Sunday, July 22, 2007

My novel as podcasts

Last spring Harald, my first novel, was published by Baen. One friend who had heard me doing oral storytelling in the SCA commented that it read better if he imagined it in my storytelling voice. So, through the marvels of modern technology and the cooperation of my publisher ... .

The first section of Harald, the prologue and the first nine chapters, read by me, is now available as podcasts. Comments are welcome; I've done a lot of oral storytelling but this is my first venture into doing it online and I don't know how well it works. If people like it I'll do some more of it.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Income and Human Mating Patterns

I've been reading Robert Wright's The Moral Animal, which seems to be a good popular presentation of evolutionary psychology. Two points occurred to me.

1. Wright argues that monogamy tends to be associated with societies that are either very poor, so a man cannot support two families, or have fairly even income distributions, so that half of one man is almost always worth less than all of another from the woman's standpoint.

It occurs to me that the first point is also relevant to women's choice between their two alternative mating strategies, long term and short term. The long term strategy is to pair up with the most desirable man she can get and jointly produce and rear children. The short term strategy is to get pregnant by the most desirable man she can and then rear the child herself. There seems to be good evidence that both women and men are equipped for their roles in both strategies, with different preferences among potential mates according to which is being followed.

In a very poor society, the short term strategy is not viable because a woman cannot afford to bring up a child by herself–it's long term or nothing. So we would expect that rising incomes would be associated with an increasing number of women choosing the short term strategy. That, allowing for substantial time lags in social institutions, might help explain the large changes in observed behavior in developed societies over the past fifty years ago.

2. Wright cites anthropological evidence that dowry, payments by the bride's family to the groom, is almost always associated with socially enforced monogamy. His explanation is that without enforced monogamy, the very desirable--most obviously the wealthy--man can trade half of himself for all of a bride. If he can't do that, he trades all of himself for all of a bride plus some cash. (My summary of Wright's analysis, not his)

I think he is missing something. As I argued long ago in my Price Theory chapter on love and marriage, polygyny, by letting some men bid for more than one wife, bids up the price of a wife on the marriage market. If women own themselves the result is more favorable terms in marriage. If their husbands own them the result is higher bride price or lower dowry, since a dowry (ignoring lots of complications) is a negative bride price. Enforced monogamy lowers the price of a wife not merely to the man who would otherwise have had two wives but to all men, hence makes bride price less likely and dowry more likely.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

More Help Need: Louis Freeh's half hour

I'm trying to source a statement I make in the book I'm finishing up, but I don't remember where I saw it. It's something by Louis Freeh, back when he was the director of the FBI, to the effect that what they really needed was the ability to decrypt any message in half an hour.

Does any reader of this blog know if I am remembering correctly, and if so have a source for the quote?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Loaded Dice: Professor Altemeyer's response

Some time back, I had a post taking issue with research on "right wing authoritarianism" by Robert Altemeyer contained in a webbed book of his. Eventually someone called Professor Altemeyer's attention to the post and he responded in a comment. Since people are unlikely to notice an exchange in the comment section of an old post, I'm shifting the discussion to a new one.

My central complaint was that he had first defined RWA in a fashion that purported to be politically neutral, with "right wing" having to do with attitude to established authority not with whether one voted for Republicans or Democrats, and then biased his test in a way that would consistently make individuals on the political right look more authoritarian than they were and individuals on the left look less. I don't think his response adequately deals with that complaint, but perhaps if I explain why he can show me that I am mistaken.

To quote from my previous post, describing the 20 questions on whose answers Professor Altemeyer based his measure of how right wing authoritarian the responder was:

What is almost immediately obvious if you read the questions is that they aren't testing for RWA as the author defines it but for a combination of that and right/left political views. When the question is of the form "people who campaigned for unpopular causes X, Y and Z were good," X, Y and Z just happen to be causes more popular on the left than on the right. When the question is of the form "We should follow authority X," X just happens to be a source of authority, such as the church, more popular on the right than on the left. No questions about people who campaigned for unpopular right wing causes or about deferring to sources of authority popular on the left.

Professor Altemeyer responds:

"When one is measuring submission to established authority in a society, one has to mention those authorities, their views, etc. in the items."

That, of course, is true. But it doesn't answer my objection, which is about the particular authorities you selected. As I pointed out in the longer discussion in the Usenet thread, one could easily enough replace your questions with others in which the authority was one popular with the left and unpopular on the right, or the unpopular cause one popular on the right and not the left.

Suppose, for instance, that one of the questions asked whether a worker should be willing to cross a picket line and go to work if he disagreed with the decision to call a strike. Labor unions are established authorities, so someone who disagrees is demonstrating RWA as the book defines it. But I predict that that question would have shown people on the left more RWA and people on the right less than the corresponding question you used.

Similarly, if instead of asking how the responder felt about "those who challenged the law and the majority's view by protesting for women's abortion rights, for animal rights, or to abolish school prayer" you asked about those who challenged the law and the majority view by picketing abortion clinics--abortion is, after all, legal, and has been for decades--or about those who challenged the majority view by home schooling their children in order to give them a proper religious education, you would have gotten a rather different pattern of responses.

My complaint isn't that you are not measuring authoritarianism--I'm a libertarian, and I indeed came out with a fairly low score on the test. It is that you are measuring a combination of authoritarianism and right wing political beliefs. Given the bias built into your test, if a right winger and a left winger are equally authoritarian, the right winger will get a higher score. That is a fatal fault in a test which you use to justify the claim:

"In North America people who submit to the established authorities to extraordinary degrees often turn out to be political conservatives,"

You can't justify such a claim using a test which is in part testing for political conservatism.

Professor Altemeyer in his response points me at footnote 7, which deals with ambiguity and bias in the questions. So far as I can tell, it is irrelevant to my point. If his test produces a score which is, say, .6 a measure of authoritarianism and .4 a measure of political belief, the results could be internally consistent and still produce a biased result. That would be less true if my criticism applied to only a few questions, since answers on them would correlate poorly with answers on the rest of the test. But in fact, as I point out in the Usenet thread, a majority of the twenty questions are politically biased, measure political beliefs as well as authoritarianism. He has come up with an internally consistent set of questions, all right, but they are measuring the wrong thing. Indeed, given that he was discarding questions that didn't correlate well with the rest of the test, if he had put in one of mine (see below) where the political bias was reversed, he would have concluded that it was a bad question and discarded it.

Let me try to put a series of questions to Professor Altemeyer, to see if we can identify what we disagree about:

1. Is it true that, in defining "right wing authoritarianism," you claim that you are not using "right wing" in a political sense?

2. Is it true that, in your list of questions, the authorities you choose to test submission to are consistently authorities more popular with the right than the left and the anti-authoritarian causes you test approval of are consistently ones more popular with the left than the right–so consistently that there is not a single question that goes the other way?

3. Do you agree that such a set of questions will consistently show a higher level of RWA for people on the right than for people on the left, actual degree of authoritarianism held constant?

4. Do you agree that if all the above points are correct, your results cannot justify your conclusion that people on the right are more authoritarian than people on the left?

For your entertainment, here is a list of alternative questions that one would use to replace some of yours if one wished to reverse the political bias; it's from one of my usenet posts in the thread on this subject.

23: When a union calls a strike, workers should decide for themselves whether it is justified and cross picket lines to go to work if they think it is not.

24. Our country desperately needs a decisive leader who will overcome special interest politics and break the political power of big corporations in order to do what is good for the common people.

25. Fundamentalist Christians are just as healthy and moral as anybody else.

(Incidentally, the original of that, with "gays and lesbians," is another question where someone who actually thinks about it clearly will give just the opposite of the pattern the author assumes. Gays are not just as healthy as the rest of us--they have a much higher rate of AIDS. So "strongly agree" on that question means "say the politically correct thing even when I know perfectly well it is false." Which sounds like authoritarianism.)

26. It is always better to trust the consensus of the scientific community on issues such as global warming, rather than to listen to the ignorant sceptics in our society who are trying to create doubt in people's minds.

27. You have to admire those who challenged the law and the majority's view by pushing for the abolition of affirmative action, for laws allowing ordinary citizens to carry firearms for self defense, for school voucher programs to let parents get their kids out of the trap of failing public schools.

A secondary objection that I offered to the list of 20 questions was that on two of them, one mentioned in my initial post, another in the Usenet discussion, the answer of a thoughtful respondent would go the wrong way–the non-authoritarian would give what is supposed to be the authoritarian answer. In each case, the reason is that the "non-authoritarian" answer is wrong. We have no reason to believe that atheists are "every bit as" virtuous as church goers–they might be more virtuous, they might be less. We have very good reasons to believe that gays are not as healthy as non-gays, given the existence of AIDS.

Professor Altemeyer responds:

Is someone who strongly agrees with Item 6 showing authoritarian submission to a sub-group of skeptics? Possibly. But I doubt it. Atheists and agnostics have a pretty strong streak of individualism running through them--which is one of the reasons they are non-believers in a believing society."

The question isn't whether atheists are authoritarians. The question is whether some version of the idea "you aren't supposed to say that some groups of people are better than others" is common in our society. The answer is that it is, and it is the only reason I can see why someone who actually thought about those two questions would give what is supposed to be the "non-authoritarian" answers to them. Would you agree that someone who gives an answer he knows is wrong in conformity to that sort of social pressure is demonstrating what you call "right wing authoritarianism?"

Finally, let me thank Professor Altemeyer for his courteous response to my post. He didn't even complain that I should have told him I was criticizing him online–although if he had I would have responded that I have so far been unable to locate an email address for him, and snailmail and the telephone are so 20th century. My email address, in case he wants to shift part of the discussion to email, is But I hope he will also respond here.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Why Teach Evolution

Apropos of some arguments about home schooling, vouchers, Christian fundamentalists, and related issues that I've been having online, it occurs to me that there are four different reasons to teach the theory of evolution as part of K-12 education:

1. It undermines religious belief. More precisely, it provides a convincing rebuttal to the watchmaker argument for the existence of God, which is one of the more persuasive arguments for that conclusion.

2. It is intellectually interesting.

3. It is useful for teaching other things, mainly biology.

4. Understanding it is useful to most students for making sense of the world around them and making decisions relevant to their lives.

The first seems to me a good reason for parents to teach their children about evolution but a suspect reason to teach it in the public schools; under a system of separation of church and state, the government shouldn't be going out of its way to attack religion any more than it should be going out of its way to promote it.

The second is a good reason but not a very strong one, given that there are lots of intellectually interesting things that could be taught, many of which, given limited amounts of time, won't be.

The third is a good reason but again not a very strong one; high school students don't learn much biology and most of what they learn could probably be taught without explaining the underlying logic of why organisms are as they are.

The fourth, I think, is the best reason of all--but the fourth depends on actually teaching the implications of evolution, which is unlikely to happen in public (or most private) schools. To take the most obvious one, evolution implies that we are "as if designed" for reproductive success. Males and females play strikingly different roles in reproduction. Hence evolutionary theory strongly suggests that males and females should have lots of differences--not merely reproductive machinery but distribution of abilities, behavioral patterns, and the like. That prediction is strongly supported by empirical evidence. For a good popular account, see Wright The Moral Animal. But it is an implication inconsistent with a good deal of modern ideology, most obviously the main--but not only--strain of modern feminism.

There are quite a lot of other implications for our species. For instance, theory suggests and evidence supports a pattern for species such as ours, with pair mating and offspring that require substantial care, of monogamy tempered by adultery, with good evolutionary reasons for both the monogamy and the adultery.

While there are surely some people who find none of the implications offensive--myself, for instance--I doubt they make up even a large minority of the population. Hence we are unlikely to see the parts of evolutionary theory most useful to ordinary people--its implications for understanding our own species--taught.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Lott, Lambert, guns, and the Merced killings

A number of years ago, John Lott gave a talk at my university which included some particularly striking evidence of both the downside of gun control and media bias on the subject, involving the murder of two children in Merced, California. By his account, their sister, an experienced shooter, made it to the room where the family guns were, could not get at them because they were locked up due to the state's safe storage law, instead went for a neighbor--with the result that her brother and sister were killed. These facts appeared in the local paper, but the part relevant to gun control was cut from the stories in the national media.

The account was sufficiently striking that I thought it worth checking. I found the original story in the local paper. There was no mention of the locked family guns. I reported this to John, who I have known for many years, and was disappointed to later hear that he was still using the story.

Recently, the issue resurfaced on a blog, set off by a post by my son, with comments by both Tim Lambert, an online critic of John's work, John, and me. According to John he had sent me the information supporting his account, as well as webbing it on his site; while that may well be true, I never got it. Checking the information on John's site, along with the discussion of the case on Tim Lambert's site, I found:

There are indeed two stories in the Fresno Bee that mention gun control in the context of the killing, both cited and linked to on John Lott's web page. The earlier is on August 26th, three days after it happened, and quotes the children's great-uncle. It says that there was a gun, but it was "locked away and hidden." The later is August 31, and says that "Carpenter also said he had a gun at his house that he kept locked away from his children because he feared government laws." (Carpenter is the children' father)

I believe what I had found and reported to John about was the original story, probably from the day after the killing, which did not have the gun control references. However:

1. Neither later story is consistent with the most striking detail in Lott's version, in which Jessica ran for where the family guns were stored but they were locked up tight. Both refer to one gun, the earlier version says it was hidden, there is no evidence that Jessica either knew where it was or could get to it. A more detailed account by Richard Poe that I found while googling--he interviewed both the great uncle and the children's mother--makes it clear that the gun was at the other end of the house from the room Jessica locked herself into and from which she climbed out a window to get help. According to that version, the gun wasn't locked up, merely kept on a high shelf unloaded. My guess is that that version is correct; the August 31 story, which refers to the gun being locked up, gives only an indirect quote of the father.

2. The first mention of the existence of the gun that Lott cites, by the great-uncle, is in a story published in the local paper on the 26th. The one account of the killing I could find that was based on a wire service version was from the 25th. So when John objected that the national media were cutting out the anti-gun control element of the story in the local paper, he was apparently objecting to the AP not citing a local story that had not yet been published.

Putting it all together, I conclude that the Merced murders provide evidence against gun control laws, but weaker evidence than John Lott (and Vin Suprynowicz, from whom I think John got the original story) claim. Even without safe storage laws, the parents of small children--one of them was nine, I don't know if she was the youngest--would be likely to keep firearms unloaded and on a high shelf or otherwise out of easy reach. Even if the Carpenter gun had been kept loaded and in easy reach, it isn't clear whether Jessica could have gotten to it.

The case does not, contrary to John's claim, provide clear evidence of media bias. The AP story did not remove evidence of the evils of gun control from the local story that was presumably its source, because the evidence wasn't in the local paper until after the AP story went out. That conclusion might change if it turns out that there are later stories in the national media, based on later wire service versions, but I didn't find any and would be mildly surprised to find national stories on a local killing still appearing three or four days after the event.

Interested readers should check out (at least) John's version and Tim Lambert's, both linked to above--and should be glad to live at a time when one can actually get both sides of such a controversy, and a good deal of the relevant evidence, with a few clicks.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Immigration and Terrorism

Politicians concerned about immigration, in particular illegal immigration to the U.S., routinely link the issue with control of terrorism; most recently, Rudy Giuliani did so in the context of a foiled terrorism plot in the U.K. His version would make some sense if he were actually proposing that the U.S. exclude Muslim immigrants; they are, after all, more likely recruits to Al Quaeda than immigrants of other religions.

But he isn't proposing that, and neither is anyone else. As they surely all know, illegal immigrants to the U.S. are typically from Latin America or East Asia, not places with large Muslim populations. Increasing their numbers may be a good or bad thing, but it isn't going to promote terrorism.

The remaining argument, always left vague, is "control of our borders." Presumably the theory is that an Al Queda operative is going to fly into Mexico, get himself smuggled across the Rio Grande, take a bus to Washington D.C. and blow something up. Why he should go to all that trouble when the U.S. has over fifty million legal foreign visitors a year is never explained. Does anyone believe that our customs agents can spot the terrorist needle in that haystack?

Am I missing a real argument for linking the two issues, or am I correct in suspecting that it's pure demagoguery?