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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

I Hope Niner Fans Were Watching

Last year, Dallas Cowboys' quarterback Dak Prescott had a great rookie season, and for the most part, his sophomore season has been going pretty well too. In fact, along with Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Carson Wentz, who was also a rookie last year, Prescott has had one of best starts that any NFL quarterback has had in their career ("Wentz And Prescott Are The Best Second-Year QBs We’ve Seen In A While"). The last two weeks have been a bit rough for Prescott, though, especially this past Sunday against the Eagles when he had his worst game as a pro, throwing 3 interceptions (including one during garbage time) and registering a QB rating of 30.4. What changed? A key Cowboy offensive lineman, Tyron Smith, was lost to an injury, and the team's star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, is serving a 6-game suspension for domestic violence.

Hopefully, a lot of Niner fans were watching. If they were unaware of Prescott's past success, he might've reminded them of Niner quarterbacks over the past couple of years, all of which emphasizes an important fact: quarterbacks with little or no time to throw seldom experience a lot of success. It also helps when they aren't the only weapon; a talented running back helps quite a bit too. In order for quarterbacks to succeed, not only do they need to be talented, they need to be surrounded by talent. While the Niners need a talented quarterback to lead them out of the abyss created by former GM Trent Baalke and current CEO Jed York ("Win With Class? The 49ers Can't Even Lose With Class"), they need much, much more than that. But now that Baalke is gone, they may have a chance (as long as York keeps his nose out of things).

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thanksgiving: The American Exodus Story

Beginning in the 1990s, a series of books, sermons, and articles called into question the story of the Exodus as it appears in the Bible. For example, in 1998 S. David Sperling, a professor at Hebrew Union College in New York, wrote in his book, The Original Torah, that the Exodus did not happen. "The evidence," he concluded, was decisive. "The traditions of servitude in Egypt, the tales of wandering in the desert, and the stories of the conquest of the promised land appear to be fictitious." Similarly, in 2001, David Wolpe, a Conservative Rabbi, preached a Passover sermon that called into question the Exodus's historicity. He noted "that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all." Also in 2001, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, in their popular and controversial book, The Bible Unearthed, concluded that "one can hardly accept the idea of a flight of a large group of slaves from Egypt."

As others have pointed out, however, just because there is little to no evidence that supports the Exodus story as the Bible tells it, that doesn't mean that some sort of exodus didn't happen. In fact, in his recently published book, The Exodus: How It Happened and What It Means, Richard Elliott Friedman argues that a considerable amount of evidence exists which suggests that that an Exodus did occur, albeit on a much smaller scale than the Bible says it did. In particular, he contends that a small group of individuals, later known as the Levites, left Egypt, settled in Canaan, joined with the other Israelite tribes, and eventually became their priests. And along the way, their God, Yahweh, became Israel's God, and their story of how they fled Egypt and settled in Canaan, became Israel's story.

While this may strike some as odd, as I have noted in previous posts ("Thanksgiving and American Civil Religion"), it is similar to how the story of the first Thanksgiving became a story embraced by most Americans although few actually descend from the Pilgrims:
In many ways, Thanksgiving is... the American Exodus story. Just like the ancient Israelites, many of whom probably didn't descend from the families that had fled from Pharaoh's wrath but later affiliated with those who did, most Americans don't descend from the Pilgrims. However, just as the Exodus story became the story for all who chose to worship Yahweh, the Thanksgiving story has become the story for most Americans. On the 4th Thursday of every November, most of us sit down with family and friends and either implicitly and explicitly recall the Thanksgiving story.
And like the biblical story of the Exodus, the American Thanksgiving story contains a number of fictitious elements. Nevertheless, retelling it can help us, if only for awhile, transcend our differences as we recall a story of sharing, celebration, and the welcoming of strangers to our table. And given the current political climate, that strikes me as a good thing.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Virginia Polls Missed by More than National Polls Did Last Year (But Few Seem to Have Noticed)


A year ago, a lot of left-leaning voters expressed their anger at statistician Nate Silver because his FiveThirtyEight election model gave Donald Trump "only" a 30% chance of winning. They assumed that someone with only a 30% chance of winning really had no chance of winning. Such a belief, however, reflects the fact that most of us aren't trained to think probabilistically. However, as I noted back then, a 30% chance is actually pretty high ("Don't Blame Nate Silver"). One way to cultivate just how high a 30% chance is, is to have you imagine a scenario in which bullets are placed in two of a revolver's six chambers. How many of you would be willing to spin the revolver's cylinder, place the gun to your temple, and pull the trigger? My guess is not too many even though there's "only" a 33% chance that you'll put a bullet through your head.

Unlike most of us, however, Silver does think in probabilistic terms. In fact, he repeatedly cautioned readers about overconfidence, noting that Clinton's leads in the battleground states were slim and within the range of sampling error, which meant that if the polls were slightly overestimating Clinton's support, the election could break in Trump's favor. Which, of course, is exactly what happened. But many people still blamed Nate Silver.

Silver wasn't the only one who was criticized. Polling agencies were too. However, the 2016 polls weren't too far off. Their average predicted margin of a Clinton popular vote victory was a little over 3.0%, which was only 1.0% higher than her actual (popular vote) victory of 2.1%. For a presidential election, 1.0% miss is remarkably close. In fact, the 2016 polls outperformed the 2012 polls. However, few noticed (or cared) because in 2012 the polls underestimated the Democrat candidate's popular vote share, while in 2016 they overestimated it.

Interestingly, last night in Virginia's gubernatorial election the polls performed worse than the National polls did in the 2016 presidential election. They had Democrat Ralph Northam winning by approximately 3%, but in the end he won by almost 9%. However, hardly anyone has complained (or noticed), and as far as I can tell, no one has blamed Nate Silver (one of the few who has noticed).

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation's 500 Anniversay

Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther reportedly nailed his 95 Theses ("Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences") to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg. It's uncertain whether he actually did nail the these to the door but it is certain that he sent them to his bishop, Albert of Mainz. Even if he did nail them to the door, it wouldn't have been seen as an act of defiance. The door functioned as a local bulletin board where faculty members routinely posted matters to be debated. Regardless of what happened, whether he nailed his 95 theses to the church door, mailed them to his bishop, or both, his act is symbolically seen as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

As many readers know, Luther became concerned with the selling of indulgences. The selling of indulgences is related to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, which holds that there is an intermediate state between heaven and hell for people who die neither as saints nor as unredeemable sinners. In Purgatory, souls are cleansed by purging fires, which makes them fit for entry into heaven. Roman Catholics believe that the Pope holds the spiritual key to a “treasury of merit,” which is a superabundance of merit attained by Christ and the saints, and indulgences are certificates the Pope issues by which he transfers some of this merit to repentant sinners. If such sinners perform an adequate number of acts of penitence and devotion, a portion (or perhaps all) of their time in Purgatory can be remitted. Indulgences can also be obtained on behalf of another, living or dead. In his day, Luther believed that the practice of selling indulgences was being abused. He argued that they were being issued with little consideration for the remorsefulness of the penitents but rather more for the funds that the Church was able to collect by issuing them.

Unsurprisingly, numerous books have recently been published about the Reformation and Martin Luther (not to mention Playmobil versions of Luther -- see picture, upper right). There are so many, in fact, that it's difficult to know where to begin. A helpful resource is Peter Marshall's, The Reformation, which is part of Oxford University Press's "A Very Short Introduction" series. The Wikipedia articles on Martin Luther and The Reformation also provide good overviews, as well as links to other papers and books that offer more detailed information. Finally, the University of Washington political scientist, Anthony Gill, has recorded a series of podcasts on the Reformation (or Reformations) that feature a number of excellent scholars. These podcasts can be found at the Research of Religion website (Protestant Reformation Series) or can be downloaded from iTunes. A brief description of (and link to each of) the podcasts appears below.

James Felak on the Counter-Reformation
As a capstone to our Protestant Reformation Series, we give the “other side” its day in court to make their case. Prof. James Felak (University of Washington) discusses how the Roman Catholic Church reacted to Luther and the Protestant fervor that followed in the decades after Luther sparked a religious fire. We cover everything from the Diet of Worms to the Council of Trent, and to Jesuits, Inquisitions, and Carmelites without shoes. This is an inordinately fun exploration of the 16th century religious landscape.
Robert Nelson on Lutheranism and Nordic Social Democracy
The Nordic states are known for their high levels of socio-economic equality, good governance, and high levels of social trust. While some scholars have attributed this to their unique brand of secular social democracy, Prof. Robert Nelson (U of Maryland) argues that Nordic social democracy has deep roots in the “Lutheran ethic.” We discuss how the Lutheran ethic is different than the Calvinist ethic (as seen by Max Weber), how contemporary social democratic thought in Nordic countries has similar elements to Lutheranism, and what is in store for social democracy.
Rodney Stark on Myths of the Reformation
Many misconceptions surround the Protestant Reformation, from it being the birth of capitalism to it prompting Europe’s secularization. Noted sociologist of religion Rodney Stark (Baylor ISR) joins us to discuss these myths and more. With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation just about a month away, this is a great opportunity to refresh on some interesting talking points to engage your friends, family, and colleagues.
Emily Fisher Gray on Luther’s 95 Theses
The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation will be celebrated on October 31st of this year, marking the date that Martin Luther disseminated his famous 95 Theses on papal authority and indulgences. Prof. Emily Fisher Gray of Norwich University contextualizes this historically important document and explains how the themes of liberty and authority play out in this and other of Luther’s writings. We review the impact of this document, as well as Luther’s thoughts about a peasant uprising he inspired.
Rob Sorensen on Martin Luther’s Life
With the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses” to the doors of the Wittenberg Cathedral approaching, we take a pause to examine the early life of Martin Luther with Rob Sorensen, a PhD candidate at Faulkner University and author of a book on Luther’s life. Our attention is devoted mostly to Luther’s formative years leading up to his defiant act in 1517, but there are reflections on his life following excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church.
Steven Pfaff on the World of 1517
What did Europe look like economically, politically, and religiously on the eve of the Protestant Reformation? What broad historical trends facilitated the success Martin Luther’s schismatic break from the Catholic Church where others in the past had failed? Prof. Steve Pfaff (Sociology, University of Washington) discusses the factors spurring on the Protestant Reformation, sharing some of the most up-to-date research on how social movements spread.
Marion Goldman on Martin Luther and Spiritual Virtuosity
With the quincentennial anniversary of the Protestant Reformation (dated from October 31, 1517), we begin an occasional series looking at the events and people that made up this historic event. We start with Prof. Marion Goldman (sociology, University of Oregon) who argues that Martin Luther had the characteristic of a “spiritual virtuoso” and that this factor was critical to the split that transpired between the Catholic Church and Protestants. Spiritual virtuosos are individuals who are concerned with personal sanctification, are reluctant leaders, but do acknowledge their role in inspiring social movements. Our conversation also covers other similar individuals such as leaders of the Abolitionist Movement and Steve Jobs of Apple fame.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Strangers in Their Own Land

In her wonderful book, Strangers in Their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Hochschild asks us to imagine waiting in a line at the end of which lies the American Dream. However, not only are we waiting in line, but we've been waiting in line for a very long time. And while we've been waiting, people have been cutting (unfairly) into the line ahead of us, and they aren't doing it by themselves. They're getting help. In particular, they're getting help from the government, usually the federal government. Moreover, there are others (many of whom have already reached the end of the line and are openly contemptuous of how we live and what we believe), who think it's just fine for the government to help the line-cutters.

Although with far more detail and nuance than I do here, Hochschild crafted this imaginary scenario in order to illustrate what she calls the "deep story" of the Louisiana Tea Party supporters she got to know after spending five years (2011-2016) interviewing and living among them. She believes it helps explain why many of those who live in one of our nation's poorest and most polluted states vote for candidates who resist the federal government's help and oppose regulating industries such oil and gas. She argues that over the years they have come to distrust the federal government and are more inclined to place their faith in capitalism and the free market. While the former gives away jobs to others (i.e., the line-cutters), jobs which they believe rightfully belong to them, the latter does not. Instead, capitalism and the free market promises them employment, and if pollution is one of the costs, so be it.

All this leads her to conclude that to understand the appeal of someone like Donald Trump, we need to pay more attention to how emotions inform the political choices that people make. She argues that many of the people she met vote for their emotional, rather than economic, self-interest because they've grown tired over feeling marginalized, left behind, and mocked by liberal elites who typically support big government. And they see Donald Trump as someone who is willing to put an end to the line-cutting and defend their way of life.

All this sounds right to me. Elsewhere, I've argued that folks on the left need to stop mocking the beliefs of blue collar individuals ("Don't Mock Working Class Religion" "Hillbilly Elegy: A Good Place to Start"). Merely advocating for policies that will benefit them economically is not enough. Some empathy for their way of life needs to be demonstrated ("Two Cheers for Conservative Religion"). That doesn't mean that we have to agree with all that they believe and practice, but there's a difference between civilly disagreeing with someone and making fun of what they've always believe to be true. A very big difference.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

One Thing Liberals Can Thank Trump For

I know, I dangled a preposition in the title, but there's actually something political liberals should thank President Trump for.1 For the first time in a long time we don't seem to be afraid about talking about "truth." For too long we've been enamored with postmodernist notions of moral relativism, but we finally seem to be okay with the idea that not all news is "fake news," that "facts" do exist, and that not all of reality is socially constructed ("The Social Construction of Reality (Sort of)." This shift was brought home to me while reading Timothy Snyder's, On Tyranny, which contains 20 "lessons" on how to prevent the U.S. from devolving into tyranny. The tenth lesson is entitled, "Believe in Truth," in which Snyder argues that
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is not basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the the most blinding lights. ("On Tyranny," p. 65)
This does not mean that our perceptions of reality aren't colored by our social location, but it does suggest that lying behind those perceptions is a reality, a truth, that we can catch a glimpse of from time to time, and our goal should be to adopt methods for capturing that reality. So, let's thank our President for bringing us face-to-face with the fact that there really are facts. It's one of the few positive things he has wrought in the few short months he has been in the White House.

1 There I go again, but phrasing it that way makes a lot more sense than saying, "there's something for which political liberals should thank Trump." Undoubtedly, that is why Winston Churchill once remarked, “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Why We Coffee Drinkers Should Thank Starbucks

I'm sensing that it's becoming increasingly fashionable to "dis" Starbucks. Starbucks coffee is bland, it has no bite, it's become a corporate behemoth, so we should support the local coffee house instead. All that may be true, but for those of us old enough to remember, before Starbucks (and Peet's), it was hard to find a good latte. Local coffee roasters routinely burned the milk when steaming, and the beans they ground were often little better than Folgers.

But the advent of Starbucks brought consistency to the making of lattes, cappuccinos, and so on. This forced local roasters to improve what they served, or they'd go out of business (and many did). That's why most of the baristas working in coffee shops today know how to brew an excellent cup of coffee. And that is why all of us coffee drinkers should thank Starbucks (and Peet's).

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Should the Giants Panic?

Four years ago, almost to the day, the Giants were struggling, and I wrote that they Giants shouldn't panic ("Why the Giants Shouldn't Panic"). Most of their struggles could be explained by injuries (primarily to Angel Pagan) and a bit of bad luck. In retrospect, I look like a genius since the next year the Giants went on to win their third World Series in five years.

So, what about this season? Should they panic? I don't think so. This season has been characterized by injuries to key players (Posey, Bumgarner, Crawford, Pence, Cueto, Melancon) and sub-par years from Crawford, Belt, and Pence. Pence's off year could reflect that he's getting older ("Aging Curves and Big Contract"), but there's a good chance that Belt and Crawford will bounce back next year. In fact, I'm convinced that Crawford is playing with an undisclosed injury -- he hasn't been the same since he returned from the DL. Belt's more of a mystery. His defense is as good as anyone's in the league and a key reason why Crawford and Panik won Gold Gloves last year, but he never seems to hit as well as expected, which is why the Giants might be tempted to shop him in the off season. Indeed, doing so may help them shore up the few holes that they have. Here's my mild prescription for the Giants woes:
  1. First, they need to acquire a position player who can hit with genuine power (Yoenis Céspedes would've been an ideal pickup last year, but he's no longer available). Jarret Parker has a lot of power, and I'd love it if he blossoms into an everyday player, but I don't think the Giants should take a chance that he won't. Instead, let him compete with Pence for one of the outfield positions, and use free agency to acquire a true power hitter.
  2. The Giatns also have to bolster their bullpen. With Hunter Strickland, Kyle Crick, Corey Gearin, and Sam Dyson, they have the makings of a good one, but they need a left-hander, like Javy López, who can enter a game and shut things down. They also need to find someone who can pitch the 9th inning without having a meltdown, something that has happened far too often the last couple of seasons.
  3. Finally, they need to find a fifth starer. As much of a fan as I am of Matt Cain, I think his days as a starter are over. Perhaps he can turn into a mid-inning reliever, but that's a debate for another day. Instead, the Giants need to resign Johnny Cueto, which should give them a solid starting four (Bumgarner, Cueto, Blach, Samardzija), while at the same time jettisoning Matt Moore. Perhaps, next year Moore can compete for the fifth position, but hopefully they'll find another starter or top prospect (and Vanderbilt grad) Tyler Beede will be ready by next year's All Star break.
Then, of course, there's the issue with Pablo. Three years ago I expressed skepticism about his long-term worth ("Aging Curves and Big Contract"). He was past the age that most major league baseball players begin to decline (which were reflected in his own output), and he seems to have difficulty keeping himself in shape, which only will accelerate his decline. That said, the Giants are basically getting him for free right now, so why not give him a tryout over the next couple of months. He has an incredible amount of raw talent ("Pablo, You Could've Been One of the Best"), so it may be worth seeing if he can turn it around.

I think that's about it. The Giants shouldn't panic. They have the best catcher and perhaps the best big-game pitcher in baseball. They just need a couple of players to bounce back from off years, pick up a power hitter, and find someone to replace Matt Moore. Piece of cake. And let's not forget. Next year is an even year.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two Cheers for Conservative Religion

Not long ago ("Don't Mock Working Class Religion"), I urged folks, in particular those on the political left, to refrain from mocking the conservative religious beliefs of working class women and men. In doing so, I didn't argue that they couldn't be critical of them, but that's different from mocking them. In order to critically engage others about what they believe, you first have to respect them, which means that at the outset you can't think that you're smarter or more sophisticated than they are. If you do, then no matter what you may tell yourself, it's impossible to truly respect them.

It is just as important to recognize that although some of the beliefs embraced by theological conservatives are problematic, there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Or, to put it differently, there are some aspects of theological conservatism that are redemptive, that actually improve the lives of individuals. For instance, there is considerable evidence that Pentecostal churches have helped improve the lives of thousands in South America; by demanding that members (in particular, male members) stop drinking and put in a full days work in their jobs, family incomes have risen substantially and spousal (and child) abuse have dropped dramatically. Similar effects have been witnessed in the U.S. as well. Consider, for instance, the following examples:

1. The book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, tells the true story of Louis Zamperini's journey from juvenile delinquent to track star to prison of war. As the book (but not the movie) makes abundantly clear, after he returned from the war, Louis's life slowly spiraled downwards. To forget his tormentors (one in particular), he drank increasingly, waking up at home sometimes without knowing where he left his car. And his marriage deteriorated to such an extent that his wife announced that she planned to divorce him. However, Louis turned his life around, and it was a Billy Graham Crusade that did it. Louis stopped drinking, smoking, and spent the rest of his life preaching the virtue of forgiveness. In fact, he returned to Japan in order to meet with and forgive his captors (one--the "Bird"--refused to do so).

2. The movie, Hacksaw Ridge, tells the true story of Desmond Doss, who as a combat medic refused to carry or use a firearm or weapons of any kind. He became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, for service above and beyond the call of duty during the Battle of Okinawa. In particular, during the battle, he saved the lives of 75 wounded infantrymen atop the area known as Hacksaw Ridge. It will come as a surprise to some that Doss's pacifism was rooted in his Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs, beliefs which most observers of religion would consider to be "theologically conservative."

3. In his NY Times best seller, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J. D. Vance recounts his experience of growing up poor in Appalachia (in Ohio and Kentucky). In it, he notes the important role that the church can/could play in the revival of the area. "Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, are in better health, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church at all… It’s not just that people who happen to live successful lives also go to church; it’s that church seems to promote good habits” (p. 92). According to Vance, the
church offered something desperately needed by people like me. For alcoholics, it gave them a community of support and a sense that they weren’t fighting addiction alone. For expectant mothers, it offered a free home with job training and parenting classes. When someone needed a job, church friends could either provide one or make introductions. When Dad faced financial troubles, his church banded together and purchased a used car for the family. In the broken world I saw around me—and for the people struggling in that world—religion offered tangible assistance to keep the faithful on track. (pp. 93-94)
Thus, as those on the theological and/or political left (of which I consider myself a part) try to address and understand the grievances of those who supported Donald Trump for President, a good first step would be to recognize that conservative religion confers tangible benefits to its adherents and that it's okay to embrace its positive aspects. A second step would be to take the time and energy needed to truly understand conservative forms of religion, not as they are often caricatured in the media, but in terms of their actual beliefs and practices. Those who take such time would discover a level of sophistication that many on the left don't realize exists.

More than once I've remarked that it's  tempting to portray our ideological opponents as immoral, stupid, or both. It may be tempting. It isn't, however, helpful.

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Lakers Are Why the Warriors Signed Durant

Have you heard that Paul George wants to play only one more year for the Indiana Pacers and then move to Los Angeles and play for Lakers? And the rumor that LeBron James plans to finish his career with the Lakers seems grows stronger everyday (much to the chagrin of Cleveland fans); the latest is that James's wife wants to live in LA year round, which may prod James to jump ship sooner rather than later.

George and James are not unusual in their desire to play for the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone, Ron Artest, and Gary Payton are among several players who left the teams that drafted them in order to play for LA. Why? Most hoped they would win a title, and many (but not all) did just that. That's probably what's floating around in the back of George's mind, and James is still chasing Jordan's six titles (never mind that Bill Russell has 11!), and he may believe he has a better chance of doing so in LA than in Cleveland.

All of which might help explain why the Warriors went after Kevin Durant last year. It wasn't just because he added a level of insurance to an already great team ("The Warriors Might Have Won the Championship Without Kevin Durant"). It was because they knew, or at least sensed, that before long, some of the NBA's top players would bolt for LA and (once again) turn the Lakers into a contender if not a "superteam." If the rumors are to be believed, it looks like they were right.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Warriors Might Have Won the Championship Without Kevin Durant

The dominant narrative is that the Golden State Warriors wouldn't have won this year's NBA Championship if they hadn't signed Kevin Durant last July. That's entirely possible, but it ignores the fact that last year, when they "blew" a 3-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the final two games of last year's finals, the Warriors played with an injured Steph Curry and without their starting center, Andrew Bogut, whom many consider to be one of the best, if the not the best, defensive center in the NBA. As I've noted previously, winning championships not only takes a lot of talent, but it also usually requires a little bit of luck ("What Makes a Winning Combination? Talent, Luck, and (Sometimes) Chemistry"). Last year the Warriors didn't have it. This year (and in 2015) they did.

But that still doesn't mean that they couldn't have won it all this year without Kevin Durant. As a recent FiveThirtyEight article noted ("The Warriors Didn’t Need Kevin Durant To Be This Good"), what Durant means for the Warriors is that rather than having a very good shot at winning the title every year, now the Warriors have an excellent shot. Injuries and other forms of bad luck will stay play a role, but Durant's presence on the team helps minimize the ill effects of such bad luck:
While adding Durant has been a success, it didn’t end up breaking basketball any more than the Warriors had broken it already.

Counting the regular season and playoffs, the Warriors won 84 percent of their games this year — up from 83 percent last year and 81 percent the year before. Teams have only won 80+ percent of their combined season games 11 times in the 70-year history of the NBA.1 The Warriors have now done it three years in a row.

But the Warriors’ mission isn’t just to win titles, it’s to guarantee them. And Durant is both icing and insurance policy — a guarantee that the Warriors will always have an MVP-caliber, one-man offense available. Though he makes them a little bit better in his own right, his main value comes from making what happened to them in the 2016 playoffs less likely.
So, haters can complain about the Warriors signing Durant in the off season, but there's still a good chance that the Dubs would've paraded around Lake Merritt this past week anyway.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

It's Really Not OK to Kill People

This morning, James Hodgkinson, 66, of Belleville, Illinois, opened fire on Republican Representatives and staffers, who were practicing for the upcoming baseball game between Democrats and Republicans. According to his brother, he was unhappy with the recent election and had recently traveled to DC to protest policies proposed by President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress.

I get why people get frustrated. When laws and regulations are passed that one opposes, its easy to feel powerless, to get angry, because it seems like there's nothing one can do, especially when the next election is almost two years away. But violence is not the answer. Not only is it morally wrong (we used to call it a sin, but that's intellectually unfashionable these days), it solves nothing, and in fact only hands the opposition a moral victory. So, it's time for folks to dial things back. It's okay to be angry, but take it out by sending emails to newspaper editors, calling your local and state representatives, marching "vigorously" against policies that you oppose, or on the elliptical cross-trainer at your gym. But, it's really not okay to kill (or try to kill) people. Really.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

NBA MVP: Who'd You Rather Have on Your Team?

Recently, a news reporter asked a Montana Republican who he trusted more: Donald Trump or James Comey. "About the same," the guy answered. Then the reporter asked a follow-up question, "Who would you buy a used car from?" After an uncomfortable chuckle, the man replied, "James Comey." To get to the truth of a matter, sometimes you have to ask the right question.

This exchange comes to mind when I think about the debate over who should be the NBA's MVP. The finalists are James Hardin, Russell Westbrook, and Kawai Leonard. My guess is that it'll come down to either Hardin and Westbrook. However, I think people are asking the wrong question. Instead of asking, "Who's the NBA's MVP?", they should be asking, "Who would you want on your team?" And seriously, would anyone pick Hardin or Westbrook over Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, or Kyrie Irving (or Kawai Leonard for that matter)? I don't think so. If there's anything these playoffs have made clear is that James, Durant, Curry, and Irving operate at a completely different level than do others in the league. Especially when it counts.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Why Do Terrorists Attack Just Before Elections?

I'm sure I'm not the only one who's noticed that it seems that some terror attacks are timed just before an election. It happened a few weeks ago in France, and it happened just yesterday in the UK, less than a week before June 8th's Parliamentary election. In the current climate many, if not most, observers believe that such attacks help more conservative political parties because they're typically seen as being more supportive of "robust" security measures ("The London Terror Attacks May Mean More Votes for Theresa May's Conservative Party").

However, if they are right, then that raises a interesting question: Why do terrorists carry out such attacks if they help political parties that are more likely to oppose them coercive? It isn't because they don't know what they're doing. As I've pointed out previously, terrorists are not stupid and, in fact, are often quite well educated ("Terrorists Aren't Stupid (Nor Are They Ignorant)"). Thus, it's likely that they carry them out because they believe it's to their benefit to do so.

But what benefit might they derive from such attacks? I'd argue that it triggers political reactions that leaves the impression that those of us living in the West do not like Muslims, that we are hostile to the Islamic way of life. For instance, ISIS has reportedly referred to President Trump's proposed travel ban as the "blessed ban," not because it helps the world's Muslims, but because it helps to reinforce the belief that Muslims are not welcome in the West.

What can we do? Well, we need to work hard to counteract such an impression, whether we do so through ecumenical events at our own faith communities or by paying friendly visits to local Islamic mosques. I confess, however, our task is quite difficult when so many of our politicians seem more interested in inciting animosity toward Muslims than they are in welcoming them as full and faithful members of the democratic West.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What Was Hunter Strickland Thinking?

With two outs in the top of the 8th inning of yesterday's game between the Washington Nationals and the San Francisco Giants, Giants reliever Hunter Strickland threw a 98mph fastball at the Nationals' Bryce Harper, hitting him in the hip, apparently in retaliation for Harper's behavior after hitting two home runs of Strickland in the 2014 playoffs. (To be fair, Strickland denies throwing at Harper, but most observers find this hard to believe.) Harper then charged the mound, the two exchanged punches (I think Strickland landed a better right), and both benches emptied. Evidently, this is the first time Strickland has faced Harper since then, so he decided to take advantage of the situation. Who knows? He may not get to face Harper for another 2 1/2 years!

But, what was Strickland thinking? The Giants were losing 2-0 at the time, very much in the game against a team with a sketchy bullpen. It's not as if the Giants are tearing up the league at the moment (at least not in a good way), and they need every win they can get. And true to form, the runner who took Harper's place (he was ejected) eventually scored. The last thing the Giants need right now is to intentionally give other teams opportunities to score. It's telling, I believe, that when Harper charged the mound and both benches emptied, Giants catcher Buster Posey remained out of the fray, possibly a subtle message from the Giants' best player, that Strickland's actions were ill-advised and inappropriate.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Was Hillary's Campaign Really Doomed?

A recently released book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign, purports to explain "why" Hillary Clinton lost the election for president to Donald Trump. As the subtitle suggests, the campaign was doomed from the start. However, even the book's authors (Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen) were surprised that Hillary lost, which should give readers of the book pause. In fact, as the physicist and sociologist Duncan Watts reminds us in his book, Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer), it's very easy to "predict" the future, once you know what it is.

As I noted in a previous post (For Those Condemned to Study the Past - Whenever Possible, Count!), this is known as hindsight bias, a term coined (I believe) by the social psychologist, Amos Tversk, which (according to Tvesky) is "the tendency [for historians] 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:”
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?
So, yes, I'm sure that the Clinton campaign made mistakes, but on the other side of the election, I'm willing to bet that they weren't all that obvious, even for Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Why Your Local Public High School Is Probably Better Than You Think (a repost of sorts)

Status reproduction is a process highlighted by the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu; it refers to how the status of a person, group, institution, etc. is reproduced by virtue of its status. Consider, for example, college football programs. The best high school players generally want to play for the top programs, which makes it easier for those programs to recruit and attract more of the best players, which in turn helps them remain top programs. This can be true even if they don't have great coaching. Because of the level of talent they attract, they often win in spite of the coaching on the field.

A similar process occurs in many industries. Take the venture capital (VC) industry, for instance. Most entrepreneurs hope to receive funding from top VC firms, not just because these VC firms are seen as being more "wise," but also because their ties with the top attorneys, accountants, and investment bankers raise the probability the entrepreneurial companies will succeed. What this means for VC firms is that the top (i.e., the high status) VC firms often have their "pick" of the entrepreneurial companies to fund, while lower status VC firms do not. Moreover, top VC firms will typically be able to command better terms with their investments, such as getting a larger stake in the start-up's equity. To illustrate, imagine two VC firms, X and Y, with X being a high status firm and Y being a low status one; if both invest $1 million dollars in entrepreneurial company Z, all else being equal, X will get a greater share of the company Z's equity than will Y. Then, if company Z goes public, X will reap higher profits than will X.

What does this have to do with high schools? Status reproduction among them as well. Imagine, for example, two schools: A & B. Available teachers have been randomly assigned to both so that the teaching quality at both schools will be the same. The schools differ, however, in that most of the best students attend A and most of the worst students attend B. It doesn't take a genius to see that school A will score better on various standardized tests, enjoy a higher graduating rate, send more students to college. But it won't do so because of the teaching but because it attracted more of the best students.

Now, consider a slightly different scenario with the same two schools, except this time their average performance on standardized tests is a combination of innate student ability and teaching quality. On their own (i.e., without teaching) students can score between 0 and 50 (out of 100), but with teaching they can raise their scores by 0 to 50 points. So, for instance, a student with the highest innate ability (50) who receives the best possible teaching (50) will score 100 out of 100, and a student with no innate ability who receives the worst possible teaching will score of 0. Now, imagine that the average student ability at school A is 45, while the average student ability at school B is 30. This means that in order for B to score as high (or higher) than A, the quality of teaching at B has to 15 points better than A. Now, imagine a scenario where school B has the best teachers in the state and add 50 points to their students' scores, which raises school B's average standardized score to 80, while A has good but not great teachers who add 40 points to their students' scores, which raises school B's average standardized score to 85.

To be sure, these two examples are stylized, but they illustrate how school performance is not necessarily an indicator of teacher quality. To be sure, at one time school A may have had some of the best teachers in the district, and that's why it initially attracted better students, but that doesn't mean that it still has the best teachers. Unfortunately, a lot of parents interpret scores and graduation rates in just that way, and consequently (if they possess the requisite resources) they send their kids to schools they think are better but actually might not be. Currently in Silicon Valley, the divide between school A and school B type schools tends to lie between private and public schools, and among public schools, the divide is typically between those in wealthier neighborhoods and poorer neighborhoods.

Divides such as these are almost certainly overstated. My own daughter (Tara) attends a public school (Del Mar) that some folks still see as having a bad reputation. However almost all of her teachers have been excellent, and she has been accepted into the top two public universities in the U.S. (UC Berkeley and UCLA), two of the top regional universities on the West Coast (Chapman and Cal Poly San Louis Obispo), along with UC Santa Barbara, University of Washington, and Sonoma State. In other words, if parents paid less attention to test scores and more to teacher quality, they might realize that their local public high school is probably better than they think it is. Acting on such a realization could save them a lot of money. It would also help boost public schools at a time when they're under attack.

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 - Whenever Possible, 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.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Sound Like Anyone You Know?

DSM 5 refers to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is the 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association's classification and diagnostic tool that was published in 2013 (it is essentially unchanged from DSM IV, which was published in 1994). It notes that a narcissistic personality disorder is a (1) pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), (2) a need for admiration, and (3) a lack of empathy. People who "suffer" from it display five or more of the following symptoms:
  1. Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  2. Being preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  3. Believing they are "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  4. Requiring excessive admiration
  5. Having a sense of entitlement (i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with their expectations)
  6. Being interpersonally exploitative (i.e., take advantage of others to achieve their own ends)
  7. Lacking empathy: unwilling to recognize or identify the feelings and needs of others
  8. Being envious of others and believing that others envy them
  9. Displaying arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Sound like anyone you know?