Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

More democracy, more guns

I’ve long been suspicious of John Dewey’s celebrated aphorism “The solution to the ills of democracy is more democracy.” It’s brilliant, of course. Pithy. The frisson of paradox and a nugget of truth. But what seems like more democracy — for example, referenda — can be an autocrat’s best tool. There is a subtle slight of hand here, since the first “democracy” in the sentence is the currently existing realisation of democracy, while the second is presumably ideal democratic principles..

Now we see the same logic in the gun debate in the US. The gun lobby has been refining the argument for decades, from “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” to “If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns” to “The thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”. We’ve now boiled it down to the essence, which — though they haven’t yet quite formulated it this way — is

The solution to the ills of guns is more guns.

Maybe we need to recognise that the solution to the ills of democracy is careful thinking about the tradeoffs involved in creating a sensible policy to tackle some of the most negative features of the current situation without creating too many new problems, and then rethink it after the effects have become more clear. Which is, I admit, less pithy than Dewey’s version.


Hum and buzz

Apparently there’s been low-frequency hum intermittently plaguing the residents of Windsor Ontario in recent years. It may be due to blast furnace operations on a nearby island. The report in the NY Times goes on to discuss similar complaints that have arisen at other locations. When the Taos tourism director describes her town’s troubles, which have since subsided, metaphorical noise collides with real noise:

“I have never heard the Taos hum, but I’ve heard stories of the Taos hum,” she said. “There’s not been a lot of buzz about it in the last few years.”

Commands in German

Republican Party finance chairman and casino magnate Steve Wynn has been outed by the Wall Street Journal for systematically sexually abusing women on a Weinstein scale. But one of the creepier details of the story (from Kevin Drum’s quote, since the WSJ article is paywalled):

Some said that feeling was heightened at times by the presence in a confined office space of one or more of his German shepherds, trained to respond to commands in German.

I remember talking many years ago with a German colleague, who felt it was unreasonable that Germany still, after fifty years as a stable democracy, still was expected to be specially on guard against any hint of fascist or racist tendencies. I pointed out that, no matter what the Germans themselves may think, fascists and racists the world over look to Germany for inspiration. I don’t really want to think about what it means that the Jewish Wynn, leading ally of the white nationalist president, has been living out Nazi stormtrooper sexual fantasies.

(Just to be clear. I can’t see any signs in Wynn’s wikipedia entry that he otherwise has links to German culture or language. The article also says that Wynn’s original name was Weinberg. This isn’t a pattern I’m comfortable following up. It makes me think of a perverted form of the old Cold War era joke about a State Department conversation about plans for an upcoming cultural exchange. “The Soviets are sending over two Jewish violinists from Odessa. And in return, we’re sending them two of our Jewish violinists from Odessa.”)

Male nurses and politically incorrect comments on gender

I was just reading this article by journalist Conor Friedersdorf, complaining about how Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson is being unfairly treated by journalists, who try to twist his subtle anti-feminist arguments into crude anti-feminist slurs. He certainly has a point. But then one comes to comments like this

[Interviewer]: Is gender equality desirable?

Peterson: If it means equality of outcome then it is almost certainly undesirable. That’s already been demonstrated in Scandinavia. Men and women won’t sort themselves into the same categories if you leave them to do it of their own accord. It’s 20 to 1 female nurses to male, something like that. And approximately the same male engineers to female engineers. That’s a consequence of the free choice of men and women in the societies that have gone farther than any other societies to make gender equality the purpose of the law. Those are ineradicable differences––you can eradicate them with tremendous social pressure, and tyranny, but if you leave men and women to make their own choices you will not get equal outcomes.

20 to 1? That seems really high. For nurses and for engineers. So I decided to do something rude, and check the numbers. For nurses, I found these statistics. There’s a lot of variation in Scandinavia. In Denmark it seems like about 20:1 female to male. But in Norway it’s 9:1. In Iceland it’s 100:1. Looking further afield, in Israel and Italy 20% of nurses are male. And in the Netherlands nearly 25%. This does not look like an ineradicable difference to me. It looks like path dependence and social context.

What about engineers? Here Peterson is, to use the technical term, talking out of his ass. There is no country in the EU with such an extreme gender imbalance for engineers: The most extreme is the UK, with about a 10:1 male to female ratio. In Sweden it’s 3:1, in Norway 4:1, and in Denmark 5:1. In Latvia the fraction of female engineers is up to 30%.

I think, if you want to make provocative “I’m just trying to be rational here” public arguments, you kind of have an obligation not to make up your supporting facts.

Brush up your Plato, start quoting him now

… at least, if you want to get recognised as religiously persecuted for your humanism.

This looks like a parody of English pseudo-education mixed with English xenophobia:

A Pakistani man who renounced his Muslim faith and became a humanist has had his application for asylum in the UK rejected after failing to correctly answer questions about ancient Greek philosophers.

The Home Office said Hamza bin Walayat’s failure to identify Plato and Aristotle as humanist philosophers indicated his knowledge of humanism was “rudimentary at best”.

My guess is that he wanted to say he was an atheist, but recognised that that would subject him to discrimination here as well as in Pakistan, so he resorted to the more erudite-sounding term “humanist”, only to run into the buzzsaw of a classicist manqué.

Overt public blackmail?

Just when you thought you’d reached the bottom of the we’re-being-governed-by-toddlers-who-missed-a-nap slough of despond, they manage to surprise you again. This time, it’s the Chancellor of the Exchequer  Philip Hammond, who decided to punish the NHS (and, by proxy, the entire English public) for the brazenness of its chief, Simon Stevens. Stevens gave a speech two weeks ago, saying the NHS is on the verge of financial collapse, and since the one thing that’s clear about the result of the Brexit referendum is that the public likes the idea of giving £350 million a week more to the NHS, maybe the government should just go ahead and do that. Instead,

Philip Hammond backtracked on plans to give the NHS more money than it eventually got in the budget after reacting with “fury” to its boss Simon Stevens’s public demand for an extra £4bn next year.

Since I am always particularly intrigued by political semantics, I was struck by this line:

Hammond and Treasury officials felt that the NHS England chief executive’s move meant that the chancellor could not be seen to be acceding to what they saw as “overt public blackmail”

What I wonder is, is there such a thing as “overt public blackmail”? Blackmail is when you make secret demands, with the threat to publicly embarrass the target by revealing hidden information. It’s not even any kind of extortion, which would mean issuing threats to force someone into a desired course of action. The only threat Stevens made is that without more money the NHS faces collapse. Warning someone of the potential consequences of their actions is neither extortion nor blackmail. And saying, we agree with the analysis, but since we don’t want to look like we’re agreeing with you, we’re going to do the opposite, is something so stupid that I don’t think  there is a specific name for it. (Maybe the Piranha Brothers used that technique?)

Now, what would be blackmail? How about telling the head of an independent government agency in private talks that his agency and the whole population are being throttled for his presumptuous public speech, not needing to say explicitly that a deferential turn might prevent future punishment — well, I guess that’s extortion.

Maybe someone should give him a cookie?

NHS hit by unforeseen Earth tilt

A critical government service has to be prepared for all foreseeable contingencies. But sometimes the unpredictable occurs, and bureaucrats can fall into panic.

A tilt in the Earth’s axis that no one could have foreseen is apparently causing daylight to grow shorter in northern latitudes and temperatures to drop, leading to an increase in communicable diseases and accidents that threatens to overwhelm NHS emergency services. Or, in other words,

Disclosure of NHS England’s attempt to impose a detailed series of duties on hospitals comes amid claims by senior insiders that its leadership is in a state of panic over winter.

The anarchist Trump

I just read Chris Hedges’s book The Wages of Rebellion, about the small sprouts of revolt against the omnipotent corporate state that are still popping up. I was struck by this quote from Jeremy Hammond, who was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for hacking into government computers to steal and release evidence of government crimes:

He said he did not support what he called a “dogmatic nonviolence doctrine” held by many in the Occupy movement, describing it as “needlessly limited and divisive.” He rejected the idea of protesters carrying out acts of civil disobedience that they know will lead to arrest. “The point,” he said, “is to carry out acts of resistance and not get caught.”

In this he has a soul-brother in the White House, famous for having mocked John McCain for his years in Vietnamese captivity:

He’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.

Why people hate statisticians

Andrew Dilnot, former head of the UK Statistics Authority and current warden (no really!) of Nuffield College, gave a talk here last week, at our annual event honouring Florence Nightingale qua statistician. The ostensible title was “Numbers and Public policy: Why statistics really matter”, but the title should have been “Why people hate statisticians”. This was one of the most extreme versions I’ve ever seen of a speaker shopping trite (mostly right-wing) political talking points by dressing them up in statistics to make the dubious assertions seem irrefutable, and to make the trivially obvious look ingenious.

I don’t have the slides from the talk, but video of a similar talk is available here. He spent quite a bit of his talk trying to debunk the Occupy Movement’s slogan that inequality has been increasing. The 90:10 ratio bounced along near 3 for a while, then rose to 4 during the 1980s (the Thatcher years… who knew?!), and hasn’t moved much since. Case closed. Oh, but wait, what about other measures of inequality, you may ask. And since you might ask, he had to set up some straw men to knock down. He showed the same pattern for five other measures of inequality. Case really closed.

Except that these five were all measuring the same thing, more or less. The argument people like Piketty have been making is not that the 90th percentile has been doing so much better than the 10th percentile, but that increases in wealth have been concentrated in ever smaller fractions of the population. None of the measures he looked was designed capture that process. The Gini coefficient, which looks like it measures the whole distribution, because it is a population average is actually extremely insensitive to extreme concentration at the high end. Suppose the top 1% has 20% of the income. Changes of distribution within the top 1% cannot shift the Gini coefficient by more than about 3% of its current value. He also showed the 95:5 ratio, and low-and-behold, that kept rising through the 90s, then stopped. All consistent with the main critique of rising income inequality.

Since he’s obviously not stupid, and obviously understands economics much better than I do, it’s hard to avoid thinking that this was all smoke and mirrors, intended to lull people to sleep about rising inequality, under the cover of technocratic expertise. It’s a well-known trick: Ignore the strongest criticism of your point of view, and give lots of details about weak arguments. Mathematical details are best. “Just do the math” is a nice slogan. Sometimes simple (or complex) calculations can really shed light on a problem that looks to be inextricably bound up with political interests and ideologies. But sometimes not. And sometimes you just have to accept that a political economic argument needs to be melded with statistical reasoning, and you have to be open about the entirety of the argument. (more…)

Hate the sin, vote for the sinner

When the Republicans selected for the Senate race in Alabama a man so sanctimonious that he insisted on displaying a monument to the Ten Commandments at the state Supreme Court  — insisted to the point of losing his job as Chief Justice — it was almost to be expected that he had some pretty nasty dirt in his past. According to the Washington Post he molested a 14-year-old when he was a 32-year-old district attorney. This wasn’t one of those “met her in a bar and I thought she was 19” sort of things:

He struck up a conversation, Corfman and her mother say, and offered to watch the girl while her mother went inside for a child custody hearing.

“He said, ‘Oh, you don’t want her to go in there and hear all that. I’ll stay out here with her,’ ” says Corfman’s mother, Nancy Wells, 71. “I thought, how nice for him to want to take care of my little girl.”

Honestly, if this were a television show I’d almost accuse the writers at this point of being too stereotyped and predictable.

Of course, Alabama Republicans are shocked and appalled — NOT! There are the standard excuses: The news media are mean, they’re all Democrats and liars, it can’t be true because if it were we would have heard about it before. And then, for the particularly Evangelical among them, there is this, from Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler:

Even if you accept the Washington Post’s report as being completely true, it is much ado about very little… Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus… There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.

I admit, I get tripped up on the finer points of Christian theology, but wasn’t Mary a virgin?

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