Just a few questions on Sen, please

by Ingrid Robeyns on April 19, 2007

Today I received an e-mail from an undergraduate student (whom I don’t know) who asked if he could pose a few questions on Amartya Sen’s work: [click to continue…]

Deadly data in the transit lounge

by Daniel on April 19, 2007

Really rather shameful. Riyadh Lafta, one of the co-authors of the Johns Hopkins/Lancet studies on excess deaths in Iraq, has been refused a transit visa for his flight to Vancouver to make a presentation on alarming increases in child cancer. He was apparently meant to be passing on some documentation to some other medical researchers who are going to write a paper with him on the subject; the presentation was happening in Vancouver because Dr. Lafta had already been refused a visa to visit the USA.

What on earth can be in this data? Presumably the UK and US authorities have reasoned that Dr Lafta is an ex Ba’ath Party member (as he would have had to have been to hold a position in the Iraqi Health Ministry), and thus the data he is carrying is not really about child cancer at all. Perhaps he is involved in some sort of “Boys from Brazil” type plot to clone an army of super-soldiers from Saddam Hussein’s DNA, and for this reason the UK cannot be exposed to this deadly information for even four hours in the Heathrow transit lounge.

The alternative – that Dr Lafta is being intentionally prevented from travelling in order to hush up his research on post-war deaths (research which even the Foreign Office have now more or less given up on trying to pretend isn’t broadly accurate), or to hush up the news about paediatric cancer for political convenience – is too horrible to contemplate. I’d note that there isn’t an election on in the USA at present, so the denialist crowd can shove that little slur up their backsides this time too.

(thanks to Tim Lambert as always)

In semi-related news, and with apologies to the person who gave me the tip for taking so long to post it, it appears that Professor Michael Spagat, the author of the “main street bias” critique, has a bit of previous form when it comes to making poorly substantiated and highly inflammatory statements about other people’s research. His involvement with the general issue came about because he’d been using some of the IBC data in support of a power law hypothesis[1] about the scaling of violent deaths. This carried on from previous work he’d done on Colombia, where he had also defended his own somewhat tendentious interpretation on the data by slagging off Human Rights Watch. I sense something of a pattern here; I noted in a previous post that although the “main street bias” critique appeared in the Lancet colloquium on the Burnham et al paper, Prof. Spagat himself did not, and I thought at the time it might be because of this habit.

[1] And one of Prof Spagat’s co-authors on the main street bias paper, and a few others in the power law of violence series was Neil Johnson of Oxford University, who was also a co-author of that paper about the Eurovision Song Contest that we had a go at a while ago, and so the circle of minor irritation is complete.

Vox populi

by Henry on April 19, 2007

Another “bloggingheads.tv”:http://bloggingheads.tv/video.php?id=247 with Will Wilkinson is up; among other things we talk about bad culturalist arguments and my sad yet inexorable decline into “Goldberg Derangement Syndrome”:http://www.matthewyglesias.com/archives/2007/04/goldberg_derangement_syndrome/. I suggest that overly determinist cultural arguments aren’t very convincing, especially when they try to explain gross differences between societies. Good cultural explanations need to identify the specific mechanisms that make for cultural stability and change. Coincidentally, I was involved in discussion today over an interesting-sounding new piece from Steve Pfaff, an University of Washington sociologist, forthcoming in Jeff Kopstein and Sven Steinmo’s new volume on divergence between the EU and US. It’s notorious that far fewer Europeans report going to church than Americans – this is often presented, especially in the pop-lit, as evidence of profound and lasting cultural divergence between the two. There’s good sociological reason to suggest that it is nothing of the sort – a key causal factor is the degree of marketplace competition.

In many European countries, churches are established and have official state support, so that they don’t have enormous need to tout for churchgoers. They’re monopolists, and as Albert Hirschman suggests, monopolists tend to be lazy. In the US, in contrast, the legal institution of church-state separation means that churches have to tout actively for business, often through means that appear crassly commercial to Europeans (megachurches and the like). Because they’ll disappear if they don’t attract adherents, they have good incentive to succeed rather better than their European counterparts in putting bums on seats. Apparently, there is a striking negative correlation between church establishment and church attendance across West European countries. Now this presumably isn’t the only causal factor – but it is an important one – and one which suggests that an apparently gross cultural divergence between the US and Europe is to a large extent rooted in the quite particular institutions governing church-state relations (you could perhaps claim that these institutions are themselves manifestations of broad cultural differences, but this would be to miss out on the quite specific historical reasons why they came into being).