Follow by Email

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Russell Westbrook Needs to Play More Like Joe Montana


Back when Joe Montana still played for the 49ers, a glance at his passing yards could tell you in an instant how the Niner offense functioned that day. If Montana threw for 250-290 yards in a game, then you knew that the offense had put together a well-balanced attacked, and the Niners probably won the game. However, if Montana threw for more than 300 yards, then it was likely that the offense struggled and the outcome of the game into doubt. In other words, the Niners were better as a team when Montana's personal stats were more modest.

I think the same could be said for Russell Westbrook. The Thunder play better when his personal contributions are more modest. He put up some incredible numbers this year for the Oklahoma City Thunder, but when he got his teammates involved and stopped trying to do it all by himself, that the Thunder played well. As Fox Sports columnist Brent Pollakoff recently noted ("5 Things the OKC Thunder Need to Fix"). Westbrook needs to "dial it back":
This is the most difficult task ahead for the Thunder, especially after Westbrook likely will be coming off of an MVP season. But his historically high individual usage rate didn't translate into any real team accomplishments, and as we saw in the fourth quarters throughout this playoff series, his insistence on taking seemingly every single shot (no matter what the defense was like or where he was on the floor) only hurt his team's chances down the stretch of close games. 
Westbrook proved his point in his first season without Kevin Durant by his side; we all know now that he can play as well as anyone in the league whenever he feels like it. But he needs to dial it back next season and get his teammates involved so he doesn't have to do it all alone. Only then will his team have a chance at true success.
This means, of course, that the Thunder need to upgrade the talent surrounding Westbrook, but, as Pollakoff points out, it also means that the Thunder need to use the regular season to develop the Thunder into a "team" so that Westbrook he doesn't feel like he has to do it all but instead can relax and play more like Joe Montana.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Trump and Syria

I think it was New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who remarked a few years ago, "that just because George W. Bush says or does something, doesn't mean he's wrong." Friedman, of course, was criticizing those (primarily) on the left, who knee-jerkily opposed anything "W" did. Friedman's sentiments hold true for our current President. Just because Trump does or says something, doesn't mean he's wrong, which is probably why so many on the left are scrambling after he ordered missile attacks after Syria's President Assad used nerve gas on some of its citizens, including children.

In keeping with his tradition of never accepting responsibility for anything, Trump blamed Obama for Assad's use of chemical weapons, and he is probably correct that Obama's choice to use diplomacy rather than military force (something that Trump applauded at the time, by the way) didn't have any palpable effect in reigning in Assad. Trump deserves some of the blame, though. Just a week before the attack, Trump's Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and his ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, both stated that ousting Assad was no longer a goal of American policy, statements that Assad almost certainly saw as signals that he could do just about anything he wanted and Trump would look the other way.

My own take on the missile attack is somewhat mixed:
  1. If Trump was genuinely moved by the effects that the nerve gas had on children, then more power to him. President Jimmy Carter was derided by political conservatives for basing his foreign policy, in part, on human rights concerns, so it would be rather ironic if human rights play a large role in Trump's foreign policy. However, if Trump fired the missiles in Syria and dropped the MOAB in Afghanistan because it helps his approval ratings (see "Wag the Dog"), then we have something to worry about.
  2. If the missile attacks have successfully ended the bromance between Trump and Putin, even better. Trump's admiration for Putin is disturbing, and anything that can put an end to his hero worship can only be a good thing for America.
  3. It's unclear if the missile attacks will have any lasting impact on Assad's regime. Assad may go right on being Assad unless Trump makes it clear that he can't. Nevertheless, Trump seems to be more interested in stopping ISIS than he is removing Assad.
  4. I find it disturbing the glee with which Christians in particular, and Americans in general, greet the killing of others. Although the just war tradition does argue that under certain conditions war is permissible as long as it is conducted in a just manner, no where does it state that victors should revel in the suffering of others. Rather, it sees war as a necessary evil that should be conducted with humility and regret.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

For Those Condemned to Study the Past - Count!

In 1972, the psychologist Irv Biederman asked Amos Tversky to deliver a series of talks at the State University of New York at Buffalo about his work with his colleague Daniel Kahneman. Tversky and Kahneman, both of whom were psychologists, were in the process of publishing a series of articles that would challenge classical notions of human rationality and help give birth to what is now known as behavioral economics. [1] For their work together, Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002, an award he almost certainly would have shared with Tversky if Tversky had not passed away six years before. Their basic insight was that under conditions of uncertainty, individuals tend to rely on rules of thumb, what they called heuristics, when making decisions. Unfortunately, these rules of thumb often lead to errors in judgment.

In all, Tyversky gave five talks at Buffalo over the course of a week. Each was aimed at a different set of academics, but the one that Biederman kept going back to was the last one, which Tyversky called, “Historical Interpretation: Judgment Under Uncertainty.” [2] Drawing on a yet to be published study by two of Tyversky and Kahneman’s students, Baruch Fischoff and Ruth Beyth, [3] Amos argued that historians were just as susceptible as anyone else to the cognitive biases that he and Kahneman had identified. Fischoff and Beyth conducted a survey prior to President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China and Russia. They asked respondents to assign probabilities to 15 possible events (e.g., Would Mao Zedong agree to meet Nixon? Would the United States and the Soviet Union create a joint space program?). After Nixon returned, Fischoff and Beyth asked the respondents to recall the probabilities they assigned to the various events. They found that for those events that did occur, the respondents consistently assigned higher probabilities after the fact than they did before, and for those events that did not occur, they consistently assigned lower probabilities. This tendency became known as hindsight bias, and in his talk Tyversky spoke about the occupational hazard of historians: “the tendency to take whatever facts they had observed (neglecting the many facts that they did not or could not observe) and make them fit neatly into a confident-sounding story:” [4]
All too often, we find ourselves unable to predict what will happen; yet after the fact we explain what did happen with a great deal of confidence. This “ability” to explain that which we cannot predict, even in the absence of any additional information, represents an important, though subtle flaw in our reasoning. It leads us to believe that there is a less uncertain world than there actually is, and that we are less bright than we actually might be. For if we can explain tomorrow what we cannot predict today, without any added information except the knowledge of the actual outcome, then this outcome must have been determined in advance and we should have been able to predict it. The fact that we couldn’t is taken as an indication of our limited intelligence rather than of the uncertainty that is in the world. All too often, we feel like kicking ourselves for failing to foresee that which later appears inevitable. For all we know, the handwriting might have been on the wall all along. The question is: was the ink invisible? [5]
Pick up a handful of biographies on historical figures -- say, Winston Churchill, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan -- and depending on the authors' biases, very different stories will be told about those figures, some positive, some negative. This, of course, is what makes history so difficult. In fact, Fischoff later wrote an article about this entitled, "For Those Condemned to Study the Past" (see footnote [4] below). So, what are historians to do? I would argue that when possible, quantify. As the sociologist Rodney Stark noted somewhat sarcastically a few years ago (Cities of God, p. 209):
In 1962, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. -- on leave from the Harvard history department to serve as a White House intellectual for John F. Kennedy -- told an assembled audience of American scholars that "almost all important [historical] questions are important precisely because they are not susceptible to quantitative answers." Such arrogance thrilled many of his listeners, as clever nonsense often does. For others it prompted reflection on how someone so poorly trained had risen so high in the profession of history. In truth, many of the really significant historical questions demand quantitative answers. They do so because they involve statements of proportion: they turn on words such as none, few, some, many, most, all, along with never, rarely, seldom, often, usually, always, and so on.
Of course, some historical events are impossible to quantify, but it is surprising just how many are. For example, the archeologist Anna Collar has drawn on social network analysis (SNA) to analyze Jewish epigraphs in order to map the diffusion of Rabbinic Judaism across the Roman Empire from 100-500 CE (Religious Networks in the Roman Empire). Similarly, Barbara Mills and her colleagues have drawn on SNA and other quantitative techniques as part of their Southwest Social Networks (SWSN) Project, which is exploring Late Pre-Hispanic Southwest. [6] Robert Woodberry has empirically demonstrated with numerous statistical models that the presence of Protestant missionaries is a strong predictor of literacy and democracy ("Missionaries and Democracy"). And economic and social historians have explored (empirically) numerous topics, such as the causes and consequences of the Protestant Reformation and why capitalism first emerged in the Christian West rather than Islamic Middle East.

In short, it can be done. History can be quantified. Not always, but probably more often than many would like to admit. The question is whether those who are "condemned to study the past" are willing to embrace quantitative approaches that can avoid, or at least minimize, errors in historical judgement.




[1] Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, "Subjective Probability: A Judgment of Representativeness," Cognitive Psychology 3, no. 3 (1972); "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk," Econometrica 47 (1979); Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, "Belief in the Law of Small Numbers," Psychological Bulletin 76, no. 2 (1971); "Availability: A Heuristic for Judging Frequency and Probability," Cognitive Psychology 5, no. 2 (1973); "Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases," Science 185 (1974); "The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice," Science 211 (1981).

[2] Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: The Friendship That Changed Our Minds (New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2017), 206.

[3] Baruch Fischhoff and Ruth Beyth, "'I Knew It Would Happen' - Remembered Probabilities of Once-Future Things," Organizational Behavior and Human Performance 13 (1975).

[4] Lewis (p. 207) notes that at least “Amos was polite about it. He did not say, as he often said, ‘It is amazing how dull history books are, given how much of what’s in them must be invented.’” (Note: Baruch Fischoff attributes this saying to Catherine Morlund – see Baruch Fischhoff, "For Those Condemned to Study the Past: Reflections on Historical Judgment," in New Directions for Methodology of Social and Behavioral Science, ed. Richard A. Shweder and Donald W. Fiske (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1980), 79.)

[5] Quoted in Lewis, 207-08.

[6] See e.g., Barbara J. Mills, Jeffery J. Clark, Matthew A. Peeples, W. Randall Haas, Jr., John M. Roberts, Jr., J. Brett Hill, Deborah L. Huntley, Lewis Borck, Ronald L. Breiger, Aaron Clauset, and M. Steven Shackley. 2013a. "Transformation of Social Networks in the Late Pre-Hispanic Southwest." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 110:5785-90; Barbara J. Mills, Matthew A. Peeples, W. Randall Haas, Jr., Lewis Borck, Jeffery J. Clark, and John M. Roberts, Jr. 2015. "Multiscalar Perspectives on Networks in the Late Prehispanic Southwest." American Antiquity 80:3-24; Barbara J. Mills, John M. Roberts, Jr., Jeffery J. Clark, W. Randall Haas, Jr., Deborah L. Huntley, Matthew A. Peeples, Lewis Borck, Susan C. Ryan, Meaghan Trowbridge, and Ronald L. Breiger. 2013b. "The Dynamics of Social Networks in the Late Prehispanic US Southwest." Pp. 185-206 in New Approaches in Regional Network Analysis, edited by Carl Knappett. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Don't Mock Working Class Religion


Recently, a self-proclaimed "Silicon Valley liberal," Sam Altman, traveled the U.S. to interview Trump supporters in order to gain a better understanding of their point of view. His on-line article includes a number of quotes, but the first one he lists is telling:
You all can defeat Trump next time, but not if you keep mocking us, refusing to listen to us, and cutting us out. It's Republicans, not Democrats, who will take Trump down.
This, I think, captures much of what bedevils the Democratic party. It has lost touch with its working class roots. It has become elitist. It's not that it no longer advocates policies that benefit working class women and men, but somewhere along the way, it seems to have lost its respect for them, and often it can't resist mocking them. I think this is best captured in the way that some regard working class religion. Some can't resist making fun of it, mocking it. Conservative Christianity is repeatedly portrayed as backward and ignorant, although studies by social scientists challenge such a blanket assessment (see e.g., American Evangelicalism by Christian Smith; "Rationality and the Religious Mind" by Laurence Iannaccone, Rodney Stark, and Roger Finke; The Truth About Conservative Christians by Andrew Greeley and Michael Hout).

I am reminded of when I was researching a paper on the Promise Keepers. I ran across a story about two African-American women who were active members of Democratic Party but attended meetings of the Christian Coalition, a theologically conservative advocacy group. When asked why, they responded, "We'd rather be with people who make fun of our politics than who make fun of our faith."

No doubt, the hostility that some hold toward working class religion is because many associate conservative religion with conservative politics, but it doesn't have to be (and hasn't always been) that way. People often forget that although William Jennings Bryant argued for the prosecution in the Scopes Trial, he was a three-time nominee for the Democratic Party, an outspoken critic of crony-capitalism, and a pacifist who resigned as Secretary of State because of the U.S.'s entry into World War I. And Dwight Billings ("Religion as Opposition: A Gramscian Analysis") has documented how evangelical religion played a key role in the Appalachian coal miner strikes in the early 20th century. Independent rural churches of the Holiness and Baptist sects located outside the company towns allowed the National Miner's Association to set up soup kitchens for evicted miners and their families, and they 'lent a hand in the strike'" (p. 18). And has anyone seen Hacksaw Ridge? True story about a 7th-Day Adventist who worked as a medic in WWII and became the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor for saving the lives of 75 soldiers. It's time to let our stereotypes go.

Of course, all this does not mean that one cannot critically engage the beliefs and practices of others. However, to engage someone critically requires a level of respect, something that is conspicuously absent the beliefs and practices of others are mocked. Time will tell whether Democrats will learn difference between to the two.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why a Free and Adversarial Press is a Good Thing

In the book of Job, the member of God's court who challenges God concerning Job's righteousness is called "the satan" ("ha-satan" in Hebrew), which has traditionally been translated, "Satan" (with a capital "S"), but is more correctly translated, "the adversary" or "the accuser." His role is somewhat analogous to what we often call a "devil's advocate," that is, someone who challenges the status quo, the accepted wisdom, what the majority takes for granted.

Researchers have found that devil's advocates provide numerous benefits, the primary one being that they prevent "group-think." Cass Sunstein ("Why Societies Need Dissent"), for instance, has shown that juries are more likely to reach reasonable decisions, social investment clubs are more profitable, and religious groups are less likely to radicalize if they include members who are unafraid to (and not prevented from) embrace a minority position. I recently drew on Sunstein's theory in order to explain the radicalization of the Hamburg Cell, the members of which played a major role in 9/11 ("Social Networks and Religious Violence").

All of this came to mind when some have wondered why Senator John McCain thinks that a free press is a good thing, even if it is sometimes an adversarial press. I don't know whether McCain has read Sunstein (or perhaps me?), but I suspect that he intuitively knows (as did the framers of the U.S. Constitution) that a healthy democracy is one that not only permits dissent but encourages it. Democracies need individuals and institutions that challenge the accepted wisdom for the simple fact that the accepted wisdom is sometimes dead wrong. What they say or write may upset us, and their critiques may turn out to be incorrect (they often are), but we still need such critiques, at least if we still want to live in a democracy, which is why (as McCain pointed out) the press is often one of the first things that authoritarian governments target.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Why I No Longer Engage in Facebook Debates


Some folks have noticed that other than emoticons and minor clarifications I seldom respond to comments to items I've posted on Facebook. That's because I refuse to engage in debates on Facebook (or other forms of social media) over political and social issues (I am inclined to debate the merits of different IPAs, however). I've learned the hard way that such debates seldom settle anything, are usually counterproductive, and as such are a colossal waste of time. Basically, my approach to interacting on Facebook is as follows:
  1. I post articles and memes that I find interesting or funny that typically have to do with current events or sports (usually Bay Area sports).
  2. I try to only post from reputable sites (i.e., not fake news), and if I later discover that I have posted something that is from a bogus site, I delete it. Keep in mind, though, just because you don't like the content of a post, it doesn't mean it's "fake." In fact, dismissing things or opinions one dislikes as "fake" is no different that burying one's head in the sand, a poor recipe for a healthy democracy in my opinion.
  3. Although, as I noted above, I seldom respond to comments about articles, I definitely don't respond to comments if someone hasn't taken the time to actually read the article (I can tell). 
  4. It seems that some take offense to posts that are critical of political figures, arguing that because they hold a particular office, they deserve our respect. I beg to differ. Although I will always respect the various offices that our politicians hold, I do not feel obliged to respect everyone in those offices. They first have to earn that respect. This is an important difference, but it is one that seems lost on a number of people. Just in case anyone's wondering, I generally don't respect people who boast about sexually assaulting women, use racist memes in their campaigns, and make fun of people with disabilities.
  5. Finally, if you really want to debate an issue, I'm open to meeting over coffee or (better yet) an IPA.
That's all for now.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy: A Good Place to Start

Donald Trump's election will almost certainly prove to be a boon for social science PhD candidates, who otherwise would've been scrambling for a dissertation topic. No doubt, each will offer their take on why Trump managed to appeal to a broad sector of the electorate. A handful of explanations have already been put forth, such as a recent essay in the Harvard Political Review on the "Alabamafication of America" and a rediscovered lecture/essay from 1988 by the late Stanford philosopher, Richard Rorty, but I think future dissertations will need to tackle (or at least should tackle) the portrait of Appalachian working class whites painted by J.D. Vance in his instant classic, Hillbilly Elegy. Trump is not mentioned once in Vance's book, but Vance's description of growing up poor in Ohio and Kentucky helps one get a handle on the alienation that much of the working class feels towards the political establishment.

Most folks who read the book presume that Vance is a liberal. He is, after all, an Ivy League (Yale) trained attorney working for an investment firm in San Francisco, and the bulk of the book focuses on the causes and consequences of poverty. Vance, however, is a conservative. Reflecting on this presumption shortly after speaking at a gathering in New York, Vance remarked in an interview with the Washington Post, "It’s very interesting, right? It seems to me an indictment of the Republican Party that if you talk about issues of poverty and upward mobility, people assume you’re a Democrat.” Vance is not a Trump fan, though, and did not vote for him in the election. He believes that Trump "ran an angry, very adversarial campaign that in tone matched the frustrations of the people I wrote about. He certainly ran a pretty cynical campaign, and got a lot of votes from people who are feeling cynical about the future."

It seems to me that for whatever reason (or rather reasons -- seldom can you reduce any phenomenon to a single factor), the Democratic party has lost touch with its working class base. I'm not sure what it needs to do to recapture it, but reading Hillbilly Elegy is probably as good a place to start as any.