Another Blog Year

September 19, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

A new year begins. L' shana tovah. A blog year ends. The first post in this blog was 14 years ago today. I have been blogging less and less often, and that trend will probably continue. Meanwhile, as for tooting my own shofar, here are a few posts from this past year. that I’ve liked.

Proclaiming an Idealized History
The preference for an idealized history has great appeal to the authoritarian mind. I posted this a year ago, but just this week Trump called for a “patriotic history.”

Raise Your Dog to Be an American
Sometimes it takes an extreme version, one that seems like a parody, to get us to realize that our cultural ideas are particular and even peculiar. Most of the time, we assume that they are “natural” and universal.

Acting and Reacting as an Agent of Culture
 A sequel to the previous post. Even social scientists, me for example, can fail to see how their own reactions in everyday life are constrained by their culture.

Impostor Syndrome and Cultural Rules
Impostor Syndrome, an Idea Whose Time Has Come . . . Again
I take my hat off to no one when it comes to feeling like an impostor. But maybe these private feelings are a product of the society. Maybe  impostor syndrome is less prevalent in cultures less success-obsessed than the US – for example, Great Britain.

Abortion Rights and Motherhood — That Was Then, It’s Also Now
Abortion will once again become a newsworthy topic. The arguments will be about rights – rights of the unborn, rights of women. But underlying these arguments are more profound differences about the proper role of women in society.

Counterphobic vs. A Healthy Fear

September 3, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Do you know the term counterphobic?” the professor asked. This was in an undergrad sociology class in the early sixties. He was talking about some work he’d done for a marketing research company (“I’m not proud of it, but I was very young and very broke”). They wanted to know about the typical user of some product.

Counterphobic is a term coined in 1939 by psychoanalyst Otto Fenichel, and unless you were up on trends in Freudian theory, you’d have no idea what it meant. We weren’t and we didn’t.

The professor tried again. “It’s like someone who’s muy macho.” In 1963, to a roomful of White, mostly Jewish, mostly middle- or upper-middle class 20-year olds, macho wasn’t much more helpful than counterphobic.

He tried again. “You know, a Camel-smoker type.” Were we aware of the social-psychological differences between people who preferred one cigarette to another? We were not.

I’m not sure if the professor ever did get the concept across, but I was reminded of that moment today when I saw this tweet.

Turns out the people dying from covid are old or sick or both. How many 
of you pussy’s [sic] got played ? and who’s going to get played the next time.

I doubt that Adam Carolla smokes Camels, and in any case the Camel “brand” is no longer what it was a half-century ago (when it would have been called the Camel “image”). But he is the walking, talking, tweeting definition of counterphobic. He refuses to recognize a real danger and moves towards it rather than away. And he equates this response with a machismo-like masculinity.

He is not alone. For many on the right, the mask has become imbued with notions of both politics and gender. It’s not that the anti-maskers oppose the general idea of protecting themselves and others. That’s their main justification for their guns. Of course, guns, even as protection, work by allowing the gunslinger to dominate other people. Muy macho. But industrial hard hats have no intrinsic message of domination; they are purely protective. Yet for the past half-century, they have carried the same political and gender symbolism as guns. Nobody is accusing people  who wear hard hats of being pussies.

I wonder what the macho anti-maskers make of professional athletes, who seem quite willing to cooperate with the protective measures the leagues have imposed. The athletes are probably well aware that even young and otherwise healthy people who get Covid-19 and suffer only mild symptoms may yet have long term heart or lung damage. Some may call that attitude of caution a matter of pussies being played. Others think of it as “a healthy fear.”

Watching Your Language — Gerunds and the Fantasy Echo

August 27, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gabriel Rossman has a very funny Twitter thread today detailing the mistakes he found when he reviewed the transcription of his lectures made by UCLA software (Kaltura). One llecture included a reference to the Trojan War and the Greek warrior Diomedes.

Similar human mis-hearings (officially “mondegreens”) are so common in rock music that they fill countless webpages. Many of these mondegreens — e.g., “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy”  — make perfect sense. So does diabetes. They’re just out of place.

But Kaltura also transcribed “emergent from norms of gerontocracy” as “emergent from ruins of gerund talk receipt,” which makes no sense.

But is Kaltura so much more ignorant than the students. How many undergraduates would recognize the name Diomedes? And how many would have a good idea of just what “norms of gerontocracy” are? Or even what a gerontocracy is?

I was reminded of a story from my undergraduate days* — so we’re going way back before transcription software or, to be honest, 8-track tape. The poet Allen Grossman was grading the final exam of his course on (I think) modern poetry, modernism defined as beginning around 1890. In one of the first blue books he read through, he was struck by the phrase “fantasy echo.” What a striking coinage for an undergrad to come up with, and yet it captured the feel of some early modern poetry.

But then the same phrase appeared in the essay of another student and then another. They couldn’t all have separately invented the same unusual metaphor. He thought back over the readings and his lectures. No fantasy echoes there. But then he realized that he had spoken frequently about the fin-de-siècle, and he had given the term his best French pronunciation. I don’t know whether in subsequent semesters he resigned himself to “turn of the century.”

And now I can’t stop think about “ruins of gerund talk receipt.” I hear a fantasy echo of grumbling, of the crumpling of a receipt, strewn on the ground by a language student who has passed the orals, or at least the part on gerunds.

*The story has become something of an urban legend, ascribed to various teachers on various campuses. The OG prof may well be George Mosse, with the phrase cropping up in a history course he taught at the University of Wisconsin in 1964. (See here.) The Brandeis version I heard dates back to roughly the same time, so that’s my narrative (comme on dit), and I’m sticking to it.

Miracle Cures and Doing the Math

August 25, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

When Jill Lepore, in an article on police,  misreported a percentage from a research study, I said (here),  “If a number just doesn’t sound right — it’s way too big or way too small — you’d better double-check.”

On Sunday, FDA commissioner Dr. Stephen M. Hahn cited a Mayo Clinic study showing that blood-plasma treatment for Covid-19 yielded a 35% reduction in mortality. Here’s how Dr. Hahn explained it.

So let me just put this in perspective. Many of you know I was a cancer doctor before I became FDA commissioner, and a thirty-five percent improvement in survival is a pretty substantial clinical benefit. What that means is . . . 100 people who are sick with Covid-19, thirty-five would have been saved by the administration of plasma.

Not just pretty substantial, very substantial. So substantial that maybe we should double-check. When we do, this is what we find:
The Mayo Clinic study measured 7-day mortality rates.
  • Of patients who did not receive plasma, 11.9% died
  • Of patients who did receive plasma, 8.7% died

If you lower  something from 11.9 to 8.7, that’s a 35% reduction (11.9 - 8.7 = 3.2. and 3.2 is about 35% of the original rate). Dr. Hahn mistook the reduction in the percent of mortality for a reduction in number of patients who died. For 100 Covid patients, the number of lives saved by plasma would be closer to 3, not 35.

Hahn made his statement at a press conference Sunday night. Trump and HHS secretary Alex Azar were also there and emphasized the 35% figure (see this Bloomberg story). But other scientists who heard about the claim quickly pointed out the error. Within twenty-four hours, Hahn admitted his error, saying in a Tweet, “I have been criticized for remarks I made Sunday night about the benefits of convalescent plasma. The criticism is entirely justified.” 

I wonder if President Trump and Secretary Azar will offer similar corrections. No I don’t. Trump keeps promising Covid miracles, so he will continue to tout plasma as a miracle cure along with his other pet miracle cure hydroxy chloroquine and whatever other miracle cures come along until Covid 19 disappears. Like a miracle.