Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Odium ex nihilo

The Guardian quotes actress Maureen Lipman saying that the recent attacks in Paris have her thinking of leaving London for the US, where you can be shot to death in a supermarket in an entirely nondiscriminatory and racially neutral way. (Israel was also on her list of destinations, because it is a place where Jews are famously safe from terrorist attacks.) But I was struck by this comment:

When the economy dries up, then they turn on the usual scapegoat: the usual suspect –the Jew. There is one school of thought that says it’s because of Israeli policies in the West Bank, it isn’t. There’s been antisemitism for the past 4,000 years.

It is common to link modern antisemitism to trends since the middle ages. Some say nothing has really changed since Tiberius. Some go back even to the Hellenistic period. Lipman almost doubles that history.

Some people have remarked on the weird persistence of antisemitism in places like Poland despite the absence of any significant numbers of remaining Jews. Lipman’s bracing theory is that antisemitism also pre-existed the Jews. As the prayerbook says, וְהוּא הָיָה וְהוּא הֹוֶה ,וְהוּא יִהְיֶה בְּתִפְאָרָה: It was, it is, and it ever will be.

Perhaps, just as some say that antisemitism maintained the Jews as a distinct people through the Middle Ages, pre-existing antisemitism actually called the Jewish people into existence. As Sartre famously said,

Loin que l’expérience engendre la notion de Juif, c’est celle-ci qui éclaire l’expérience au contraire ; si le Juif n’existait pas, l’antisémite l’inventerait.

The concept of the Jew does not arise from experience, but rather the Jew serves as a pretext to explain [the anti-Semite’s] experience. If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him.

Old-time Darwinism

I’ve just been reading Adam Tooze’s book on WWI and its aftermath. I see Tooze as the great Marxist historian that never was — I don’t know anything about him other than his two books, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like the comparison — since the grandest human affairs, in his accounts, end up in orbit around the black hole of capital. Anyway, I came upon an interesting quote there that reminded me of why some people of good will found themselves repulsed by Darwinism, particularly by Darwinian hangers-on who try to cite the “lessons” of Darwinism for human affairs.

The Japanese delegation to the founding conference of the League of Nations sought to have a ban on racial discrimination written in to the League covenant. (Not that they opposed racial discrimination in general, but they often enough found themselves on the unpleasant end of it.) Colonel House, a senior American diplomat and advisor to President Wilson, suggested to British foreign minister Arthur Balfour splicing the line from the US Declaration of Independence “All men are created equal” into the Covenant preamble. Balfour rejected this out of hand.

The claim that all men were created equal, Balfour objected, “was an eighteenth-century proposition which he did not believe was true.” The Darwinian revolution of the nineteenth century had taught other lessons. It might be asserted that “in a certain sense… all men of a particular nation were created equal”. Bot to assert that “a man in Central Africa was created equal to a European” was, to Balfour, patent nonsense.

Of course, one needn’t look far to find scientifically-interested chatterers — and occasionally scientists themselves — citing Darwin-themed research to prove that all the prejudices they ever had (these days they tend to emphasise difference between sexes rather than between races) are not only true, but indisputable because they have been proved by science.

I suppose it’s also worth reminding oneself what kind of racist colonialist swamp early Zionism got its start in.

A throwaway comment by Andrew O’Hehir in Salon, in an article about the fascist overtones of recent police challenges to civilian authority in New York, reminded me of one of the things that has long mystified me about the psychology of automobilism. He writes

We still don’t know where this confrontation between de Blasio and his cops will lead, or how it will be resolved. (So far, the city has been peaceful – and nobody on my block got a parking ticket all week! So it’s win-win.)

In most places I’ve lived, at most times, I tend to think that enforcement of parking regulations is distressingly lax. This surely reflects, in part, my own interests, as someone who doesn’t drive, but who frequently finds sidewalks and cycle lanes blocked by illegally-parked cars. And I particularly resent when the illegally parked endanger my children’s lives by forcing them out into the street. But in most places I’ve lived — including significant periods in the US, UK, Canada, and Germany — the general culture seems to view enforcement of parking regulations as an evil incursion upon human liberty.

It doesn’t seem at all strange that people resent their own fines — that’s core human nature — or even that people would develop a general perspective of ignoring the benefits of parking regulations and communing on the personal nuisance, particularly when the benefits accrue disproportionately to the weaker members of society — the young, the handicapped. What seems strange is that people seem, on the one hand, to consider enforcement of parking and traffic laws illegitimate, on the other hand not to want their elected representatives to do anything about it.

As with so much else, our current Tory government is different in this point. They genuinely seem to want to bring the Wild West to British roads. One of the first things the Tories did after coming to power was to stop funding speed-limit enforcement cameras. A few years ago the government said that widespread lawlessness on the roads proved that the current speed-limit regime lacked democratic legitimacy. Most recently, spheroid Tory caricature Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, was prevented by the Liberal Democrats from pushing through a 15-minute grace period for parking on double-yellow lines, essentially making all local parking restrictions unenforceable.

And now, Pickles has just announced that from this autumn local councils would be banned from using CCTV to enforce parking laws, including “Orwellian spy cars”, because if Winston Smith hadn’t been ticketed for parking too long outside the Ministry of Truth he never would have to go pay his fine in room 101.

The great cartoon shortage

I just came across this report on a call by cartoonists (including the second-place finisher in the 2006 International Holocaust Cartoon Competition) for the Angoulême International Comics Festival to boycott ‘any Israeli entity that does not “promote freedom and justice for Palestinians.”’ I take the role of cartoonists in a free society very seriously, but I can’t help thinking that the attempt to force the Zionist oppressors to their knees with a cartoon boycott would be a great subject for a cartoon.

I was somewhat nonplussed by this article in Slate by journalist John Ore, who gives up drinking alcohol every January and had the dubious inventiveness to coin the name “Drynuary” which, he says, has caught on in some circles. What I found odd was that he seems to be plagued by demands to explain or hide the fact that he’s not drinking alcohol.

Everyone who knows me well already understands that I do this Drynuary madness every year—I’m not shy about it, after all—so their immediate reaction is usually an eye-rolling “Again?!” as they pathetically try to peer-pressure me into doing a shot with them.[…]

My wife, and other pregnant friends, have used certain sleight-of-hand tricks early in a pregnancy before they were ready to reveal that they were expecting. She would order the same drink as I would—say, a glass of red wine with dinner—and wait until mine was almost drained. Subtly, we’d switch glasses when no one was looking, and viola! It looked like she was pounding hers, and I was playing catch up.

It seemed odd to me personally because I rarely drink alcohol — and in Oxford that means frequently turning over my wine glass at dinners and drinking orange juice at social events with students — but I can’t recall that anyone has ever asked me why. Maybe it’s a difference between Britain and the US — more universal alcohol consumption here, but less eagerness to intrude on other people’s privacy — but I never had those questions when I lived in the US either. (Once I recall someone expressing surprise that I did drink something alcoholic, but without asking for an explanation. Perhaps I was just not sufficiently sensitive to the implications.)

I recently came upon this plot of alcohol consumption in the US. About 30% consume no alcohol, and the median is about one drink per week. So if Ore were hanging out with average Americans one would have to think that one in three of his companions would also not be drinking, and a second of three might very well pass on the opportunity as well. It wouldn’t seem worth commenting on. But obviously people don’t hang out with random samples of the population. And he specifically says that in his profession — presumably he means journalism — “business events and travel naturally involve expense accounts and the social lubricant of alcohol.” I’ll refrain from commenting on what this might explain about the state of journalism as a profession, but I’m pretty sure that in my profession alcohol definitely doesn’t get to be counted as a travel expense, and in some cases even the bottle of wine shared at a post-seminar dinner needs to be paid for separately because it’s specifically excluded. Read the rest of this entry »

Same as it ever was

The battle over climate science in US environmental policy has come to an odd watershed:

The Senate overwhelmingly voted, 98-1, in favor of an amendment stating that “climate change is real and not a hoax.” In an amusing twist, the chamber’s most notorious climate denier, Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, signed on to the amendment at the last minute, mostly because it didn’t attribute a cause to global warming. “The climate is changing. The climate has always changed,” Inhofe said. He then criticized supporters of man-caused climate change by saying that the real “hoax” was “that there are some people that are so arrogant to think” they can change the climate.

This reminds me of an obscure event in modern German history. Searching for an appropriate new president to succeed the highly esteemed Richard von Weizsäcker in 1993, the first new Bundespräsident since reunification, Helmut Kohl looked east, and selected the little-known former theologian and then justice minister of Saxony, Steffen Heitmann. Unfortunately, Heitmann scuttled his own candidacy by proving himself to be even more prone to embarrassing press comments than Kohl himself.

For the first time in nearly 50 years Germany was not occupied, but rather was preoccupied, with the “Schlussstrich” debate. It’s an untranslatable German word for the line drawn under a column of numbers before totting them up. The question was whether Germany should stop examining its conscience about the Nazi period and Cold War, and draw a balance, the better to march forward to a bright new dawn, as the right wing (!) wanted. (I’m presuming they assumed the balance would come out negative, though what the sum would be was never really a part of the discussion.) Exactly the opposite of Faulkner’s famous dictum about the past, and this was the position that Heitmann allied himself with, which was controversial enough. But his choice of words really grabbed people’s attention:

Ich glaube, daß der organisierte Tod von Millionen Juden in Gaskammern tatsächlich einmalig ist – so wie es viele historisch einmalige Vorgänge gibt. Wiederholungen gibt es in der Geschichte ohnehin nicht.

I do believe that the organised death of millions of Jews in gas chambers was unique — just as there are so many unique events in history. In any case, history never repeats itself.

As one commentator satirised it, “Of course you are my one true love, darling. As are all my girlfriends.”

I was also intrigued by the following comment, cited by Jonathan Chait,

“I do think there are those [who] think there is some kind of climate change happening and are tired of fighting the science or just don’t want the fight and who would rather focus on the economics — I don’t think that means they are ceding the argument that manmade climate change exists, though,” said one Republican Senate aide in a comment echoed by several others.

I’ve never seen such an explicit statement from inside the Republican party that science is seen as an enemy to be “fought”, rather than a discipline that should inform all sensible policy.

Leonard the Priest

I’m just listening to the newest Leonard Cohen album, Popular Problems. I’m fascinated by the idiosyncratic Jewish imagery that runs through his career, but increasing in recent years. For instance, in this new song “Almost Like the Blues”:

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot.
My father says I’m chosen.
My mother says I’m not.
I listened to their stories
of the Gypsies and the Jews.
It was good, it wasn’t boring.
It was almost like the blues.

One thing that immediately stood out for me was this (I think) entirely original poetic trick of using “the Gypsies and the Jews” to signify the Holocaust. It works, because what else do Gypsies and Jews have in common, but it’s also an intriguingly oblique way of referencing it. And that leads into what feels like an allusion to the function of Holocaust stories to arouse feelings of pathos and high seriousness, but fundamentally serving as a kind of perverse entertainment. (To get the full impact you need to hear the leer that creeps into his voice on “It was good”; a good example of how performed poetry can go beyond the written word. And given the limited range of Cohen’s voice, never very flexible even in his salad days, this really is performed poetry more than singing.)

Don’t take words out of my mouth! … or out of my protest sign!

Der Spiegel has posted a short video of a recent anti-Islam demonstration by PEGIDA, a German organisation whose name is an acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. In one brief segment, starting at about 1:35, a journalist speaks with a demonstrator who is carrying a sign with the message “Islam = Karzinom” (Islam = Carcinoma, i.e., cancer).

Reporter: I wonder if you could explain your sign to me, why you draw this equivalence between Islam and a carcinoma?

Demonstrator: I don’t say they are equivalent, as you’re trying to suggest.

R: But it says there “Islam equals Carcinoma”.

D: Exactly.

R: Well, then, explain to me what you mean by that.

D: I’m not giving you any more information.

You really need to watch it — even if you don’t understand the language — to appreciate the mixture of befuddlement and hostility in this smug old protester, who seems to think that expecting demonstrators to account for their over-the-top slogans is just one of those devious tricks typical of highbrow lefty journalists. (I don’t think there’s a German word for lame stream media.)

On not getting the joke

Last week, in Paris, along with sundry other victims, 8 cartoonists and journalists at Charlie Hebdo were killed for pushing the envelope of free speech and political humour. The French authorities have been expressing their own rollicking sense of political irony by jailing dozens of people for the offense of commenting favourably on that crime against freedom of epression. (There is a spanking new law prohibiting apologie publique d’actes de terrorisme (publicly defending acts of terrorism).)
For example, a man was sentenced to 10 months in prison for saying (to officials who were arresting him for riding a tram without a ticket) “Les frères Kouachi, c’est que le début, j’aurais dû être avec eux pour tuer plus de monde.” (“The Kouachi brothers, that’s just the beginning. I should have been with them to kill even more people.”)
Sounds like the sort of thing Charlie Hebdo would attack mercilessly.

A friend sent me this article about Dutch social psychologist Diederik Stapel, who “perpetrated an audacious academic fraud by making up studies that told the world what it wanted to hear about human nature.” What caught my attention was this comment about how the fraud was noticed:

He began writing the paper, but then he wondered if the data had shown any difference between girls and boys. “What about gender differences?” he asked Stapel, requesting to see the data. Stapel told him the data hadn’t been entered into a computer yet.

Vingerhoets was stumped. Stapel had shown him means and standard deviations and even a statistical index attesting to the reliability of the questionnaire, which would have seemed to require a computer to produce. Vingerhoets wondered if Stapel, as dean, was somehow testing him. Suspecting fraud, he consulted a retired professor to figure out what to do. “Do you really believe that someone with [Stapel’s] status faked data?” the professor asked him.

And later

When Zeelenberg challenged him with specifics — to explain why certain facts and figures he reported in different studies appeared to be identical — Stapel promised to be more careful in the future.

How hard is it to invent data? The same thing occurred to me with regard to Jan Hendrik Schön, a celebrated Dutch (not that I’m suggesting anything specific about the Dutch…) materials scientist who was found in 2002 to have faked experimental results.

In April, outside researchers noticed that a figure in the Nature paper on the molecular-layer switch also appeared in a paper Science had just published on a different device. Schön promptly sent in a corrected figure for the Science paper. But the incident disturbed McEuen, who says he was already suspicious of results reported in the two papers. On 9 May, McEuen compared figures in some of Schön’s other papers and quickly found other apparent duplications.

I’m reminded of a classic article from the Journal of Irreproducible Results, “A Drastic Cost Saving Approach to Using Your Neighbor’s Electron Microscope”, advocating that researchers take advantage of the fact that all electron micrographs look the same. It printed four copies of exactly the same picture, with four different captions: One described it as showing fine structure of an axe handle, another said it showed macrophages devouring a bacterium. When it comes to plots of data (rather than photographs, which might be hard to generate de novo) I really can’t see why anyone would need to re-use a plot, or would be unable to supply made-up data for a made-up experiment. Perhaps there is a psychological block against careful thinking, or against willfully generating a dataset, some residual “I’m-not-really-doing-this-I’m-just-shifting-figures-around” resistance to acknowledging the depths to which one has sunk.

Certainly a statistician would know how to generate a perfect fake data set — which means a not-too-perfect fit to relevant statistical and scientific models. Maybe there’s an opportunity there for a new statistical consulting business model. Impact!

Update: Of course, I should have said, there’s an obvious bias here: I only know about the frauds that have been detected. They were unbelievably amateurish — couldn’t even be bothered to invent data — and still took years to be detected. How many undetected frauds are out there? It’s frightening to think about it. Mendel’s wonky data weren’t discovered for half a century. Cyril Burt may have committed the biggest fraud of all time, or maybe he was just sloppy, and we may never know for sure.

I just looked at the Wikipedia article on Burt, and discovered a fascinating quote from one of his defenders, psychologist Arthur Jensen that makes an appropriate capstone for this post:

[n]o one with any statistical sophistication, and Burt had plenty, would report exactly the same correlation, 0.77, three times in succession if he were trying to fake the data.

In other words, his results were so obviously faked that they must be genuine. If he were trying to fake the data he would certainly have made them look more convincingly real.

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