Experiments and the Real World

May 26, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two days ago, the NY Times published an op-ed by Tali Sharot and Cass Sunstein, “Would You Go to a Republican Doctor?” It is based on a single social psychology experiment. That experiment does not involve going to the doctor. It does not involve anything resembling choices that people make in their real lives. I was going to blog about it, but Anderw Gelman (here) beat me to it and has done a much better and more thorough job than I could have done. Here, for example, is a quote from the op-ed and Gelman’s follow-up.

“Knowing a person’s political leanings should not affect your assessment of how good a doctor she is — or whether she is likely to be a good accountant or a talented architect. But in practice, does it?”

I followed the link to the research article and did a quick search. The words “doctor,” “accountant,” and “architect” appear . . . exactly zero times.

Gelman takes the article apart piece by piece. But when you put the pieces together, what you get is a picture of the larger problem with experiments. They are metaphors or analogies. They are clever and contrived. They can sharpen our view of the world outside the lab, the “real” world  — but they are not that world.

 “My love is like a red, red rose.” Well, yes, Bobby, in some ways she is. But she is not in fact a red, red rose.

Here is the world of the Sharot-Sunstein experiment.

We assigned people the most boring imaginable task: to sort 204 colored geometric shapes into one of two categories, “blaps” and “not blaps,” based on the shape’s features. We invented the term “blap,” and the participants had to try to figure out by trial and error what made a shape a blap. Unknown to the participants, whether a shape was deemed a blap was in fact random.

The 97 Mechanical Turkers in the experiment had to work with a partner (that is, they thought they would work with a partner – there was no actual collaboration and no actual partner). Players thought they would be paid according to how well they sorted blaps. The result:

[The players] most often chose to hear about blaps from co-players who were politically like-minded, even when those with different political views were much better at the task.

To repeat, despite the title of the article (“Would You Go to a Republican Doctor?”), this experiment was not about choosing a doctor. To get to New York Times readers choosing doctors, you have to make a long inferential leap from Mechanical Turkers choosing blap-sorters. Sharot-Sunstein are saying, “My partner in sorting ‘blaps’ is like a red, red rose a doctor or an architect.” Well, yes, but . . . .

See the Gelman post for the full critique.

Full disclosure: my dentist has a MAGA hat in his office, and I’m still going back for a crown next month. A crown is like a hat in some ways, but not in others. 

Clinton-Patterson — The Copy Editor Is Missing

May 25, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Entertainment Weekly has posted an excerpt from the new novel co-written by Bill Clinton and James Patterson.

Here is the opening of that excerpt.

Everything I did was to protect my country. I’d do it again. The problem is, I can’t say any of that.

“All I can tell you is that I have always acted with the security of my country in mind. And I always will.”

I see Carolyn in the corner, reading something on her phone, responding. I keep eye contact in case I need to drop everything and act on it. Something from General Burke at CENTCOM? From the under secretary of defense? From the Imminent Threat Response Team? We have a lot of balls in the air right now, trying to monitor and defend against this threat. The other shoe could drop at any minute. We think—we hope—that we have another day, at least. But the only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain. We have to be ready any minute, right now, in case—[emphasis added]

I confess I have never read any books by either of these authors. I voted for one of them, and the other has given a fair amount of money to the school where I work. But despite these considerations, I cannot shirk my duty to point out the mixed metaphors. Maybe they’re the result of mixed authorship. Did Clinton like the “balls” and Patterson* the “shoe”? And where was the copy editor who is supposed to spot these kinds of miscue?

* Multiple authorship is nothing new for Patterson. He does not actually “write” his own books, in the usual sense of write. “Patterson delivers exhaustive notes and outlines, sometimes running 80 pages, to co-authors, . .  a stable of writers that rivals this year’s field at the Kentucky Derby. ‘It may be a factory,’ Robinson says, ‘but it’s a hand-tooled factory.” (WaPo)

Philip Roth, Buses, and Me

May 23, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

I met Philip Roth once, in March 1988. It was in the Port Authority, in the waiting room for the bus to Newark Airport.  He was sitting in one of the seats against the far wall.  The other areas were about equally full, so I walked towards him.  He looked up and saw me looking at him.  I sat down one seat away.

“You’re Philip Roth, aren’t you?” I asked, by way of explaining why I had been looking at him. 

“Yes,” he said.  “Who are you?”

“Nobody,” I said.  “A reader.”

“A reader,” he repeated as though to himself, “well, that’s good.”

The rest of the time in the waiting room, he spoke to the woman on his left, who I assumed was Claire Bloom.  I could catch bits and pieces of her conversation, the British accent.

On the bus, he wound up sitting across the aisle from me.  I searched my mind for the right opening.  Finally, when he was not speaking with Ms. Bloom, I said, “Is it often that you get recognized in bus stations?”

“It depends,” he said.  “If the bus is going to Newark, there’s usually somebody.”

Roth readers less forgetful than I am will recall the opening line from Zuckerman Unbound (1981). “What the hell are you doing on a bus with your dough?” a fellow passenger asks the very Roth-like Zuckerman.

The other Roth bus quote has stayed in my mind. It’s the opening of a chapter in Portnoy’s Complaint: “Did I mention, Doctor, that when I was fifteen I took it out of my pants and whacked off on the 107 bus from New York?”

But I didn’t think of either of those at the time. For much of the remaining twenty minutes of the trip, I actually carried on a conversation with him.  We talked about the decline of journals like Partisan Review.  I asked if he were still active in getting Eastern European writers published in the US.  He said (I think) that there was not a lot of material there.  I asked if he had helped to get Kundera first published here.  He said that he had helped get some of his stories published.

He asked me if I’d read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and said that he hadn’t thought much of the movie.  Here is approximately what I said:  I was disappointed.  It didn’t seem as good as The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, especially “Lost Letters.”  The author seemed more distant from the characters, less involved with them, as though he didn’t care so much about them.

“I think you’re right,” Philip Roth said.
Did he really think I was right?  Maybe he was just being polite.  Maybe, even if he thought I was right, he also thought that the point was irrelevant.  I should have asked him what he thought, but then I didn’t think it was fair to ask a writer to comment on the work of another. It was probably the kind of question he got asked all the time. 
When he got off the bus, he shook my hand and said it was nice meeting me.  I, of course, said the same.

Anachronistic Language and Television — On Second Thought

May 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A comment on my post about language anachronisms in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (here) has me rethinking my position. Maybe it’s not just a matter of right and wrong, historical accuracy or inaccuracy. It’s also about cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. Much as I dislike the anachronisms, maybe I wouldn’t like the show so much if it were linguistically faithful to the period.

With the props, there’s no problem. We’re all cultural relativists. We think about those objects in the context of the times. We don’t mind a Studebaker parked in the street. And we’d howl if it were a Camry. But when it comes to language, we’re ethnocentrists, judging yesterday’s language by today’s norms. 

To get a sense of this, I tried a thought experiment: What if the characters in the show spoke the way people in 1958 really spoke? Most of the dialogue would be the same, of course, especially for her parents and the other more conventional people in the show.  But the people in a hip Greenwich Village club would be using words and phrases that were cool then but have long since disappeared.

Imagine Midge and Susie in conversation.

SUSIE: Nice necklace
MIDGE: Yeah, some cat that was here last week laid it on me for twenty bucks.
SUSIE: Solid! You could hock it for more bread than that.
MIDGE: But I think it’s hot, you dig?
SUSIE: Nah, he’s probably just like that with chicks.
I exaggerate.  My point is that we can accept the period decor – the clothes and cars and furniture. Those are externals. If I were to walk around on the sound stage of Mrs. Maisel, I’d still be me. But language is internal. We think it tells us about the person, not the historical period. The outdated language makes the character a different person, and we don’t feel as close to her as we would if she spoke like us. Dig and cat and bread make her less (to use the current and very recent term) “relatable.” (Of course, given the show’s penchant for anachronism, I wouldn’t be surprised if in Season Two Susie tells Midge, “If you’re gonna do stand up, you gotta be relatable.)

It’s easy to be a cultural relativist when it comes to the physical world. OK, we think, this is what a living room was like in 1958. We don’t think, “What kind of person would watch an old TV like that?” But with language, we’re more ethnocentric. Using those obsolete words today would seem forced and phony, so we make the same inferences about the characters that use them. “What kind of person would speak like that?” we ask. And the answer is, “Someone trying too hard to get us to think they’re hip.”

By contrast, unless our anachronism sensors are tuned in, when we hear them talk about “kicking ass” or being “out of the loop,” we think that they’re speaking “naturally” —  using standard language to convey information, not to create an impression. They’re not phony, they’re relatable.