URLs du Jour

2021-07-07

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer] A belated post. Sorry. Yesterday was crazy.

  • NEA Delenda Est. We've heard folks claim that Critical Race Theory is just an obscure academic niche topic discussed in journal articles nobody reads. It's certainly not being taught!

    Robby Soave is one of many paying attention to confounding evidence. Is Critical Race Theory Taught in K-12 Schools? The NEA Says Yes, and That It Should Be..

    The public debate over critical race theory (CRT) is in large part a semantics argument, with the anti-CRT faction attempting to include "all of the various cultural insanities" people hear about in the media under the banner of CRT while the other side protests that it's technically a much more limited concept confined to elite education. Progressives are essentially correct that the definition of CRT is being tortured to match conservative grievances, but conservatives are justified in feeling aggrieved by some of these things, and thus the argument is quite tedious.

    That said, the National Education Association (NEA) appears to have accepted the conservative framing of CRT: namely, that it's not merely confined to academia but is in fact also being taught in K-12 schools. And the NEA thinks this is a good thing that should be defended.

    At its yearly annual meeting, conducted virtually over the past few days, the NEA adopted New Business Item 39, which essentially calls for the organization to defend the teaching of critical race theory.*

    Note that the link in the above paragraph goes to an Internet Archive Wayback Machine page. The NEA apparently removed this page from its own website. Tsk. Hey, I'm sure they had a good reason for that.

    Anyway, there's a list of things the Item demands the NEA do. Here's the one I especially liked:

    B. Provide an already-created, in-depth, study that critiques empire, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism, and other forms of power and oppression at the intersections of our society, and that we oppose attempts to ban critical race theory and/or The 1619 Project.

    That's quite a list of things to "critique". Many of which my spell-checker fails to recognize.

    And capitalism is in their list of hatreds. Geez.


  • Speaking of Cisheteropatriarchy… I missed this excellent summary from Greg Lukianoff and co-authors at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE): 13 important points in the campus & K-12 ‘critical race theory’ debate. As expected, Greg is skeptical of legislative efforts "contrary to a free speech culture". And note there are thirteen points, and they're all important, and I'm not going to list them all here, so RTWT. Let's skip down to the conclusion: "Sometimes the principled thing will make nobody happy."

    Being part of this debate has been, well, tedious. It puts on full display the worst of the culture wars. For saying that bills with teaching bans are unconstitutional as applied to higher education, I’ve faced numerous pile-ons, including one fellow claiming that I clearly didn’t learn any of the lessons of Communism — quite an allegation if you know anything about my family history (from serfs to kulaks to refugees to Americans).

    And on the other side, many media outlets and Twitter pundits have covered this as if this is just some kind of hoax or phobia coming out of nowhere that is intended to ban talking about slavery. In fact, I think the popular view in the media is that these laws are a response to no problem at all. Accordingly, I’ve had numerous people come to me animatedly asking or demanding that we blast these “unconstitutional” laws as applied to K-12, when they’re often not actually unconstitutional and often don’t say what their opponents think they do.

    The reality is, as usual, complicated. Proponents of these bills need to realize that they can’t legislate these ideas out of existence, and that the more egregious bills are not only unconstitutional and thus totally futile, but throw fuel on an already raging culture war fire. Opponents of these bills need to read the bills and be honest about what’s actually in them and recognize that their opponents are motivated by something other than a desire to hide the true history of slavery. It is my hope that, wherever you lie on this issue, this article has given you a greater understanding of the opposing side. And if not, you’re welcome to join those yelling at me across both sides of the aisle!

    Probably my most radical view is that compulsory schooling laws should be repealed. Lukianoff's article (confirmation bias alert) reminds me how good an idea that is.


  • Is This Irony? I Can Never Tell. Jazz Shaw notes a truly Zucked-up policy: Facebook blocks hashtag #revolution on day celebrating American Revolution.

    Can we all agree that at this point, Facebook is just trolling everyone in an effort to own the cons? I mean, this couldn’t have been an accident or some malfunction of their algorithms and filters. Somebody at Facebook must have made the decision to set up a filter looking for the hashtag “revolution” because they’re worried that the Proud Boys are about to cross the Potomac or something. I’m not sure when that went into effect, but it became glaringly obvious on the 4th of July, just as the country was celebrating our declaration of being an independent nation and the American revolution. (Better luck next time, Brits.)

    This is why I use Facebook solely to complain about people not picking up their dogs' droppings.


Last Modified 2021-07-08 10:05 AM EDT

The Hidden Half

The Unseen Forces that Influence Everything

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

I put this book on the get-at-library list after listening to the episode of the Econtalk podcast where the author, Michael Blastland, was interviewed by host Russ Roberts. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I didn't recognize Blastland as the co-author of the excellent book The Norm Chronicles, which I read back in 2014. This book is really good too. Blastland is a journalist (but a smart one), and his prose is lively and accessible.

Here, he takes a hard look at the concept of "all other things being equal". A concept so ancient, it's sometimes expressed in Latin: ceteris paribus. (This page says that Cicero used it.) Although most common explicit use of the phrase seems to be in economics, the concept underlies a lot of science. And for that matter, a lot of life.

The problem being: how can you assume "other things being equal" when they so often are not?

Blastland opens with an unexpected example: the marmorkreb, a species of crayfish. They are parthenogenetic, with all offspring being genetically equal females to their mother. A few years ago, German researchers decided to raise a batch of marmorkrebs with identical environments as well. And yet, their marmorkrebs defied their genes and upbringing, and became unexpectedly diverse. Their size varied greatly, as did their coloration. They socialized with other marmorkrebs differently; they had different lifetimes; they had different eating behaviors; …

It's almost as if they were individuals, not simply mass-produced clone crayfish. And if you can't assume ceteris paribus with a bunch of clones, how can you assume it elsewhere?

Blastland answers: you often can't, and you shouldn't. Simple mental models of how things "should" work are often correct. But just as often (about half the time?) they fail, because of underlying complexities and confounding details that you didn't consider.

From there, Blastland takes a wide-ranging tour of how that works (or doesn't). Many stories, most interesting. There's (for example) sinful boxer Mike Tyson, compared and contrasted with his sainted surgeon brother Rodney. Tons of research studies that turned out to be irreproducible.

There's way too much to try to summarize, but I found one issue Blastland raises particularly interesting, and it brings in his Norm Chronicles co-author, David Spiegelhalter: studies of "risky behavior" based on large sample populations can be (and often are) reported misleadingly. The semi-amusing example was from the Lancet where the well-documented result was that there is "no safe level" of alcohol consumption. Even one drink per day raised your risk of developing a serious alcohol-related health problem. And the article suggested that public health institutions should “consider recommendations for abstention”.

Let's swing over to Spiegelhalter's Medium article that Blastlad cites:

Let’s consider one drink a day (10g, 1.25 UK units) compared to none, for which the authors estimated an extra 4 (918–914) in 100,000 people would experience a (serious) alcohol-related condition.

That means, to experience one extra problem, 25,000 people need to drink 10g alcohol a day for a year, that’s 3,650g a year each.

To put this in perspective, a standard 70cl bottle of gin contains 224 g of alcohol, so 3,650g a year is equivalent to around 16 bottles of gin per person. That’s a total of 400,000 bottles of gin among 25,000 people, being associated with one extra health problem. Which indicates a rather low level of harm in these occasional drinkers.

In short: yes, drinking alcohol is risky. But on the individual level the additional risk is small. To repeat: in that population of 100,000, all imbibing one drink per day, four of them would develop a health problem due to their booze consumption.

Spiegelhalter comments:

But claiming there is no ‘safe’ level does not seem an argument for abstention. There is no safe level of driving, but government do not recommend that people avoid driving.

Come to think of it, there is no safe level of living, but nobody would recommend abstention.

It's amusing, sure. But note that this type of research is used to advocate for "public health" measures including taxes, regulations, and prohibitions. It's all fun and games until somebody gets coerced.