Who cares about future generations?

Niall Ferguson has gotten a lot of attention lately for having bashed the “effete” J M Keynes for his selfish worldview, which was due to his homosexuality-induced childlessness rendering him indifferent to the fate of future generations. (This was apparently NF’s interpretation of Keynes’s “In the long run we’re all dead” quip, which is such a bizarrely dishonest distortion that it can only be understood as a sort of carry-over of the toff’s empty PPE cleverness into his new life as intellectual masseur to the wealthy; he seems to have momentarily forgotten that his personal brand depends on him maintaining the veneer of an intelligent academic historian.)

Brad DeLong has pointed out that there is a long tradition of right-wing intellectuals slurring Keynes as a pervert, and his economic theories as sharing the taint of his perversion. Where you stand depends on where you sit, though Henry Blodget says it is unheard of for

a respectable academic to tie another economist’s beliefs to his or her personal situation rather than his or her research. Saying that Keynes’ economic philosophy was based on him being childless would be like saying that Ferguson’s own economic philosophy is based on him being rich and famous and therefore not caring about the plight of poor unemployed people.

Maybe that’s true, though plenty of non-economists state openly that the economics Weltanschauung derives from the pampered condition prevailing among its devotees.

But do you know who was really effete and childless and indifferent to the fate of our children and grandchildren and future generations? There was that guy who said this

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

and this

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal;

and this

If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

I can’t wait to see Ferguson and his ideological compatriots go after that guy. I bet they’ll really nail him.

Paradoxes of belief: Holocaust denial edition

(or, Vonnegut’s Mother Night reversed)

I’ve long thought it amazing how many odd, nearly unbelievable, individual stories are hidden in the corners of the grand ghastly narrative of the Holocaust; and no matter how many stories I read — Peter Wyden’s account of Stella Goldschlag, for instance, his Jewish schoolmate in 1930s Berlin who specialised in sniffing out undercover Jews for the Gestapo — there’s always another even stranger, such as the jewish graphic designer Cioma Schönhaus who survived the war, and saved many other lives, by learning to forge identity papers.

Holocaust denial seems to have its own bizarre corners. To wit, this new revelation:

[David Stein] a cerebral, fun-loving gadfly who hosted boozy gatherings for Hollywood’s political conservatives […] brought right-wing congressmen, celebrities, writers and entertainment industry figures together for shindigs, closed to outsiders, where they could scorn liberals and proclaim their true beliefs. That he made respected documentaries on the Holocaust added intellectual cachet and Jewish support to Stein’s cocktail of politics, irreverence and rock and roll.

[Under his original name David Cole he] was once a reviled Holocaust revisionist who questioned the existence of Nazi gas chambers. He changed identities in January 1998.

This reads like an April Fool’s prank, or a high-concept film plot from the fevered leftist imagination. The right-wing Jewish Holocaust documentary maker and fanatical Israel supporter is actually a secret neo-Nazi. Ha ha. Who would believe that? It’s not so easy to change your identity, particularly if you’ve just made yourself notorious on TV chat shows. And how would a man with no past be able to start a new career and become a political insider?

But what intrigues me most of all is when the Guardian article touches on the question of Stein/Cole’s true beliefs. One of the important lessons of modern cognitive psychology and philosophy of mind is that it is very difficult — perhaps impossible — to develop a coherent theory of beliefs, under which statements like “X believes Y” are statements of fact. (See, for example, the seminal book by Stephen Stich, that relegates beliefs — and other many other concepts — to the realm of “folk psychology”.)

Continue reading “Paradoxes of belief: Holocaust denial edition”

Freedom of religion in Britain and Germany

After the monarchy, state-sponsored religion is one of the strangest customs I’ve had to adapt to in the UK (and Germany, the other European country that I’ve lived in for a number of years). In the UK I’ve already written about the somewhat insidious role of state religion, such as the way it dictates which schools your children will be admitted to; that 26 bishops sit ex officio in the House of Lords (though it should be mentioned that the other state religion, Finance, has its own peculiar kind of special representation in the Commons); and that non-Anglican foreigners who wish to marry in the UK require permission of the Home Office, for which they must pay a substantial fee. (This Anglican exception may now have been rescinded; I know there was pressure from the European Court of Human Rights.) All UK state schools are required — following a Blair-era edict — to have daily Christian prayer (unless they are state-sponsored non-Christian religious schools, another Blair novum), though that law is not always followed, particularly in secondary schools — see par. 141 of this Ofsted report.

Germany is a federation in most respects, with wide variation in religion and religiosity, but a requirement for church-approved religious education (of two flavours, Catholic and Protestant) in the schools is anchored in the constitution. The federal government collects tax on behalf of the churches. And the churches, which control a significant portion of the hospitals, among other businesses and institutions — are allowed to discriminate against their employees in ways that would be forbidden, and indeed morally condemned, by any other employer. A recent court decision in Germany concerns a 60-year-old pediatric social worker, who worked for the Catholic organisation Caritas. Shocked and appalled by the extent of child-abuse perpetrated and covered up by the Church, he officially left the Church. (In other countries it’s not clear how you would officially stop being Catholic, other than by joining another church, but in Germany you just stop paying tax and you’re out. Reassignment of your soul’s eternal fate follows in 4 to 6 weeks.)

So the Church, which knows how to respond to a major breach of moral and ethical norms, clearly couldn’t stand for the scandal of a social worker in their employ taking a public stand against sexual abuse of children. And while being Catholic was apparently not a requirement of the job to begin, the courts agreed that being an ex-Catholic is forbidden, particularly one whose break with the Church was provoked by something so unseemly as individual conscience.

Longitudinal fables, ctd.: Is Julia shrinking?

I was commenting on how people like to turn age-structured information into longitudinal stories: If 80-year-olds buy more big-band recordings, and 20-year-olds more rap, we describe how people’s tastes shift as they age, from the hard rhythms of rap to the gentle lilt of swing. And I noted that the Obama campaign got itself into trouble last year trying to turn its age-specific policies into a longitudinal fable, called “The Life of Julia”. Looking at the pictures of Julia at different agesobama-julia-infographic

I had the impression that Julia is shrinking as she moves into her forties.

More careful inspection of the pictures revealed that she is not shrinking (or not much); the main height change came when she stopped wearing high heels at age 37. But  that got me wondering: should she have been shrinking? Or would that again have been confusing the cross section with the individual life course — the period with the cohort effect, in demographer jargon?

It’s certainly true that cohorts in America (and in many other prosperous countries) have been getting taller. US Civil war soldiers in 1863-4 averaged 5′ 7 1/2″. 50 years later the average height of young men had not changed significantly, but by 1955 the average height of young men was up to 5′ 9 1/2″ (and they were attaining their maximum height several years earlier). It’s not clear to what extent the trend has continued in the US — according to recent data, the average height of young male adults in the US is still about 5′ 9 1/2″ — though it clearly has in other countries that have seen a substantial improvement in children’s average nutritional welfare, such as Portugal, or the Netherlands, Italy, and Japan.

There is also a tendency for individuals to shrink as they age, from compression of the spine, particularly pronounced after age 60, and more extreme in women than in men. A sketch from this paper is included below. So, in fact, the hypothetical Julia should probably have been drawn about 2 inches shorter at age 67 than when she was 20. That’s about 3% — hard to tell from the silhouettes, with the changing hairstyle and all…

It’s funny, because I have seen height used as a paradigm example of where cross-sectional measures are misleading if you interpret them as cohort effects — narrating the changes within individual lives — but at least for the latter half of the 20th century in the US, the cross sectional data seem to give the right picture.

Longitudinal change of height with age
Longitudinal change of height with age

Conspiratorial resurrection

By way of Andrew Sullivan, there’s this report from Scientific American about the psychology of conspiracy theorists. Key lines:

while it has been known for some time that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are also likely to believe in other conspiracy theories, we would expect contradictory conspiracy theories to be negatively correlated. Yet, this is not what psychologists Micheal Wood, Karen Douglas and Robbie Suton found in a recent study. Instead, the research team, based at the University of Kent in England, found that many participants believed in contradictory conspiracy theories. For example, the conspiracy-belief that Osama Bin Laden is still alive was positively correlated with the conspiracy-belief that he was already dead before the military raid took place. This makes little sense, logically: Bin Laden cannot be both dead and alive at the same time

Contradiction is in the mind of the beholder. They are ignoring the possibility that President Obama, dissatisfied with the poor progress of the minions he had been able to hire to destroy America (he’s a stickler for benchmarks) sent a Kenyan voodoo strike team into Pakistan to resurrect Osama bin Laden, who had already been garroted personally by George W. Bush (in one of the many top secret missions he carried out while his body double cleared brush on the ranch).

The next president will not only have a $20 trillion debt to cope with, he’ll also have to take out an undead al Qaeda leader. Continue reading “Conspiratorial resurrection”