Monday, June 26, 2006

Some Things Never Change

"Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. "

"Lieberman has galvanized the left at a time when it's eager to flex its political muscle by attacking Democrats who don't tow the party line."
(Story in

The Orwell essay, incidentally, is a classic, well worth reading if you are not already familiar with it.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Lying with Statistics: A Second Case

"Poll: Clinton gets high 'no' vote for 2008"

That is the headline of a story on today's CNN web page. Someone who actually reads the story, however, will discover that 47% of those polled said they would definitely vote against Hilary Clinton, 47% against Kerry 48% against Gore, and 63% against Jeb Bush. It is true that McCain scored 34% and Giuliani 30%, but that puts Hilary in the middle of the unpopularity ratings and not, as the headline implies, at the top.

She did, however, have one distinction—the highest positive rating. 22% of those polled said they would definitely vote for her. The other candidates had ratings ranging from 19% (Giuliani) down to 9% (Jeb Bush).

I have to confess that my title for this post is also misleading. My previous example offered statistics that appeared, if you did not pay attention, to support its misleading headline. This one does not. Strictly speaking it is not lying with statistics but about statistics.

I should add, for the benefit of anyone to whom it is not obvious, that I am not a supporter of Hilary Clinton.

Merely of the truth.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Lying with Statistics: Today's Example

CNN: "Report: Fatalities soar after helmet law lifted"

Clicking on the link, one discovers that:

"Motorcycle fatalities involving riders without helmets have soared in the nearly six years since Gov. Jeb Bush repealed the state's mandatory helmet law, a newspaper reported Sunday.

A Florida Today analysis of federal motorcycle crash statistics found "unhelmeted" deaths in Florida rose from 22 in 1998 and 1999, the years before the helmet law repeal, to 250 in 2004, the most recent year of available data.

Total motorcycle deaths in the state have increased 67 percent, from 259 in 2000 to 432 in 2004, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.

Records, though, also show motorcycle registrations have increased 87 percent in Florida since Bush signed the helmet law repeal July 1, 2000.

Deaths went up 67%, registrations went up 87%, so deaths per motorcycle have been going down. "Unhelmeted deaths" went up steeply, which sounds convincing—until you realize that one result of not wearing a helmet is that an accident that would have killed you even with a helmet now counts as an "unhelmeted" instead of a "helmeted" death. I do not know what else changed over the period; it would be interesting so see comparable statistics from states that did not change their laws. But the evidence actually presented in the article, taken by itself, implies precisely the opposite of what the top level headline suggests.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Successful Lies

The term "subliminal" came up in a recent Usenet thread. I had a vague memory that the conventional account, according to which people could be persuaded to buy things by flashing messages at them too fast for conscious perception, was at least debatable.

It turns out, if you believe the account on Snopes, which I gather is a usually reliable source, that the conventional account is not merely debatable, it is false—the result of deliberate fraud by one James Vicary. From Snopes:

" You see, Vicary lied about the results of his experiment. When he was challenged to repeat the test by the president of the Psychological Corporation, Dr. Henry Link, Vicary's duplication of his original experiment produced no significant increase in popcorn or Coca-Cola sales. Eventually Vicary confessed that he had falsified the data from his first experiments, and some critics have since expressed doubts that he actually conducted his infamous Ft. Lee experiment at all."


"As numerous studies over the last few decades have demonstrated, subliminal advertising doesn't work; in fact, it never worked, and the whole premise was based on a lie from the very beginning. James Vicary's legacy was to ensure that a great many people will never be convinced otherwise, however."

What struck me as interesting about the account is that Vicary's fraud worked. I don't know what its long term effects were on his career, but the long term effect on our culture was to strengthen the idea that human beings are not all that rational, that what appears to be voluntary choice is often really due to fraud or coercion. Vicary's flashing messages provide a memorable and convincing argument against freedom of choice on the marketplace, and one that I see echoed in many arguments. And the fraud continues to work long after it was exposed.

For another, and perhaps more debatable, example of the same pattern, consider Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa. It was a very popular book, widely used in college courses. Part of its implicit message was that the traditional pattern of sexual behavior in our society was a mistake—an unnecessary and damaging repression of natural impulses, as demonstrated by the happy and sexually liberated youth of Samoa. While the changes in sexual behavior during the course of the 20th century surely had multiple causes, it's reasonable to view Mead's book as one of them.

Many years later, Derek Freeman, in Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth, convincingly argued that Mead's entire account was bogus. Mead did not know the language when she arrived in Samoa, was not particularly skilled in languages, and it is at least debatable whether she ever became fluent. She did not live with the people she was studying but with an American family in the village. By Freeman's account, she was heavily dependent on what she was told by a couple of teenaged informants through a translator; he thinks they were deliberately misleading her in the direction of what she wanted to believe, for their own entertainment. And she made no attempt to check the available crime statistics, which would have shown that her peaceful paradise had high rates of murder and rape.

Freeman's book set off an extensive controversy, with some anthropologists accepting his view, others defending Mead. The most interesting response I saw was by a friend and ex-colleague of Mead, who accepted Freeman's factual claim and argued that what Mead was really doing was not research but the creation of a myth, and that the spreading of that myth in our culture had good, not bad, effects.

After reading some of the controversy I think Freeman is probably correct; I remain uncertain as to whether, if so, Mead was a victim of her informants, as Freeman suggests, or deliberately dishonest. But either way, however false her account of Samoa, the effect on Europe and America, good or bad, remains. Lies can succeed.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Old News: Friedman Contra Rothbard

Many years ago, I got into an exchange on Usenet in which I argued that the part of Murray Rothbard's book on the history of economic thought that dealt with Adam Smith was a hatchet job, using selection and deliberate omission to attack Smith. David Gordon recently posted a long rebuttal and I have just posted a comment responding to the rebuttal. I don't know of any way of linking to my comment on someone else's blog, so am including it below. Interested readers may want to read my summary post from eight years ago, then Gordon's piece, then what follows. The controversy may be of interest to those interested in the history of modern libertarianism, in controversies, or both.

(My comment at

I'm not inclined to engage in a detailed rebuttal; interested readers can check the original thread against the account here. I did want to make a few points, however.

1. I wasn't arguing the question of how important Smith was or wasn't in the history of economic thought, however interesting that might have been, or of how pure a libertarian he was. Indeed, I explicitly conceded that Rothbard was correct in pointing out that many of Smith’s ideas appear in earlier works.

I was focussing on a simple question: was Rothbard's account of Smith and his French contemporaries an honest and accurate one or, as I argued, a hatchet job, deliberately distorting by omission and selection.

2. I suggest that readers consider one simple case, where David Gordon and I do not disagree on the facts, merely the interpretation: Smith's views on the wool trade. Rothbard said that Smith advocated taxing wool exports and offered that as evidence of his non-libertarian views. Rothbard did not mention that Smith was proposing the tax as a replacement for the existing situation—an absolute ban, enforced by extensive regulations and ferocious penalties, described in detail by Smith.

Gordon argues that Smith's position was not all that libertarian, since the proposal can be read as imposing a tax high enough to collect most of the gains from the repeal of the ban. Whether that is true or not, he does not deny that Rothbard accused Smith of wanting to impose taxes on the export of wool without mentioning that he was proposing the tax as an alternative to a much less free existing system--a fact that the average reader would not have known.

Perhaps David Gordon believes that an honest writer could have done that. I do not.

3. Gordon thinks I am mistaken in reading Smith as undecided between public and private support for schooling, despite Smith's plain statement that "The expense of the institutions for education and religious instruction ... might perhaps with equal propriety, and even with some advantage, be defrayed altogether by those who receive the immediate benefit of such education and instruction, or by the voluntary contribution of those who think they have occasion for either the one or the other."

Gordon wants us to read that as making a distinction between the cost of setting up schools and of maintaining them. He may not have noticed that the previous paragraph, on roads, specifically refers to "maintainance." This one does not. There is no basis in the text I have just quoted for separating out the capital cost of establishing a school from the operating cost; both are expenses.

Gordon's response is to quote an earlier passage, where Smith suggests, as one possibility, having the state establish schools, with much of the fee paid by parents. But of course, Smith in his discussion of education considers lots of alternatives. Indeed, Gordon quotes a bit from my lecture notes—where I describe the proposal in question as "Possible public role in the education of the common people." There is nothing in that passage implying that the cost of setting up a school is not part of "the expense of the institutions of ... ."

4. Vincent Cook writes:

"Moreover, Friedman and Rothbard had clashed in other contexts (especially in arguing the foundations of anarcho-capitalism)."

I'm not sure we ever did clash on that, although it's probably the most important and interesting substantive disagreement between us—assuming that what Vincent means is the disagreement on how the legal code of an anarcho-capitalist society gets produced.

But I think the real conflict was something quite different. Rothbard has a piece, webbed somewhere, in which he criticizes me for not hating the state. In his terms, he was correct. In my view, the fundamental conflict is not between bad men and good men but between mistaken beliefs and correct beliefs.

The flip side of that is that, in my view, Rothbard was consistently more interested in whether an argument was on the right side than whether it was correct. I think I have demonstrated that in the context of his attack on Smith—that he was willing to deliberately mislead his readers about the facts in order to get them to what Rothbard considered the correct conclusion. I can think of other examples.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Usenet as an Information source: Example

Recently, on the Usenet group rec.arts.sf.fandom, someone posted a detailed account of the history of a GM electric car called the EV1, produced in the 90's and then abandoned; the account was based on the poster having seen a preview of a documentary. The obvious implication of the account was that the car had been suppressed by a conspiracy between GM and Chevron, although GM's motive for suppressing it was left rather vague. I was suspicious of the account, which fitted better into the political ideology that the poster seemed to have than into my view of how the world works, but didn't know enough to judge if my suspicion was justified.

Today, there was a response—by someone who worked for the division of GM that produced the car. The response debunked essentially all of the original post, in detail. A few samples:

General Motors lost two billion dollars on the project, and lost money on every single EV1 produced. The leases didn't even cover the costs of servicing them.

The range of 130 miles is bogus. None of them ever achieved that under normal driving conditions. Running the air conditioning or heater could halve that range. Even running the headlights reduced it by 10%.

Minimum recharge time was two hours using special charging stations that except for fleet use didn't exist. The effective recharge time, using the equipment that could be installed in a lessee's garage, was eight hours. ...

NiMH batteries that had lasted up to three years in testing were failing after six months in service. There was no way to keep them from overheating without doubling the size of the battery pack. Lead-acid batteries were superior to NiMH in actual daily use.

It struck me as a wonderful example of a point I made in an earlier post—how useful Usenet is as a source of information. Once you find a newsgroup with a reasonable number of smart people having diverse positions, you get to watch both sides of an argument, for free, and end up with a reasonable idea of what the best case is that can be made for each.

And, of course, the thread is still going, so we get to watch and see if there is a persuasive rebuttal to the rebuttal.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Ritalin Puzzle

It looks as though I am going to be revising my Future Imperfect manuscript for publication, and one thing I plan to add is a chapter on mind drugs: Recreational, performance enhancing, and controlling. I have accordingly started looking into the current controversy over Ritalin and related drugs for controlling ADHD. In doing so, I was struck by a puzzle which nothing I have so far come across seems to deal with.

Currently, something like five to twenty percent of children are diagnosed with ADHD and those so diagnosed are widely claimed to be unable to function in a classroom without medication. Fifty years ago, neither Ritalin nor ADHD diagnoses existed—and classrooms functioned, judging by results, at least as well as they do now. That raises an obvious puzzle, to which I can see at least four possible solutions:

1. The rate of ADHD has drastically increased. While that is not impossible, there seems to be no plausible explanation for such an increase. The only clear evidence on causation is that ADHD is in part genetic.

2. ADHD is in large part a bogus problem—the view of many of the critics of Ritalin use. Teachers get parents to drug their kids because it's less trouble than dealing with normal kids undrugged. This seems to contradict the anecdotal evidence from lots of parents, who report large improvements in their children's behavior as a result of the drugs—but that might mean that one percent of children really have the problem and the rest don't.

3. What has changed is not the prevalence of ADHD but the environmental requirements on kids. The same child who is functional in many other environments may be a serious problem if he asked to sit still and be quiet for most of five hours a day—as many of us would be. The point was made by one mother who commented that it was odd that her child only seemed to have ADHD nine months of the year—he was fine, undrugged, during the summer. The problem with this explanation is that, fifty years ago, schools had classrooms in which kids had to sit and be quiet.

4. Fifty years ago, undiagnosed ADHD kids were a serious problem, but while we have largely solved that problem with drugs, other school problems have gotten worse, which is why, on net, things are no better now than then. That seems inconsistent with at least the stronger claims about just how much of a problem ADHD is in the classroom and how common it is.

As these brief comments suggest, I don't have a clear answer to the puzzle. Suggestions? Pointers to webbed discussions that might help?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Recycled Worries: Ed Schultz v Daniel Webster

In high school, I wrote a paper on the controversy over the Second Bank of the United States, c. 1830. I was recently reminded of it listening to Ed Schultz, a leftish talk radio host. He was going on about the horrors of U.S. external debt. After listing how many billions were held by various countries, he suggested that if a few of those countries decided they didn't like our policies on global warming or foreign affairs, we would be in deep trouble. They could call in their loans, U.S. interest rates would shoot up, and the average American homeowner would suddenly find he was paying much more for his mortgage or car loan than he expected (summary by memory, details probably wrong, basic argument I believe accurate).

There are two things wrong with this argument. The first is that the U.S. government borrows on a world capital market, and capital is fungible. If South Korea gets mad at us and South Koreans insist on cashing in U.S. treasury securities as they come due, refusing to buy any more, and investing in Japan instead, that frees up capital that would otherwise have been invested by someone else in Japan—which can then be used to buy the next issue of T-Bills. If the South Koreans decide, for some odd reason, not to invest anywhere at all, that decreases the world supply of capital by a tiny fraction of the total and pushes up world interest rates, not several fold as Mr Schultz seems to imagine, but by a minuscule amount.

Much the same mistake is made by those who explain the Iraq War as an attempt by the U.S. to make sure it can get enough oil. Oil, too, is a fungible commodity with a world market. Middle Eastern countries that depend on oil revenue are unlikely to stop pumping and selling it, whoever runs them. If Iraq decides to sell to France instead of to the U.S., that frees up whatever oil France would otherwise have bought for our use.

The second mistake was pointed out, as best I recall from my high school researches, by Daniel Webster c. 1832. Then as now, there were vocal worries about foreigners owning too much of America. Webster pointed out that foreign investment meant, not that they had our stuff, but that we had their money. If push came to shove, if foreign governments tried to pressure the U.S. by threatening to withdraw their citizens' investments, we could keep it—refuse to pay back the debt. Their capital, after all, in the form of canals and the first railroads, was immovably located under our jurisidiction.