From the monthly archives:

January 2004

Worldly philosophers

by Henry on January 31, 2004

Quote of the week from “Tyler Cowen”:

bq. I’ve been an economist for so long that I don’t flinch when the paper abstract starts as follows:

bq. “This paper models love-making as a signaling game. In the act of love-making, man and woman send each other possibly deceptive signals about their true state of ecstasy. Each has a prior belief about the other’s state of ecstasy. These prior beliefs are associated with the other’s sexual response capacity…”

Fooling the shrinks

by Chris Bertram on January 31, 2004

The Guardian has “a readable and disturbing piece”:,3605,1134105,00.html about what happens if you try to fake your way into a mental instutution:

bq. In 1972, David Rosenhan, a newly minted psychologist with a joint degree in law, called eight friends and said something like, “Are you busy next month? Would you have time to fake your way into a mental hospital and see what happens?”

Lauren Slater reports on the extreme hostility this researcher faced when he published and since, on the fact that his fellow inmates could tell he was sane even when the doctors couldn’t, on how he wrote down his experiences and had this labelled as “writing behavior” (which I suppose it was). But what would happen if you tried to do the same thing today? Slater tried ….

Economists and Society

by Kieran Healy on January 31, 2004

This should really be a comment to John’s post, because he beat me to the punch on this story. Nevertheless I will abuse my privilege as a CT member and rail at the Times item about McCleary and Barro’s paper on religion and economic growth. Religion is now officially relevant to economic growth because the McCleary and Barro paper “uses a sophisticated analysis of a huge set of data to quantify the arguments of anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists.” Just as a place cannot really be said to exist until it has been photographed by Japanese tourists, it seems no research question in the social sciences can be said to have been investigated until the economics department hears about it.

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European anti-Semitism

by Chris Bertram on January 31, 2004

It is a great pity that so much of the media is disappearing behing subscription-only walls. This includes the Financial Times where the estimable Simon Kuper has “a subscription-only article”: debunking the common American perception of a rise in European anti-Semitism. Some facts from the article. Kuper reports on two opinion polls conducted by the Anti-Defamation League in Western Europe in 2002. These found that roughly a quarter of Europeans had some anti-Semitic attitudes. This compares with a similar ADL survey in the US in the same year which has 17 percent of Americans espousing anti-Semitic views. Not a great difference, and one brought further into perspective when we learn that most anti-Semitic Europeans are over 65 whereas age is not a good predictor of such views among Americans. True, there has been a significant increase in anti-Jewish violence (especially by young Muslims in France), but in the US the FBI recordes 1039 hate crimes against Jews in 2002. There also doesn’t seem to be a very good correlation between attitudes to Israel and anti-Semitism: 7 per cent of the Dutch population are judged to be anti-Semitic by the ADL which is a lower figure than anywhere else in either Europe or the US, but 74 per cent of the Dutch view Israel as a threat. Attitudes to Israel are pretty mixed though, with Europeans more likely to blame Israel than the Palestinians for the current situation (but only by 27 per cent to 20, with the rest presumably “don’t knows” or distributing blame equally). 86 per cent of Europeans see no justification for suicide bombers. None of this is reason for complacency, of course, but the view peddled by US-based commentators such as Thomas Friedman and their blogospheric echo-chamber of Europe as a seething cauldron of ancient Jew-hatred is plainly garbage.

ID Rebutted c.1805

by Kieran Healy on January 31, 2004

An episode of Blackadder I just watched makes a point relevant to recent discussion on the plausibility of alternatives to the theory of evolution:

Blackadder [to Baldrick]: If I don’t come up with an idea soon, in the morning we’ll both go to meet our maker. In my case, God; in your case, God knows — but I doubt he’s won any design awards.

Elephants and camels

by John Quiggin on January 31, 2004

Via David Appell, I came across this marvellous quote from Freeman Dyson

In desperation I asked Fermi whether he was not impressed by the agreement between our calculated numbers and his measured numbers. He replied, “How many arbitrary parameters did you use for your calculations?” I thought for a moment about our cut-off procedures and said, “Four.” He said, “I remember my friend Johnny von Neumann used to say, with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.”

It came to mind when I read this story in the NYT with the introductory claim What really stimulates economic growth is whether you believe in an afterlife — especially hell.The report is of some estimations done by Rachel M. McCleary and Robert J. Barro (the story notes that the two are married) published in American Sociological Review.

Barro is probably the biggest name in the field of cross-country growth regressions (a field in which I’ve also dabbled), and I’m sure he’s aware that thousands of these regressions have been run and that, with very limited exceptions, results that particular factors are conducive to growth have proved highly fragile. I haven’t read the paper, so for all I know, the results have been checked for robustness in every possible way. But my eyebrows went up when I saw this para

Oddly enough, the research also showed that at a certain point, increases in church, mosque and synagogue attendance tended to depress economic growth. Mr. Barro, a renowned economist, and Ms. McCleary, a lecturer in Harvard’s government department, theorized that larger attendance figures could mean that religious institutions were using up a disproportionate share of resources.

What this means is that at least two parameters have been used in fitting growth to religiosity and that the two have opposite signs – most likely it’s some sort of quadratic. In my experience, there’s always at least one arbitrary choice made in the pretesting of these models (for example once you have a quadratic, the scaling of variables becomes critical). That gives three free parameters, if not more.

I’m no John von Neumann, but with two parameters I can fit a dromedary and with three I can do a Bactrian camel.

New discoveries in evolutionary psychology

by John Quiggin on January 31, 2004

I just got the latest issue of Scientific American, and noted with interest the Table of Contents, in which the Skeptic column promised an evolutionary explanation of the mutiny on the Bounty. I vaguely expected the usual stuff about alpha and beta males or somesuch, but I found that the ev psych boffins have come up with a startling new discovery. Young men like having sex. At this point the mathematics and biochemistry get a bit complicated for me (oxytocin is in there somewhere), but apparently this has something to do with the survival of the species.

Even more startling, though, is the fact that

Although Bligh preceded Charles Darwin by nearly a century,

he managed to anticipate this discovery. Who would have thought that a former governor of New South Wales (and not a successful one) would share with EO Wilson and Stephen Pinker the honour of founding evolutionary psychology? In Bligh’s words

I can only conjecture that they have Idealy assured themselves of a more happy life among the Otaheitians than they could possibly have in England, which joined to some Female connections has most likely been the leading cause of the whole business.

Delivery times are somewhat strange here in the Antipodes, and I thought perhaps I had an advance copy of the April edition, but the cover says February.

State Considers Banning ‘Evolution’

by Brian on January 30, 2004

Via CNN.

The state’s school superintendent has proposed striking the word evolution from Georgia’s science curriculum and replacing it with the phrase “biological changes over time.”

From the details it looks like this is repeating the Kansan tragedy as farce, and since the proposal has bipartisan opposition this farce probably won’t go far. But don’t you just love a country where scientific theories that are accepted universally within the relevant scientific community are the subject of partisan disagreements? If this were happening in a tiny unimportant country it would be the stuff of late-night comedy. Instead, well it probably is a little tragic.

He Wanna Be Adored

by Brian on January 30, 2004

This is a fairly rambling post on the syntax and semantics of ‘want to’ and ‘wanna’, so it’s almost all going below the fold. I would be interested to hear back if people agree or not with some of my judgments about the various cases.

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Listen with the Analytical Marxist.

by Harry on January 30, 2004

Go to Erik Olin Wright’s website where he has today placed some delightful stories he made up for his children and nephews, nieces etc. You need Windows Media Player. If, like my kids, yours like to listen to tapes of stories you can easily download and play them these. Libertarians beware — they might turn your kids into analytical Marxists. At least, that’s what I’m hoping. (Warning: I’ve no idea how much traffic he’s prepared for so it may not all be plain sailing).

For those of you who just want to read his papers, you’re boring, but they are here.

Too sexy

by John Quiggin on January 29, 2004

The Economist runs a piece endorsing the Hutton inquiry’s rejection of BBC claims that the Blair government’s dossier on Iraqi weapons was “sexed up”, but runs it under the headline George Bush and Tony Blair exaggerated, but they did not lie.

What, precisely, is the difference between “exaggerated” and “sexed up” ?

None so blind

by Ted on January 29, 2004

Lifted from Jack O’Toole:

Here’s Andrew Sullivan on Josh Marshall’s New Yorker article:

Josh Marshall has written an engaging and artful essay about the notion of an American empire for the liberal New Yorker magazine. I read it yesterday and then re-read it. Josh manages to write about the Clinton era “soft-imperialism” and the Bush era “hard imperialism” with nary a mention of a certain even that occurred on September 11, 2001.

Emphasis added. Here’s the Josh Marshall article in question, fifth paragraph:

After September 11th, a left-wing accusation became a right-wing aspiration: conservatives increasingly began to espouse a world view that was unapologetically imperialist.

If this is the kind of attention to detail we get when Sullivan reads something and re-reads it, what happens when he reads something only once?

UPDATE: I emailed Andrew about this, and he emailed back:

he has a one sentence aside in a 4000 word piece.
my point entirely

I honestly don’t know how to respond to that.

Tax and spend

by Henry on January 29, 2004

David Bernstein has a couple of very “weird”: “posts”:, railing against the liberals in his head for not liking George W. Bush. His main proposition: that liberals stereotype their opponents, and hate them when they don’t live up to their stereotypes. Seems to me that Bernstein is engaged in a wee bit of stereotyping himself. Chez Bernstein, liberals are obsessed with massive spending increases, clumsy protectionism, and boondoggles in space; all good reasons to love George W. The fact that they don’t demonstrates their fundamental irrationality (in fairness, Bernstein says that conservative Clinton-hatred was irrational too).

Bernstein’s non-argument rests on the premise that there’s no good reason for liberals not to like Bush – he’s overseeing a massive increase in government spending. I don’t need to belabour the obvious – there are many, many legitimate, policy-related reasons why liberals may believe the Bush administration to be a disaster. There are even more reasons for social democrats like myself. Under Bush, the relationship between who bears the brunt of the tax burden, and who gets the benefits of government spending is tilting further, so that politically well-connected corporations are prospering at the expense of of poor and middle-income taxpayers. That’s not something that any liberal or social democrat worth their salt is going to want to sign up to, and Bernstein knows it. The only explanation that I can think of for these truly strange posts is Bernstein’s own discomfort with Bush. He doesn’t like the Bush administration much, but isn’t much happier with the company that he’s starting to keep. I guess he’s afraid he might get liberal-cooties or something.

Update: “Michael Froomkin”: has similar thoughts; see also “Brad DeLong”:

Exam Question for Bonus Marks

by Henry on January 29, 2004

“Hell on Earth would be a World Government run by Crooked Timber”:

Do you agree with this proposition? Do you disagree? Discuss, with reference to the “assigned readings”:

Minor factual

by Daniel on January 29, 2004

Alastair Campbell was on the box last night to discuss being cleared of all charges by the Hutton inquiry. Fair do’s to the guy; he got cleared and we have to respect that. Doesn’t change the fact that every single word we were fed about WMD, including “the” and “and”, was bollocks, but it seems churlish to deny even the Blairites their day in the sun. But I have to take issue with one claim he made. Mr Campbell said, pressing his advantage home:

“If the Government faced the level of criticism which today Lord Hutton has directed to the BBC, there would clearly have been resignations by now. Several resignations at several levels.”

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