Sacred Meets Profane in an Ad for Lamb

September 20, 2017Posted by Jay Livingston

It’s always tempting to draw conclusions about culture from successful advertising campaigns. After all, if they’re successful, they must have struck some sympathetic vibrating string in the culture. But which one?  Interpreting these ads is game all can play, but it would be hard to say which interpretation is correct. Among all the harmonious cultural elements, which one is most important?

It’s easier to pick out the note that’s out of tune. So with ads, the cultural interpretation game is easier when an ad is conflict with the culture rather than in harmony. When I came across this Australia Day ad for lamb from Meat and Livestock Australia, my first thought was: Sacrilege. You could never put this on the air in the US. A lot of Americans still take their religion seriously.

You can tell a joke about Jesus and Moses on the golf course, but when you do basically the same thing – putting sacred figures in contemporary profane* situations – as a TV ad, it goes too far, even if the irreverence is equal opportunity. At the table, besides Jesus and Moses, are the Buddha, Kuan Yin (the Buddhist goddess of compassion), Confucius, Dionysus and Aphrodite, Thor, Isis and L. Ron Hubbard. Oh my gods.

The MLA (no, not that MLA. The Meat and Livestock Australia MLA) had obviously been worried about the reactions of some religious people for whom religion is no laughing matter. Note that Mohammed does appear in the ad; he’s just phoning it in. And anyway, you probably don’t need an ad to convince Muslims to eat lamb.

The MLA was apparently less concerned about the reaction of other groups. The Indian Society of Western Australia spoke out against the portrayal of Ganesha (“the elephant in the room”) as being a meat-eater. The MLA apologized, saying it was not their intent to offend.** But as far as I know, they haven’t pull the ad. 

* “Profane” in Durkheim’s sense of “everyday,” as contrasted with “sacred” times and places.

** I’m a tad skeptical about this claim of not intending to offend. The MLA’s previous Australia Day ads have also been criticized for insensitive depiction of Aboriginals and for “inciting violence against vegans.” 


September 19, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

After eleven years, I’m finally getting paid for this gig. The publisher of the leading intro sociology textbook e-mailed me asking for permission to use one my blogposts in the next edition (17e) of the book. I asked if they would cross my palm with silver. It turns out they would. I did the math, and it works out that my average weekly income from the blog is now 60¢ a week. Not bad.   

The 2017 turning of the blog year lines up closely with the Jewish high holidays – a time for reflection and repentance. So many blogposts worthy of the latter. But here are a handful I’d post again.
1.    Trump did not actually shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue. But if he had, his supporters might well have rethought their position on homicide. Witness how conservative Christians changed their views on the importance of a politician’s private life.    
One Question Where Trump Turned Conservatives More Liberal

2.    In Italian, there is no word for “bedtime.”  Bedtime – Construct or Cruelty

3.    “Their early stuff was way better.” The dilemma of music groups – repeat or change?  Chasing the Dragon

4.    Asking who’s happier – liberals or conservatives – without looking at who’s in power is like asking the same question about Redsox fans and Yankee fans without checking the standings in the AL East. Political Baseball – Whose Fans Are Happy?

5.    “It’s your decision,” say the sitcom parents. Yeah, right. “black-ish” – Voluntary Conformism                  

Matching Evidence With Ideas — an Arthur Brooks Fail

September 16, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Linking ideas and evidence – that’s the most important thing I try to teach students. What kind of evidence can we get to see if some idea or assertion is valid? I’m glad Arthur Brooks isn’t in my class. I would have to conclude that I failed at my task.

In his op-ed in the Times yesterday (“Don’t Shun Conservative Professors,” here), Brooks writes about the plight of conservative faculty members. In the academic world, dominated by leftish ideologies, they are second-class citizens.

Generally, these professors fear they have little hope for advancement to leadership roles. Research backs up this fear, suggesting that intellectual conformity is still a key driver of personal success in academic communities. In a study published in 2012 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers asked students to evaluate candidates vying to represent them with the faculty. In some cases, the candidate identified him- or herself as a “typical student at this college”; other subjects were given a candidate who was “a relatively untypical student at this college.” Even though both pledged to represent the students faithfully, in the same language, the untypical student consistently received significantly less support.

Really Arthur? That’s the best you got? One experiment on one campus? That’s your evidence?

And what is it evidence of? Brooks claims that conservative professors get shabby treatment at the hands of their liberal colleagues. The reason is that academic success depends on “intellectual conformity,” and conservatives’ political views  do not conform those of their more numerous and more powerful liberal colleagues.

Does this one study Brooks cites explore the attitudes and actions of faculty? No. Does it measure the rewards faculty receive? No. Does it use variables related to conservatism and liberalism? No. Does it even measure “intellectual conformity”? No.

It asks students who they would prefer to represent them as a student-faculty liaison. And here’s the stunning conclusion of that experiment: students prefer the hypothetical “prototypical” student rep over the “non-prototypical rep.” The typicality did not include political views. The typical student did not say, “I’m politically liberal”; the untypical student did not say, “I’m conservative.”*.

Preferring a student-faculty liaison who is typical rather than untypical – is that, as Brooks would have it, “intellectual conformity”?  Even so, it was only among the students who said they “felt certain right now” that the “typical” candidate won. Students who said they were “uncertain” were equally likely to choose the untypical as the typical.

It may well be that conservative academics are victims of discrimination. But the evidence Brooks offers isn’t just unconvincing. It’s an embarrassment. I certainly hope that other conservative intellectuals do a better job of matching their evidence to their ideas.
* Here are the candidates’ statements shown to the student participants in the experiment:

“As a relatively typical student at this college, I feel as though I represent
the interests, values, and opinions of the students very well. I will fit in with the culture and climate of the college because I also share these same interests, values, and opinions. As a student of this college, I have deep ties in the community so I also want the college to make decisions that are the best for the students…”

“As a relatively untypical student at this college, I will try to represent the interests, values, and opinions of the students. While I do not share the same interests, values, and opinions, I will do my best to fit in with the culture and climate of the college. Although I may not have deep ties in the community, I will still try to make decisions that are the best for the students …”

The article is “Leadership under uncertainty: When leaders who are non-prototypical group members can gain support,” by David E. Rast III, Amber M. Gaffney, Michael A. Hogg, Richard J. Crisp. JESP 48.3 (May 2012).

Dreamers and the Trump Base

September 15, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

People whose life is in politics develop a firm ideology. Ordinary voters have no such need for consistency.

“Word of Deal Bewilders and Angers Trump’s Base,” says a subhead in today’s New York Times about DACA.  The deal in question was Trump’s agreement with his new friends Chuck and Nancy to let the Dreamers keep dreaming for at least another half year. Over on the right, the loud voices are getting shrill. The Times story quotes people like Ann Coulter (“At this point, who DOESN’T want Trump impeached?”), Rep. Steve King, and some talk-radio conservatives. 

But the people who voted for Trump are more loyal to him. Also more ideologically flexible. It’s Trump the person they want, not any particular policy. On some matters, their ardor for Trump has led them to change their long-held views. Russia is no longer a terrible villain. A politician’s private peccadilloes now mean little for his performance in office. Obamacare isn’t so terrible after all.

Given Trump’s campaign rhetoric and the “Build the Wall” chant, you might expect his supporters to be more adamant on immigration. But even before Trump’s change of heart on DACA, his base was soft on Dreamers, though the polls on this are not consistent. A YouGov poll taken September 3 -5 asked Trump voters.

Do you favor or oppose DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which is a policy that grants temporary legal status to “dreamers,” otherwise law-abiding children and young adults who were brought into the United States at a very young age by parents who were illegal immigrants?

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The DACA glass is half empty. A third of the Trumpistas are firm opponents. But on the other side a third of the Trump voters actually support DACA, and the rest aren’t sure.

A Morning Consult Poll for Politico taken a few days earlier found Trump voters to be still more accepting of Dreamers and even non-dreamers.
“As you may know, Dreamers are young people who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children, often with their parents. Which of the following do you think is the best way to handle Dreamers?” The poll also about the best way to handle “immigrants currently living in the United States illegally.” The choices were”
  • They should beallowed to stay and become citizens if they meet certain requirements 
  • They should be allowed to stay and become legal sidents, but NOT citizens, if they meet certain requirements
  • They should be removed or deported from the United States
  • Don’t Know / No Opinion           

Two-thirds of Trump voters wanted to allow the Dreamers to stay. Slightly more than half were OK with granting residence (22%) or even citizenship (33%) to all immigrants now living in the US illegally.

When Trump took office, his net approval was +4 (45% Approve, 41% Disapprove). Since then, he has managed to drive that figure to – 14 (39 - 55). His recent change on DACA may have cost him cred with Coulter and other people deeply involved in politics. But it seems unlikely that his support with the public at large or even his base will fall any farther.

Algorithms and False Positives

September 13, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

Can face-recognition software tell if you’re gay?

Here’s the headline from The Guardian a week ago.

Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski at Stanford’s School of Business have written an article showing that artificial intelligence – machines that can learn from their experiences – can develop algorithms to distinguish the gay from the straight. Kosinski goes farther. According to Business Insider,
He predicts that self-learning algorithms with human characteristics will also be able to identify:
  • a person's political beliefs
  • whether they have high IQs
  • whether they are predisposed to criminal behaviour
When I read that last line, something clicked. I remembered that a while ago I had blogged about an Israeli company, Faception, that claimed its face recognition software could pick out the faces of terrorists, professional poker players, and other types. It all reminded me of Cesare Lombroso, the Italian criminologist. Nearly 150 years ago, Lombroso claimed that criminals could be distinguished by the shape of their skulls, ears, noses, chins, etc. (That blog post, complete with pictures from Lombroso’s book, is here.) So I was not surprised to learn that Kosinski had worked with Faception.

For a thorough (3000 word) critique of the Wang-Kosinski paper, see Greggor Mattson’s post at Scatterplot. The part I want to emphasize here is the problem of False Positives.

Wang-Kosinski tested their algorithm by showing a series of paired pictures from a dating site. In each pair, one person was gay, the other straight. The task was to guess which was which. The machine’s accuracy was roughly 80% – much better than guessing randomly and better than the guesses made by actual humans, who got about 60% right. (These are the numbers for photos of men only. The machine and humans were not as good at spotting Lesbians. In my hypothetical example that follows, assume that all the photos are of men.)

But does that mean that the face-recognition algorithm can spot the gay person? The trouble with Wang-Kosinki’s gaydar test was that it created a world where half the population was gay. For each trial, people or machine saw one gay person and one straight.

Let’s suppose that the machine had an accuracy rate of 90%. Let’s also present the machine with a 50-50 world. Looking at the 50 gays, the machine will guess correctly on 45. These are “True Positives.” It identified them as gay, and they were gay. But it will also classify 5 of the gay people as not-gay. These are the False Negatives.

It will have the same ratio of true and false for the not-gay population. It will correctly identify 45 of the not-gays (True Negatives), but it will guess incorrectly that 5 of these straight people are gay (False Positive).

It looks pretty good. But how well will this work in the real world, where the gay-straight ratio is nowhere near 50-50? Just what that ratio is depends on definitions. But to make the math easier, I’m going to use 5% as my estimate. In a sample of 1000, only 50 will be gay. The other 950 will be straight.

Again, let’s give the machine an accuracy rate of 90%. For the 50 gays, it will again have 45 True Positives and 5 False Negatives. But what about the 950 not-gays. It will be correct 90% of the time and identify 885 of them as not-gay (True Negatives). But it will also guess incorrectly that 10% are gay. That’s 95 False Positives.

The number of False Positives is more than double the number of True Positives. The overall accuracy may be 90%, but when it comes to picking out gays, the machine is wrong far more often than it’s right.

The rarer the thing that you’re trying to predict, the greater the ratio of False Positives to True Positives. And those False Positives can have bad consequences. In medicine, a false positive diagnosis can lead to unnecessary treatment that is physically and psychologically damaging. As for politics and policy, think of the consequences if the government goes full Lomborso and uses algorithms for predicting “predisposition to criminal behavior.”

Smartphones and Teen Existential Angst

September 12, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve been wondering about America’s youth, mostly because of the Atlantic article by Jean Twenge: “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”  (Previous posts are here  and here .)
As the title of the article suggests, we’ve got trouble.

Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. The gentle slopes of the line graphs became steep mountains and sheer cliffs . . . At first I presumed these might be blips, but the trends persisted, across several years and a series of national surveys. The changes weren’t just in degree, but in kind.

Twenge shows how kids differ from those of just a few years ago in how they spend their time – less dating, driving, and hanging out with peers, and more time on their phones, tablets, and computers. These changes in behavior, Twenge claims, have psychological consequences.

The biggest difference between the Millennials and their predecessors was in how they viewed the world. . . .
There is compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands are having profound effects on their lives—and making them seriously unhappy.

I went to the archives of Monitoring the Future, the only source of systematic data that Twenge mentions. It surveys kids in 8th, 10th, and 12th grades. I looked only at the data on 12th graders. One of the MTF questions asks kids whether they agree with the statement, “It feels good to be alive.” The choices are Agree, Mostly Agree, Neither, Mostly Disagree, Disagree.” So few kids chose either of the Disagree categories ( 4- 6 %) that I combined them with Neither.

(Click on a graph for a larger view.)

In the most recent year, these depressive categories accounted for only 18% of 12th graders. All the others agreed – 51% gave unqualified agreement, another 20% “mostly” agreed. More important for Twenge’s argument, the graph lines do not fall off a cliff in 2012 or in any other year. There’s a slow decline 2012-2015, but the numbers in the most recent year are very similar to what they were in before smartphones and social media.

Monitoring the Future also asks a question that would seem to tap depression, or at least existential despair*: “Life often seems meaningless.” The levels of agreement are the same ones as for “Good to be alive,” but the distribution of answers is more even.

Again, the sunnier choices carry the day.  Those who “Disagree” categorically out number all others, followed by those who disagree but with some reservations. And again, the MTF data shows no dramatic changes.

So, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” As I said in a previous post on this topic,
Whenever the title of a book or article is phrased as a question, two things are almost certain
  • The author thinks that the answer to the question is “Yes.”
  • The more accurate answer is “No.”
When it comes to finding life meaningful or worth living, teens today are no different from those teens twenty years ago who were sans iPhones, sans Facebook, sans Instagram, sans cyber-everything.
In the view of the existentialist, the individual's starting point is characterized by what has been called "the existential attitude", or a sense of disorientation, confusion, or dread in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.
Existentialism - Wikipedia

America’s Not-So-Lost Youth

September 10, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston
It seems that we never tire of experts like Prof. Harold Hill, the con artist in “The Music Man,” warning us about the temptations that threaten to lead our children astray. That musical was set in Iowa a century ago, and the culprit, and when Prof. Hill told the good people of River City, “Ya got trouble, my friends,” the culprit was a pool table. I’m old enough to remember when the menace was comic books. And today, all those kids spending so much time on Facebook, Instagram, and iPhones – surely that can’t be good.

Last month, The Atlantic ran an article “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” by Jean Twenge in full Music Man mode.

I blogged my skepticism (here). Twenge’s previous alarmist reports – The Narcissism Epidemic, for example – had not held up well against the evidence. But I had not been able to deal with the data sets from Monitoring the Future (MTF) that Twenge used for evidence about the destruction supposedly being wrought by iPhones. I didn’t know it at the time, but Alexandra Samuel had already done some of the work. (Her article is at JStor – here)

Twenge acknowledges that kids today cause far less trouble than did their counterparts of earlier genrations. Juvenile crime is way down. The same goes for pregnancy, drugs, and abortion. But, says Twenge, the kids are not all right. They are desperately unhappy. Or as the Atlantic sub-head puts it, they are “on the brink of a mental-health crisis.”  Ya got trouble my friends.

According to Twenge, the crucial year is 2012. “Around 2012, I noticed abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states.” It turns out that MTF survey of kids does not have many mental-health items – nothing about anxiety or depression. It does ask about happiness. Here is a graph from Alexandra Samuel’s article. The survey asks kids how happy they are generally – Very Happy, Pretty Happy, or Not Too Happy.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The biggest winner by far is Pretty Happy, chosen by 60-65%, a proportion that has not changed much since the first years of the survey. Since 2012, the percent reporting that they are Very Happy has decreased by perhaps 4 percentage points. Not Too Happy has increase by 2-3 percentage points. This hardly seems like leading edge of a mental-health crisis.

As for insidious effects of Facebook, Instagram and the rest, Samuel has a graph comparing kids who spend more time with social media (> 10 hours a week) and those who spend less. This too doesn’t do much to support Twenge’s claim that iPhones and the like are making kids “seriously unhappy.”

I don’t doubt that social media and smartphones have changed the way kids live their lives. Twenge presents evidence that kids are spending less time hanging out with peers, that they feel less pressure to drive a car, and that dating and sex are on the decline. I’d like to check the MTF data, but assuming Twenge’s report is accurate, are these trends a sign of a pending crisis in mental health? I seem to remember Harold Hill types warning about the dangers of peer groups – kids spending too much time unsupervised by adults. “Peer pressure” was always the source of bad behavior, never good. And adults fretted that this pressure was forcing kids to “grow up too fast ” (cars, sex). So if social media has made it easier for kids to escape these peer groups, maybe these trends are not harbingers of a coming crises in the mental health of America’s youth.

Look What You Made Me Do

September 4, 2017
Posted by Jay Livingston

The Fundamental Attribution Error occurs when we attribute too much cause to the individual while ignoring the power of the situation. But there is a second attribution error – perhaps not as fundamental, but still important.

The central idea in attribution theory is this: when people* explain why another person did something, they attribute the behavior to causes within the person – their personality or other traits. The person behaved bravely because he is brave or dishonestly because he is sneaky, or affably because she is outgoing, and so on.  But when people explain their own behavior, they cite external factors – specific or vague aspects of the situation. They rarely say or think: I did it because I’m brave, outgoing, sneaky, etc. Instead they think they did what most people in the same situation would do. It’s all about the situation, not about me. When we make the fundamental attribution error, we leap too quickly from the behavior we observe to conclusions about the person’s character.

The second type of attribution error can occur when we think about our own behavior and attribute too much power to external forces while ignoring or denying our own ability to exercise free will. For example, my syllabus says explicitly that I base grades on the total points from tests and papers. Attendance matters only for point totals at the borderline between letter grades. There is no attendance requirement. But when I ask a student, “Why did you come to class?” the answer is often, “I had to.” Given a few seconds to reflect, the student might come up with an answer more consistent with the facts. Still, that first and more-or-less automatic answer reveals the basic assumption we make about why we’ve done something: I had to.

Two worst-date stories I heard recently on a podcast (“Unorthodox”) reminded me of this second attribution error. I’ve added edited transcripts, but you should really listen to the audio clips to get a better sense of the story and the reactions of the podcast interviewers.

It was really terrible . . .  And after it was done, I definitely did not want to go out again. And I was getting out of the car, and I said something like, “Hey, thanks. Have a great night,” sort of mumbled that, and he thought I’d said something like, “I had a great night.” So he goes, “Me too. Would you like to go out for breakfast tomorrow?” And I died inside, and somehow that was taken for a yes. So I had to go out with him again.

The guy got the wrong impression, but rather than correct him – not in the immediate situation and not afterwards by sending a text – she chose to endure a second date the next morning. (Of course, she didn’t see it as a choice. In her view, she had to.)

Here’s worst-date #2.

I went out with a guy, and he took me to a fancy restaurant. And he was dressed sort of like a hillbilly. And he wouldn’t speak, and there was a lot of awkward silences. And I asked him, “Why are there so many awkward silences?” And he goes like, “I feel comfortable with silence. I think weI should feel comfortable with silence.” And then he proceeded not to talk for the rest of the date as a test to our relationship.

And then he took me to the Marriott Marquis where there’s this rotating lounge on the top floor. But what he failed to mention was that he’s extremely phobic of heights. So when we went into the glass elevator, he started having a panic attack. And when we got out on the 42nd floor, I was coaching him, telling him to breathe.  He’s asking me where we’re going in our relationship. . . .

But the kicker is that we had to walk down forty-two flights of stairs.

I wonder if gender makes a difference in these dating fiascos where the man and woman have very different perceptions of what the relationship is – that is, what the roles are and therefore who is supposed to do what. Women may think, “I don’t like the role you make me play,” but play it they do. Would a man behave differently? Would he say, “Look, I’ve gotten you through your anxiety attack, and I’m really sorry you suffered like that. But this is not going to be a relationship, and I’m certainly not going to walk down forty-two frickin’ flights of stairs. If you can join me in the elevator, we can leave together. If not, I’ll just say good-bye now.”

I don’t know of any systematic evidence on gender as it relates to dealing with bad dates. I guess I’ll have to pay more attention to Todd and Jayde’s “Blown Off” segment.

* Cultures may vary on this tendency. Most of the evidence comes from the US and perhaps other Western countries, and there is some evidence that Asians may be more likely to consider situational factors when thinking about the causes of other people’s behavior.