Situational Narcissism?

May 30, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Chris Uggen links to an article showing that celebrities score higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory.* I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that celebrities are narcissists. But the study is a vindication of the standard psychological view of personality and role: what’s inside a person’s head (personality) leads them to behave a certain way and to seek out roles and situations that allow for them to express their personality traits.

The sociological version reverses the order. Situations (roles) come first. Roles demand certain behaviors. If you stay in some role, you continue to do those things. But you also develop a set of ideas and feelings that are compatible with those behaviors. In other words, the situation demands the behavior, and the behavior affects what’s inside your head.

The example I often use in class is extroversion, a trait that appears on just about every personality test. “I’ll bet you that I can go into every classroom in this building,” I say, “and without giving a single personality test, I can predict which person in the room will be the most active, both verbally (talking) and physically (moving around).”

College professors aren’t generally known as an unusually extroverted bunch, but if you spend your time on teaching at least a couple of courses every term, you had better get used to doing the talking. And most of us do.

The narcissism study contradicts this sociological idea.
Our analyses fail to show any relationship between NPI scores and years of experience in the entertainment industry, suggesting that celebrities may have narcissistic tendencies prior to entering the industry.
And who are these narcissists?
Reality television personalities had the highest overall scores on the NPI, followed by comedians, actors, and musicians.
I can’t argue with the first category. Who but narcissists – from the Jersey Shore to Orange County – would want to put their lives on display to millions of strangers? Also, the producers of these shows seem to select the most obviously narcissistic applicants. (It may also be that the reality-show celebs, with their extreme narcissism and brief careers, account for the lack of relationship between NPI scores and length of time in show biz.)

Then there are the comedians. The psychological view of them is obvious. But narcissism, at least one aspect of it, comes with the job. I hadn’t thought about this, but shortly after I read Chris Uggen’s post, I happened to listen to a performance by Mike Birbiglia at The Moth. It’s mostly about his sleepwalking, but he ends with this brief observation about a career in stand-up.
To be a comedian, you have to go on stage, those first few years, and bomb. And then walk off stage and think, “That went great.” Because otherwise, you’d never get on stage the next night. You would just think, “Human beings don’t like me.”
You can go here to listen to the entire story. The above quote comes at the 14:00 mark.)


* For an online version of the NPI, go here. But be warned, you’re not going to like it. The test offers only two choices for each item, and even if both are a bad fit, you have to choose one. Here is a sample:

I can read people like a book People are sometimes hard to understand.
If I feel competent I am willing to take responsibility for making decisions I like to take responsibility for making decisions.
I just want to be reasonably happy. I want to amount to something in the eyes of the world.


UPDATE: Lisa at Sociological Images also posted about this (here), complete with the graph that compares different occupational groups. She also adds an update, based on a comment on her post, noting that the differences in many cases are statistically significant but not large.

A Conscientious Objector in the War on Kiddie Porn

May 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Five years, mandatory minimum, even for a first conviction. The crime? Possession of kiddie porn. When we Americans don’t like something, we’re very good at enacting harsher and harsher penalties, often as part of a “war.”

As in the wars on drugs and crime, some federal judges, though, are now trying to skirt or challenge these war-on-kiddie-porn laws. A New York Times article last week focused on one federal judge, Jack Weinstein, who worries that the mandatory sentences “destroy the lives” of men who pose no real threat to society.

Today, the Times printed some reader responses.
Judge Weinstein. . . . does not believe that those who view images of child sexual abuse are a threat to children. But of course they are! If they did not provide a market for such images, then children would not be abused to produce them in the first place.
Kathryn Conroy . . . clinical social worker and executive director of Hedge Funds Care, Preventing and Treating Child Abuse
Ms. Conroy is correct about one thing – if you can kill demand, supply will dry up. But do harsh sentences in fact have an effect on either the demand or the supply? Ms. Conroy merely assumes that they do and provides no evidence. According to the Times, in the last ten years, sentence severity for possession has quadrupled. Has anyone assessed the impact of these laws on the production, distribution, or possession of kiddie porn? Is there evidence that the laws have reduced demand?

A law professor, Audrey Rogers, in her letter, focuses on the issue of harm. And she has evidence
Studies by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children show that more than half of defendants charged with possession of child pornography molested or attempted to molest children.
If you look at the actual study, you see that Rogers is playing fast and loose with the data. This was a study of people arrested for possession. About half of these cases were discovered through investigation of other crimes, usually molestation or attempted molestation. So what Rogers should say is not that those charged with possession are also molesters but that molesters are also charged with possession. Is it really surprising that child molesters also own kiddie porn?

But what about the men whose arrests began as possession cases? Here’s what the report says: “84% of cases involved CP possession but investigators did not detect concurrent child sexual victimization or attempts at child victimization.” The authors of the report see 16% as “a high rate.” But it’s not “more than half.”

Rogers continues,
This correlation belies Judge Jack B. Weinstein’s opinion that those who view child pornography present no threat to children.
The key word here is correlation. Correlation is not causation. Any freshman who has taken a basic sociology or social science course knows that. Did the porn make them more likely to commit actual molestation? And would making kiddie porn inaccessible reduce their crimes?
That was the assumption of the anti-porn slogan from the 1980s, “Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice.” It’s a fairly simple hypothesis: more porn, more rape. Or in the case of children, more kiddie porn, more child sexual abuse.

Again, I don’t know the evidence, but my impression is that technology – first VCRs, then the Internet – has greatly expanded access to porn both adult and child.* Victimization statistics on rape, where most victims are adults, show a more or less steady decrease since the late 1970s, though the UCR (“crimes known to the police”) show a slight increase to about 1990. Since the early 1990s, while the Internet burgeoned, both victimization and police reports show a sharp decrease.

I don’t know if we have any good data on rates of child molestation, and I can think of many reasons why good data would be hard to get. But my impression is that there has not been a burgeoning of these crimes that parallels the expanded availability of child pornography.

But the results aren’t really so important, are they? Once we have identified an evil and launched a war against it, what seems to matter to the warriors is keeping up the good fight. The actual outcome seems to be a secondary consideration. After all, you can’t give up a war against evil, at least not until you have identified some other evil to occupy your attention.


* The stats for this Socioblog still show the occasional visitor who got here by Googling “naughty pictures of 15 year olds,” though apparently Google’s algorithm has a date variable that now puts us far down on the list.

No Blame in My Game

May 23, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Texas school board approved those guidelines. They rehabilitated Thomas Jefferson – apparently he did well at the re-education center – but I fear that sociology did not fare so well. According to an earlier report,
In the field of sociology, another conservative member, Barbara Cargill, won passage of an amendment requiring the teaching of “the importance of personal responsibility for life choices” in a section on teenage suicide, dating violence, sexuality, drug use and eating disorders.
“The topic of sociology tends to blame society for everything,” Ms. Cargill said.
It’s not just Texas. Ms. Cargill’s comment took me back to a brief encounter during my first tour on jury duty in New York – nearly two weeks of boredom and frustration. I was eager and curious to serve on a jury, but I could never make it past voir dire. The prosecutors rejected me every time. (In principle, you are not told which side rejected you, but it was not hard for me to guess.)

One afternoon when I came back from lunch, I went to the men’s room, and there at the sink was the district attorney who had kept me off a jury that morning. “Why did you toss me off your case?” I asked trying to sound innocent. “Are you kidding?” he said. “A sociologist? You people don't think anyone’s responsible for what they do.”

At the time, I didn't know what to say, and the conversation ended there. But what I should have said is this: You are confusing two separate questions. It's one thing to understand the social forces that may have made a person more likely to commit a crime. It is quite another matter to absolve that person of legal blame for the crime. For a lawyer or a juror (even a juror who is also a sociologist), the question of guilt is paramount. But for the sociologist who is thinking about crime as a social problem, the issue of individual guilt or innocence is much less important.

I might have even offered this analogy from the tort side: if there’s a traffic accident, and one driver is suing another, we have to figure out who was to blame. But if we notice that several accidents have occurred at this same location, we also talk about “a dangerous intersection.” We’re not “blaming” the intersection. We are just saying that if you want to reduce the number of accidents, you can exhort drivers to be more careful, and you can punish those who smash into other cars. But you’ll have more success if you put in a stoplight.

Call It Please "Research"

May 21, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Internet seems to be a mostly copyright-free zone. Norms about using other people’s material are still evolving, and even when there’s consensus about the norms, who can enforce them?

Two weeks ago, in a post about political rumors, I took some information put together by another blogger, J.L. Bell, who had gotten it from Snopes. I turned Bell’s numbers into a simple bar graph, checked Snopes myself, and added a few comments. I linked to Bell’s blog. (I figured everyone knows Snopes, so I didn’t bother with a link.)

About ten days later, Lisa at Sociological Images, posted my graph along with a few sentences of mine and a few of Bell’s. along with a few brief comments of her own. She gave credit where due and provided the links.

Now a political blogger, Digby has pretty much copied Lisa’s post wholesale (including the links to me and Bell).

He
She has deleted one or two brief sentences and added one of

his
her own. Other than that, it’s Lisa’s post. No link to Sociological Images, no hat tip, nothing.

(Click on the image for a larger view.)
See for yourself. Lisa’s post is here ; Digby’s is here.

Digby is usually more careful. His Her posts often consist mostly of quotes from other sources with his her own brief comments interposed and links to the original sources. It’s the kind of borrowing and linking that many bloggers do. Bell borrowed from Snopes, I borrowed from Bell, Lisa borrowed from me.

But what Digby did with Lisa’s post goes beyond borrowing.

It Could Happen To You

May 20, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Conservatives discount or ignore the importance of social forces. Even those observers who like to think of themselves as closer to the center, like David Brooks, emphasize “character.” As you turn the dial further to the right, you hear more and more about “individual responsibility.”
Parents need to communicate basic principles about character development, honor and individual responsibility. Young people need to know that they are not victims of their hormones . . . .
That’s from the Website of Concerned Women for America, a right-wing Christian group. (If you can’t guess their agenda, see their core issues here .)

One of their allies in congress is Mark Souder, a Republican from Indiana and a strong family-values guy. But now he’s resigning after news leaked out that he’d been having an affair with a woman on his staff. (A video of her interviewing him about his pro-abstinence views has the Internet ironists LOL in Schadenfreude.)

For conservatives, when a friend like Souder goes astray, the old responsibility rap sounds discordant, and they have to change the playlist. Penny Spence is the head of CWFA, and here’s her take on the Souder affair:
I am deeply saddened by the news of Congressman Mark Souder’s fall into the temptation of an affair. . . . If Mark Souder is capable of sexual misconduct, it could happen to anyone.
Right. The affair was not something Souder did. It “happened to” him. That seems a bit passive even by my standards. But then Spence gets downright sociological.
The frat house environment on Capitol Hill does nothing to encourage accountability. Most Members do not live with their families while they are working in D.C. during the week and have even ditched common rules of etiquette that even major corporations follow such as office doors with windows or careful examination of employee/boss interaction.
Her keen attention to situational forces does not extend to suggestions for structural changes that might discourage adultery. Instead, she merely encourages lawmakers in DC “to guard their hearts and reputations and to live by higher standards.”

To me, the interesting question is not how a solid, family-values Christian could fall into temptation. As Spence says, anyone can slip and fall.* But apparently this affair had been going on for years. How did Souder manage it? Did he change is ideas to accommodate his behavior – ideas not just about adultery but about himself – and what was that process like? What is the “moral career” of the adulterer?

*The subject line of this post is a reference to the great Burke-VanHeusen standard. If you are among the few who saw Woody Allen’s “Anything Else,” you heard this brief version by Diana Krall. Listen to the lyrics, for they reflect what Spence probably has in mind.
“Hide your heart from sight; lock your dreams at night; it could happen to you.Miles recorded it with his 1956 quintet. My favorite version is by Keith Jarrett in the 1996 Tokyo concert.)

Scouting for Titles

May 19, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Tyler Cowen asks his readers to guess the best-selling book of all time (“And I mean the best-selling real book, not linked to either religion or communism?”)

Here is his answer:
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, two hundred million copies.
Next in line is Baden-Powell's Boy Scouts book and then Lord of the Rings.
Note that Tyler tactfully refers to Baden-Powell’s 1908 classic in the generic rather than by its actual title, which is so much more delightfully ambiguous: Scouting for Boys.



(Wikipedia has the full list.)

Blowback

May 17, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Unintended consequences.” The term comes from sociology – it was coined by Robert Merton 75 years ago – but it has of late has become a favorite weapon of free-market economists and other conservative and libertarian types. They use it for bashing liberals and their government programs designed to limit harm and promote the general welfare.

Conservative policies too may suffer from a similar effect. Anne Coulter famously announced, in the days following the 9/11 attacks, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.” The National Review fired her for her intemperate comments, but the Bush Administration, in its policies, seemed to take her proposals to heart.* Well, two out of three ain’t bad. Invading countries and killing leaders proved not to be too difficult. But that third one:
Since the U.S. invasion, Iraq's Christians have been mostly driven out of the country by violence directed against them for their religion. . . Relentless waves of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, extortions and rapes have triggered a mass exodus of Christians from Iraq over the past seven years. Since 2003, over half of the estimated 1.5 million . . . have fled
So writes Nina Shea at the Washington Post’s On Faith page. Ms. Shea is identified as “director, Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom.” The Hudson Institute is a neo-conservative think tank that, although Ms. Shea doesn’t mention it, strongly supported the invasion of Iraq. Surely the good conservatives there did not intend that their favored policy should wind up limiting religious freedom, certainly not the religious freedom of Christians. But that’s what happened.


* The Bushies even adopted Coulter’s view that it didn’t really much matter who “they” was. Any Muslim state would do. “This is no time to be precious about locating the exact individuals directly involved in this particular terrorist attack. Those responsible include anyone anywhere in the world who smiled in response to the annihilation of patriots . . .”

Frisks and Risks

May 13, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In New York, a city of roughly 8 million people, the police stopped and frisked over half a million people* last year. (The Times story is here.)

“We are saving lives, and we are preventing crime.” said the NYPD spokesman. If you don’t believe him, just look at this pie chart of the yield of weapons that the searches turned up.

(Click on the graph for a larger view, but you still won’t be able to see that line for guns.)

Guns are the thin red line, so thin that it’s all but invisible – with 762 guns out of 570,000 stops, it’s hard to make it look like any thicker. (A post last year had a pie chart showing the proportion of stops that led to any official action, a larger slice of the pie than the slivers representing guns and other weapons.)

We have known the number of stop-and-frisks only since 2003.** In the next two years, the number doubled. In 2009 police made nearly three times as many stops as they had in 2003. Has this dramatic increase taken a bite out of crime? Let’s ask the experts.
Heather Mac Donald, a research fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has spoken to police officials about the tactic, said there was no question it had an effect on crime.
Ms. Mac Donald is apparently the Times’s go-to conservative on crime issues,*** and she must know. After all, as the Times says, she has spoken with police officials. I don’t have any contacts among the NYPD brass, so I had to look at the available crime statistics. I chose murder. It’s the crime where statistics are the most accurate. It’s also the crime most likely to be reduced by the cops taking guns away from bad guys on the street. So I expected a sharp decrease in the years following 2003.


Hmm. The trend is downward, not dramatic but gradual, and it seems to be a continuation of a trend that started before the big increase in stop-and-frisks. There’s also that rise in murders in 2006, when the number of stop-and-frisks also increased by about 25%, roughly from 400,000 to 500,000. (For a line graph showing the rise in the number of stops, see the Times article)

My analysis is just a quick-and-dirty. To draw a credible conclusion, you’d have to take several other variables into account. A good multivariate model might find that the effect of stop-and-frisk was greater than it appears – maybe Ms. Mac Donald knows of such studies and even mentioned them to the reporter, and he just left them out of his story. Or maybe those high-quality studies, if they exist, found no effect. But just looking at the basic data on the two variables – stops and murder– makes it hard to say that “there was no question of a deterrent effect.”  But Ms. MacDonald said it anyway.

* Or rather they made 570,000 stop-and-frisk searches. Since the usual suspects may have had more than one such encounter, we don’t know how many individuals were stopped. But we do know that 490,000 of them were black or Hispanic, 53,000 were white. Those numbers, while they do not reflect the population of New Yorkers, may reflect the population of street criminals.

** The police agreed to make the data public as part of the settlement of a lawsuit. Four cops stopped a man and wound up firing 41 bullets at him, killing him. They thought he had a gun. In fact, he was unarmed and innocent of any crime. Needless to say, the victim was black, and now the cops have to keep records of stop-and-frisks, including the race of the stop-and-friskee.

***
This post cites her view of the salutary effects of harsh drug laws, a view she supports with evidence comparable to that mentioned in the current article.

The Ecological Fallacy

May 10, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

The ecological fallacy is alive and well. Ross Douthat, the New York Times’s other conservative (the one that isn’t David Brooks), breathes life into it in his op-ed today on Red Families v. Blue Families, the new book by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone.

First Douthat gives props to the “blue family” model:
couples with college and (especially) graduate degrees tend to cohabit early and marry late, delaying childbirth and raising smaller families than their parents, while enjoying low divorce rates and bearing relatively few children out of wedlock.
Then there’s the “red family” for whom the stable, two-parent family is more a hope than a reality:
early marriages coexist with frequent divorces, and the out-of-wedlock birth rate keeps inching upward.
Blue looks good – good for the couples, good for the kids, good for society. But Douthat finds a moral thorn among the blue roses – abortion.
The teen pregnancy rate in blue Connecticut, for instance, is roughly identical to the teen pregnancy rate in red Montana. But in Connecticut, those pregnancies are half as likely to be carried to term.

So it isn’t just contraception that delays childbearing in liberal states, and it isn’t just a foolish devotion to abstinence education that leads to teen births and hasty marriages in conservative America. It’s also a matter of how plausible an option abortion seems, both morally and practically, depending on who and where you are.
Douthat is channeling Balzac: Behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Behind every more modest fortune – say, enough to live in Danbury if not Greenwich – is a more modest crime, i.e., an abortion or two.

But here’s the fallacy: Douthat makes it appear that the Connecticut residents who are getting those abortions are the same “couples with college and (especially) graduate degrees” we met in the paragraph on blue families. The illogic goes like this:
Blue states with higher levels of income and education also have higher levels of abortion than do Red states.
Therefore more Blue chip people have more abortions than do Red necks.
No, no, no (I hear myself repeating to my students). You cannot assume that a correlation at the state level also exists at the individual level. To make that assumption is to commit the ecological fallacy.

In fact, the Connecticut women who are getting abortions may also be relatively poor and uneducated. The difference is that abortion may give them access to further education or employment – not a graduate degree and a 6-figure job, but something better than what they could expect were they in Alabama. Or Montana.

The Uses and Abuses of Surveys

May 10, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ask a silly question, you get a silly answer. Ask a politically loaded question, you get a political answer – even if the literal meaning of your question seems to be asking about matters of fact and not opinion..

Here are eight questions from a Zogby poll. Respondents were given a Likert scale from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree, but the authors treat answers as either correct or incorrect according to basic economic principles.
1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.
2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services.
3. Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago.
4. Rent control leads to housing shortages.
5. A company with the largest market share is a monopoly.
6. Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited.
7. Free trade leads to unemployment.
8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment.
Respondents were also asked to classify themselves on a political spectrum – Progressive, Liberal, Moderate, Conservative, Very Conservative, Libertarian.

This survey wasn’t designed to discover what people think. It was designed to prove a political point: “The Further Left You Are the Less You Know About Economics.” That’s the title of a post about it at Volokh Conspiracy. A paper by Zeljka Buturovic and Dan Klein, who designed the survey, gives the results.

(Click on the image for a view large enough to actually read)

The results were similar for the other questions.

To be sure, the liberals view of economic cause-effect relationships reflects the way they would like the world to be rather than the way the world actually is. But the bias of the poll is obvious. As monkeyesq says in his comment at Volokh,
1. Pick 8 liberal positions that have a questionable economic basis;
2. Ask people whether they “agree” or “disagree” with the statements;
3. Find that liberals are more likely to support liberal positions;
4. Claim that liberals don’t understand economics.
There’s an even larger problem here – a problem that affects not just polls that have an obvious ax to grind,* but a basic problem of all survey research: the question the survey asks may not be the question the respondent hears or answers.

These eight questions have a literal meaning. As Todd Zywicki, who wrote the Volokh post, says, “Note that the questions here are not whether the benefits of these policies might outweigh the costs, but the basic economic effects of these policies.”

True, the questions do not ask about costs and benefits, although I don’t think that the survey included an explicit caveat like the one Zywicki adds after the fact. Still, we have to wonder about how people really heard these questions.

“Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services” – Agree or Disagree? Maybe some people hear a different question, a question about policy implications: “Would you like cheaper, but unlicensed, doctors.”

“A company with the largest market share is a monopoly.” Maybe the what the person hears is: “Can companies with large market share – though less than the share required for it to be a monopoly (100%?) – still exercise monopolistic powers?”

As for the “exploitation” of third-world workers, the word may have a precise economic definition (e.g., it’s exploitation only if the worker has no choice) – I don’t know. But even if such an economic definition exists, to most people the word evokes moral judgment, not economics.

The other items also have flaws, as some of the comments at Volokh (now 200 and counting) point out. (I confess that I’m still puzzled by the responses to Standard of Living. Nearly a third of all the respondents think that the standard of living today is no better than it was 30 years ago – 55% on the left, 12% on the right 21% of libertarians.)

The survey may tell us that “epistemic closure” is a disease that can infect the left as well the right. But it also tells us to be cautious about interpreting survey questions literally. Even innocuous questions may mean different things to survey respondents. Until a question has been tested several times, we can’t be sure what respondents hear when they are asked that question.

*A Kos poll that set out to show that quite a few Republicans were extremist nuts suffers from a similar problem. I blogged it here.

How Genetics Works (borrowed post)

May 8, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Flaneuse at Graphic Sociology reposted this from some place. I couldn't resist reposting it as well.

(Click on the image for a slightly larger view.)

I know nothing about the photo. It reminds me of Elliot Erwitt, though I’m sure it’s not.
It looks too old to have been photoshopped.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics About Lies

May 7, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

We all know that Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya and that his campaign was funded by Hugo Chavez.

Yes, I know, presidents going back to Washington have been the subject of rumors. But it seems that with the arrival of Obama, presidential rumors have become something of a growth industry (maybe our only growth industry these days.)

J.L. Bell blogs mostly about comic books and fantasy literature at his Oz and Ends. But two weeks ago he posted some numbers about presidential rumors on the Internet.* For his data, he went where most of us would go – Snopes.com. Here’s what he found.

(Click on the graph for a larger view.)

In less than two years, Obama rumor-mongers have had nearly twice the output that their Bush counterparts managed in eight years – 87 to 47. And while the Bush rumors split almost evenly true-false, false Obama rumors dwarfed the true ones.** The false rumors about Obama outnumbered the total number of rumors about Bush. And while the lies about Obama are almost all negative, some of the false rumors about Bush are quite flattering, along the lines of the George Washington cheery tree rumor – like the rumor that had Bush paying for the funeral of a boy who had drowned near the Crawford ranch.

Is there really a right-left difference? If the “epistemic closure” hypothesis is accurate – if conservatives, even the chattering intellectuals, live and write in a bubble that keeps out any realities that might conflict with their ideology – then conservatives of all sorts might also welcome into the bubble even the most preposterous and unfounded rumors.

Surely, there must be a sociology of rumor. What are the demographic correlates, if any? What are the conditions under which rumors are more likely to arise and spread? I would imagine that lack of trust is important. The less we trust others who are outside our relatively small circle, and the less we interact with them, the more likely we will be to rely on rumor.

Trust, at least trust in government, has been decreasing generally, but conservatives, when they are not in control of the government, are especially mistrusting. Under any circumstances, false beliefs are frustratingly resistant to facts. It probably doesn’t improve conservative’s grasp of reality when they have a major TV network giving airtime to these rumors and when their leaders tell them about death panels.


* His post was picked up by Salon.com and then by Brendan Nyhan, who has had some interesting posts on the epistemic closure discussion.

** The other categories were “mixed,” “undetermined,” and “unclassifiable.” In the graph, I collapsed the latter two categories into “other.”

Messenger NAEP - or Charles Murray Channelling the Left

May 5, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

How fitting in these weeks of final exams to be reminded that tests are irrelevant – at least if you don’t like the results. They are the messenger who brings bad news. But will killing the messenger solve the problem?

I remember the good old days when academics railed at standardized tests like the SAT. If the tests showed group differences – between black and white, male and female – that just showed that the tests were biased and should not be used.

Now, Charles Murray, the man on the right that everyone on the left loves to hate,* has joined the anti-test chorus and, on the Times op-ed page today, he’s singing lead. Murray, like most conservatives, is a supporter of charter schools. He’s badmouthing standardized tests because they show that charter schools do no better than traditional public schools at educating students, especially the kinds of kids who are most in need of effective schools.

The volume of studies on school “choice” – comparing charter schools and voucher programs to traditional public schools – is now large. Most commonly, these find no difference in the progress of students in charters and those in publics. A few charters do better; a greater number underperform their public counterparts.

Rather than dismissing the research as merely wrong or turning up the volume on the few studies favorable to charters and ignoring the rest, as do some conservatives I know, Murray goes radical. What these studies really show, he says, is that tests don’t matter.
Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another?
I’m not going to search through Murray’s oeuvre to see how many times he has cited test scores as meaningful or where he stood on No Child Left Behind. But I am going to guess that if the results had been different, if research showed that charters consistently outperformed publics on standardized tests, Murray would be putting up billboards praising NAEP and the rest.

But Murray goes way beyond the idea that tests are irrelevant. He says that when it comes to teaching kids to read and do math, the schools themselves are irrelevant.
Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home. What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, a good school just doesn’t have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.
Murray is deliberately ignoring one inconvenient fact: that some teachers and some schools consistently do a better job of teaching hard-to-teach populations. But instead of wanting more effort to figure out just what those teachers and schools do so that others can also do more of it, Murray denies that they have any meaningful effect.

What Murray mostly wants is not good education, though he would probably not oppose such improvement. What he wants is charter schools. Since test scores that measure learning don’t support charters, Murray goes back to another song from the old left fake book – School as Ideology. The left used to complain – maybe it still does – that what schools really did was not so much teach subjects but indoctrinate kids into the dominant capitalist ideology so as to turn out a compliant labor force.

Right on, says Murray. But the dominant ideology, in his view, is now liberal and therefore to be avoided. Charter schools “would give parents a choice radically different from the progressive curriculum used in the county’s** other public schools.” Charters are a way for conservative parents to keep their kids out of the hands of the liberals – a sort of home-school away from home.

He has a point. If I lived in Texas, I might want the option of sending my kid to a state-funded charter school that included in the curriculum some of the arcane figures from America’s history that will now be excluded – people like Thomas Jefferson. Such choice would be welcome to middle-class parents like me and Murray, who are not much worried about our kids learning to read. But a choice of ideology is probably not high on the list of concerns of the parents whose kids are in schools where most of the students are years behind in reading and math.


* The mention of Murray’s name has been, for at least fifteen years now, a Pavlovian ringing of the bell curve, guaranteed to set lefties to frothing at the mouth. I actually used to admire Murray, at least for his writing. When a Marxist colleague asked me to review a manuscript she had written, a rather tendentious book on violence, I told her that she should try to write more like Murray – to present radical and probably offensive ideas in language that makes them seem calm and reasonable.

** Murray is referring to a specific charter proposal in the Maryland county where he lives, but for the argument he is making, he might just as easily have said country instead of county.

The Adoption Option

May 1, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’m on my way to another baby shower today. It’s a celebration, but as Lisa at Sociological Images pointed out a couple of weeks ago, how you view a pregnancy depends on where you are in the society. Lisa was responding to the recent PSA video by Bristol Palin (see the video and Lisa’s comments here .) Lisa’s take is that while the ad is telling teens to be cautious about sex, it also makes the point that the consequences of teen pregnancy are much harsher for girls who have little financial or social capital.

For me, the ad was a reminder of how different my own world is from the world of the intended audience of that ad. One obvious difference is abortion. For the cosmopolitan, educated, relatively well-off women I know, abortion is always an option. Not so for the Bristol Palins.

But there’s a cultural difference regarding adoption too.

Alice Eve Cohen’s memoir, what I thought I knew, gives a personal, poignant example. It’s a very complicated story, for as the title implies, everything that the medical experts tell her about her own fertility turns out to be wrong. She is told she can never conceive because she is a DES daughter, but in her forties, she becomes pregnant. Then she is told that the baby will have severe physical and mental defects, but she does not know this definitely until late in the pregnancy. A late-term abortion would be risky.

“I think adoption is the right path,” she writes, but her husband, sisters, and friends all disagree.
In this liberal, Upper West Side community, where abortion is accepted as a woman’s inalienable right, giving up a baby for adoption is inconceivable. . . . Where I live, I’d be more harshly judged for giving up my baby for adoption than for having an abortion.
[Full disclosure: where she lives is three short blocks from where I live, and we’ve known each other for 17 years.]

The debate about abortion – pro-life vs. pro-choice – may have something to do with religious beliefs. But, at least for those most deeply involved, as Kristin Luker pointed out a quarter-century ago in Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, the debate has a strong subtext: clashing ideas about the position of women in society. Should a woman be more honored for success in her role in the family or her success in the world of work and career?

Luker’s explanation may be less useful for understanding the culturally different views of adoption. Adoption is not so much about the role of women; it’s more about the role of babies and children. For some women, babies are a gift from God, and the gifts just seem to keep on coming, even to those who are unmarried and who took abstinence pledges (see my earlier post on this here.) There’s no shame in sharing with people who have not been similarly gifted.

But here on the Upper West Side, the more typical woman’s plight is not so much that she didn’t want to get pregnant but did. It’s that she wanted to get pregnant but couldn’t. For these women, babies are rare and precious. You’d no more give one away than you would (forgive an extreme analogy) give away a winning lottery ticket.