Wednesday, May 25, 2005

I've Moved!

My blog is now located at See you there!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Slowly but Surely...

...I'm making the move away from blogger. I've got what will hopefully be good, cheap web hosting, I've got my own domain (, and I'm gradually building my own WordPress blog that will have all of my posts, past and present, in one place.

This will be the third blog I've been through in just under two years - the first year or so with iBlog, and the last year with blogger. On some message board once I saw somebody describe blogger as "blogging with training wheels." Well, if we stick with the metaphor, iBlog is a big wheel. It's just fine if you want a) a Mac-centric blogging app and b) you never want to upgrade to a grown-up blog, but it just sucks otherwise. It doesn't deal in HTML is the main problem. It saves everything as rich-text files and then converts to HTML when publishing, which results in really messy code.

After reading over some of the old blog posts though, I realized I put way more work into it to just throw them away, so I spent all day today slowly cleaning up the code so that it would work with Wordpress. And I finished! So now all I've got to do is import the blogger postings (which should be much easier), do some last minute template tweaking and wait for my new domain's DNS to "propagate" the web. Then the training wheels are off for good!

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Natural Science, pt. 2

In my last post, I lashed out at the "anti-science" folks within the social sciences. I decided to elaborate on that a little bit.

My comments need to be put in the context of how "science" has been used as a label within the social sciences. I have many, many problems with much of what's gone on under the banner of "scientific" social science. There's a big advantage to being a "science" in our culture - the label brings a lot of prestige and credibility to what you're doing. You need go no further than the countless advertisements that boast of "scientifically proven results" for everything from toothpaste to hair loss treatments for evidence of this. Much of "scientific sociology" has had all the trappings of a science (technical jargon, fancy statistics, big research grants) but has failed to go much beyond that. Besides resulting in obscenely boring journal articles, I don't think they've even really been all that "scientific." The picture of science that postmodernish critics of science paint makes more sense if you use the practice of social science as your model of science.

The history of sociology as a science is the history of a discipline obsessed with riding a fine line on the whole "science" issue. On the one hand, disciplinary entrepreneurs like Emile Durkheim insisted sociology was a science, as "rigorous" as any other and early sociologists borrowed the language of sciences like biology to talk about "the social organism." On the other hand, Durkheim had to insist that there was something about "the social" that made sociology distinct from all other sciences and, hence, requiring it's own discipline, methods, journals and, of course, professional departments and associations. These two goals had a paradoxical effect on the social sciences: they became isolated from the "natural" sciences at the same time that they were insisting they were "scientific." "Science," as it developed in sociology, became associated with statistical methods, abstract jargon and a belief that through the technical, "neutral" language of science, we could discover (or, at least, approximate) absolute truths and laws about the social world. Because "the social" was an entity in itself ("sui generis"), we didn't need to know anything about biology, physics or even psychology to do sociology. The field was founded on a particular strain of empiricism that believed that through observation and inductive reasoning, the truths of the world would become visible to us. So we go out and do a quantitative survey (or, for that matter, an ethnography) and gather all this "data" and then we look at it and uncover social reality and it's "laws" as they really are, "out there" in the world.

Critics of this approach correctly point out how naive it is. When you're doing a survey, the very categories that you choose to ask people about and the way you ask the question affects the way they respond. When you observe people, your presence impacts the way they act and, moreover, you always filter what you observe through your own preconceptions, biases, etc. Categories like race, class and gender aren't "out there" as absolute truths, but we "construct" them. Since we're always biased in these ways, "objective" science isn't possible in the social sciences (perhaps in the natural sciences, too), so we should give up the whole project in favor of an interpretive project of how people "socially construct reality."

The problem is that this view of science is ridiculous when looked at from the perspective of natural sciences. The subjectivist view is just incomprehensible, like I argued in the last posting, unless you believe in miracles. Obviously there's something real out there, or else how would any of the technology we take for granted ever work? But it's also true that categories like "race" are social constructed. Perhaps the social sciences really are just qualitatively different than the "natural sciences."

But this doesn't work either. Physics doesn't study "absolute truths" either. There also are no physicists who argue that we simply "socially construct," out of thin air, the content of physics. For example, electrons are theoretical entities. Do they really exist? We can't see them. But we know that if we act as if they're real entities, we can interact with them in consistent, predictable ways. So is the category of electron something we impose on the earth that, somehow, works or does it really correspond to some actual unit of stuff? Interesting question, but hardly a debate about whether or not electrons are absolute truths or just made up stuff. (Ian Hacking's the philosopher most associated with the electron example; he calls his position "experimental realism.")

So the natural sciences, in practice, reject both absolute truths as well as arbitrary "constructions." Of course, there's an inductive element, where you observe the world, but there's also a deductive element, where you devise theoretical entities with the purpose in mind of tested them and revising according to the extent that they do, or do not, correspond with your experience. No belief in "absolute truths" necessary. No defeatism about inescapable bias necessary either. Science is about experimentation and interaction - both processes which are not "neutral" (in the sense of an disembodied, transcendental view of "Truth") in either their aim, method or results. A science is "objective" to the extent that it is honest and transparent to others about it's experimentation. This method is not synonymous with a particular type of data, a particular institutional arrangement or a particular type of language. In fact, technical jargon can just as easily corrupt science, by rendering it less open to critical challenge. Similarly, institutional arrangements, such as the way academia is professionalized today, can corrupt science by giving people professional incentives to be dogmatic, parochial and nontransparent for fear of competition that may challenge their legitimacy and prestige. In these respects, "scientific sociology" has been profoundly anti-scientific in it's practice. The task, however, is to challenge it's claims to science and it's application of the scientific method, not to accept it's claims to science and reject science altogether.

So when I say that social science should be a natural science, I'm not saying that we should all become biologists. Nor am I standing with sociologists, past and present, who have used "science" as a cloak to cover up bad research. I'm saying that to be a science, whatever your subject matter, requires a naturalistic stance; a commitment to using the scientific method in the pursuit of natural, not supernatural, explanations of the world and practical, not absolute, beliefs about the world. Natural explanations require viewing human beings as part of the natural world. Rejecting absolute beliefs about the world means accepting that you might be wrong. This is the crux of the whole science/evolution debate because the fundamentalist Christians refuse to take these steps. They cannot accept, as necessary price of admission for anyone entering the world of science, that they might be wrong because, as believers in absolute truth, they cannot be wrong as this would then mean that God is wrong, which is incomprehensible to them. Science, far from being "just another discourse on absolute truth," is a method that requires, by definition, that we challenge notions of absolute truth.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Natural Science

The "evolution debates" in Kansas are about much more than evolution:

The Kansas school board's hearings on evolution weren't limited to how the theory should be taught in public schools. The board is considering redefining science itself. Advocates of 'intelligent design' are pushing the board to reject a definition limiting science to natural explanations for what's observed in the world.

Instead, they want to define it as 'a systematic method of continuing investigation,' without specifying what kind of answer is being sought. The definition would appear in the introduction to the state's science standards.

The proposed definition has outraged many scientists, who are frustrated that students could be discussing supernatural explanations for natural phenomena in their science classes.

...Stephen Meyer, a senior fellow at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which supports intelligent design, said changing the schools' definition of science would avoid freezing out questions about how life arose and developed on Earth.

The current definition is 'not innocuous,' Meyer said. 'It's not neutral. It's actually taking sides.'
Of course, he's right. It's not "neutral." You know why? Because the world isn't neutral. You see, there's this thing called "the world," and we're a part of it. The world isn't whatever we pray for it to be - it exists and has certain characteristics that are very much not neutral in their effects on us. If Meyer wants to test this, perhaps he should jump off a tall building somewhere. But, wait, this sort of "test" is the very thing these people are against in the first place. If Meyer jumps off a building and goes "splat," is there a natural explanation for this such as "gravity" or is there a supernatural explanation such as "God was punishing him"? See, I'm thinking the first is the scientific, or "natural," explanation and the second is the unscientific, or "supernatural" explanation. Meyer, of course, can believe whatever he wants and he can tell his kids whatever he wants, but when his kids go to school to learn about "science," they should not be taught supernatural explanations for things.

Let me clarify, while I'm at it, what I mean by "natural" explanation and why this is far more important than being just about the "hard sciences" like biology, physics and chemistry as the word "natural" may make people think. For example, sociology is a social science. This does not mean that we look to biology, physics and chemistry to explain the social world. Of course, sometimes they matter a great deal, but many, many explanations of things in the social world require no knowledge of these things. They do, however, require non-supernatural explanations. If we want to understand why there's so much violence in the world, or why certain groups hate one another or why organizations work the way they do or anything resembling these questions, we cannot, as social scientists, appeal to some supernatural force or purpose. Poor people aren't poor because "God is mad at them," but because of certain "natural," i.e. not supernatural, processes that real people are a part of. The United States government doesn't do what it does because God speaks to our President or because we're "chosen" people who can do no wrong. If we want to understand how the United States government works, we treat it as a natural phenomenon like gravity: we observe it, analyze it, pose questions about it, experiment with hypotheses about it, and when we have some evidence, we try to form theories about it. Then we keep asking questions, keep observing and analyzing and try to come up with better theories about it because, with science, truths are always falsifiable, contingent on evidence we gather from the world.

This is in direct contrast with, say, religion, where the answers are given ahead of time and then the world must conform with The Word. Without this "naturalistic bias" that binds our explanations to nonsupernatural causes, the "systematic method of continuing investigation" part of the "new definition of science" rings hollow. Theologians may use a "systematic method of continuing investigation" when reading religious texts, but what are they doing? They're trying to better understand truths that are understood to already be there; they just have to interpret the text in the correct way - who cares what our experience with the actual world says.

Interestingly enough, this is very similar to the approach to studying the social world that many Left academics have been advocating, most notoriously under the banner of postmodernism but it's more pervasive than that. The idea is that sociology, you see, really isn't a "science," and for that matter, "science" doesn't really exist because it's not "objective truth," really. It's just another "discourse" or "culture" and the knowledge it produces is no different than any other "discourse." (I'm not kidding - I was in a graduate seminar where we had to take a stand on this issue, phrased in almost the exact same language I just used, and I was in the small, minority group.) The attack on science because it's not "neutral" and does not produce "absolute truth" should sound familiar - it's very similar to what the theocrats are saying. It also misses the boat on what science is all about in the same way. It's not about neutrality and it's not about absolute truth. Anybody who paid attention during their fourth grade science projects would know this. It's about the fact that we should strive for non-supernatural explanations of the world through, yes, a "systematic method of continuing investigation" that produces truths that are always, always, always contingent on how well they work for us in our interaction with the world. If you don't believe this is possible, then you must believe it's a total miracle that your car works, that your house hasn't fallen over and that, somehow, you wake up breathing each morning.

Of course, many have used "science" as a shield through which they sneak their claims about absolute, objective truths about the way the world both is and ought to be, but this is unscientific pseudoscience, whether it's used to justify racism, sexism, genocide or, simply, theocracy masquerading as "intelligent design." And many of those who reject "science" in the way I described are repulsed by all of these things. But they've thrown the baby out with the bath water. Now that the theocrats are borrowing their logic about science, texts and cultures, they've got nothing to stand on. The chickens are coming home to roost and the folks who deny everything but "socially constructed multiple realities" have no answer to the assault on science because they don't consider themselves part of science. In fact many consider themselves opponents of science, what with it's "Western imperialist discourse of totalistic rationality."

In case you haven't noticed, I'm a bit hostile about all of this. I expect idiocy from people like Stephen Meyer. What bothers me is that people don't immediately get what's so ridiculous about his new definition of science. For this we can blame many things, and the invisibility (even ignorance) of social scientists in this discussion is probably not even at the top of the list, but it's the part of the list that I'm most involved with so it bothers me the most.

Monday, May 16, 2005

A "Devout Christian"

Quiz time: how little income do you think someone should make before they qualify for Medicaid? In Missouri, it's now less than $86 a week:

In Missouri, plans to pare 90,000 people from the Medicaid rolls in 2005 have sparked a fierce debate over the morality of the cuts.

The proposals have opened a moral schism, with some preachers expressing outrage, but the governor, a devout Christian, defends the cuts as morally correct. Gov. Matt Blunt says not cutting Medicaid would force him to raise taxes -- and in his eyes, raising taxes is wrong.

...Among those affected by the changes is Angel Bridgewater, whose $6.70-per-hour McDonald's job makes her ineligible for state medical aid. Despite supporting three children, she now has to make less than $86 each week to qualify for Medicaid. Before the cuts, she qualified while earning about $300 a week. Bridgewater calls the new eligibility standard, the lowest allowed by federal law, 'sickening.'
Yes, it's about time the over-$86-a-week crowd got what was coming to them. Not everyone can be rich like them, you know. By the way, if you add it up, the fact that the woman in the story is making $6.70 an hour but making $300 a week means she's working at least 45 hours a week (assuming the $300 per week is before all taxes).

Oh, what a "devout Christian" that Matt Blunt is.

Going from Suck to Blow

Now that I'm done with classes, I'm looking forward to a summer of reading and writing in preparation for my prelim this fall, designing various work-related websites and perhaps getting a part-time job for a few extra hours a week. I just found out this weekend that our neighbors across the street own the coffee shop two blocks away and I applied for a part-time job there, so it'd be cool if that works out. If not, I also applied at the Apple Store at the mall, but I'm not sure I'd actually want that - too much temptation.

I haven't been blogging much lately, but I'm sure that'll change as the summer boredom sets in. I've been reading a bunch lately and I've discovered that I work sort of like the leaf blower we just sold at our garage sale Saturday: I have two modes, suck (read) and blow (write), and I have a hard time doing both at the same time. (I know, I cannot believe I just made that analogy either.) But anyway, I'll blow a few random chunks here and see if I can get anything more constructive going in the next few days:

- If you've got to buy gasoline (or diesel), and unfortunately, virtually all of us do, better to buy it from the Chavez's than the Cheney's. Find your local Citgo here.

- Joe Satriani's got a full live concert webcast here. It's fantastic. So is Aimee Mann's new cd.

- It's true: Kansas really is flatter than a pancake.

- Speaking of Kansas, with the so-called "evolution debates" in the news: if you want to read more about evolution, check out Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Dan Dennett. I just finished it and it's really interesting. I've been reading quite a bit about stuff that's at the intersection of evolutionary biology, cognitive science and psychology lately and if these topics interest you, I've found there's a great many authors out there who are writing about them very well. In addition to Dennett, check out books by Steven Pinker, Matt Ridley, Antonio Damasio and Judith Harris. Sociologists have typically been pretty hostile towards this line of research, but I'm becoming more and more interested in what they might offer sociology. I know at least one thing so far: they've got much better writers than sociology.

- I wish I got mail from Kurt Vonnegut.

- Did you or someone you know give money to the tsunami relief efforts? Read all about the global "reconstruction industry." It's not very pleasant.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


I am done with classes...forever!

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Colbert Report


Comedy Central said yesterday that it was giving Mr. Colbert his own show: a half-hour that is expected to follow 'The Daily Show' on weeknights and will lampoon those cable-news shows that are dominated by the personality and sensibility of a single host. Think, he said, of Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews and Sean Hannity.

Where 'The Daily Show' and its host, Jon Stewart, generally spoof the headlines of the day (and the anchors and reporters who deliver them), Mr. Colbert's program will send up those hosts who have become household names doing interviews and offering analyses each night on the 24-hour cable news channels. The program, which is expected to begin appearing on Comedy Central as soon as early fall, is being produced by Mr. Stewart's production company, Busboy Productions.

It will be called 'The Colbert Report' - though, if Mr. Colbert has his way, the announcer will pronounce it with a faux-French accent: The co-BEAR ra-PORE.'

In the way 'The Daily Show' is kind of a goof on the structure of news, this is more of a goof on the cult of personality-type shows,' Mr. Stewart said in an interview.

'It's about a man and his forum,' Mr. Stewart said of such shows, including Mr. Colbert's. 'And by the way, he's not doing it for himself. He's doing it for the people. As a public service.'

Support the Troops?

An account of what's going on in Iraq from a US soldier in Monday's NY Times:

"Guys in my unit, particularly the younger guys, would drive by in their Humvee and shatter bottles over the heads of Iraqi civilians passing by. They'd keep a bunch of empty Coke bottles in the Humvee to break over people's heads."

He said he had confronted guys who were his friends about this practice. "I said to them: 'What the hell are you doing? Like, what does this accomplish?' And they responded just completely openly. They said: 'Look, I hate being in Iraq. I hate being stuck here. And I hate being surrounded by hajis.' "

"Haji" is the troops' term of choice for an Iraqi. It's used the way "gook" or "Charlie" was used in Vietnam.

Mr. Delgado said he had witnessed incidents in which an Army sergeant lashed a group of children with a steel Humvee antenna, and a Marine corporal planted a vicious kick in the chest of a kid about 6 years old. There were many occasions, he said, when soldiers or marines would yell and curse and point their guns at Iraqis who had done nothing wrong.
If that's not depressing enough, read this article from Harper's Magazine a few months back. The author interviews people who have gone AWOL from the army about why they did so and what they experienced. Here's an account of basic training from a soldier named Jeremiah:
"It's hard for me to be myself here. There's no room for dissent among the guys. Everywhere you listen you hear an abundant amount of B.S., a few beds over an obnoxious redneck has a crowd around him as he details a 3 some that he recently had. The vocabulary is much different here. The bathroom is called the latrine, food is called chow, women are hitches, sex is ass. . . . These people want to go to war and kill. It is that simple."

...The next day, a sergeant addressed the recruits with a speech that Jeremiah says he'll never forget. "You know, when I joined the Army nine years ago people would always ask me why I joined. Did I do it for college money? Did I do it for women? People never understood. I wanted to join the Army because I wanted to go shoot motherfuckers." The room erupted in hoots and hollers. A drill sergeant said something about an Iraqi coming up to them screaming, "Ah-la-la-la-la!" in a high-pitched voice, and how he would have to be killed. After that, all Arabs were referred to by this battle cry—the ah-la-la-la-las. In the barracks, they played war. One recruit would come out of the shower wearing a towel on his head, screaming, "Ah-la-la-la-la!" and the other recruits would pretend to shoot him dead. Jeremiah thought, "Oh my God, what am I doing here?"

That evening he wrote his first letter home, beginning with the word "Wow."

"I'm horrified by some of the things that they talk about. If you were in the civilian world and openly talked about killing people you would be an outcast, but here people openly talk about it, like it's going to be fun." In his second letter, written while he was doing guard duty, he tells his parents how sad the barracks are at night. "You can hear people trying to make sure no one hears them cry under their covers."

Monday, May 02, 2005

The Right's Sister Souljah?

In past postings, I've ranted about the strange desire those on the left feel to distance themselves from the "far left," while those on the right face no such constraints. Clinton, famously, was responsible for the coining of the phrase, "Sister Souljah moment," when he showed how "moderate" he was by bashing rapper Sister Souljah. Ever since, Democratic pols have been on a mission for their own "Sister Souljash moment," where they can show that they, too, can bash gays, blacks, feminists, the anti-war movement or whatever else is deemed to be the "left-wing fringe" by the right-wingers. The most recent example of this is the movement by DLC and "Blue Dog" Democrats to show how anti-choice and pro-war the Democratic party really is at heart, no matter what that pesky group of People Who Actually Vote Democratic think or say.

The right, mysteriously, seems immune from alll of this. People like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage regularly say ridiculous things and you never hear Republican leadership exclaiming that they have nothing to do with these people. Case in point:

Federal judges are a more serious threat to America than Al Qaeda and the Sept. 11 terrorists, the Rev. Pat Robertson claimed yesterday. "Over 100 years, I think the gradual erosion of the consensus that's held our country together is probably more serious than a few bearded terrorists who fly into buildings," Robertson said on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

"I think we have controlled Al Qaeda," the 700 Club host said, but warned of "erosion at home" and said judges were creating a "tyranny of oligarchy."
Where's the outrage? Where's George Bush and all the Republicans with Presidential aspirations for '08 (Tim Pawlenty, can you hear me?) stepping up for their "Pat Robertson moment" where they show how reasonable and moderate they are by distancing themselves from such a radical, fringe view? Where are they pointing out that it's absurd to make such a claim while terrorism incidents tripled last year! Oh, wait...I guess I can see why they wouldn't want to point this out.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Ahmad Rashad

So awhile back I set up this little searching service on my blog. It was way back before I switched to blogger, so it's not even on this page anymore. Anyway, I still get a monthly email telling me what people are searching for (I keep forgetting to disable it). Anyway, so on Friday somebody went to my blog and searched for "Ahmad Rashad." Were they on the wrong blog? Are they just a huge Ahmad Rashad fan who checks every website they find for the scoop on their favorite athlete-turned-sportscaster? Who knows. But now, if they find this version of my blog, they'll have a hit. This one's for you, buddy:

Friday, April 29, 2005

Freakonomics, Race and Groups

Steven Levitt, University of Chicago economist and co-author of Freakonomics, a new book co-written with journalist Stephen Dubner on Levitt's research, was a guest on the Daily Show last night. I was a bit intrigued by some of the findings he described (and also amused to hear someone trying to explain regression analysis on Comedy Central), so I looked into it a bit. One of the topics the book discusses, for example, is why there's such a gap in how blacks and whites perform on standardized testing. I found the article by Levitt on which the chapter is based (unfortunately, that link only works for UMN people as it's not available publicly). Here's the abstract:

This paper describes basic facts regarding the black-white test score gap over the first four years of school. Black children enter school substantially behind their white counterparts in reading and math, but including a small number of covariates erases the gap. Over the first four years of school, however, blacks lose substantial ground relative to other races; averaging .10 standard deviations per school year. By the end of third grade there is a large Black-White test score gap that cannot be explained by observable characteristics. Blacks are falling behind in virtually all categories of skills tested, except the most basic. None of the explanations we examine, including systematic differences in school quality across races, convincingly explain the divergent academic trajectory of Black students.
Levitt explains that there is good news in these findings, such as the fact that black students are disproportionately likely to come from poorer, less educated families/neighborhoods doesn't seem to have an effect on their abilities as they enter kindergarten. The bad news, though, is that something happens once they enter school: there's a steady increase in the gap each year after kindergarten. He also points out some other complications. For example,
In contrast to Blacks, Hispanics gain substantial ground relative to whites, despite the fact that they are plagued with many of the social problems that exist among blacks – low socioeconomic status, inferior schools, and so on.
So what's going on? They test a nice list of "leading hypotheses" on the issue, including:
the importance of parental and environmental contributions grow over time, black students suffer worse summer setbacks, standardized tests are poor measures, interactions between black students and schools interferes with learning, systematically lower quality schools, that differences may only manifest themselves in more involved, higher order problems.
They find none of these are good explanations and leave us scratching our heads. I, however, have a hypothesis that they didn't test and I think I'm right.

Ok, it's not really my hypothesis, I'm actually using Judith Harris' "group socialization theory" drawn from her book The Nurture Assumption (although the book is based on this journal article (free download) from the Psychological Review). Harris' controversial claim is that children aren't socialized by their parents, but by their peer groups. This flies in the face of our modern obsession with blaming all of our problems on bad child-parent experiences, but it makes a great deal of sense when you think about it. The way children act around their parents doesn't say much about how they act around their peers, and kids and adults view themselves as two completely different groups. As Harris puts it, children don't strive to be competent adults, they strive to be competent children. We can blame our parents for many things (our genes, whatever control they do have over which peer groups we end up associating with, etc.), but it's within peer groups that people are socialized.

Harris argues that people operate in completely different ways with personal relationships than they do with groups. This explains why saying "Some of my best friends are black" as a qualifier to a racist comment doesn't work. We think of personal relationships one way. Group relationships another. Parent-child relationships are personal relationships. Child-child relationships are group relationships.

Despite her use of research in behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology to make her argument (two fields considered taboo by most sociologists - though not this one, I might add), her argument about group socialization is very sociological. In fact, much of what I wrote about groups in the previous post was partially inspired by the fact that I just completed her book. But her arguments about groups aren't totally new either, she just contextualizes them in a very unique way - by downplaying the effects of parents, emphasizing that genes effect personality and drawing on evolutionary psychology to help build her model of how people work. But sociologists/psychologists have long used the expression "stereotype threat" or "labeling theory" to explain how people internalize characteristics of the groups they are sorted (and sort themselves) into. Harris' contribution is by arguing for actual biological, psychological mechanisms to explain why these group processes happens as they do

So back to Levitt, et al. They look at lots of individual-level indicators, but, unless they don't mention it in their article, they don't look at "groupness" at all (hmmm, what a surprise for economists). One of their most interesting findings is that black students in white schools do as poorly as those in all black schools, and that the financial status of the school doesn't actually matter that much. They can't explain this, but they ignore one very basic, well-known stereotype in our culture: blacks aren't "supposed to be" the smart group. Whites think they're more dumb. Many blacks believe them (or reject white definitions of "smart"), and the charge that black students who do well in school are "acting white" is something everybody's heard about. According to "labeling theory," when black students are put into the category of "black," they will take on the stereotypical characteristics of that group. A self-fulfilling prophesy of sorts. This doesn't just happen with race. It happens with jocks, class clowns, boys and girls, geeks, nerds, preppies, hippies, goths, skaters, stoners, frat boys, sorority girls, jesus freaks and whatever other social clique you can imagine (and, of course, larger factors like the neighborhood culture, the media, etc. effect how the norms of these groups are defined).

Harris discusses this very topic and points out some interesting research. For example, black students who are children of black immigrants, not "African Americans," tend to not be accepted by the African American groups in their school and they tend to do much better in school. Additionally, in situations where the school is overwhelmingly white and there's only a few isolated black student, they are more likely to become parts of white peer groups and do well in school (or at least as well as the peer group they associate with). Harris also discusses research on black colleges and how, running contrary to the logic of desegregation, when everyone is black, then that no longer becomes the salient category around which groups are organized and the norms about what it means to "be black" in the classroom become relaxed. (The same is found in sex-segregated schools, by the way.)

Interestingly, much of the evidence about Hispanics they cite ties in perfectly with Harris' theory. For example, they point out that
Hispanics do not test particularly poorly on reading, even upon school entry. Controlling for whether or not English is spoken in the home does little to affect the initial gap or the trajectory of Hispanics.
They sound surprised, but this is exactly what many, many studies on such families in linguistics has found. Guess when the exceptions to this are? When kids live in "ethnic enclaves" where their peer groups are entirely speaking their native language. Move the parents, and their language and culture in the home, to a more "American" neighborhood, the kid will speak and act just like his peers, not the parents.

Additionally, and probably most importantly, this would explain why the effect seems to be caused by school: because that's when racial identity becomes salient as a component of group identity.

In other words, the group that you identify with matters for how you think of yourself and how you behave. This is not, I repeat not, a characteristic of black kids only. It's the way humans work. For example, I'm in graduate school with lots of "smart kids." If there's a talk or lecture that some of us should probably go to based on our own research interests, the odds of us going increase exponentially if we know our friends are going. If it's an activity that's okay with the rest of the group, count us in. If it's not, our odds of going on our own accord drop dramatically, regardless of whether or not we really should go based on our interests.

So how could Levitt test these additional hypotheses? Test to see if the group dynamics in a school/neighborhood matter. When looking at "mixed race" schools, does it matter how large the number of black students are? Are there ways to measure how salient the black/white divide is at schools? Perhaps at some schools, there are crosscutting groups (perhaps based on athletics, gender or any other non-racial social group imaginable) that minimize the salience of race as a group identity. At schools where there are too few to form a salient group of "black students," do those students perform differently?

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Dissent, Consensus and Strong Groups

A few weeks back I read this article by David Brooks. Brooks is a conservative and he's saying Democrats have it all wrong in trying to imitate the conservatives' success. Democrats are trying to build a disciplined message machine, a cohesive party structured like a strong pyramid, to use use Bill Bradley's recent description of where the Democratic Party should go. Brooks says they've got conservatives wrong because conservatives "agree on almost nothing." He argues that the constant in-fighting is what made conservatives strong, because they "argued about the order of the universe, and how the social order should reflect the moral order," and as a result,

"Conservatives fell into the habit of being acutely conscious of their intellectual forebears and had big debates about public philosophy. That turned out to be important: nobody joins a movement because of admiration for its entitlement reform plan. People join up because they think that movement's views about human nature and society are true."
Liberals, he argues, have not had such a debate. He says liberals ought to strive not for message discipline, but for a "big debate about the things Thomas Paine, Herbert Croly, Isaiah Berlin, R. H. Tawney and John Dewey were writing about. I'd argue about human nature and the American character."

If you're a lefty, are you thinking, "huh?" Conservatives not agreeing on anything? The left ought to have more bickering and infighting? To most people on the left, this sounds like their entire political worldview inverted. Conservatives are the ones who are organized, on-message and share so many core, unquestioned assumptions about the way things ought to be. Liberals are the ones divided amongst themselves into different factions, movements and issue publics. Can he possibly be right?

What we're seeing here is a classic case of how group dynamics work. Think of any strong group you've ever been apart of. Other groups always seem monolithic and united, often united in how "bad" they are compared to your "good" group. When looking within your group, however, there's always dissension. There's jockeying for the dominant positions. There are people who don't quite fit in. There's debate over whether or not the group is heading in the right direction. But as soon as the debate shifts from within-group differences to group-to-group comparisons, the entire logic shifts. All of the sudden it's "us vs. them" and those internal differences fade into the background.

So which view is more genuine? Are there really such things as "groups" anyway? Of course. Within any group there have to be some core sources of cohesiveness. And as you expand outward to larger levels of subgroup and group conflicts, the same is true: never-ending levels of group-group antagonisms nested within larger group identities, themselves in opposition to some other group, etc. So Republicans bicker amongst themselves, but there are some shared things that cannot be questioned. Democrats bicker amongst themselves, but there are some shared things that cannot be questioned. Likewise, Democrats and Republicans bicker about some things, but there are other things that are shared by both parties and cannot safely be questioned by either party. The legitimacy of the two party system, corporate capitalism and American military dominance, to name just a few.

I think you'll find this rings true with almost any group experiences you've had, be it family, friends, sports teams, school cliques, fraternities/sororities, workplaces, religions or nation-states. Whenever group identities become the salient marker of "us vs. them" in a particular situation, within-group differences disappear. If they don't, then eventually either the dissenters will splinter off or the group as a whole will likely fall apart.

So David Brooks, looking within his own group, sees all the bickering and dissent. He doesn't see this in the other group though, attributing this to his belief that "modern liberalism was formed in government, not away from it." The left, on the other hand, sees oodles of disagreements amongs themselves, but sees a right that never asks the tough questions, gets along just fine and wins because they're so united. On the third hand, a radical, whether left or right, sees the areas of consensus between both dominant parties and rejects them. For the radical left, this can mean rejecting the legitimacy of corporate capitalism. To the radical right, this can mean rejecting all forms of ethnic and religious pluralism, for example. For radicals, neither the group identity of Republican or Democrat, nor the group identity of Loyal American Voter is a salient category. So for them, the "Republicans and the Democrats are two wings of the same party," and both parties become "the other."

None of this means that conservatives and liberals are equally divided, equally united and, therefore, equally organized and empowered to impact our country. Contrary to David Brooks, and respectful of the differences with the conservative movement, conservatives have done a much better job both of taking command of the shared assumptions that unite Republicans and also changing those that define the very terrain of American politics as a whole. But in order to understand how they've done so, it helps to understand how they've been able to take advantage of these group dynamics better than the left.

For example, the James Dobson's and Jerry Fallwell's of the world have a much different relationship with the Republican party than the leaders of the left. Dobson plays on the ambiguity of his connections to the Republican party and on the power of the voting bloc he leads brilliantly. For example, he's often very critical of Bush when Bush doesn't go far enough to please the Christian right, threatening that he'll advise Christians to stay home on election day if Bush doesn't do as he pleases. To the left, these conflicts are mostly invisible or perhaps viewed as just ploys by Dobson to enhance his own power or to establish a reputation as an "outsider" in Washington - and both are probably true, but that misses the mark about why it works so well. And as Thomas Franks points out so well, the most successful conservatives are those who can channel class-warfare rhetoric and ourtrage in cultural, not economic, terms and then moments later, at the flip of a switch, glide into Congress and vote for anti-worker, anti-environment, pro-rich policies without batting an eye. They're brilliantly pitting groups against one another. Convince every group whose support you need that "we" are the outsiders, the downtrodden, the oppressed and that those people over there are your oppressors and are the root of all your suffering. Once you whip people up into an irrational rage by tapping into our deepest group instincts, you can sneak in underneath the cover of the cultural warfare and enact all those policies that your group, the business elite, really want to see. "Oh, is Dobson upset at Bush again? Who cares! Keep the fundies mobilized in their frenzied state of percieved persecution and keep their eyes off of me while I vote for a law making it impossible for them to declare bankruptcy when they come down with cancer next year." As long as the salient group is "Good Christians" vs. "Atheists/Feminists/Liberals/Evildoers," then "Rich" vs. "Poor" is bound to fade into the background.

This also explains a puzzling fact about the public political discourse in our society: how our public discourse has become so divisive, inflammatory and dishonest at the exact same time that the fundamental questions about how our society is run and how power is distributed have virtually disappeared from the public landscape. The "Washington Consensus" is actually the term used around the world to describe the consensus over global economic policy over the last several decades. How can a nation said to be divided so harshly into "Red" and "Blue" poles simultaneously be the ring leader for the consensus over how the fundamental questions of power relations in politics and economics should be answered? I argue much of it is due to the clever balance of tension between group unities and group divisions.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

A Socialist in the Senate?

Apparently, Bernie Sanders is running for Senate in Vermont. Sweet.

Luntz on the Daily Show

In this segment on the Daily Show last night they interviewed Frank Luntz (of the secret playbook fame). It's priceless.

Quote of the Week

"If you want to empower women in America, give 'em a gun."

- Tom DeLay, addressing the NRA.

Case Study in Media Uselessness

Check out this story at the Washington Post - via the AP, of course. Now, I know virtually nothing about Ecuador. I still knew virtually nothing after reading the AP story on the Post.

In contrast, go look up this article posted at ZNet (originally from "Green Left Weekly").

If you followed the link to the Green Left Weekly (which I have never heard of prior to tonight), you may think, "Jeez, this looks amateurish. And overtly political. How can I trust anything from this site? Maybe I should go to the credible news sources like the Washington Post..."

But it doesn't work that way, does it? The AP story sucks. It tells you nothing. You will learn nothing from it other than that in other parts of the world, some President's getting removed from power. Who are the groups involved? What are the major sources of conflict? What's the history of the conflict? You won't get a freakin' clue. But you head over to the "Green Left Weekly" of all places and read a really detailed, seemingly balanced, account of what's happening. Is it perfect? I don't know - I already said I don't know anything about Ecuador. But even if it's got some flaws, at least I have a clue about what I may end up being wrong about. I don't even get that from the AP article.

This is the state of our media today. Pathetic.

Monday, April 18, 2005

U.S. News Rankings and KU

KU law school fell 37 spots in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings. The rankings are pure crap, by the way. I don't think they really indicate much at all about how good a school is. However, people seem to care about them a lot for some reason. (Which makes me wonder what happened with my program this year...anyone know? I'm too cheap to go buy the damn issue just to check.)

Anyway, for some reason I found this article on KU law school and there are quotes from the law school's dean, Stephen McAllister. I knew who he was. Why? Because he made national news in 2004 for a conflict-of-interest scandal involving Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. McAllister arranged a hunting trip with Scalia and then argued, and won, a case in front of the Supreme Court, including Scalia. My point? With the exception of two friends of mine going to KU's law school, this is all I knew about KU's law school. It's probably all a lot of people know about it - particular the law profs and deans who fill out the surveys on school reputation that the rankings are based on. Might it have tarnished, even a little, the reputation of the school?

Nugent's vigilante justice

Ted Nugent, in case you haven't heard, is crazy:

With an assault weapon in each hand, rocker and gun rights advocate Ted Nugent urged National Rifle Association members to be "hardcore, radical extremists demanding the right to self defense."

Speaking at the NRA's annual convention Saturday, Nugent said each NRA member should try to enroll 10 new members over the next year and associate only with other members.

'Let's next year sit here and say, 'Holy smokes, the NRA has 40 million members now,'' he said. 'No one is allowed at our barbecues unless they are an NRA member. Do that in your life.'

Nugent sang and played a guitar painted with red and white stripes for the crowd at Houston's downtown convention center.

He drew the most cheers when he told gun owners they should never give up their right to bear arms and should use their guns to protect themselves if needed.

'Remember the Alamo! Shoot 'em!' he screamed to applause. 'To show you how radical I am, I want carjackers dead. I want rapists dead. I want burglars dead. I want child molesters dead. I want the bad guys dead. No court case. No parole. No early release. I want 'em dead. Get a gun and when they attack you, shoot 'em.'
Perhaps "crazy" is actually too soft of a word. Urging gun owners to only associate with other gun owners and to bypass those pesky things such as court cases and just kill the "bad guys" themselves is...well, scary and dangerous. Further proof that sanity is not a prerequisite to being a wicked guitar player.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Nine Inch Nails and GarageBand

Not really a huge fan of Nine Inch Nails, but this is cool:

Interested in remixing a Nine Inch Nails song yourself? You can, legally. All you need is an Apple Mac running GarageBand 2 and a file you can download courtesy of Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor -- he's released a version of the song "The Hand That Feeds" in GarageBand 2 format.

..."I did this on a PowerBook 1.67 w/ 2G RAM but it has been running on far less powerful systems. Drag the file over to your hard disk and double click it. Hit the space bar. Listen. Change the tempo. Add new loops. Chop up the vocals. Turn me into a woman. Replay the guitar. Anything you'd like," said Reznor.

"Giving this away is an experiment. I'm interested to see what comes of it, what issues are raised and what the results are," he said.