when he occupies a college,
Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge;
He pays particular
Attention to Commercial Thought,
Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport,
In his curricula.

Athletic, extrovert and crude,
For him, to work in solitude
Is the offence,
The goal a populous Nirvana:
His shield bears this device: Mens sana
Qui mal y pense.

Today his arms, we must confess,
From Right to Left have met success,
His banners wave
From Yale to Princeton, and the news
From Broadway to the Book Reviews
Is very grave.

His radio Homers all day long
In over-Whitmanated song
That does not scan,
With adjectives laid end to end,
Extol the doughnut and commend
The Common Man.

His, too, each homely lyric thing
On sport or spousal love or spring
Or dogs or dusters,
Invented by some court-house bard
For recitation by the yard
In filibusters.

To him ascend the prize orations
And sets of fugal variations
On some folk-ballad,
While dietitians sacrifice
A glass of prune-juice or a nice
Marsh-mallow salad.

Charged with his compound of sensational
Sex plus some undenominational
Religious matter,
Enormous novels by co-eds
Rain down on our defenceless heads
Till our teeth chatter.

In fake Hermetic uniforms
Behind our battle-line, in swarms
That keep alighting,
His existentialists declare
That they are in complete despair,
Yet go on writing.

No matter; He shall be defied;
White Aphrodite is on our side:
What though his threat
To organize us grow more critical?
Zeus willing, we, the unpolitical,
Shall beat him yet.

Lone scholars, sniping from the walls
Of learned periodicals,
Our facts defend,
Our intellectual marines,
Landing in little magazines
Capture a trend.

By night our student Underground
At cocktail parties whisper round
From ear to ear;
Fat figures in the public eye
Collapse next morning, ambushed by
Some witty sneer.

In our morale must lie our strength:
So, that we may behold at length
Routed Apollo's
Battalions melt away like fog,
Keep well the Hermetic Decalogue,
Which runs as follows:�

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor's thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

Thou shalt not be on friendly terms
With guys in advertising firms,
Nor speak with such
As read the Bible for its prose,
Nor, above all, make love to those
Who wash too much.

Thou shalt not live within thy means
Nor on plain water and raw greens.
If thou must choose
Between the chances, choose the odd;
Read The New Yorker, trust in God;
And take short views.

Most frequent errors, fallacies and biases when decision-making

Looking for something that might tell me how often logical fallacies and cognitive biases occur in discussions, I could find nothing at all. Not willing to let go, I resorted to using N-grams. It has the drawback that some fallacies and biases are terms commonly used in other contexts (ex: false memory) or returned no results (ex: normalcy bias). I lost about hundred biases and fallacies from this weakness, though generally more obscure or nuanced biases and fallacies. This was about half the population. Of the remaining hundred or so, I was able to obtain an N-gram number and then rank from largest to smallest.

All this tells us is the degree to which specific biases, errors and fallacies are being discussed in books. I am making the bold inference that specific biases and fallacies which are discussed frequently are correspondingly more common or more problematic (i.e. perhaps they don't occur that often but are more consequential when they do). So having caveated the corpus to death, I present the top most commonly discussed biases and fallacies in a whispering ghost of a list.

These would seem to be the errors, fallacies, and biases you are most likely to encounter when working with a group to reach an empirical, logical, and evidence based decision.
Anecdotal Evidence
False assumptions
Cognitive Dissonance
Fallacy of composition
Unstated Assumptions
Slippery Slope
Selective perception
Halo effect
Argumentum Ad hominem
Illusory correlation
Source Credibility
Forer effect (aka Barnum effect)
Sunk cost bias
Begging the Question
Fundamental attribution error
Generalizing personalities
Hindsight bias

Not quite the list or order I would have expected, but not completely out of the realm of probability. The top ten in particular are broadly consistent with my experience in terms of mistakes teams make when trying to arrive at decisions.

Confirmation Bias

From Six Chix

Thursday, August 22, 2013

There never were enough bosses to check up on all that work

THIS I BELIEVE by Robert A. Heinlein
I am not going to talk about religious beliefs, but about matters so obvious that it has gone out of style to mention them.

I believe in my neighbors.

I know their faults and I know that their virtues far outweigh their faults. Take Father Michael down our road a piece --I'm not of his creed, but I know the goodness and charity and lovingkindness that shine in his daily actions. I believe in Father Mike; if I'm in trouble, I'll go to him. My next-door neighbor is a veterinary doctor. Doc will get out of bed after a hard day to help a stray cat. No fee -- no prospect of a fee. I believe in Doc.

I believe in my townspeople. You can knock on any door in our town say, 'I'm hungry,' and you will be fed. Our town is no exception; I've found the same ready charity everywhere. For the one who says, 'To heck with you -- I got mine,' there are a hundred, a thousand, who will say, 'Sure, pal, sit down.'

I know that, despite all warnings against hitchhikers, I can step to the highway, thumb for a ride and in a few minutes a car or a truck will stop and someone will say, 'Climb in, Mac. How how far you going?'

I believe in my fellow citizens. Our headlines are splashed with crime, yet for every criminal there are 10,000 honest decent kindly men. If it were not so, no child would live to grow up, business could not go on from day to day. Decency is not news; it is buried in the obituaries --but it is a force stronger than crime.

I believe in the patient gallantry of the tedious sacrifices of teachers. I believe in the unseen and unending fight against desperate odds that goes on quietly in almost every home in the land.

I believe in the honest craft of workmen. Take a look around you. There never were enough bosses to check up on all that work. From Independence Hall to the Grand Coulee Dam, these things were built level and square by craftsmen who were honest in their bones.

I believe that almost all politicians are honest. For every bribed alderman there are hundreds of politicians, low paid or not paid at all, doing their level best without thanks or glory to make our system work. If this were not true, we would never have gotten past the thirteen colonies.

I believe in Rodger Young. You and I are free today because of endless unnamed heroes from Valley Forge to the Yalu River.

I believe in -- I am proud to belong to -- the United States. Despite shortcomings, from lynchings to bad faith in high places, our nation has had the most decent and kindly internal practices and foreign policies to be found anywhere in history.

And finally, I believe in my whole race. Yellow, white, black, red, brown --in the honesty, courage, intelligence, durability....and goodness.....of the overwhelming majority of my brothers and sisters everywhere on this planet. I am proud to be a human being. I believe that we have come this far by the skin of our teeth, that we always make it just by the skin of our teeth --but that we will always make it....survive....endure. I believe that this hairless embryo with the aching, oversize brain case and the opposable thumb, this animal barely up from the apes, will endure --will endure longer than his home planet, will spread out to the other planets, to the stars, and beyond, carrying with him his honesty, his insatiable curiosity, his unlimited courage --and his noble essential decency.

This I believe with all my heart.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Intermittent versus intergenerational poverty

From The High Chances of Being Poor by Matt Bruenig.

Bruenig raises an issue which has intrigued me for a good while but for which I have not had the necessary information to address - how do you effectively communicate poverty? Not the issue of what it means to be poor, but the issue of how we form pictures of who is poor. The catalyst for this issue, for me, has been the statistic derived from BLS data that for those who have 1) finished high school on time, 2) gotten a job, any job, and stayed employed, and 3) gotten married, stayed married and not had children before marriage, there is a less than 2% chance of them being in poverty at any given point in time. While that is a powerful and useful piece of information, it is an incomplete picture. While less than 2% at any given point in time is a powerful endorsement of traditional morality, it doesn't answer the question - If I do all these things, what is my chance of ever being in poverty?

The information Bruenig presents addresses a slightly different question. Regardless of my behaviors, what is my chance of ever being in poverty?
In their 2001 paper, Rank and Hirschl used PSID data to determine that 51 percent of people experience poverty (as defined by the Census) at some point in in their life between the ages of 25 and 75.

So in this graph, you notice that at age 25, around 6% of people have experienced poverty (presumably in that very year). And then from there, the number grows and grows. It cannot decline obviously because you cannot un-experience poverty. By the time folks reach age 75, 51% of them have experienced at least one year of poverty.
The answer is that I have a 50% chance, by the time I am 75 of having at some time experienced at least a year of poverty.

That's a good first step. But there's more that needs to be elucidated if we are to understand the dynamics of poverty. Not just how many people have ever experienced poverty, which the above information addresses. We also need to know durations and ideally circumstances.

The reason resides in the definitions and terms. A middle class 18 year old attending university, with a part time minimum wage job working towards becoming a medical doctor is technically in poverty from a cash flow perspective, perhaps for a number of years. The reality is that they have access to resources above and beyond what they themselves produce and are likely over a lifetime to never be in material-want or in poverty as we would normally understand it.

So what we really want to know is how many people have how many separate instances of poverty up to some threshold age (such as 75), the average duration of poverty per instance and the cumulative number of years in poverty. This more complicated picture is much more useful for understanding the nature of poverty and what policies might be appropriate. The person, who has by 75, had ten instances of poverty each averaging a year in duration, has probably led a much more precarious life with different policies appropriate to those circumstances than has someone who had a single ten year stretch. As an exercise, imagine a nursing student working towards a specialized degree, in year six becoming pregnant and abandoned, with four years following as a single parent who then is able to find full-time professional employment for the rest of her career. Ten years in poverty but reasonably in control of her life circumstances versus someone dipping in and out of poverty every two or three years.

The reason I think this is important is that the policies necessary to address once-off occasions of poverty arising from bad luck and incidental circumstance are materially different than those arising from prolonged and even intergenerational poverty. Both have to be tackled but differently. Right now, I think we do a spotty but perhaps adequate job of dealing with intermittent poverty but almost nothing about entrenched intergenerational poverty.

Ultimately I suspect that we can only improve dealing with intermittent poverty once we have addressed intergenerational poverty but that is a desirable strategic goal which has only weak tactical support.

Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.

Assignment in Eternity by Robert Heinlein.
Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

To the scientific mind, experimental proof is all important and theory is merely a convenience in description, to be junked when it no longer fits.

Robert Heinlein in Life-Line
One can judge from experiment, or one can blindly accept authority. To the scientific mind, experimental proof is all important and theory is merely a convenience in description, to be junked when it no longer fits. To the academic mind, authority is everything and facts are junked when they do not fit theory laid down by authority.

$130,000 for a 67% failure rate

Measurement, perspective and context are three critical elements in decision-making. Slight changes in any one of the elements can tilt decisions in different directions.

Yesterday I was thinking about challenges faced by our local school board. I began to quantify the issues which led down the following chain of analysis. This is just a back of the envelope calculation and the numbers are pulled from memory but I am pretty confident they are within 5% accuracy. It also ignores a lot of nuances. For example, if you drop out of high school, it doesn't mean that your life is a failure, it is simply an indication that goal attainment is going to be that much harder.

The macro picture, the context, is important though. As a society we know that all good outcomes are contingent on productivity and productivity is tightly tied to successful education attainment and to full time employment. The life outcomes for those people and countries with low levels of employment and low levels of education attainment are generally quite bleak from a statistical perspective, and certainly their range of choices are quite circumscribed.

My local school board, as I suspect do most school boards, has the stated objective of graduating students college-ready or employment-ready. Good so far.

Much attention, appropriately, gets paid to the low graduation rate. While there are some dramatically poorly performing school districts out there, I think the national average is in the area of 70% of students graduate on time and 30% fail to graduate at all or take a GED equivalent.

But that's not the whole story. While contributive, graduation rate doesn't tell you how well a school system is doing in terms of its measurable goal of college and work ready.

You have to know how many graduates go on to work and how many choose to pursue higher education. I believe the current split is about 60% go on to higher education and 40% go directly into the workforce. So how well do new graduates do in terms of completing a college education and how many are able to find jobs?

The national late teen unemployment rate is around 25%. Approximately 45% of HS graduates who enroll in higher education fail to complete their degrees within six years. That means that of all HS graduates, 30% fail to graduate; 27% fail to complete their higher level education; 10% fail to find employment. Cumulatively, against the goal of graduating all 18 year olds college or work ready, that means that we are only graduating 33% that are indeed college or work ready. In other words, there is a 67% failure rate in the stated objective of graduating all student college or work ready. And for this, we, as a nation, pay $650 billion dollars a year, $10,000 per year per student. In aggregate we pay $130,000 to educate each student up to the point where 67% of them fail to graduate, fail to work or fail to successfully complete higher education.

When you strip out all the noise and distractions, this is a pretty stark picture. In what other industry would we accept a 67% failure rate in return for a $130,000 expenditure, particularly for a critical investment that is so predictive of life outcomes? All the noise about the 1%, income inequality, economic mobility, disparate impacts, etc. all track back to this fundamental failure to prepare children for work and for education. Obviously there are myriad root sources for the failure but complexity of fixing the problem does not vitiate the need to focus clearly on the root cause and not get distracted by all the rabbits set running.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Send out your big warships to watch your big waters

Big Steamers
by Rudyard Kipling

"OH, where are you going to, all you Big Steamers,
With England's own coal, up and down the salt seas? "
"We are going to fetch you your bread and your butter,
Your beef, pork, and mutton, eggs, apples, and cheese."

"And where will you fetch it from, all you Big Steamers,
And where shall I write you when you are away? "
"We fetch it from Melbourne, Quebec, and Vancouver.
Address us at Hobart, Hong-kong, and Bombay."

"But if anything happened to all you Big Steamers,
And suppose you were wrecked up and down the salt sea?"
"Why, you'd have no coffee or bacon for breakfast,
And you'd have no muffins or toast for your tea."

"Then I'll pray for fine weather for all you Big Steamers
For little blue billows and breezes so soft."
"Oh, billows and breezes don't bother Big Steamers:
We're iron below and steel-rigging aloft."

"Then I'll build a new lighthouse for all you Big Steamers,
With plenty wise pilots to pilot you through."
"Oh, the Channel's as bright as a ball-room already,
And pilots are thicker than pilchards at Looe."

"Then what can I do for you, all you Big Steamers,
Oh, what can I do for your comfort and good?"
"Send out your big warships to watch your big waters,
That no one may stop us from bringing you food."

For the bread that you eat and the biscuits you nibble,
The sweets that you suck and the joints that you carve,
They are brought to you daily by All Us Big Steamers
And if any one hinders our coming you'll starve!"

Much ado about nothing

From In Climbing Income Ladder, Location Matters by David Leonhardt. This research generated a lot of discussion though its findings are much more nuanced than summarized in the news articles, somewhat suspect, and open to alternative interpretations. There always seems a desperate desire to find people innocent of all responsibility and to ascribe disparate life outcomes to external circumstances such as race, or gender, or orientation, or age, or class, or, in this case, location, etc.

In fact, the study is something of a mess, committing most of Philip A. Schrodt's Seven Deadly Sins of Contemporary Quantitative Political Analysis.

Indeed, the author's aver that there is little or no useful knowledge arising from the study but do assert that the issue is an important one that researchers such as themselves ought to be funded to study in greater depth.
We caution that all of the findings in this study are correlational and cannot be interpreted as causal effects. For instance, areas with high rates of segregation may also have other differences that could be the root cause driving the differences in children’s outcomes. What is clear from this research is that there is substantial variation in the United States in the prospects for escaping poverty. Understanding the properties of the highest mobility areas – and how we can improve mobility in areas that currently have lower rates of mobility – is an important question for future research that we and other social scientists are exploring.
The article is poorly edited because the heart of the findings is lost in verbiage.
But the researchers identified four broad factors that appeared to affect income mobility, including the size and dispersion of the local middle class. All else being equal, upward mobility tended to be higher in metropolitan areas where poor families were more dispersed among mixed-income neighborhoods.

Income mobility was also higher in areas with more two-parent households, better elementary schools and high schools, and more civic engagement, including membership in religious and community groups.
If I am interpreting this correctly, it seems that the key findings are that good life outcomes in terms of income and income mobility are associated with:
1) Familial structure (get married and stay married)
2) Education attainment
3) Civic involvement
4) Class integration
But if you go to the report it is slightly different.

The authors were originally looking to see whether "tax expenditures such as the Earned Income Tax Credit can increase the level of intergenerational income mobility in the U.S.". By their phrasing, it appears that the authors were hoping that the research would show that tax policy could fix low income mobility. If you read the first half of the paragraph where they report the results, they seem to imply that tax policy does have a material impact.
We found a significant correlation between both measures of mobility and local tax rates, which are tax expenditures for the federal government because they are deductible from federal income taxes. We found a weaker correlation between state EITC policies and rates of intergenerational mobility.
But the second half of the paragraph undercuts that conclusion.
Although tax policies account for some of the variation in outcomes across areas, much variation remained to be explained. To understand what is driving this variation and better isolate the effects of the tax expenditures themselves, we considered other explanatory factors.
Translation - Tax policies do have some correlation with improved income mobility but we don't know if it is causative and even if it were causative, it only explains a small part of the variation in income mobility rates.

So what does enhance income mobility? Scattered around the text are the answers. Factors correlating with higher income mobility include:
1) The quality of the K-12 school system also appears to be correlated with mobility
2) Areas with higher test scores (controlling for income levels)
3) Lower dropout rates
4) Religious individuals
5) Married couple parents
Interestingly, income inequality was not correlated with mobility patterns.

Ultimately, this study does nothing to establish causation but it does show that there is a high correlation between traditional values and behaviors (work effort, valuation of education, commitment to community, preservation of family, etc.) and higher income mobility.

Indirectly it supports the apples-and-oranges comparison paradox (see The Texas-Wisconsin Paradox and intergenerational income mobility and US Education: Expensive and ineffective? Not so fast). My suspicion is that when someone gets around to looking at income mobility rate comparisons internationally, we will see the same phenomenon globally that we have seen with income, with education attainment, and with health comparisons. The US, because of its heterogeneous population will hover around the middle or slightly better than the middle when viewed as a homogeneous whole. However, when you compare the US cultural groups with ancestral countries, you will find that the average American of that group will perform much higher on income mobility than the source countries.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

And pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.

The Song of Wandering Aengus
by William Butler Yeats

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Almost all Americans devoutly believe, the liberal, market principles on which our country is built will triumph around the world

From Bambi Meets Godzilla In The Middle East by Walter Russell Mead. Read the whole thing. Passionate conviction cannot displace reality and something that is correct in the long term can still be wrong in the here and now.
The end of history, which AI founder Francis Fukuyama used to describe the historical implications of the Cold War, is to American political philosophy what the Second Coming is to Christians. In the end, almost all Americans devoutly believe, the liberal, market principles on which our country is built will triumph around the world. Asia, Africa, South America, the Middle East and even Russia will some day become democratic societies with market economies softened by welfare states and social safety nets. As a nation, we believe that democracy is both morally better and more practical than other forms of government, and that a regulated market economy offers the only long term path to national prosperity. As democracy and capitalism spread their wonder-working wings across the world, peace will descend on suffering humanity and history as we’ve known it will be at an end.
It seems misanthropic to doubt that a particular country isn’t on the road to freedom and prosperity, and it also seems like heresy against our national creed. That tendency is reinforced among our policy elite and chattering classes. The “experts” ought to know better and be more skeptical, but they are often more naive and more dogmatic than the American people at large. It is often the best educated and connected who are most confident, for example, that political science maxims work better than historical knowledge and reflection when it comes to analyzing events and predicting developments. When democratic peace theory or some other beautiful intellectual system (backed with regressions and statistically significant correlations in all their austere beauty) adds its weight to the national political religion, a reasonable faith can morph into blind zeal. Bad things often follow.

What Americans often miss is that while democratic liberal capitalism may be where humanity is heading, not everybody is going to get there tomorrow. This is not simply because some leaders selfishly seek their own power or because evil ideologies take root in unhappy lands. It is also because while liberal capitalist democracy may well be the best way to order human societies from an abstract point of view, not every human society is ready and able to do walk that road now. Some aren’t ready because like Haiti they face such crippling problems that having a government, any government, that effectively enforces the law and provides basic services across the country is beyond their grasp. Some aren’t ready because religious or ethnic tensions would rip a particular country apart and cause civil war. Some aren’t ready because the gap between the values, social structures and culture of a particular society make various aspects of liberal capitalism either distasteful or impractical. In many places, the fact that liberal democratic capitalism is historically associated with western imperialism and arrogance has poisoned the well. People simply do not believe that this foreign system will work for them, and they blame many of the problems they face on the countries in Europe and North America who so loudly proclaim the superiority of a system they feel has victimized them.
Americans need to face an unpleasant fact: while American values may be the answer long term to the Middle East’s problems, they are largely irrelevant to much that is happening there now. We are not going to stop terrorism, at least not in the short or middle term, by building prosperous democratic societies in the Middle East. We can’t fix Pakistan, we can’t fix Egypt, we can’t fix Iraq, we can’t fix Saudi Arabia and we can’t fix Syria. Not even the people who live in those countries can fix them at this point; what has gone wrong is so deeply rooted and so multifaceted that nothing anybody can do will turn them into good candidates for membership in the European Union anytime soon. If we could turn Pakistan into Denmark, the terrorists there would probably settle down—but that isn’t going to happen on any policy-relevant timetable. We must deal with terrorism (and our other interests in the region) in a world in which the basic conditions that breed terrorists aren’t going away.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Only 45% of journalism students read a book on a given day

From 2012 Annual Survey of Journalism & Mass Communication Graduates by Lee B. Becker, Tudor Vlad, Holly Simpson, and Konrad Kalpen. Not sure quite whether to be alarmed or not. Students graduating with degrees in journalism seem to do relatively little reading. The bulk of the dreary picture is below. Very few actually read a physical newspaper (37%) or magazine (42%) the day before they were surveyed. The very people that are wanting to create content aren't reading the content already being produced. About 76% read or viewed news online. That looks better till you realize the weasel word in there, 'viewed'. Viewing isn't reading. I see a newspaper on a table but that doesn't count as having read it. You don't have to be overly skeptical to suspect that they are mixing apples and oranges and that in fact fewer than half of those wanting to be journalists actually read the news whether online or in the real world.

To me the real shocker is how uncurious the journalism students must be. Again, it is hidden in the text, but if you go to the chart on page 55 (odd that you have to look at the pictures to capture what should be in the words) you can see that only 45% of the students read a book the prior day. How can you be in college, regardless of degree, and not be reading books everyday?

I hope that in some fashion this is an unrepresentative survey but if it is a true picture, Yikes!
Only about a third of the journalism and mass communication bachelor’s degree recipients in 2012 reported they had read a newspaper the day before completing the survey, the lowest figure since the question was first posed in 1994 (Chart 65). In fact, the 36.6% who reported reading a newspaper in 2012 is less than half the 81.7% reporting that behavior in 1994. Most journalism and mass communication graduates also didn’t read a magazine the day before completing the survey or read a book. Both figures were down significantly from a year earlier.

The 2012 journalism and mass communication graduates are much like the graduates of a year earlier in terms of their use of electronic media (Chart 66). About six in 10 reported watching television news the day before the survey, and four in 10 reporting listening to radio news. Three-quarters read or viewed news online, and two-thirds read, viewed or heard news on a mobile device. Online and mobile device use is the dominant news platform for the graduates. The online news category can overlap the mobile category, making a comparison difficult.

As was true a year earlier, more than half of the 2012 graduates reported reading at least one blog the day before the survey (Chart 67). More than nine in 10 of the 2012 graduates reported checking at least one social network site the day before they returned the survey form. That nearly universal behavior has been consistent for the last three years. Use of video on YouTube or other video sharing sites was reported as yesterday behavior by three-quarters of the 2012 graduates, as was the case a year earlier.

Not known, because not looked for

T.S. Eliot, from "Little Gidding" (the last of the Four Quartets)
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
That first stanza is magnificent.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not

From Why It's Good To Be Wrong: Nothing obstructs access to the truth like a belief in absolute truthfulness by David Deutsch.

In my business of consulting related to complex decision-making, one of the points we attempt to make again and again is that all decision-making processes result in error or failure - it is the nature of the beast and a philosophical truism. Given that, then how do we adjust our decision-making processes in a fashion that anticipates and therefore mitigates the cost of inevitable but unpredictable error and failure.
A related useful thing that faith tells you, if you take it seriously enough, is that the great majority of people who believe something on faith, in fact believe falsehoods. Hence, faith is insufficient for true belief. As the Nobel-Prize-winning biologist Peter Medawar said: “the intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not.”

You know that Medawar’s advice holds for all ideas, not just scientific ones, and, by the same argument, to all the other diverse things that are held up as infallible (or probable) touchstones of truth: holy books; the evidence of the senses; statements about who is probably right; even true love.
It’s all about error. We used to think that there was a way to organize ourselves that would minimize errors. This is an infallibilist chimera that has been part of every tyranny since time immemorial, from the “divine right of kings” to centralized economic planning. And it is implemented by many patterns of thought that protect misconceptions in individual minds, making someone blind to evidence that he isn’t Napoleon, or making the scientific crank reinterpret peer review as a conspiracy to keep falsehoods in place.

Whether the idea was originally suggested to you by a passing hobo or a physicist makes no difference.

Popper’s answer is: We can hope to detect and eliminate error if we set up traditions of criticism—substantive criticism, directed at the content of ideas, not their sources, and directed at whether they solve the problems that they purport to solve. Here is another apparent paradox, for a tradition is a set of ideas that stay the same, while criticism is an attempt to change ideas. But there is no contradiction. Our systems of checks and balances are steeped in traditions—such as freedom of speech and of the press, elections, and parliamentary procedures, the values behind concepts of contract and of tort—that survive not because they are deferred to but precisely because they are not: They themselves are continually criticized, and either survive criticism (which allows them to be adopted without deference) or are improved (for example, when the franchise is extended, or slavery abolished). Democracy, in this conception, is not a system for enforcing obedience to the authority of the majority. In the bigger picture, it is a mechanism for promoting the creation of consent, by creating objectively better ideas, by eliminating errors from existing ones.

“Our whole problem,” said the physicist John Wheeler, “is to make the mistakes as fast as possible.” This liberating thought is more obviously true in theoretical physics than in situations where mistakes hurt. A mistake in a military operation, or a surgical operation, can kill. But that only means that whenever possible we should make the mistakes in theory, or in the laboratory; we should “let our theories die in our place,” as Popper put it. But when the enemy is at the gates, or the patient is dying, one cannot confine oneself to theory. We should abjure the traditional totalitarian assumption, still lurking in almost every educational system, that every mistake is the result of wrongdoing or stupidity. For that implies that everyone other than the stupid and the wrongdoers is infallible. Headline writers should not call every failed military strike “botched;” courts should not call every medical tragedy malpractice, even if it’s true that they “shouldn’t have happened” in the sense that lessons can be learned to prevent them from happening again. “We are all alike,” as Popper remarked, “in our infinite ignorance.” And this is a good and hopeful thing, for it allows for a future of unbounded improvement.

Fallibilism, correctly understood, implies the possibility, not the impossibility, of knowledge, because the very concept of error, if taken seriously, implies that truth exists and can be found. The inherent limitation on human reason, that it can never find solid foundations for ideas, does not constitute any sort of limit on the creation of objective knowledge nor, therefore, on progress. The absence of foundation, whether infallible or probable, is no loss to anyone except tyrants and charlatans, because what the rest of us want from ideas is their content, not their provenance: If your disease has been cured by medical science, and you then become aware that science never proves anything but only disproves theories (and then only tentatively), you do not respond “oh dear, I’ll just have to die, then.”

I need not think, so long as I can pay

Immanuel Kant in an essay, What is Enlightenment?
Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another. This immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own understanding!

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Time, money and cognitive energy are all in short supply for parents

The prior post, What are the grounds for normative recommendations, concludes that there is no objective basis for making normative recommendations that we need more X . . . other than personal opinion and asks what to do?

I think there are four critical actions the community of bibliophiles could take that would materially enhance national bibliocentricity, increase diversity in books, and enhance life outcomes.
1. Focus on increasing bibliocentricity among all readers. 10% of the population is doing 80% of the reading. 50% read no books electively at all in a year. That 10% (which is predominantly concentrated in the upper three quintiles, i.e. overwhelmingly middle class), exert a disproportionate economic influence on the market for books (not said as a criticism, just an observation of reality). If all groups were to spend the same amount of time reading books and the same amount per household on books, the necessary consequence would be both an increase in demand for all books, and in particular a likely increase of more rarely represented characters (whatever the attribute such as race, ethnicity, orientation, gender, work structure, family structure, age, etc.) It is a general rule that the larger the pool of members in a population, the more variety is represented.

2. Support robust research into the causative, contributive, predictive, or determinative nature of childhood reading on life outcomes. There is an already well established link between enthusiastic childhood reading and vocabulary and between vocabulary and predicted academic achievement, and between academic achievement and income quintile (see Schoolbook Simplification and Its Relation to the Decline in SAT-Verbal Scores by Donald P. Hayes, Loreen T. Wolfer, Michael F. Wolfe.) and also the link between family bibliocentricity and desirable life outcomes (Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations by M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora, Donald J. Treiman). What is missing is the role, if any, that stereotypes, content, style, etc. play in creating predictive desirable outcomes. Absent this empirical basis, recommendations lack any validity other than personal credibility which is not usually scalable.

3. Support robust research into the landscape of children’s books. It would be interesting to know, for example, whether there are real and material differences between the degree and nature of representativeness/stereotypes (in terms of all attributes; race, gender, orientation, age, religion, family structure, work ethic, etc.) for 1) bestsellers (reflects the market IS), 2) critically acclaimed (probably reflects the critically assessed OUGHT TO BE), 3) canon books that remain in demand on a multi-decadal basis (probably reflecting the vox populi cultural consensus of OUGHT TO BE), and 4) statistically representative random sample of all books published (includes all the books that are available but aren’t taken up by the reading audience in meaningful numbers and probably represents the available COULD BE). I am guessing that there are material differences between the four populations of books.

4. Create communities of interest around neglected attributes. As this group has proven time and again, it is usually pretty easy to construct fairly substantial portfolios of recommendations around particularly rare or underrepresented attributes and combinations of attributes. The books are out there, it is a matter of connecting supply with demand.

The Indian Nobel Economist Amartya Sen makes the case in his Argumentative Indian, particularly in the essay Class in India, that it is rarely a sole attribute which is usefully predictive of disparate outcomes, it is some combination of attributes. You have to look at the combinations to understand both causation and the real consequences. “Consider gender. South Asian countries have a terrible record in gender inequality, which is manifest in the unusual morbidity and mortality rates of women compared with what is seen in regions that do not neglect women’s health care and nutrition so badly. At the same time, women from upper classes are often more prominent in South Asia than elsewhere. Indeed, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have all had, or currently have, women Prime Ministers – something that the United States (along with France, Italy, Germany and Japan) has never had and does not seem poised to have in the near future.” [Note, the essay was based on a speech from 2001, Germany now comes off that list].

In other words, gender on its own is often not particularly usefully predictive of a disparate impact. You have to look at gender in combination with other factors to determine the consequence. Upper class women in India, on a global metric of equality are not faring so badly, in fact on some measures doing extremely well. Lower class, bottom caste women in India fare about the worst in the world in terms of equality and negative life outcomes. You can’t speak meaningfully (in terms of statistical probabilities of outcomes) of just gender or just class or just caste or just family structure. Different combinations have dramatically different outcomes. When you mix unlike statistical populations, you lose predictive capability.

Groups outside the middle class/intact family/upper three income quintiles are likely to be disparately underrepresented in children’s literature for simple supply and demand reasons that are not on their own bad reasons. For example, GLBT parents with young children represent perhaps 5-10,000 couples (using rough census numbers). Given that a mainstream book needs to sell roughly 5,000 books to be considered successful, that implies a 50-100% market penetration, a virtually non-existent occurrence among media and consumer product companies. A commercial publisher is likely, based on the smallness of the market and the difficulty of reaching that diffuse and widely dispersed market, to not take the risk against those odds. It is not a moral reflection on the publisher, simply a practical commercial and logistical issue facing small groups in large markets. When you combine this with other attributes (such as adoption, and interracial family) which are additional real but numerically few casas and I think it is clear that the real issue is 1) smallness of market size, 2) commercial risk, and 3) challenge of connecting what might be available to who might be interested.

But in such a rich environment of available stories, the rarer the combination of attributes, given the torrent of new and backlist books, the harder it becomes for consumer to find supplier. It seems to me that this is a market failure that some non-profit might be able to rectify by creating and maintaining booklists (or better, a searchable database by multiple attributes) pertinent to particular communities of interest to assist them in creating or rounding out their own portfolio of books which they would desire as the core of their bibliocentric life. To be clear, I am not advocating group isolationism. For example, probably 90% of what a GLBT couple with children deal with is simply what all parents deal with. Consequently the bulk of their child book portfolio is likely to consist of books common to all other generic parents. The challenge to the GLBT parents will be in finding, should they wish, those books that are specifically pertinent to their circumstances (GLBT parents and/or adoption and/or interracial family, etc.)

This can be done now with effort and diligence. But time, money and cognitive energy are all in short supply for parents. Could we create a collaborative central searchable repository of recommended books for all those attributes judged to be otherwise underrepresented (or too frequently misrepresented)? Entirely feasible were some foundation, or department to step up to the plate. Advantages? 1) It is a service to underrepresented communities, 2) As a single point of contact for dispersed and/or small communities, it might create greater commercial success for otherwise overlooked books, and 3) Such commercial success might in turn serve as a catalyst for authors and publishers to go where they currently commercially fear to tread.

What are the grounds for normative book recommendations

It is not uncommon when bibliophiles gather in conversation for there to be made normative statements to the effect that we need more of X represented (gender, role models, race, religion, age, etc.). It is not that I oppose or support any particular one of the desires for greater representation. Rather, the question is philosophical – on what grounds is that stated opinion more meritorious than the cumulative judgment of the book buying public? If there is a wisdom of crowds, and in an environment of near limitless publishers (50,000), near limitless new titles (25-35,000 per year), and very low barriers to publishing (self-publishing, on-demand printing and e-books), to what extent can a singular opinion be deemed in some way superior to the collective judgment?

I understand it from the individual perspective. There are plenty of books (by theme, or values, or genre or style) that I would like to see more of, and certainly innumerable books in which I have no interest and from which I might wish to shield my children. But that’s the personal IS. On what basis can I extrapolate from my personal IS to a collective OUGHT?

Thinking through some of the implications of Jacobs’ article (see prior post) and various bibliophilic discussions where normative recommendations are frequent, it seems to me as if there are three overlapping but often potentially conflicting objectives that parents (librarians, teachers, critics) have for children’s books that would lead to such expressed prescriptive desires (we need more of X.. .). The three goals and their corresponding motivations are:
1) We want children’s books to reflect reality as it is. We want our children to be prepared for what they will actually encounter so that they know how to navigate that reality.

2) We want children’s books to reflect reality as we believe it ought to be. We want our children to have a picture of what the good life is, however we define that and regardless of current circumstances.

3) We want children’s books to reflect reality as it could be. We want our children to know the full range of choices they can make rather than to be restricted by the choices that were made in the past or are made by others.
None of these goals speak to A) causation (what is the causative relationship between X and Y; is it unrelated, correlated, covariant, probabilistically causative, predictive, or determinative?), B) risk assessment (what is the numerical probability of X leading to Y), or C) trade-off choices (if you pursue X you can’t also do Y) which are very real world issues that at some point have to be dealt with, though not necessarily in books.

It seems to me that all three of these goals are perfectly reasonable but not fully compatible with one another in all circumstances at all times. If we focus on the way things could be, we under represent the way things are. If we focus on the way things are, we risk limiting the understanding of the way things could be or the way things ought to be. In addition, strife is likely to arise when there is a definitional difference between parents and others in regards to what OUGHT TO BE and what COULD BE, and indeed, not uncommonly, what IS.

Over the course of a childhood reading life, all three goals (IS, OUGHT, COULD BE) will be served with greater or lesser attention in different orders at different times depending on circumstance and proclivity. It is not possible to say which goals should be served in which order and in what fashion without knowing individual details and context.

In addition to the complexity of book goals, there are three variables that make it impossible to know a priori which books are pertinent to a particular child: 1) How does the child/parent interpret the book and its messages/stereotypes (two adults can have entirely different perspectives on the effect of a particular book)?, 2) What is the context and the nature of the child’s needs?, and 3) What are the life goals and choices that are deemed appropriate and desirable? Given that we live in a heterogeneous society, variable three is particularly problematic.

We know from the marketplace, where books are actually purchased and read, what the cumulative public answer is to these competing goals and variables. We can't tell whether those decisions are optimal because we lack knowledge. All that we know is that those books purchased were seen to be the solution to some unknown mix of the goals and variables.

However, between the unknowable three variables (interpretation, context, and life goal setting), and the three competing reading objectives (reality, aspiration, options), it is impossible in advance to say whether we need more or less of any specific aspect of a book. It is a knowledge problem that cannot be solved – we simply cannot know. If we cannot know what is needed, then we have no objective grounds on which to recommend that more or less of any particular type of book ought to be available. What to do?

Fact checking whether gender stereotypes plague children's books

Tom Jacobs has an article, Gender Stereotypes Plague Children's Books, reporting on the conclusions of a newly published study.

I do not have access to an ungated version of the study and so am reliant on the representation of the study in Jacobs’ article. I took an empirical look at some of the inferred predicate assumptions necessary to Jacobs’ argument that “stereotypes plague children’s picture books.” The implication is that there is something amiss.

The necessary predicate assumptions to support Jacobs’ conclusion that “If children, especially girls, continue to be exposed to portrayals that suggest opportunities for women are limited to the home, and that men provide, their aspirations and independence will be muted” seem to include:
1) Representations in children’s books have some predictive capacity of life outcomes (ex. gender roles as represented in children’s books are predictive of future gender roles).
2) The structure of the study was sufficiently robust to reveal useful information about representations in children’s picture books.
3) Gender roles as represented in children’s books are unrepresentative of contemporary reality.
4) Traditional gender roles as represented in children’s picture books are potentially detrimental, particularly to girls.
Each of these assumptions can be tested for its veracity. Two of the four are false and two are unproven.

1 – Assumption that representation is predictive. As far as I am aware, there are no studies showing that representation in children’s books has any predictive capacity on future life outcomes. This makes sense when you consider the multiplicity of influences on a child (family personalities, neighborhood, school, church, friend network, TV, Radio, language, vocabulary, culture, family structure, etc.); the causal density of outcomes (many links in a chain, each link with different causative strengths) and; the difficulty of disentangling cause and effect and degree of contribution of each variable on outcome. It is a logical assumption that IF a child reads a fair amount, then that might have some contribution to their knowledge, values, assumptions and experiences, but it is also logical that the degree of that reading contribution is likely swamped by all other sources of experience and knowledge. It makes sense that a book could have some impact, and indeed is likely to have an impact where it is consonant with the individual child’s proclivities and consistent with all the other sources of experience and knowledge. I think the best formulation we can get to is that the content of books are contributive to life outcomes but there is no empirical evidence that they are determinative or even predictive.

For arguments sake, accepting that representation is prolog, there is an inherent contradiction in Jacobs' conclusion that “If children, especially girls, continue to be exposed to portrayals that suggest opportunities for women are limited to the home, and that men provide, their aspirations and independence will be muted.” Let us accept that children’s books portray men and women with a strong (85%) skew towards men as providers and a similar skew of women as nurturers, and let’s also accept that books have some sort of demonstrable impact on life outcomes. If stereotype is prolog, there could have been no revolution in gender status in the past fifty years (since the study indicates there has been no change in portrayal). However, it is incontrovertible that men and women have many more options open to them (even if they don’t pursue them in equal numbers) than pre-1965. Men can be and are nurses and care-givers, women can be and are executives and soldiers. The logical conclusion is that stereotypes are not determinative of outcomes, probably either because the stereotyping is not perceived or because it is perceived but it has no impact. Contra Jacobs, it would appear that exposing girls to stereotypical gender roles does not mute their independence.

2 – Assumption that the structure of the study was robust. This is clearly not the case. An interesting study, but not robust. There are four causes for concern. First is the tiny sample. 300 books spanning a hundred years of children’s publishing. 300 wouldn’t be sufficient to be representative of even last year’s torrent of new titles. With some 25-35,000 new titles a year, a statistical sampling of 300 couldn’t tell you much at all, particularly when you are interested in so many subordinate issues (working, breadwinner, nurturing, care-giving, etc.).

The second concern is that this isn’t a random sample at all, even though “DeWitt and her colleagues analyzed a random sample of 300”. In fact, it is a random sample of a preselected sample: ‘“selected by an advisory committee of distinguished librarians” and which is “used to aid school and community libraries in selecting quality books”’. I don’t know what criteria for quality the distinguished librarians used in selecting their 1,400 books but I can guarantee it wasn’t random, wasn’t representative of all books published, and wasn’t representative of all books read by children. This would be like going to Mortimer Adler’s The Great Books of the Western World (containing some 350 selections), randomly picking 75 of the works and then assuming those 75 were representative of what people are reading.

The third concern is that there is the Pareto distribution problem (20% of X causes 80% of Y – ex. 20% of criminals are responsible for 80% of crime). Not all titles are created equal. One title may be read by 350,000 people and another by 5,000. You can’t average the two and assume the results are meaningful. If you are interested in stereotype propagation, you have to look at what people are actually reading rather than a sample of a selection. If you want to know what stereotypes children are being exposed to, you ought to be looking at the 300 bestselling children’s books of the last century, not a selection presumably based on critical acclaim and pedagogical value (which conceivably might be read by very few children).

The fourth and final concern is the common issue in the social sciences of bias and subjectivity. The researchers had to examine the three hundred books and mark behaviors as nurturing, breadwinning, care-giving, etc. These are nuanced concepts, texts are ambiguous, and there were multiple markers. The probability of different markers repeating the exact same exercise and arriving at roughly the same database of answers is low (an example of interpretive nuance is the frequency with which a book club will read a given book and its members arrive at differing interpretations of key events and episodes). The great majority of sociology papers end up with results either being withdrawn or the results are unreplicated by other researchers. All of which is to say that extreme caution has to be exercised in placing any confidence in the results of this study. It is an interesting topic and the study gives some interesting insights but the confidence level in those insights is perforce low. It is not that the conclusions of the study are necessarily wrong, it is that we can’t have confidence that they are right. See Seven Deadly Sins of Contemporary Quantitative Political Analysis by Philip A. Schrodt for a humorous but harsh take on current analytical practices.

3 – Assumption that the gender roles as represented in children’s books are unrepresentative of contemporary reality. Set aside all the above mentioned concerns. The single data point in the article is the finding: '“Fathers, on the other hand, were “much more likely than mothers to participate in both physical and non-physical play.” And they were much more likely to be portrayed as breadwinners: 26.6 percent of fathers worked outside the home, compared to 5.6 percent of mothers.”' This is a verifiable statement. In children’s books, up to 32.2% of parents work outside the home (26.6 + 5.6). This compares to 96.3% of parents (one or both parents) in the real world (Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table 4, Families with own children under 18). So in children’s world, most people don’t work (or aren’t seen to be working) whereas in the real world most everyone works. That’s a pretty big reality gap and can be validated as unrepresentative. If representation is prolog, we should fear for our economic future.

In terms of gender stereotype, in children’s books females are the (or a, it is unclear from the article), breadwinner 17.4% of the time (5.6/32.2) and males are the breadwinner 82.6% of the time (26.6/32.2), a wide and, according to the study, a stable and persisting gap. How does it compare to the real world? In the real world of those families where there is only one breadwinner (37% of all married families with children, BLS again), 82.7% of the time it is the male who is the sole breadwinner and 17.3% of the time the female is the sole breadwinner. Virtually identical to children’s world. What about the 59% of families where both father and mother work? According to Pew Research, in households where there are two breadwinners, females are the primary breadwinner in 15% of the cases. 15% is again pretty close to 17.4%.

The net is that if we are speaking of families with two parents and children, the picture portrayed in children’s books is apparently pretty accurate in terms of empirical observation. Whether that breakdown in gender roles is desirable or optimum is a subjective, normative and prescriptive question which can’t really be answered. Lots of legitimate argument can be made. All we can say is that what is reflected in children’s books appears to be consistent with the choices people make in real life (as measured by the BLS).

What are the empirical realities for the rest of the people not covered by the category Married-couple families (in BLS speak)? Married-couple families are 67% of all families. 33% of all families with children are headed by either a single mother (75% of the time) or a single father (25% of the time). And here’s where it gets really complicated – different groups by class and culture have dramatically different levels of single parenthood and the impact of single parenthood is dramatically different given other variables such as educational attainment. How does that figure into the analysis? There isn’t a simple fit nor is it clear from the article how these issues were dealt with in the study.

Assumption 4 - Traditional gender roles as represented in children’s picture books are potentially detrimental, particularly to girls. Again a normative, subjective and prescriptive question which can’t be answered directly. What can be affirmed is that families following a traditional life arc (education attainment, full-time employment, then marriage, then children) are disproportionately over-represented among the top two income quintiles and are virtually absent from the bottom income quintile (see BLS as well as the data in Charles Murray’s recent Coming Apart). For those following the traditional sequence of life milestones, fewer than 2% are in poverty (BLS). (I am using income quintile as a general marker for desirable life outcomes such as health, education attainment, longevity, morbidity, etc., recognizing that the correlation is very high but not perfect).

No other combination of variables is near as predictive of desirable life outcomes (variables such as single parent male, single parent female, children before marriage, children before school completion, etc.). Since we are talking about statistical averages it should be clear that there are multiple individual exceptions to every category. There are single female breadwinners with children in the top quintile of income; just not that many – it isn’t that it is impossible, it is that it is significantly less probable. So while the traditional stereotype of gender roles may be prevalent in children’s literature, it is also a stereotype associated with generally desired life outcomes (as measured by the proxy of income quintiles). It is very Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In summary,
Assumption 1 – Representation is predictive - No empirical evidence to support the assumption. Causal density of desirable life outcomes makes it unlikely to be predictively true.

Assumption 2 – Structure of the study was robust – False. Study was interesting but unrepresentative and therefore tenuous. High uncertainty regarding the results.

Assumption 3 – Gender roles as represented in children’s books are unrepresentative of contemporary reality – False. Gender roles appear to be reflective of reality (as measured by BLS).

Assumption 4 – Traditional gender roles are detrimental – No empirical evidence to support the assumption. Fundamentally, it is a normative position. Empirical data establishes greater association between desirable life outcomes and traditional life practices but it is a predictive relationship not a determinative relationship. In other words, if you follow traditional decision-making you are more likely to end up in higher income quintiles, but you are not guaranteed to do so. Correspondingly, if you make life decisions at great variance of the traditional norms you are more likely to end up in the lower income quintiles but are not guaranteed of doing so. The extent to which traditional gender roles are detrimental is solely based on their alignment or misalignment with individual goals and desires which cannot be determined a priori.
Jacobs’ conclusion is “If children, especially girls, continue to be exposed to portrayals that suggest opportunities for women are limited to the home, and that men provide, their aspirations and independence will be muted.” To reach that conclusion he has to make four critical assumptions, two of these assumptions are wrong and two cannot be affirmed therefore his conclusion cannot be affirmed either.