Moral panic panic: How much ridicule are the lives of 4500 children a year worth?

As though it need to defend its title as the world’s leading provider of smug, The New Republic has published a piece by NY Times religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer (MO hereafter) about how irrational everyone is. This disturbs him, because when he was growing up, when all was right with the world, “It was taken for granted in my house… that only right-wingers were mad enough to oppose scientifically tested public-health measures.” He describes what he calls “The New Puritanism”, starting from opposition to water fluoridation in Portland (which doesn’t look like an archetypically puritanical cause to the untrained eye), and moving on to Kids Today:

At a birthday party for a three-year-old, I was hit with the realization that most of the parents around me were in the grip of moral panic, the kind of fear of contamination dramatized so well in The Crucible. One mother was trying to keep her daughter from eating a cupcake, because of all the sugar in cupcakes. Another was trying to limit her son to one juice box, because of all the sugar in juice. A father was panicking because there was no place, in this outdoor barn-like space at some nature center or farm or wildlife preserve, where his daughter could wash her hands before eating. And while I did not hear any parent fretting about the organic status of the veggie dip, I became certain there were such whispers all around me.

Now, this could be dismissed as a dreary attempt to channel PJ O’Rourke, or some comparable swaggering humourist, with a cookie-cutter tall tale, but it’s stuffed with all kinds of weird. He hallucinates “whispers all around” about the organic status of the veggie dip, and yet he insists it is the others whose mental stability is in doubt. With that in mind, one might suspect that the father was not “panicking”, but was simply asking where his daughter could wash her hands before eating, which was certainly the custom when I was a child, though perhaps not in Oppenheimer’s antediluvian childhood.

He cites The Crucible, presumably both as a touchstone of left-wing right-thinking and as a marker of his own cultural sophistication, but has clearly never read or seen it. While “witchcraft” are often taken as a metonym for fear of moral contamination, Miller’s play dramatizes political manipulation of mob psychology.

But putting aside MO’s paranoid-pretentious MO, I am fascinated by his comments

When I was a child, birthday parties involved cake, ice cream, and Chuck E. Cheese pizza, or pizza-like substance; and trips to the grandparents’ house involved root-beer floats and late-night viewings of Benny Hill with my grandfather, who liked the T&A humor. I never washed my hands before I ate. And I turned out splendidly.

So, we started with fluoridation of water, which is a “scientifically tested public-health measure” that only a crazy person could oppose, but washing hands before eating — at a “barn-like space” where, presumably, it is not absurd to suppose the children may have been exposed to animal feces — is the kind of over-the-top fear of moral contamination (not just bacterial contamination) that invites mockery.

Now, MO’s aforementioned paranoid delusions may cause one to question his splendid self-appraisal, but he is certainly not alone in trumpeting the formulation “When I was a child we all did X, and we all turned out alright,” where X is some dangerous or unedifying activity that educated middle-class parents today try to limit or eliminate. An extreme version is this text that got forwarded to me a few years back:

To Those of Us Born 1930 – 1979

First, we survived being born to mothers who smoked and/or drank while they were pregnant. They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can and didn’t get tested for diabetes. Then after that trauma, we were put to sleep on our tummies in baby cribs covered with bright colored lead-base paints. We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, locks on doors or cabinets and when we rode our bikes, we had baseball caps not helmets on our heads. As infants & children, we would ride in cars with no car seats, no booster seats, no seat belts, no air bags, bald tires and sometimes no brakes. Riding in the back of a pick- up truck on a warm day was always a special treat. We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle. We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle and no one actually died from this. We ate cupcakes made with Lard, white bread, real butter and bacon. We drank FLAV-OR- AID made with real white sugar…. We fell out of trees, got cut, broke bones and teeth and there were no lawsuits from these accidents. We would get spankings with wooden spoons, switches, ping pong paddles, or just a bare hand and no one would call child services to report abuse…

You might want to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up as kids, before the lawyers and the government regulated so much of our lives for our own good. While you are at it, forward it to your kids so they will know how brave and lucky their parents were. Kind of makes you want to run through the house with scissors, doesn’t it?

The implication is that the kids are all softies and the parents are anxious killjoys. I heard a stand-up comedian a few years back complaining about bicycle helmets: “When I was a kid we all fell off our bikes. We didn’t fall on our heads. If we did, no one died. Have kids’ heads gotten softer?”

Except, of course, that it’s not true that no one died. This is a good example of how people deal with small risks: Some are treated as zero, others are exaggerated. And part of the phenomenon (though I’ve never seen anyone analyse this process in detail) is that people fixate on whatever the current largest risks are, and often succeed in pushing them down. At that point, a new danger pops up that was always there, but masked by a larger risk, and so psychologically zeroed out. Thus, when I was growing up, in the 1970s, public health officials weren’t very concerned with children’s head injuries from bicycle accidents because there were far more of them from automobile accidents in the absence of seat belts, not to mention all the poisonings from medications without child-resistant packaging. If the risk of dying

To put some numbers on it: In the US, in 1998, about 6500 children under the age of 15 died in accidents. In 1981 (the earliest year whose statistics I have easily available at the moment) the number was 9000. In that time, the population under 15 increased from 49 to 60 million. In other words, if the society had held onto its habits of eschewing bicycle helmets, leaving the medications out, riding in the back of a pickup truck and all the rest, we’d have more than 4500 extra dead children a year. How awesome would that be?

That’s not to say that all concerns about health and nutrition and environment are reasonable — or that, even if they are reasonable, that the actions one would take to prevent or mitigate harm would not impose considerable costs, even such that they might be judged to outweigh the benefits. But instead of mockery and “I turned out alright” populism, we need to be clear on what the benefits are: 4500 fewer children being buried every year. And that’s ignoring the costs of nonlethal sickness and injury, the extra miscarriages and stillbirths, and the long-term damage to lungs and other organs that we now know were caused by all those smoking and drinking parents.

Update: The comedian I was thinking of was a woman, but here’s another comedian making fun of bicycle helmets for emasculating our children; in this version, he’s not asking why heads got softer, but why the pavement is harder. Same joke.

Audiobook Turing test

I downloaded and listened to the audiobook This is Our Music: Free Jazz, the Sixties, and American CultureThe author is Iain Anderson, and the language and structure seem like those of a slightly rewritten doctoral dissertation. It’s pretty interesting as a source for the politics — particularly racial politics — of jazz in the late 50s and early 60s, and it held my interest for the 5 hours I needed to listen to it at double speed. But what really fascinated me was the reader’s voice. The reader is listed as Paul Steven Forrest, but I can hardly believe that this is a human voice. (Indeed, this is the only book that this name has been assigned to as reader.) The sentence intonations are much too regular, and seem to ignore any cues related to the meanings of words. Some reasonably common English words — at least, common enough in academic jargon — such as “diaspora” are systematically mispronounced, but without any hesitation such as you might expect from a human reader stumbling over an unfamiliar word. Similarly, non-English words were completely botched, but without apparent self-consciousness.

On the other hand, if Paul Steven Forrest is in truth the pseudonym for a computer-generated voice, it’s remarkably good, at least to someone who has not been following progress in speech generation over the past decade. It took me an hour of listening before it struck me that something was off about the voice, and while it started to bug me, it never became unbearable.

The right to bear codes

Back when I was a graduate student, in the late 1980s and early 90s, there was a lot of discussion, among those interested in cryptography and computing (which I was, only peripherally) of the status of cryptographic algorithms as “weapons”, subject to export controls. The idea seemed bizarre to those of us who thought of algorithms as things you prove theorems about, and computer code as something you write. It seemed as absurd as declaring a book to be a weapon. Sure, you might metaphorically call Das Kapital  a weapon, or the Declaration of Independence, but it’s not really a weapon, and a country was much more likely to think about banning imports than banning exports. The author of PGP was then being threatened with prosecution, and had the code published as a book to mate the analogy more explicit.

So, I used to defend free access to cryptography because I thought it was ridiculous to consider codes to be weapons. I now think that was naïve. But if codes are weapons, does that provide a justification for a right of free access (in the US)? Maybe it’s not freedom of speech or the press — 1st amendment — but if cryptography is a weapon, is the use and manufacture of cryptographic algorithms and software protected in the US by the 2nd amendment? Certainly the main arguments made for a right to firearms — sport, self-defence, and bulwark against tyranny — are all applicable to cryptography as well. Are there current US laws or government practices that restrict the people’s free access to cryptography that would be called into question if cryptography were “arms” in the sense of the 2nd amendment?

This is connected to the question I have wondered about occasionally: Why didn’t strong cryptography happen? That is, back then I (and many others) assumed that essentially unbreakable cryptography would become easy and default, causing trouble for snoops and law enforcement. But in fact, most of our data and communications are pretty insecure still. Is this because of legal constraints, or general disinterest, or something else? The software is available, but it’s sufficiently inconvenient that most people don’t use it. And while it wouldn’t actually be difficult to encode all my email (say) with PGP, I’d feel awkward asking people to do it, since no one else is doing it.

It seems as though the philosophy of the Clipper chip has prevailed: Some people really need some sort of cryptography for legitimate purposes. If you make a barely adequate tool for the purpose conveniently available, you’ll prevent people from making the small extra effort to obtain really strong cryptography.

Continue reading “The right to bear codes”

Benjamin Franklin’s advice on vaccination

I’ve never seen Franklin brought into the discussion of parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children. This passage from his autobiography made a deep impression on me:

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.

More comments on Andrew Wakefield and the MMR-autism hoax here.

I once was at a parents’ meeting in Oxford where a homeopath had been invited to speak. I was genuinely nonplussed that she was raving against vaccines. Aren’t vaccines the one great success of the homeopathic world-view? Giving a tiny dose of the disease-causing agent to cure (or prevent) the disease. Her answer was incomprehensible to me, but seemed to suggest that the very fact that there was a measurable physiologic effect showed that they weren’t any good (from a homeopathic perspective). And the fact that pharmaceutical firms made the vaccines was all you needed to know about their chthonic nature.

I fled the meeting in revulsion when the homeopath started prating about homeopathic cures for tetanus.

Third most popular

Being a fan of the Dvorak keyboard layout, I was intrigued to learn that there is another QWERTY competitor, called Colemak. On the official Colemak web site one learns that

Colemak is now the 3rd most popular keyboard layout for touch typing in English, after QWERTY and Dvorak.

That formulation could be effective in other contexts. For example,

Standing up is now the 3rd most popular posture for sleeping, after lying down and sitting.

Or a political version:

Congress is now the 3rd most respected branch of the US government, after the executive and the judiciary.

World’s Greatest Healthcare, ctd.

Addendum to my earlier post on US health care. Impressions from a friend’s trip, thankfully not an emergency in the end, to the emergency room of Children’s Hospital in Oakland:

  1. It’s not just the general practitioners in the US who are not very competent. So, a child being examined to exclude appendicitis is given a popsicle — presumably for hydration and glucose — by the intern. A bit later, he wants to give her IV fluids. Why can’t she just drink water? In case it is appendicitis, she shouldn’t take anything orally. Oh yes, I probably shouldn’t have given her that popsicle… I’m sure the microneurosurgeons in the US are first-rate, though. Continue reading “World’s Greatest Healthcare, ctd.”

What’s the Matter with Economics?

One of the most politically important economics results of recent years has been the paper by Reinhart and Rogoff on the link between high sovereign debt and low GDP growth. This work is something I’d been following for a while, as R&R’s book was one that I’d admired greatly. Their work claimed to show a strong negative correlation between sovereign debt/GDP ratio and ensuing GDP growth, and was reported as saying that 90% debt/GDP ratio marks a cliff that an economy falls off, killing future growth. This was seized upon by proponents of austerity as proof that budget cuts can’t wait.

As reported here and here by Paul Krugman, and here and here by Matt Yglesias, it now turns out that the result isn’t just theoretically misguided, it’s bogus. Economists who struggled to reproduce the results finally isolated a whole raft of errors and dubious hidden assumptions that completely undermine the conclusion. Only the most blatantly ridiculous fault was an error in their Excel spreadsheet formula that caused them to exclude important sections of the data from their computation. You’d think that this couldn’t get any worse, but instead of apologising abjectly, R&R have tried to argue that none of this was really essential to their real point, whatever that was.

My main thoughts:

  1. Do economists really do their analysis with Excel? I find this kind of shocking, like if I found out that some surgeons like to make their incisions with flint knives, or if airline pilots were calculating their flightpaths with slide rules. Once you accept that premise, it’s not surprising that they made a blunder like this. I’m not a snob about technology. Spreadsheets are great for doing payrolls, and for getting a look at tables of numbers, and doing some quick calculations. But they’re so opaque, they’re not appropriate to academic work, and they’re so inflexible that it’s inconceivable to me that someone who analyses data on a more or less regular basis would choose to use them. Continue reading “What’s the Matter with Economics?”

Maximum utility

Back when I first arrived in Oxford I remarked on the peculiar repurposing of utility bills as the indispensable proof of address. That is, the banks were enjoined by law from opening an account without proof of address (except Lloyds, which didn’t care for some reason, and so won our custom and our loyalty — until they lost the latter by refusing to consider us for a mortgage on account of my irresponsible decision to be a foreigner), and they seemed to consider proof of address to be equivalent to providing a utility bill. This seems strange for many reasons. First, utility companies are private entities that have designed their bills for, well, billing purposes, not as secure identity cards. The security measures on my water bill are pretty negligible. They have made no effort to check whether the person residing at this address is the same person who is paying the bill, or that either of them has the name on their records. Second, not every legitimate resident has utility bills. In particular, people who have just moved house don’t have utility bills for quite some time.

This requirement is usually attributed to a money-laundering statute. Is there a money-laundering scam that depends on faking a residential address? By criminals who are incapable of faking the address on a water bill? But who would be able to fake a lease, letter from an employer, or any other means of proving identity?
Continue reading “Maximum utility”

Missing Canada

I was recently in Montreal for a conference, and briefly in Kingston and Toronto. Registering at the conference (actually, filling out a receipt when buying a Canadian Mathematical Society t-shirt) a secretary wanted basic address information. She looked at my conference name-badge, and asked, “Oxford… Is that in Ontario?” (To be fair, it was the France-Canada Mathematical Congress, so it was not unreasonable for her to assume that anyone apparently not French was probably Canadian, and the best guess for an English-sounding place-name is Ontario. In fact, there is an Oxford, Ontario, though it is actually a county — or, more precisely, a regional municipality — and does not, to my knowledge, have a university.) What followed, though, was typically Canadian. “No, UK.” “Oh, you came all the way from the UK? Welcome to Canada!” The greeting seemed touchingly enthusiastic and heartfelt. It was like someone saying, “So glad you could drop by. Sorry, the place is a mess, but make yourself at home.” It’s a sense I’ve often had in Canada, of an unpretentious pride in their humble home; it’s really not much, but we hope you’ll enjoy it. I really enjoyed the three Canada Day celebrations (July 1, naturally — British imperial order ensured that any important events would happen January 1 or July 1, and you’d be crazy trying to make anything happen in Canada in January) that I attended — in Vancouver, Kingston, and Ottawa. The tone was remarkably inclusive and I felt none of the crazy world-dominating fervor of US patriotism, or the weirdly forced exceptionalism of British national pride, expressing itself in such atavistic ideas as the recent government report on citizenship, which proposed encouraging school children to swear a formal loyalty oath to the Queen. (What is this monarchy thing about, anyway? I’ve never seen people more touchy than the British about someone putting on airs, or acting like he’s better than someone else; and yet, they’re content to let their country be formally ruled by someone whose qualification for the post is that her great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was Elector of Hanover (or something like that). Of course, the Canadians also have Queen Elizabeth on their money and stamps, but they keep her at arm’s length through the Governor General.) It is perfectly possible to be proud of being Canadian, without hating other people for being something else. The US finds its existence threatened by the mere existence of people in the world who neither are nor aspire to be American, and in this struggle the UK sees its proper role to be the valet de bourreau.

Last fall I received a letter from our Toronto lawyer, informing me that our permanent residency application in Canada had been approved. It was not only the accompanying bill for $4000 that left me feeling slightly sad, but also the sense of a missed opportunity. Of course (!) I miss the Kingston winter, the bracing -20°C mornings, tramping through the snow, and skating with Chaya in the park, or the Market Square. (I noticed here a day care mentioning in its brochure that the children would go outside every day, unless the temperature were below 0°C. You’d never leave the building for months with that policy in Kingston!) I loved Chaya’s Waldorf school in Kingston, and am struggling to come to terms with the state church here. But there was something more fundamentally attractive about Canada and the idea of Canadianness. I have always cherished my status as an outsider to any group I may be suspected of belonging to, but I think I could have enjoyed getting to be a Canadian. What’s more, it seemed even vaguely possible, whereas regardless of good intentions, oaths sweared and formal conferral of citizenship it seems absurd to imagine becoming British. I don’t think there is any country more welcoming of foreigners than Canada. (Well-off and well-educated foreigners, to be sure, but then that is my experience.) Just compare the immigration authority home pages: Immigration and Citizenship Canada is full of smiling faces and links to promotional information like “Coming to Canada as an immigrant is an exciting opportunity” and “Canadians are proud to hold one of the most prized citizenships in the world. Every year about 150,000 people become new citizens of Canada.”  The grim UK Border Agency page, on the other hand, leads with the declaration “The UK Border Agency is responsible for securing the United Kingdom borders and controlling migration in the United Kingdom.” On this particular day (15 July) it prominently features the news flash that “Foreign nationals wishing to become British citizens will have to earn the right to stay, the Government announced today. The tough new approach will require all migrants to speak English and obey the law if they want to gain citizenship and stay permanently in Britain.” The presumption being, of course, that migrants are unlikely either to learn English or to obey the law. (This is followed by somewhat defensive sounding citations of public opinion polls which supposedly show the populace supporting this “tough” approach — or some tough approach, anyway.) The underlying legal regimes may be quite similar, but there’s no mistaking the difference in attitude, between the Canadian “Please consider joining us. I hope we can use your skills” and the British “We may desperately need your skills, so please come, but fuck you anyway.” (For specifics, see my comments on Polish nurses and maternity ward overcrowding here.)

canada-map UK map