Neanderthal science

I just listened to all of a two-hour discussion between journalist Ezra Klein and professional atheist Sam Harris, about Harris’s defense of the right-wing policy entrepreneur (as Matthew Yglesias has described him) Charles Murray, famous for his racist application of intelligence research to public policy, most famously in a notorious chapter of his book The Bell Curve. Klein pushes back effectively against Harris’s self-serving martyrdom — Harris, not unreasonably, identifies with the suffering of a wealthy and famous purveyor of quack science whose livelihood is ever-so-slightly harmed by public criticism* — but he doesn’t sufficiently engage, I think, with Harris’s contention that he is promoting the values of real science. Unfortunately, the “mainstream social science” that Harris and Murray are promoting exists only in secret messages from “reputable scientists in my inbox, who have totally taken my side in this, but who are too afraid to say so publicly”. Harris doesn’t allow for a second that there is any good-faith argument on the other side. Anyone who disagrees is merely trying to shut down scientific progress, or simply confusing scientific truth with do-gooding wishful thinking.

The truth of the matter is, Murray and other brave seekers of truth are doing the opposite of helping to clarify reality. They are wading into a swamp of confusion, and pulling out some especially stinky slime that they can hurl at disfavoured groups.

As much as Harris tries to promote Murray as a pure-hearted “content-of-our-character” anti-racist individualist, as long as “race” exists as a social factor affecting people’s self-image, the communities they belong to, and the way they are perceived by others, it remains a potent social force. When demographers argue that “race” isn’t “real”, they are saying that racial categories don’t separate natural clusters by genetic or physical traits. When Murray says, let’s stop talking about race, let’s talk about individual genetic endowments, he is saying that racial groupings have no causal effect on their own, but only label clusters whose difference arise from deep physical causes — wrong on both sides. Continue reading “Neanderthal science”

Statistics and causal truth: Police edition

As usual, Andrew Sullivan — who has now returned temporarily to blogging, attracted like a moth to the Trump conflagration — manages to take a common, superficially convincing argument, and express it with moral fervour and personal conviction that makes the tenuous logic really conspicuous. In this case, it’s the argument based on the much-discussed study by Roland G. Fryer, Jr. of the rate of various violent outcomes of police stops, finding that black people are more likely than white to be physically abused by police, but not more likely to be shot.

(Here’s an excellent NY Times report, and  the original study.)

…the Black Lives Matter activists, whose core and central argument is that black men are disproportionately killed by cops. The best data shows this is false…  I find [the study] conclusive. Feelings do not, er, trump data in a deliberative democracy. A reader writes:

I understand that there has been the recent study suggesting that given an interaction with a police officer occurs, then the police officer is no more likely to use a gun with a black person than with a white person. However, given that many black men have a much higher rate of interaction with police (such as, anecdotally, Philando Castile, with 52 traffic stops), then is it not fair to say that black men are disproportionately killed by cops?
The point is that there is no evidence of individual racism in these police encounters, despite the impression from many chilling phone videos. The structural bias still exists as a whole, as I said, but the narrative about cops being more likely to kill a black member of the public when encountering him is false.

I have no criticism to make of the study — I have not analysed it in any depth, but it seems credibly and even impressively done — even if I find the premise absurd, that a single study of such a complex phenomenon could be “conclusive”. But they do not “trump” the data that black people make up 13% of the US population, but 31% of those killed during an arrest, and 42% of those killed during an arrest when unarmed. The point is, what these facts (and many others, including the others) mean jointly depends on what we think is the reason for black people being so much more likely to be arrested.

Continue reading “Statistics and causal truth: Police edition”

The Times racebaits

I mentioned before the peculiarly awkward and unfunny humour that bursts out in the Times when establishment interests are challenged (standing out particularly sharply in contrast to the usually professional and intelligent demeanour of that particular rag). Yesterday one of their columnists, Patrick Kidd, commented on Jeremy Corbyn’s first Labour Party conference speech. He noticed that two illustrious authors quoted in the speech were BLACK, and decided, giving him an appropriately racially charged metaphor for mocking the Reds:

It certainly felt as if he had taken us deep into the night with a series of unconnected riffs on a general jazz theme of “let’s be kinder to each other.” This was Jeremy Corbyn playing Miles Davis in the uncut version of Kind of Red, with contributions from Ben Okri on drums and Maya Angelou spanking the double bass.

One other point: I’ve noticed that lazy newspaper columnists have this trick of taking a stupid cliché that anyone would recognise as such — a disjointed speech is like jazz, ho hum, what is this, 1958? I think that’s when the Times was spreading fear of contamination by jazz-inflected, negro-influenced leftists, and youth contaminated by contact with racial inferiors — and inflates it to a shaggy-dog story with all kinds of extra detail and verbiage. Unless you’re SJ Perelman, it doesn’t become original this way, only more embarrassingly hackneyed.

“Rivers of Blood”: An insult (except when we say it)!

Conservative MP Nigel Mills has attacked Liberal deputy leader Vince Cable for criticising Tory anti-immigration panic with a comparison to Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, calling on the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to resign:

It would be very hard for him to sit around the cabinet table having effectively compared his Conservative colleagues to Enoch Powell, which is an utterly ridiculous thing to have done.

The thing is, my understanding was that Powell was always a member in good standing of the Conservative party, until he left of his own accord. And given that he left in protest over Britain’s entry into the EEC — a move that Mills and his faction would like to reverse — it’s not clear what the objection is. Thatcher’s government offered him a life peerage, which he refused. If the Conservatives ever officially repudiated him, I never heard of it. Certainly they never objected when he was bringing in votes from the extreme right in the early 1970s.

It seems like typical family dynamics — “Rivers of Blood” is fine within the Tory family, but it’s an insult when outsiders say it.

Blood libels we can believe in

If mamma, sir, sold the baby
To a gypsy for half a crown;
If a gentleman, sir, was a lady,—
The world would be Upside-down!

— “Topsy-Turvy World“, by William Brighty Rands (1823-82)

It’s fascinating how every new generation re-invents the old blood libels, in a form that seems plausible and worlds away from the old-fashioned superstitious hatreds. Just now Europe is experiencing a wave of gypsy baby abductions. No, sorry, we’re experiencing a wave of reports of Roma families having dishonestly come into possession of whiteness. In Italy (a few years ago), and this week in Greece and Ireland, we’ve seen authorities removing children from their families because of what seemed to some hobby eugenicists strange disparities between the skin colours of parents and children, whereas children normally have exactly the same skin colour as their parents.

The report in the Times (behind a paywall) was a veritable fount of racist conjecture. They constantly refer to the adults who have raised the child as her “parents” (their scare quotes), and her as their “daughter”. A “consultant” at a hospital “told detectives it would be unusual for Roma parents to have a blonde-haired child.” Well, thank you for that expert opinion!

Why would poor parents with multiple children of their own be abducting children anyway? They quote the head of the “Smile of the Child” “charity” with another expert opinion:

Maria may have been abducted because of her striking blonde hair so she could be used to beg in the streets.

Of course! What else would they do with them? Weirdly, the article then proceeds to report that

In July 2011, more than a dozen people were arrested for arranging for pregnant Bulgarian Roma women to give birth in Greece and then sell their babies for illegal adoption.

The careful reader will note that this example — the only actual case of child abduction, or something like it, that they can find involving Roma — it was Roma children being illegally adopted by middle-class white Europeans.

In the end, it’s turned out that the families were all telling the truth. The Irish child is the biological child of her mother. The Greek child was left with the parents by the biological mother — also Roma, so the mysteriously Arian appearance is still unexplained — who left for Bulgaria and couldn’t afford to take the baby with her. She’s said she would like to have her daughter back, but one suspects that the transfer from one poor Roma family to another would warm the hearts of the public longing to see the child returned to the bosom of the white race.

Migrants are the root of all evil…

… or something. Having commented before on the xenophobia that pervades the British political establishment — with politicians of all parties falling all over themselves to profit from public anti-immigrant sentiment — I am hardly surprised by home secretary Theresa May preening herself with the macho boast that her government will intensify the “hostile environment” for foreigners — sorry, she boasts that she will initiate the not-yet-existing hostile environment, and only for “illegal migrants”. One of the most striking provisions of the soon-to-be-law is a requirement that landlords check the immigration status of prospective tenants. This leads me to wonder, again, how exactly a British citizen can prove to a prospective landlord that he or she is British, now that the government has abolished Labour’s identity-card program as being too intrusive and really the antechamber to tyranny. Of course, many people have passports, but many don’t, and they are, of course, generally the poorer and more vulnerable citizens. Passports cost £72.50.

I asked a British colleague how he would prove his citizenship if he didn’t have a passport. He said he has a birth certificate, apparently unaware that the UK abolished birthright citizenship 30 years ago. Anyone born after 1983 would need not only his own birth certificate, but that of one of his parents.

Of course, I am being somewhat disingenuous here. We all know that the real British will demonstrate their citizenship by having the right skin colour and the right accent. That’s what this is really about.

Are you demographic?

As a sometime demographer myself, I am fascinated by the prominence of “demographics” as an explanatory concept in the recent presidential election, now already slipping away into hazy memory. Recent political journalism would barely stand without this conceptual crutch, as here and here and here. A bit more nuance here. Some pushback from the NY Times here.

The crassest expression of this concept came in an article yesterday by (formerly?) respected conservative journalist Michael Barone, explaining why he was no longer confident that Mitt Romney would win the election by a large margin. Recall that several days before the election, despite the contrary evidence of what tens of thousands of voters were actually telling pollsters, he predicted 315 electoral votes for Romney, saying “Fundamentals usually prevail in American elections. That’s bad news for Barack Obama.” In retrospect, he says,

I was wrong because the outcome of the election was not determined, as I thought it would be, by fundamentals…. I think fundamentals were trumped by mechanics and, to a lesser extent, by demographics.

Continue reading “Are you demographic?”