Archive for the 'social sciences' Category

Liberal Caricature

By JSC5

Yesterday, co-blogger JSC7 linked to a bunch of new posts out there on the nets about how to effectively manage your online time and get away from destructive overconsumption. JSC7 ended the piece with a keen observation about the importance of models of healthy living, and how we basically don’t have any for internet use:

“We don’t yet really have a firm sense of what is living well or badly in the modern world, the way we do with say, alcohol consumption or other addictive vices.”

As a matter of societal consensus, I think JSC7 is right.

However, it seems to me that there actually is a sizable group of people who are seriously grappling with “what it is to live well or badly in the modern world”. Those people are hippies, or leftists, or ‘limousine liberals’, or ‘latte-sipping, volvo-driving elitist snobs’, or granola west coasters — at least, that how they get caricatured.  These are the people who self-consciously think about their diets and their impact on the world, go out of their way to avoid dumping their externalities on the world, and limit the time they spend in front of the TV or ditch the TV entirely. And they’re also the people who are trying to spend more time outdoors jogging or playing Frisbee golf than inside on the internet.

And, as we all know, those people are all caricatured and ridiculed by the rest of us. It seems like ‘we’ actually do have a fairly good model of what healthy, ‘good’ living is supposed to look like in the modern world: eat more local, organic produce; don’t light a barrel of oil on fire to keep your living room warm; get more exercise; spend less time staring at a screen and more time interacting with real live people. Healthy internet use seems like part of an entire lifestyle package.

And even though ‘we’ all know what the right thing to do is, we can’t imagine adopting that lifestyle entirely. The magnitude of the change frightens us. So instead of accepting the superiority of healthy internet and exercise choices and making incremental improvements to our lives, we end up bragging about eating at McDonald’s and not driving a Prius. The real shame there is that the markers of a healthy lifestyle — which have no business being a partisan issue — get turned into partisan markers in a weird, tribal way. It’s terrible for our society when the healthy model of modern living turns into a liberal caricature that no one feels like emulating.

gay marriage! controversy! slow down!

[by JSC5]

I’m a little late in getting to this, but a federal judge has ruled that California’s Proposition 8, which prohibited gay marriage in that state, is unconstitutional. I like to think of same-sex marriage is one of those “duh!” issues, like beer deregulation or early childhood education. We recognize, however, that despite how simple an issue it is for some, same-sex marriage has caused a great deal of controversy for other people. Orin Kerr had a post up recently over at Volokh Conspiracy that took this fact of controversy and conflated it with actual importance. He starts by quoting Judge Walker’s ruling, and then responds to it:

[Judge Walker’s opinion]: “Because the evidence shows same-sex marriage has and will have no adverse effects on society or the institution of marriage, California has no interest in waiting and no practical need to wait to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Proposition 8 is thus not rationally related to proponents’ purported interests in proceeding with caution when implementing social change.”

[Orin Kerr’s commentary]: Whatever your views of same-sex marriage — or Judge Walker’s decision as a whole — I think this particular part of the analysis is pretty weak. First, the idea that same-sex marriage is not a significant social change strikes me as plainly incorrect. This is one of the more significant questions of social policy of our time: Whether you think it’s the greatest advance for civil rights in America or the end of the world, it seems pretty clear that it’s a big deal.

Now, gay marriage is certainly politically salient in that it stirs up emotions and seems to divide people into two camps. That said, I don’t think it’s nearly as polarizing as he makes it out to be. Who exactly is Kerr hanging out with to make him think that mainstream opinion runs from “the greatest advance for civil rights in America” to “the end of the world”? I know a lot of pro-gay marriage people, and I don’t think a single one thinks that gay marriage clearly outranks the civil rights movement for African-Americans or the women’s rights movement. Furthermore, I know many (though fewer) anti-gay marriage people,  none of whom think it will seriously end the world. In fact, mainstream opinion on this subject seems to stretch from “good idea/duh” to “I’m concerned about it/ewww”.

Either way, I’m not sure that the actual level of controversy even matters. It seems that Orin Kerr is confusing (1) political salience with (2) actual breadth or depth of change. What exactly is the evidence Professor Kerr would offer up in defense of his contention that same-sex marriage is “one of the more significant questions of social policy of our time”? The simple fact that Americans fall into two broadly equal pro and con camps isn’t enough. Lots of issues – both important and superficial – are politically salient in a similar way,  so the mere fact of salience can’t help us to distinguish actual importance.

Just how important and sweeping of a change would gay marriage be? Judge Walker;’s answer (quoting a bevy of experts who testified at trial) is that it’s pretty important for the gay couples who would get married, and not at all important for everyone else. In response, Orin Kerr says that the mere fact of political controversy proves Judge Walker wrong.

It’s an effective strategy for troglodytes trying to make sure that gay people don’t have the same rights as everyone else. They don’t even need to marshal any real evidence or reasons as to why the proposed reform would be bad or that implementing it right now would be dangerous; all they need to do is disagree, and the disagreement becomes the evidence.That is, until smart professors like Orin Kerr, along with the rest of us, some day stop believing the hype.

Confidence in astrophysics

[by JSC5]

This paragraph from an essay by Dennis Overbye on discoveries in astrophysics really blew me away:

“Call it the two-sigma blues. Two-sigma is mathematical jargon for a measurement or discovery of some kind that sticks up high enough above the random noise  to be interesting but not high enough to really mean anything conclusive. For the record, the criterion for a genuine discovery is known as five-sigma, suggesting there is less than one chance in roughly 3 million that it is wrong. Two sigma, leaving a 2.5 percent chance of being wrong, is just high enough to jangle the nerves.”

If you think back to your first statistics class, you’ll remember a bunch of ways for testing an observation for significance, and I’ll bet you $10 you used the 95% confidence level for just about everything you did in that class. It’s become the default level for significance in most social sciences. Run the regression, and if p<.05, bam, you’re done. Call it significant and move on.

Then along comes a hard science like astrophysics that puts everyone else to shame. These guys run right past .05  without looking back, at .025 their nerves start “jangling”, but it’s not until 3.33 x 10^-7 that they’re ready to go ahead and say, “Excuse me, sir, but I think I have a genuine discovery on my hands.” Meanwhile the economics/poly sci grad student next door has run 1000 new regressions and ‘discovered’ a bunch of things that turn out not to be quite right but still get published with frightening frequency.

And that’s why people trust astrophysicists.


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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