Is Jeanine Pirro Taking Orders From the Pope?

March 18, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Jeanine Pirro’s comment about Ilhan Omar (D - MN) is a perfect example of the variation on Betteridge’s Law I offered a while ago (here).
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.”
In this case, the question in question is not a headline but part of her commentary about Rep. Omar.

Think about it: Omar wears a hijab. Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?

It’s a cheap rhetorical trick. It lets you promote an idea without having any evidence. And if challenged, you can claim that you were not making an accusation, but merely asking a question.

This time it didn’t work. Even Fox News suspended Pirro, saying that they “strongly condemn” her comments, and that the comments "do not reflect those of the network.”

My other reaction to this incident is: how soon we forget.

Pirro is a practicing Catholic. She was nine years old when John F. Kennedy ran for president. At the time, some Protestants argued that if Kennedy were elected he would be “taking orders from the Pope.” It’s the same charge that Protestant ministers made in 1928 against the country’s first Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith. Catholics, so the argument went, cannot be true to their religion and still uphold the Constitution. They are under the control of nefarious non-American religious sources.

 And now a Catholic commentator is making the same accusation against a Muslim that was made, in her lifetime, against her own co-religionists .

Danny Boy — Bill Evans

March 17, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

For a long time, I dismissed “Danny Boy” as a treacly song that was usually crushed under the weight of too much sentiment, especially on St. Patrick’s Day, especially by tenors. Yet never did I breathe its pure serene till I heard Bill Evans’s eleven-minute exploration of it.

The story I’ve heard (but haven’t fact-checked) is that after his bassist, the incredibly talented Scott LeFaro, died in an automobile accident in July 1961, Evans went into mourning, or at least stayed out of the studio. In April, 1962, Evans went into the studio alone, sat down at the piano, recorded four tunes, and walked out.

For the first few choruses, he stays very close to the melody, first in B-flat, then B-natural (!), then F. Only in the fifth chorus, back in B-flat, does he improvise single-note lines.

For more on Evans, see the documentary “Time Remembered” (available at Amazon Prime), which is also the title of the album on which this take was eventually released. If you watch it, or maybe if you just listen to this track, you will understand why I keep a picture of him on my piano.

Scientific Management and Child Rearing

March 12, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

Listen to the opening minutes of the 2006 episode of This American Life that was rerun this past weekend. (If you don’t want to listen, a transcript is here. The clip ends with Ira saying, “and this is the way it was for decades.”)

The John Watson mentioned in this excerpt — the psychologist who thought that kissing your child more than once a year was “overkissing” — wasn’t just president of the American Psychological Association, he was the founder of behaviorism, which dominated academic psychology in the US for much of the twentieth century. Behaviorism focused on behavior. Thoughts, emotions, desires, personal attachment — these internal states were invisible, and behavioral psychology brushed them aside as unimportant or irrelevant.

Behaviorism in psychology was a close cousin of Taylorism in business. Both had little use for these human feelings. Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” reduced work to a carefully controlled series of steps for workers to carry out with machine-like consistency. It was an inconvenient fact for Taylorism that the workers were people, not machines. They would just have to suppress those human qualities, at least on the job.

Behaviorists usually did their experiments on animals. The lives of these lab animals, as far as the experimenters were concerned, consisted entirely of learning — learning to get food, learning  to avoid electric shocks. These subjects could not convincingly protest to the psychologists that their thoughts and emotions were being ignored.

It’s only a short step from the psych lab to the nursery, from white rats to children, and the idea that raising kids was, or should be, a matter of conditioning. In both settings, but especially with children, the person in charge was imposing order and control on what in nature tended to be messy. And in bringing order to this messiness, scientific rationality was better than relying unthinkingly on what seemed natural. Scheduled feeding was better than on-demand feeding, and scientifically produced formula was better than breast milk. It may seem natural to respond to your child physically and emotionally, and in fact evolution may have made that response part of human nature, but John Watson says, “Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap.”

As I listened to the podcast, glad that the days of behaviorist conditioning had been left behind, I suddenly remembered “Ferberizing.” In 1985, Dr. Richard Ferber published Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. Its centerpiece was a technique that would condition your child to sleep through the night. When the child cries, do you wake up and give comfort? Bad strategy. Instead, well here’s Wikipedia’s summary of the Ferber approach:

1. At bedtime, leave the child in bed and leave the room. 

2. Return at progressively increasing intervals to comfort the baby (without picking him or her up). For example, on the first night, some scenarios call for returning first after three minutes, then after five minutes, and thereafter each ten minutes, until the baby is asleep. 

3. Each subsequent night, return at intervals longer than the night before. For example, the second night may call for returning first after five minutes, then after ten minutes, and thereafter each twelve minutes, until the baby is asleep.

It’s pure behaviorism. Instead of rewarding the undesirable behavior, the parents “extinguish” (as behaviorists say) the crying response.

You don’t ignore the child completely. It’s OK, even good, to stand in the doorway so that the poor kid doesn’t think you’ve abandoned them. But do not go into the room and comfort the child. Let them “cry it out.”

It works, said my fellow parents. The nights of crying it out had been followed by uninterrupted slumber for all. So my wife and I decided to try it. I cannot remember how old our son was at the time, nor do I remember the hour when he awoke crying, maybe around eleven p.m. We went to the door of his room. I checked my watch and mentally started counting down the three minutes. Our son, seeing us through the bars of his crib, cried even harder. And why not? The parents who he knew as reliable sources of comfort were now choosing to let him suffer.

After thirty seconds or so, I knew there was no way I could last three minutes.I turned to my wife.  “Dr. Ferber is saying let him cry.  Half a million years of evolution is saying go pick up the kid and hold him.”

And that was our one attempt at Ferberization.

Faith and Disaster

March 9, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

What do groups do when they are faced with strong evidence that their core beliefs are wrong? Ever since When Prophecy Fails (1957), we’ve known the answer. They try spread the word, both to others who they try to convert, and to themselves with greater demonstrations of their faith.

The phrase “acts of God” usually refer to natural disasters — floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes. Yet after these events, no matter how devastating, people rarely give up their belief in God as a beneficent being.

When Prophecy Fails followed a group that believed that on a given date, the world would be destroyed but that aliens in flying saucers would come and rescue them. They were not unusual. Faith often is a belief in a distant and powerful figure who will save the group from disaster. If there are two such figures, the faiths can be combined.

The idea of a God-Trump alliance may be widespread among his Christian supporters. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stated the idea explicitly: “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times and I think that He wanted Donald Trump to become president, and that’s why he’s there.”

An act of God that caused great destruction and loss of life is not going to shake the faith of Alabama Christians. As for Trump, it’s possible that his administration will come through for Alabama. But even if FEMA fails to deliver the kind of relief Alabamians expect, and even if their lives do not improve during the Trump years,they will probably maintain their belief in his goodness and blame any misfortunes on others.


Previous posts include examples of failed prophecy among liberals, the NRA, economists, and a Trump supporter in the South who is young, Black, and gay.

Suicide and Well-Being. SOC 101, Week 1

March 3, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

I begin the semester with Durkheim’s idea of social facts, and I use his example of suicide rates. The rate may be made up of individual cases, but that rate takes on an existence that seems separate from those cases. It is more a property of the society or the specific group. Here are the numbers of suicides and the rate per 100,000 (age-adjusted) in New Jersey for the last four years (CDC)
2014   786 (8.3)
2015   789 (8.3)
2016   687 (7.2)
2017   795 (8.3)
In three of the four years, the numbers are nearly identical, differing by only 9 suicides in a population of over eight million. So it makes sense to think of the rate as something about the state, not about the individuals that make up that rate. Rates in the other 49 states, though they vary widely from state to state, show the same kind of stability. Each year the state produces roughly the same number of suicides.

In case students had missed the point that it’s not about individuals, I remind them, “The 789 people who killed themselves in 2015 cannot be the same 786 who killed themselves in 2014.” I add, “There aren’t many facts in social science that we’re 100% sure of, but that’s one of them.”

My second point is that while we can use individual facts to explain other individual facts, when we try to explain social facts, those same explanatory individual facts often aren’t much help. For explaining the individual suicide, it makes obvious sense to look at a variable like happiness. I’m willing to assume that people who kill themselves are not as happy as people who don’t. But are people in Greece three times as happy as Americans? 

A headline in the local papers a couple of days ago looped us back to that first week of class.

In fact, New Jersey ranked 31st. The headline is referring to a recent Gallup report (here). Gallup calls its measure “well-being,” not “happiness.”  Whatever. As for the happiest or wellest-being  states? Here’s the map.

The map of well-being looks strikingly similar to the map of suicide that I show students in Week 1. The same states that have a lot of well-being also have a lot of suicide. Here is Gallup’s list of the top ten on well-being. I have added a column to show the ranking and rate for age-adjusted suicide.

(Click for a larger, clearer view.)
All but two of the states highest on well-being are in the top twelve on suicide rates. Only Delaware has a lower-than-average suicide rate.

If happiness doesn’t keep suicide rates low, what does? Durkheim’s answer was “social integration.” Unfortunately, Gallup doesn’t have a variable by that name. But the Well-being index is a score made up of five components: Career, Financial, Physical, Social, and Community. The one that seems closest to Durkheim’s conception of social integration is not Community (“liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community”) but Social (“ having supportive relationships and love in your life”). What the scale-makers call Community does not sound a lot like Gemeinschaft. It's more an individual feeling of pride or safety. It does not require actual involvement with other people. By contrast, Social does seem to be a measure of interpersonal involvement.

Since Social seems much closer to Durkheim’s notion of social integration than does Community. So we shouldn’t be surprised that those high-suicide mountain states also rank high in Community. But mostly they are not among the highest in Social. New Jersey, with its low suicide rate, is low on Community (ranked 40th) but high on Social (9th).

There are many anomalies. Colorado, for example, comes out very well on Social and all the other sub-scales of Well-being, yet its suicide rate is 10th highest (tied with Nevada). New York  ranks in the bottom half on four of the five components, including Social, and in the bottom fifth on three of them (Community, Career, Financial), yet it has the lowest age-adjusted suicide rate among the fifty states.

The Gallup numbers do support the Durkheim explanation — not overwhelmingly, but enough for the first week of class, enough to open the door to social  explanations of what seems like a highly personal decision.