Monday, April 27, 2015

How to Lie While Telling the Truth

I came across the following on Facebook:
"I was born a sinner too. My sin is mentioned in the Bible 25 times. I tried to change but I couldn't...  Luckily society learned to accept us left-handed people."
(Nicholas Ferroni, educator and  activist)
Pretty clearly, it carries two messages. One is that the Bible is nonsense, since it condemns people for being left-handed. The other, implicit, is that biblical condemnation of homsexuality is nonsense, since biblical condemnation of left-handedness is.

As best I can tell from a little Google searching, the first message is a lie. The Bible mentions the left hand a considerable number of times, but the usual context is something like Jesus sorting people, putting the good people at his right hand and the bad at his left. That neither says nor implies that being left-handed is a sin. Most people are right handed, so it's natural enough to use "on his right" as a positive symbol. 

Read literally, Ferroni isn't saying that the Bible claims being left-handed is a sin, only that it is a sin and is mentioned 25 times in the Bible. But since he obviously doesn't believe it is a sin, his claim only makes sense on the assumption that the Bible says it is. So far as I can tell it doesn't, although perhaps someone reading this can point at an example.

Even the literal version is probably false, since a reference to sorting people to someone's right hand and left hand isn't a reference to being left-handed, so my title understates how dishonest his claim is—my search only turned up two biblical references to left-handed people, neither of them negative. The interesting question is whether any of the people who approved of his post will be disturbed by the discovery that they were approving of a lie.

While searching for information, I came across what appears to be a Christian fundamentalist web site telling people to stop being left-handed. Reading it, in particular the faq, I am pretty sure it is a fake.  If I am correct, I am again curious as to whether people hostile to Christian fundamentalists are or are not bothered to find their position being pushed by a deliberate fraud.

Does anyone here have information showing either that it is a fake or that it isn't?

Friday, April 24, 2015

My June Speaking Trip

I am planning to spend the second half of June traveling, with talks in New Delhi and Bali. New Delhi is about half the world away from California, with the result that you can get there going either east or west. Checking airline schedules, it looks as though alternatives include a stop in, among other places, Shanghai, London, Paris or Frankfurt.

If anyone in one of those cities or nearby would like a talk, let me know. I could easily enough take an extra two days for the purpose.

P.S. Plans are now more definite. I will be flying to Delhi, with a couple of days in Shanghai en route, giving talks in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, then on to Bali. I may end up spending a day or two in Singapore on my way back home.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Slandering Charles Darwin

In an earlier post, I pointed out claims about Darwin and Galton in the work of a scholar of Islamic law which were wildly false. I have recently come across something similar in  work by a scholar of Romani history writing on the Romani holocaust:
Charles Darwin, also writing in 1871, “employed unmistakably racial terms when he noted ‘the uniform appearance in various parts of the world of Gypsies and Jews . . . which contrast[ed] sharply with all the virtues represented by the territorially settled and ‘culturally advanced’ Nordic Aryan race” (Fox, 1995:7).
The cite is not to Darwin but to Fox, another scholar of the Romani holocaust. 

The first half of the supposed quote, before the ..., is from The Descent of Man. The second half is nowhere to be found in the book. Nor is the phrase "Nordic Aryan." The full passage is:
The uniform appearance in various parts of the world of gypsies and Jews, though the uniformity of the latter has been somwhat exaggerated, is likewise an argument on the same side. A very damp or a very dry atmosphere has been supposed to be more influential in modifying the color of the skin than mere heat ; but as D'Orbigny in South America, and Livingstone in Africa, arrived at diametrically opposite conclusions with respect to dampness and dryness, any conclusion on this head must be considered as very doubtful.

Various facts, which I have elsewhere given, prove that the color of the skin and hair is sometimes correlated in a surprising manner with a complete immunity from the action of certain vegetable poisons and from the attacks of certain parasites. Hence it occurred to me, that negroes and other dark races might have acquired their dark tints by the darker individuals escaping during a long series of generations from the deadly influence of the miasmas of their native countries. (The Descent of Man, (1872), Chapter VII, p. 233)
The point of the passage is to offer an evolutionary explanation for differing physical features. It has nothing to do with the virtues or lack of them of Jews and Gypsies. The quote is, in other words, an invention. 

All of the examples of it I can find online seem to be associated with Romani scholarship. My guess is that either it was invented by someone in that literature or it was invented by someone in the 19th or early 20th century with racist views who wanted to claim that they were supported by Darwin, picked up by someone in the Romani literature who liked it and did not bother to check whether it was true, and picked up from him by more authors in that literature—who also did not bother to check a striking quote from a readily available source.

Why does this matter? Part of the reason is that the quote, like the false claims cited in my earlier post, gives a distorted picture of intellectual history. Part is that telling nasty lies about people is a bad thing to do even if they are no longer alive. 

But there is another reason it matters. The author I found the quote in is also the source of an ingenious and persuasive reconstruction of Romani history based mostly on linguistic grounds. I am not a linguist, still less a linguist of Romani, so most of the evidence for that account I have no way of checking. While on the whole it feels like competent and objective scholarship, it is clear that the author's emotions are to some extent involved, that it is a story he would like to believe. I now know that he cannot be trusted to check  facts he likes in work he publishes. That makes me less certain of facts I cannot check.

That is the same point I made in my earlier post about another fake claim.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

The Rhythm Method and Population Growth Rates

In the process of composing a recent post, I did some rough calculations on the probability of pregnancy from a randomly timed act of unprotected intercourse. It occured to me that the same calculations are relevant to a different question—the effect on population growth rates of the Catholic position on contraception.

Catholic doctrine, as I understands it, permits the use of the rhythm method, avoiding intercourse during the woman's fertile period, but regards all other forms of contraception as sinful. Critics argue that adhering to that rule results in rapid population growth in Catholic countries, which they view as a major cause of poverty. In evaluating that argument, it is important to recognize that how useful a form of contraception is depends on what you are using it for. Contraception intended for family planning, to hold down the number of children to the number a married couple want to produce, does not need to be as reliable as contraception intended to permit an unmarried woman to have regular intercourse with no significant risk of pregnancy. 

As best I could tell by a little online research, there are about four days during a woman's cycle when intercourse has about one chance in four of leading to pregnancy, with a much lower chance on a few more days. Imagine that a married couple is having intercourse twice a week, with no attempt to avoid the wife's fertile period. That should, on average, produce a pregnancy about every four months, hence reproduction at almost the biological maximum. 

Suppose they are Catholics trying to hold down the number of children they produce by avoiding intercourse during the wife's fertile period. They do not do a perfect job of calculating the fertile period and keeping track of it, so one month a year they end up having intercourse during it. The result is one pregnancy about every four years. A woman cannot get pregnant when she is already pregnant and fertility is substantially reduced while she is nursing an infant, which reduces it to about one pregnancy every five years. About 15-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, so that makes it about one child every six years. 

Fertility starts to drop in the early thirties, declines faster in the late thirties. Since this is a back of the envelope calculation, I will assume that a woman marries at twenty and becomes infertile at forty. One child every six years for twenty years produces, on average, three and a third children. I am considering the situation in a relatively poor society, so about a third of children will die before they reach reproductive age. We are now down to each couple producing just over two adult children, hence a population growing very slowly—well below one percent a year.

I have left out a variety of complications. Some births produce twins, pushing the number up a little. Some husbands or wives are infertile and some women never marry or marry late, pushing it down a good deal. But the bottom line seems to be that, while other forms of contraception are more convenient, in particular make it easier to control the timing of births, the rhythm method is adequate to give married couples who want to have children a reasonably effective way of controlling how many they have.

Suppose we view Catholic doctrine not as moral philosophy but as social engineering. The obvious interpretation of the ban on other forms of contraception is that it is designed to discourage non-marital sex by making it unacceptably risky, while permitting married couples to engage in an adequate level of family planning.

This leads to another question—why have birth rates in at least some poor Catholic countries been much higher than my calculations suggest? One possible answer is that most using the rhythm method are doing it incompetently, either through careless calculation or inadequate willpower. Another, and I think more plausible, answer, is that most couples in such societies chose to have large families.

That fits with my view of a similar issue in a different context. Back when contraception and abortion in the U.S. faced significant legal barriers, the most prominent argument for legalizing them was to prevent "unwanted children." The implicit assumption was that most births to unmarried women were unintended, would not have occurred if the women had access to adequate contraception or, if that failed, legal abortion. As someone put it, "mistakes cause people."

If that assumption was correct, legalized abortion and the widespread availability of contraception should have led to a sharp drop in the non-marital birthrate. What actually happened was the precise opposite. In 1965, when Griswold v. Connecticut established a constitutional right to access to contraception (for married couples, but a case a few years later extended it to the unmarried), the rate of births to unmarried women in the U.S. was below 8%. It is currently about 40%.

The obvious conclusion is that births to unmarried mothers, for the most part, are not and were not unwanted. That explains why they did not fall. A possible explanation of why they instead rose can be found in an old article by Akerlof, Yellen and Katz or, in a less elaborate mathematical form, in Chapter 13 of my Law's Order (search for "Akerlof").

Friday, April 03, 2015

California Drought—Getting Worse or Getting Better?

News stories about the Governor's actions to deal with the water shortage emphasize how low the snowpack is this year. But while some of the water used in California comes from melting snow, more comes from rain stored in reservoirs, and none of the stories I saw gave figures for either the reservoirs or the total. Being of a suspicious nature, it occurred to me that if snowpack went down and reservoirs went up, people who wanted to make a point of the water shortage would be likely to emphasize the first and ignore the second. That would include both people trying to encourage reductions in consumption in California and people trying to use the California drought to promote concern with climate change more generally.

I have not yet found a figure for the change in the total amount of water in reservoirs—readers who have are welcome to point me at it. But I did find charts showing the individual reservoirs. Lake Shasta, the largest, is up substantially. Of the others, some are up, some down. My guess is that the total is up a little, although probably not by enough to balance the reduction in snow pack, but with only bar charts to go on it's hard to be sure. 

Here are the charts:

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Ernest Hemingway, FBI Victim, Spy Wannabe, Both or Neither?

I recently came across, via a blog comment, an old New York Times story about Hemingway. The author, A. E. Hotchner, reported that in his final years Hemingway was believed by his friends to be paranoid because he thought the FBI was spying on him—but that the FBI really had been spying on him, as revealed much later by documents turned up under the Freedom of Information Act. There was some suggestion that the FBI had driven him to his eventual suicide.

I went looking for more information and discovered an FBI file on Hemingway, released under the FOIA and webbed. It is an interesting document, but it provides very little support for Hotchner's claims.

Most of the file deals with events in Cuba during WWII. Hemingway, who was friends with people in the U.S. Embassy, had offered to use his contacts among Spanish Republican exiles to get intelligence information about activities in Cuba by the Franco government. The relevant FBI agent thought such information would be useful.

Hemingway ended up, at least by his own account (reported by the FBI agent, presumably from his contacts in the Embassy) setting up his own spy network. The FBI concluded, however, that the information being produced was worthless, "that it is completely unreliable, that the time taken to investigate it and check on it is purely wasted time and wasted effort, ... ."  

My favorite sample of Hemingway's work, from one of the FBI reports:
He enjoys the complete personal confidence of the American Ambassador and the Legal Attache has witnessed conferences where the Ambassador observed Hemingway's opinions as gospel and followed enthusiastically Hemingway's warning of the probable seizure of Cuba by a force of 30,000 Germans transported to the island in 1,000 submarines.
Hotchner writes about the FBI file that "It revealed that beginning in the 1940s J. Edgar Hoover had placed Ernest under surveillance because he was suspicious of Ernest’s activities in Cuba." That's an odd way of describing what is actually there.

There is very little in the file from the post WWII period. The most nearly relevant bit is a report about Hemingway as a patient at Mayo:
 “(something whited out) Mayo Clinic, advised to eliminate publicity and contacts by newsmen, the Clinic had suggested that Mr. Hemingway register under the alias GEORGE SEVIER. (something whited out) stated that Mr. HEMINGWAY is now worried about his registering under an assumed name, and is concerned about an FBI investigation. (something whited out) stated that inasmuch as this worry was interfering with the treatment of Mr. HEMINGWAY, he desired authorization to tell HEMINGWAY that the FBI was not concerned with his registering under an assumed name. (something whited out) was advised that there was no objection.”
That tells us that Hemingway thought the FBI was watching him, not that they were.

Hotchner writes:
Over the following years, agents filed reports on him and tapped his phones. The surveillance continued all through his confinement at St. Mary’s Hospital. It is likely that the phone outside his room was tapped after all.
Looking through the webbed file, I could find no evidence that the FBI ever tapped Hemingway's phone or that he was under surveillance at any time. The "reports on him" after the Cuban episode consist of:

Reports summarizing information about Hemingway from FBI files, sent in response to queries from elsewhere in the government.

Two pieces apparently dealing with a dispute between Hemingway and Ted Scott, a New Zealand columnist, which had led to Scott challenging Hemingway to a duel, a challenge Hemingway declined.

A description of an interview in which Hemingway, returning to Cuba from Spain in 1959, said positive things about the Castro government.

It is possible that there is some other collection of FBI files on Hemingway released under FOIA, but it does not seem likely. If the collection I found and read is Hotchner's source,  he is badly misstating what is in it. Presumably, since he was telling a story people, including his editors at the Times, wanted to believe,  they made no effort to check whether it was true.

I found, from another source, a report of Hemingway being at some point a spy for the KGB:
However, he failed to “give us any political information” and was never “verified in practical work”, so contacts with Argo [Hemingway] had ceased by the end of the decade.”
That fits the same pattern. Hemingway pretended to do important things along secret agent/spymaster lines both for the U.S. government and for the Soviets. Both found him useless.

[I have been unable to find an email address for Hotchner, so couldn't ask him where in the FBI file he found evidence of phone taps or continued surveillance. With luck someone will point him at this post, in which case he is more than welcome to defend what he wrote.]

Duck Dynasty, Medieval Islam, and Moral Philosophy

There was a recent public flap, brought to my attention by a post on my favorite blog, over a speech by Phil Robertson, the patriarch of Duck Dynasty. Its claim was that an atheist had no basis for moral judgement, no ground on which to describe horrific acts (described in some detail in the talk) as bad.

It occurred to me that the same claim had played a central role in a somewhat earlier argument, the dispute between two schools of philosophy, Ash'ari and Mu'tazila, in medieval Islam. One of the major points of disagreement between them was the question of whether it was possible to know good and evil, to at least some degree, by human reason or only by revelation. The Mu'tazili position was that it was knowable by reason, the Ash'ari position that it was not.

I see a logical problem with both Robertson's position and the position of his Ash'arite predecessors. You encounter a powerful supernatural being. If you have no ability to distinguish good from evil on your own, how can you tell whether he is God, the Devil, or, like the Greek and Norse gods, a morally ambiguous being, no more consistently good than the rest of us?

I doubt that Robertson has published much on moral philosophy, but does anyone know if this is an issue that has been explored in the literature, ancient or modern, and if so whether anyone has come up with a good rebuttal to my argument, which seems to imply that both believers and nonbelievers need some source of moral knowledge outside of religion?

Age Related Fertility Decline and the Link Between Facts and Policies

I recently heard a talk by a colleague on the issue of age related fertility decline. Her basic claim was that, although most women know it exists, most women badly underestimate how serious the problem is and how limited a solution assisted reproductive technology provides, with the result that many women who want children end up not having them. One policy proposal she offered was that sex education classes ought to include information on fertility decline. 

It struck me, listening to the talk, that in this case as in many others, the same facts can be used to support a wide range of different political conclusions. In this case ...

It sounded as though opposition to the idea of warning women about the risks, including criticism of the data on which the warnings were based, came largely from feminists concerned that such warnings would scare women out of career paths that included delayed motherhood. That is indeed one possible consequence. Pushing the argument further in that direction, one could argue that fertility decline is not only an argument in favor of the traditional family pattern, women marrying reasonably young and putting most of their efforts into the job of wife and mother, it is even an argument in favor of traditional sexual mores. In order for women to marry young there have to be men willing to marry them, and one reason why, in a more traditional society, men were willing to marry was that it was the only reliable way of getting sex. The more common and accepted nomarital sex is, the weaker that argument.

On the other hand ...

Someone with a different political orientation could use  the same facts to argue for a different set of conclusions. If waiting to have children until late in one's thirties or after risks never having them, and if having children earlier than that makes a serious career difficult or impossible under current circumstances, that might be an argument for changing those circumstances. If you take the desirability of career options for women as a given, fertility decline becomes a reason why husbands should do more of the work of taking care of children, employers be more willing to provide on site nurseries, offer extended periods of leave or part time work to new mothers, why social institutions should change to make it easier for women to combine career and motherhood before they get too old to make the latter a reliable option.

Similar considerations apply to the proposal to include information on fertility decline in sex education. As another member of the audience pointed out, that might make sex education more popular with conservatives, since it would be teaching how to have babies as well as how not to have them, the latter being how current sex education is often viewed.

On the other hand, one might argue that fully accurate information about fertility would have a perverse effect. Current campaigns pushing contraception leave the impression that unprotected sex is likely to lead to pregnancy, which is an argument both for contraception and against sex. Accurate information, as best I can tell by a little online search, would tell students that a single act of unprotected intercourse, randomly timed, has only about one chance in forty of resulting in pregnancy—less if the couple make an attempt to avoid the woman's fertile period. To adventurous teenagers, one chance in forty might look pretty safe, especially if they tell themselves that they are only going to try it once. So accurate information, not about fertility decline but about fertility, might easily produce an increase in the teen pregnancy rate.

My own conclusion from such considerations is that the best rule is to try to tell the truth. Whatever information you provide people, you cannot predict how they will use it, so trying to bias the facts to produce the result you want is quite likely not to work, might even have the opposite of the intended result. At least if you tell people the truth, you reduce one source of incorrect decisions.

Which is part of why I try, in my own writing, to give the arguments against my position as well as the arguments for. In support of which immodest claim I offer Chapter 55 from part V of the new third edition of my first book, which presents and discusses an argument against the stability of the set of institutions that I spent part III of the book describing and defending.