Decadence Anyone?

January 31, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Five years ago, I borrowed Stephen Colbert’s title I’m America, and So Can You for a post on the tendency of some columnists to attribute their own views to “Americans,”  “the public,” “the country,” or some other collective mind. “The public seems to be angry about values,” wrote David Brooks at the time. So much for “I-statements.” (That blogpost is here.)

Once you become sensitive to this rhetorical tactic, you can’t help noticing it. In his New York Times column today (here), Ross Douthat writes.

What are Trumpistas and Bern-feelers rebelling against? They’re rebelling against decadence.

Is decadence really the problem that is roiling the Trump and Sanders supporters? I don't recall seeing that term on any of their signs and slogans ( “Down With Decadence,” “Trump Trumps Decadence”).
A Lexis-Nexis search for “Trump” and “Decadence” in the last seven months turned up only one article in the US press linking these two –  a Times op-ed a month ago with the title “Cracks in the Liberal Order.” It was written by Ross Douthat. 

Swap out “Trump” for “Bernie Sanders,” and you get only this same Douthat column.

There was one article (Rochester, MN Post-Bulletin, Jan. 13) referring to a “Trump-style tower in giddy display of decadence.” And an editorial in the Providence Journal by Jay Ambrose said that Sanders and progressives generally should “stop their decadent way of supposing that people are poor because others are rich.” But these were saying that Trump and his would-be emulators and Sanders and his fellow progressives were themselves decadent, not that they were responding to decadence.

Despite the months of pre-primary coverage, journalists turn up no voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, or anywhere else who complained they were troubled about decadence in America. The Obama-haters compare him to Hitler, not Caligula. The Sanders supporters are rallying against inequality, not iniquity.

Decadence is in the eye of the beholder, and the only eye that seems to be beholding it belongs to  Ross Douthat.

Too Good to Be True

January 26, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Some findings that turn up in social science research look good to be true, as when a small change in inputs brings a large change in outcomes. Usually the good news comes in the form of anecdotal evidence, but systematic research too can yield wildly optimistic results.

Anecdotal evidence?  Everyone knows to be suspicious, even journalists. A Lexis-Nexis search returns about 300 news articles just in this month where someone was careful to specify that claims were based on “anecdotal evidence” and not systematic research.

Everywhere else, the anecdotal-systematic scale of credibility is reversed. As Stalin said, “The death of a million Russian soldiers – that is a statistic. The death of one Russian soldier – that is a tragedy.” He didn’t bother to add the obvious corollary: a tragedy is far more compelling and persuasive than is a statistic.

Yet here is journalist Heather Havrilesky in the paper of record reviewing Presence, a new book by social scientist Amy Cuddy:

This detailed rehashing of academic research . . . has the unintended effect of transforming her Ph.D. into something of a red flag.

Yes, you read that correctly. Systematic research supporting an idea is a bright red warning sign.

Amy Cuddy, for those who are not among the millions who have seen her TED talk, is the social psychologist (Ph.D. Princeton) at the Harvard Business School who claims that standing in the Wonder Woman “power pose” for just two minutes a day will transform the self-doubting and timid into the confident, assertive, and powerful. Power posing even changes levels of hormones like cortisol and testosterone.

Havrilesky continues.

While Cuddy’s research seems to back up her claims about the effects of power posing, even more convincing are the personal stories sent to the author by some of the 28 million people who have viewed her TED talk. Cuddy scatters their stories throughout the book. . . .

Systematic research is OK for what it is, Havrilesky is saying, but the clincher is the anecdotal evidence. Either way, the results fall into the category of “Amazing But True.”

Havrilesky was unwittingly closer to the truth with that “seems” in the first clause. “Cuddy’s research seems to back up her claims . . . ” Perhaps, but research done by people other than Cuddy and her colleagues does not.  As Andrew Gelman and Kaiser Fung detail in Slate, the power-pose studies have not had a Wonder Woman-like resilience in the lab. Other researchers trying to replicate Cuddy’s experiments could not get similarly positive results.

But outside the tiny world of replication studies, Cuddy’s findings have had a remarkable staying power considering how fragile* the power-pose effect was. The problem is not just that the Times reviewer takes anecdotal evidence as more valid. It’s that she is unaware that contradictory research was available. Nor is she unique in this ignorance. It pervades reporting even in serious places like the Times. “Gee whiz science,” as Gelman and Fung call it, has a seemingly irresistible attraction, much like anecdotal evidence. Journalists and the public want to believe it; scientists want to examine it further.

Our point here is not to slam Cuddy and her collaborators. . . . And we are not really criticizing the New York Times or CBS News, either. . . . Rather, we want to highlight the yawning gap between the news media, science celebrities, and publicists on one side, and the general scientific community on the other. To one group, power posing is a scientifically established fact and an inspiring story to boot. To the other, it’s just one more amusing example of scientific overreach.

I admire Gelman and Fung’s magnanimous view. But I do think that those in the popular press who report about science should do a little skeptical fact-checking when the results seem too good to be true, for too often these results are in fact too good to be true.

* “Fragile” is the word used by Joe Simmons and Uri Simonsohn in their review and replication of Cuddy’s experiments (here).

Word Association. I Say “Focus Around Money and Media”; You Say . . .

January 15, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

What does “New York” mean?

Previously on “The West Wing,” on the first episode in fact  . . .  

“That New York sense of humor. . . . They think they’re so much smarter. They think it’s smart talk, but nobody else does,” says the character Mary Marsh. Josh’s demurral that he’s from Connecticut seems a bit disingenuous. Like everyone else in the “West Wing” White House, Josh is incredibly smart and savvy, so Toby’s explanation is more directed at the TV audience.

“She means Jewish.”

Did she? Josh derails that train of thought before Marsh has to answer. What might she have said? Maybe what Ted Cruz said.

Anyone familiar with this scene must surely have remembered it when Ted Cruz used “New York” as a similar kind of slur in last night’s debate.

What does Cruz mean by “New York values”? His initial evasion (“I think most people know exactly what New York values are”) and the laughter of the Iowa Republican audience suggest that the meaning is something everyone knows but would rather not say.

The message is that “New Yorkers” are different. They are not part of what Sarah Palin called “real America.” The next exchange amplifies that idea.  “You’re from New York? So you might not [understand].” Again the audience laughs and applauds appreciatively. The joke is that New Yorkers are so not American that they don’t even know how non-American they are. They are like some race of UFO aliens who imagine that they are successfully passing themselves off as humans. But of course the real humans know better.

Cruz then hauls out the “some of my best friends are . . .” trope.  “And listen, there are many, many wonderful, wonderful working men and women in the state of New York.” Of course, these people are not “New Yorkers.” They merely live in New York state, far away from the city.  These “wonderful working men and women” are different from New York City people, who are not wonderful and apparently don’t work.

Finally, Cruz explains: “But everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal or pro-abortion or pro- gay-marriage, focus around money and the media.”

It reminds me of Lee Atwater’s famous quote: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can't say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”

In 2016, you say stuff like “New York values” and “socially liberal” and “focus around money and the media.”

You can’t say “nigger” and you can’t say “Jew.” But you can say, as Cruz did just before Bartiromo asked him the values question, “There’s a reason, when Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer came after our right to keep and bear arms, that I led the opposition, along with millions of Americans — we defeated that gun control legislation.”

There’s Obama and his kind, and there’s Schumer and his kind. And then there are “millions of Americans.” Get it?

In the sci-fi movies, the real humans eventually expose, outwit, and triumph over the alien impersonators. So too, in Cruz-land, Americans, real Americans, will triumph over those others, the “New Yorkers.”

UPDATE January 16 

I wasn’t the only one to notice the unstated overtones in Cruz’s remarks about New York values. Maybe the performance was not all that subtle. These showed up in my Twitter feed.

Cruz, Christians, Compassion

January 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The great thing about Christianity is that it gives you two Testaments and two kinds of god. The god of the Old Testament is a wrathful god. But in the New Testament, Jesus represents a loving, caring, and forgiving god. The previous pope, Benedict XVI, who earned epithets like “the Panzer cardinal” and “God’s Rottweiler,” leaned in one direction. By contrast, the current pope, Francis, has just published a book – The Name of God is Mercy.

If you’re a Christian, you can take your pick depending on the circumstances. (An early post  in this blog was about the different responses of Protestant clergy (Dobson, Falwell) to adultery – that of Bill Clinton and that of Newt Gingrich.) If the sinner is one of your own, invoke New Testament ideals. If the sinner belongs to some other group, bring down the wrath of God.

Why does David Brooks not know this?

In today’s column (here), Brooks seems genuinely puzzled by the support Ted Cruz gets among evangelicals. Brooks begins by recounting Cruz’s efforts as Texas solicitor general to keep a man in prison far beyond what the law permitted.Would good Christians vote for such a merciless and vindictive fellow? You bet they would.

Ted Cruz is now running strongly among evangelical voters, especially in Iowa. But in his career and public presentation Cruz is a stranger to most of what would generally be considered the Christian virtues: humility, mercy, compassion and grace. . .

There is not a hint of compassion, gentleness and mercy. Instead, his speeches are marked by a long list of enemies, and vows to crush, shred, destroy, bomb them
Mercy, gentleness, and compassion may be Christian virtues, but in dealing with those who have broken the law, Christians in the US go overwhelmingly for wrath. (I assume that Brooks, focusing on polls in Iowa, is talking about White Christians. )

The GSS asks people if they think that courts are “Too Harsh,” “Not Harsh Enough,” or “About right.” On this item, people who believe in the divinity of Christ are the most likely to think that courts are too soft on criminals. About four out of five want the courts to be harsher.

Evangelicals and Fundamentalists are somewhat more punitive than other Protestants. Closer to nine in ten want the courts to visit harsher punishments on people convicted of crime.

(The data are from 2000 because that is the only year that the GSS asked about Protestant subdivisions.)

This pattern holds for the death penalty as well. Protestants are the least likely to oppose the death penalty. 

Except for self-identified “liberal Protestants,” the people most likely respond with mercy and compassion are those who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus.

This Protestant penchant for punitiveness turns up in other places as well. On the GSS item that says “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard, spanking,” Christians – especially Protestants and especially Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants – are most likely to agree (40%) and agree strongly (another 50%). As usual, it’s the non-Christians, Jews especially, who disagree.

As Brooks and others have noted, Ted Cruz has many unpleasant qualities.* But his lack of compassion and mercy are not going to lose him any votes among White conservative Christians.

* Brooks is not alone among Republicans in disliking Cruz. As Frank Bruni wrote last month in the Times, “A Bush 2000 alumnus said to me: ‘Why do people take such an instant dislike to Ted Cruz? It just saves time.’”