Monday, March 31, 2014

Ball Four: Or is It?

I can't recall how many times I've watched a pitcher get a little wild, walk a couple of guys, and then can't catch a break from the umpire. Almost every pitch that borders between a strike and a ball is called a ball. This inevitably forces the pitcher to start aiming his pitches, which usually translates into him either getting even more wild and walking even more batters or grooving one right down the middle of the plate, which the batter then launches into one of the gaps and drives home numerous runs. It's as if once a pitcher becomes a little wild, the umpire assumes that the next pitch will be a ball. And unless the next pitch is clearly a strike, the umpire calls it a ball. Of course, I have had no data by which to test this hypothesis. Data on how Little League, high school, and college umpires call pitches do not exist.

But, they do exist for professional baseball. Pitch location data have been collected by Major League Baseball for several years now, and a recent study Brayden King, associate professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Jerry Kim, assistant professor at Columbia Business School, indirectly appears to confirm my suspicions ("What Umpires Get Wrong"). They not only found that umpires call about 14 percent of non-swinging pitches incorrectly (i.e., calling a strike a ball and a ball a strike), but they are heavily influenced by unconscious preconceptions of what the next pitch will be. For instance, umpires were 16 percent more likely to call a ball a strike if the pitcher had appeared in an All-Star game than if he hadn't, and they were 9 percent less likely to mistakenly call a strike a ball if the pitcher had appeared in an All-Star game than if he hadn't. Similarly, a pitcher who has a reputation for not walking a lot of batters is much more likely to have a ball called a strike than a pitcher who is known for being wild.

Thus, it isn't too much of a leap to suppose that after a pitcher has walked a couple of batters, umpires are much more likely to call the next pitch a ball than if he hasn't. What's interesting is that I can actually test this hypothesis. I think I'll wait until I get tenure before I do, however.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Not Everyone Can Throw Like Mariano Rivera

It used to be that when a starting pitcher threw a clean eighth inning, he would start the ninth. More and more, however, that doesn't happen. If starters pitch through the eighth, they are often relived by the team's closer regardless of how they pitched the ninth. Personally, I think this is inane, but it reflects current conventional wisdom in major league baseball: to win, you gotta have a closer, and so teams will spend ungodly amounts of $s to get one.

The problem is that closers as good as Mariano Rivera are rare, and most teams would probably do just as well, or better, if they closed by committee and spent big-dollars for other positions. As an article in today's New York Times notes ("A Season Opens. But Who Closes?"), dropping huge $s on big name closers is a hit-or-miss proposition (e.g., Miami Marlins and Heath Bell); in fact, the last three World Series winners (St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox) all finished the season with different closers than they started with. But, professional baseball is no less immune to current fads than are other professions, so I doubt that too much will change in the short term.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Why Christianity is Fashionable Among China's Intellectuals

Social scientists typically draw a distinction between sects and cults (see note on use of the term, "cult," below). Both exist in a state of "tension" with their sociocultural environment. That is, their beliefs and practices often put them at odds with mainstream society. However, whereas sects have ties with an established religious tradition in that particular society, cults do not. Cults are independent religious movements that can arise either by being imported from another society (e.g., Hinduism in the United States or Christianity in India) or when someone has new religious insights and succeeds in attracting followers (e.g., Mormonism in the United States or Islam in seventh-century Mecca).

A surprising difference between sects and cults is that while sects tend to attract people of lower socioeconomic status, cults tend to attract people of higher socioeconomic status. Why? Because conversion to a new religion generally involves being interested in new culture and new ideas, and people with higher educations are generally more able of disseminating new ideas. It is also why in the United States Zen Buddhism primarily appeals to people with higher levels of education and why the Rajneeshpuram, which was a short-lived commune in central Oregon during the 1980s, attracted people primarily from the upper and middle classes:
Most of the sannyasins that lived at the communal city in Oregon in the '80s were more than thirty years old, and less the 5 percent of them were people of color. Two-thirds reported that they had degrees from four-year colleges. A substantial portion of these sannyasins represented the best and brightest of the baby-boon generation, who had excelled in college and in their late careers (Goldman 2011, p. 309)
Thus, we shouldn't be surprised that in China, intellectuals are attracted to Christianity. As Rodney Stark and Xiuhua Wang (2014, p. 1) noted:
A number of observers have noticed the very high rate of conversion to Christianity that is taking place among graduate students from China at American universities (Wang and Yang 2006; Yang 1998). Many also have remarked on the very Christian climate that prevails at the leading Chinese universities, where many students as well as many faculty members openly express their faith (Lin-Liu 2005), and a fine study by Fenggang Yang (2005) reported the prevalence of well-educated Chinese among urban Christians in China.
Why? Because in China, Christianity is a cult. It is an independent religious movement; it doesn't have a tie to an established Chinese religion. But that doesn't explain why Christianity rather some other independent religious movement is attracting educated converts. That is the topic Stark and Wang address in a recent article:
No one has adequately explained why Christianity seems to have such great appeal for the most-educated Chinese. In fact, if this is true, the special appeal of Christianity for educated Chinese is quite inconsistent with the still prevailing notion among sociologists that religion functions primarily to compensate the lower classes for their worldly deprivations. 
In this study, we first demonstrate that the most-educated Chinese are more likely than the less-educated to become Christians and to reject Buddhism. We then review previous research showing that new religious movements are nearly always based on elites. We explain this linkage as the result of spiritual deprivation. Turning to the particular situation of educated Chinese, we explore how the rapid influx of technical and economic modernity into a traditional society can create a crisis of cultural incongruity—a conflict between the cultural assumptions of modernity and those of traditional religious culture. This conflict results in spiritual deprivation, which can be relieved by conversion to Christianity and by rejecting Buddhism and other traditional religions.
Alas for the West's cultured despisers of Christianity, many of whom are attracted Eastern religions. If they grew up and lived in China, there's a good chance they'd find Christianity fashionable and be following Jesus instead.

Note: Because the public and media often use the term "cult" with negative connotations, social scientists sometimes use the term, "new religious movement." That, however, is misleading because many new religious movements are only "new" to the society in which they emerge. Thus, I prefer the either the term "cult" or "independent religious movement."


Goldman, Marion S. 2011. "Cultural Capital, Social Networks, and Collective Violence." Pp. 307-23 in Violence and New Religious Movements, edited by James R. Lewis. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lin-Liu, Jen. 2005. “At Chinese Universities, Whispers of Jesus.” Chronicle of Higher Education June 10:40.

Stark, Rodney, and Xiuhua Wang. 2014. "Christian Conversion and Cultural Incongruity in Asia." Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 10 (Article 2).

Wang, Yuting, and Fenggang Yang. 2006. “More Than Evangelical and Ethnic: The Eco-logical Factor in Chinese Conversion to Christianity in the United States.” Sociology of Religion 67: 179–192.

Yang, Fenggang. 1998. “Chinese Conversion to Evangelical Christianity: The Importance of Social and Cultural Contexts.” Sociology of Religion 59: 237–257.

Yang, Fenggang. 2005. “Lost in the Market, Saved at McDonald’s: Conversion to Christianity in Urban China.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44: 423–441.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Bin Laden and Pakistan

Some time ago, I noted that the Pakistan government almost certainly knew that Osama bin Laden was holed up in Abbottabad ("Umar Patek, Osama bin Laden and Abbottabad: Mere Coincidence?"). I also pointed out that just a few months before the raid on bin Laden's compound another high profile terrorist, Umar Patek, was arrested in the same town where bin Laden was found hiding. At the time I wondered
  • Whether it was mere coincidence that two of the world's most sought-after terrorists sought refuge in the same Pakistani town?
  • Wasn't it something of a stretch to believe that Pakistani officials were able to learn of Patek's presence in Abbottabad, while remaining completely ignorant of bin Laden's? 
A recent article in the New York Times Magazine confirms what I suspected ("What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden"). Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, knew of bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad and actually ran a special desk assigned just to handle him. It also appears that it has been lending support to the Taliban so that it can use them as a proxy force to eventually gain control of Afghanistan. According to the article's author, Carlotta Gall, 
America’s failure to fully understand and actively confront Pakistan on its support and export of terrorism is one of the primary reasons President Karzai has become so disillusioned with the United States. As American and NATO troops prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year, the Pakistani military and its Taliban proxy forces lie in wait, as much a threat as any that existed in 2001.
I hope that Ms. Gall is wrong. I fear that she is right. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Mainline Denial Redux

The Alban Institute, a resource for mainline denominations and clergy for over 40 years, recently announced that it was closing its doors ("Alban Institute, a Resource for Mainline Institutions, to Shutter"). It is another sign of mainline Protestant decline, but as I wrote last summer when discussing the closing down of the United Methodist Reporter, mainline leaders appear to be in denial  ("Mainline Denial"). I've heard them explain the decline away in numerous ways. One United Church of Christ (UCC) leader compared UCC membership patterns with those of a particular conservative denomination, and after noting their similarity, he concluded that theology had nothing to do with the UCC's decline. Unfortunately, he cherry picked his comparison case and ignored all the cases that contradicted his argument (a good example of why a basic course in statistics should be required in high school). Others have argued that because studies show that people over report how often they attend church, evangelical denominations are really doing better than mainline ones. Of course, over reporting occurs in both evangelical and mainline denominations, so while evangelical church attendance may be overstated, so is mainline church attendance (a good example of why a basic course in logic should be required in high school). And still others take heart in reports that mainline denominations aren't the only the only ones in decline; so are evangelical ones. But that doesn't appear to be the case. For better or worse, evangelical Protestantism is alive and well in the U.S., while mainline Protestantism is not (and I'm a mainline Protestant) ("The Myth of Evangelical Decline").

What's to be done? I offered a couple of suggestions in my post last summer ("Mainline Denial"), but I'm unsure if decline, at least to a certain extent, is necessarily a bad thing. As theologian Stanley Hauerwas has argued, the loss of "power" may be good for the church. It may help us recover the core of the gospel, which according to Hauerwas (and others) we lost when Constantine converted to Christianity. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to attract new members, but we shouldn't give up the core of the gospel to do so. It also means we have to invite our  family, friends, and acquaintances to church, something many mainliners are reluctant to do because it smacks of evangelization  ("Why Do Some Churches (and Synagogues, Temples, Mosques) Grow?"). Nevertheless, if we don't, the mainline church will eventually wither and die, and more premier institutions like the Alban Institute will cease to exist.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Networks and Sociopaths

As some readers know, one of my academic specialities is social network analysis (SNA). Not to be confused with social networking (e.g., Facebook, Twitter) although it often is, SNA is a collection of theories and methods that assume that our behavior is influenced by the people to whom we have ties and the networks in which we are embedded. This assumption has found empirical support in experiments such as those conducted by Solomon Asch ("Asch Conformity Experiments"), Stanley Milgram ("Milgram Experiment"), and Philip Zimbardo ("Stanford prison experiment"), and it is shared with scholars from other disciplines, such as the philosophers Martin Buber ("I and Thou"), Emmanuel Levinas ("Time and the Other"), Gabriel Marcel ("The Mystery of Being"), and Edward Farley ("Good and Evil"). More recently, neuroscientists have come to embrace it, arguing that not only are our brains wired to be social but that being wired as such provided us with an evolutionary advantage over those groups that are not ("Social: Why Are Brains Are Wired to Connect").

Interestingly, the notion that we are influenced by others is often met with resistance. Many of us like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers, who choose what we say and do apart from what those around us say and do. The notion that we're consciously or unconsciously influenced by our ties to others strikes many of us as a form of mental weakness. Thus, many of us, when we hear about studies that demonstrate how easily we are influenced, assume that we're the exception to the rule, that only others are affected by those around them.

But that's simply not the case. All of us are influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by the behavior and beliefs of our friends, family, and acquaintances. And it's a good thing that we are. Studies have found that the only people who are not influenced by others are sociopaths, that is, people who are incapable of empathy and often inflict harm on those "close" to them. So instead of resisting the fact that we're influenced by the people with whom we have ties, let's embrace it. It's what enabled our species to survive. It's what enables us to live and love. In short, it's what enables us to be fully human.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

John Madden and Jim Harbaugh: Two of a Kind?

I'm amused by NFL fans who dislike Niner coach Jim Harbaugh. Apparently, they dislike his intensity and animated sideline antics. I get it, but those of us who grew up watching John Madden rant and rave on the Raider sideline back in the 60's and 70's consider Harbaugh rather tame. As someone recently remarked, Madden makes Harbaugh look like Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Most folks love Madden now. They think he's smart, that he's funny, that he's a character. But many of these same folks forget that one of the reasons why he retired when he was only 42 is because his "fervor" for the game was causing him health problems. They also forget that the rest of the league despised him and his Raiders because of how physical they played (to which Madden would reply, "Yeah we play hard and mean...whatcha gonna do about it?").

So, those of you who dislike Harbaugh: Too bad. Get over it. I'm pretty sure you'd love him if he was coaching your team. He's probably going to go down as one of the greatest coaches of all time (he's a Jedi master, after all), and someday folks are probably going to think he's funny, smart, and maybe even a "character."

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

So-Called Capitalists and the Free Market

Have you noticed that capitalists are often the most ardent promoters of the free market except when they're not? The makers of Tesla, the high-end electric-powered car, is discovering this as it seeks to expand its market across the United States. The states of Texas, Arizona, and most recently New Jersey have found a way to prevent Tesla from selling its vehicles in their states. Dealers in these states have used laws that prevent manufacturers from selling directly to customers (rather than selling through dealers) to keep Tesla out.

As a recent NPR "Planet Money" podcast notes ("Why Buying A Car Is So Awful"), these laws were originally put into place in order to protect local dealers from the predatory practices of the big three automobile makers: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. But times have changed, and now these laws essentially protect local monopolies controlled by dealers that add, on average, about $1,800 to every car that we buy. Thus, it's quite understandable why dealers are reluctant to alter the status quo and let Telsa in. It's also an example of how some of the biggest supporters of the free market aren't when it threatens their bottom line.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Race and Religion in America

Research of voluntary organizations has found that members on the periphery of a group are more likely to leave than those located closer to the center, and a few years ago Michael Emerson and Christian Smith (2000) found that this helped explain why a newly-formed Seattle church's attempt to establish an interracial church was unsuccessful. The church was founded by an African-American pastor, who recruited white and black members from churches in the area (with the churches' consent). After a year of preparation, the church's first public service was held, and the congregation was almost evenly split between blacks and whites. However, as the church grew, the congregation began losing its white members, and within three years fewer than ten remained. The first few who left (all of whom were charter members) said they left because they felt like outsiders, that their voices were not being heard. This had a spiraling effect on the church's composition:
There were fewer within-church social network ties to keep whites there and recruit new white members. Whites leaving also meant an increasingly great number of social ties outside the church for the remaining whites, making the church less central for them, and making them feel increasingly like outsiders, and that there needs were not being met (p. 149).
A recent study at Baylor University uncovered something similar. It found that members of the minority racial group in a congregation were less likely to feel a sense of belonging, to have close friends in the congregation and to participate in Sunday school classes, prayer group, or community service projects. All of this is the subject of the most recent "Ahead of the Trend" column from the folks at the Association of Religion Data Archive (ARDA) ("Racial power vs. Divine Glory: Why Desegregation Remains an Elusive Goal for U.S. Congregations")
The election of a black president, television commercials featuring interracial couples and many voices in the media trumpeting the emergence of a post-racial society make it tempting to think of America as a nation that is transcending an historic racial divide. But a developing body of research is revealing just how pervasive racial differences are in one of the nation's most powerful voluntary institutions - the houses of worship where people gather for spiritual and moral guidance and fellowship. One study by Baylor University researchers found members of the minority racial group in a congregation were significantly less likely to feel a sense of belonging, to have close friends in the congregation and to participate in Sunday school classes, prayer group or community service projects. The latest edition of Ahead of the Trend explores that study and other research on the challenges in building and sustaining religious communities that transcend race, and offers key findings on creating a successful multiracial house of worship.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is often credited with the remark that "Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America." The irony is that the least segregated hour(s) occur Sunday afternoons at football, baseball, and basketball stadiums across America. Perhaps, religion could learn a thing or two from the world of sports.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Is Learning a Foreign Language Worth It? It Depends...

Is learning a foreign language worth it? There is evidence to suggest that it stretches our brain, that bilingual kids have been shown to have better memory and executive function, that it helps prevent the onset of dementia, and that our emotions function differently depending on what language we speak in.

For example, Boaz Keysar, who's a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, has found that people tended to act more utilitarian when they're speaking in a foreign language than when they're not. This could be because that using a foreign language is less emotional. It gives us less emotional resonance when we use it. So, when people think in a foreign language, they're "more reflective about their choices. They’re more likely to engage in cost-benefit analysis, in a way, and less likely to be swayed by all sorts of emotional reactions that they might have in general."

But, is it worth it? Measured in economic terms, probably not. At least not for Americans. The return on investment (ROI) for learning a foreign language is marginal at best. As the MIT economist, Albert Saiz (who is from Barcelona) calculated the tracked about 9,000 college graduates to see how a foreign language affected their wages:
Yeah, unfortunately, and I have to say, of course, because I try to speak three, I was pretty disappointed, and actually we found a very, very small return. What we did find is that after controlling for a host of characteristics, and using, a lot of experimental research designs that are basically trying to compare people who are identical for everything except for the second language, we did tend to find a premium in the labor market of about 2 percent of wages. In other words, if you speak a second language, you can expect to earn, on average,...  about 2 percent higher wages. To contextualize this, think about your income or your wage being about $30,000, then you would expect to earn about $600 more per year.
This is not true for non-Americans where learning English typically yields much larger returns. So, is it worth it? I'd say so. Stretching the brain, improving our memory, delaying the onset of dementia all seem to be worthy returns. But just don't expect to make a lot of money from doing it.

All this (and more) is the subject of the most recent Freakonomics podcast ("Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?"). You can download the episode from iTunes or listen to it at the Freakonomics website (where you can also access the transcript).

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Why Strict Churches Are Strong (Or, Why the Mormon Church is Growing)

I've written previously on the paradox of why strict churches are strong ("Why Evangelical Churches Thrive (or, Why Strict Churches Are Strong)"). As the economist Larry Iannaccone has noted (“Why Strict Churches Are Strong,” American Journal of Sociology, 1994:1180-1211), the rapid growth of strict churches presents a problem for standard economic theory because why would someone join a “high-cost” church when plenty of “low-cost” alternatives are available? Why join a church that requires you to spend 15-20 hours per week at church when you can join one that only requires that you spend one or two? Moreover, the costs of strict churches aren't only measured in time. Membership in some strict churches can invite ridicule and persecution, it can sometimes limit one's chances for social and economic advancement, and it often bars access to secularly endorsed pleasures (e.g., Halloween).

Iannaccone's solution to this paradox is that strictness increases church strength because it screens out free-riders (or at least limits them), who are individuals who benefit from the efforts or contributions of others without putting forth a corresponding effort or contribution of their own. In religious communities free-riders are those who show up for and benefit from worship services but only contribute marginally to the services themselves. Iannaccone argues that free-riding undermines the collective activities of groups like faith communities because it reduces collective product of the group: the average level of participation, enthusiasm, energy and so on. However, in strict groups only those fully committed to the groups join or at least stick around for the long term. This leads to an increase in the average level of participation, which in turn leads enthusiasm and energy levels to be higher.

A key to Iannaccone's solution is the fact that religion is a "commodity" that people produce collectively. For example, the satisfaction I derive from worship doesn’t just depend on how much I contribute to the worship service but also on how much other people contribute. If only half of the congregation participates (e.g., the singing of hymns), then the collective product will not be as good as it would be if everyone participated, which means that my worship experience will be less than it would have been if everyone had participated.

In his Pulitzer Prize nominated book, The Rise of Christianity, Rodney Stark draws on Iannaccone’s strict church thesis to help explain the success of the early Christian Church. He notes that the early Church placed heavy demands on members, to the point of being willing to die for their faith (i.e., martyr). And while the martyrdom of Christians was sporadic and relatively minimal, people who joined the early Church were expected to fully participate in its ministries and worship. This led to worship services that “must have yielded an immense, shared emotional satisfaction” and levels of care that generated many "this-worldly" rewards to church members (p. 188). Thus, although membership in the early Christian Church was costly (e.g., martyrdom and other forms of sacrifice), it was still a bargain:
Because the church asked much of its members, it was thereby possessed of the resources to give much. For example, because Christians were expected to aid the less fortunate, many of them received such aid, and all could feel greater security against bad times. Because they were asked to nurse the sick and dying, many of them received such nursing. Because they were asked to love others, they in turn were loved. And if Christians were required to observe a far more restrictive moral code than that observed by pagans, Christians – especially women – enjoyed a far more secure family life.
There are limits to strictness, however. Too much strictness can drive “away all current and future members” because the benefits no longer outweigh the rewards of belonging. Consequently, churches must strike a balance between strictness and leniency. Striking a balance can be tricky, though – churches can choose the wrong areas in which to be strict and in which to be lenient.

It appears that the Mormon Church has managed to strike such a balance. It is one of the fastest growing denominations in the United States and the world, and while it is somewhat strict, it isn't too strict. In fact, the economist Michael McBride argues that the Mormon Church manages this balance by allowing a limited amount of free-riding.

McBride's take on the Mormon Church's success is the subject of a very interesting re-broadcast of a 2010 Research on Religion podcast ("Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon Church"). Here's a brief summary of it from the Research on Religion website:
Prof. Michael McBride discusses how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day States is organized to overcome free-rider problems. We begin our podcast with an observation that the LDS Church has maintained a high rate of growth, members show remarkable satisfaction with their church, and how the church relies on a remarkable network of unpaid volunteers serving as clergy and in other organizational positions. Mike then lays out the theory of religious clubs that has been used to explain the growth of strict churches. We then focus the majority of our attention on how the LDS Church is organized and how they overcome the common tendency of individuals to free-ride on the voluntary efforts of other. Perhaps more than most denominations, Mormons have been able to solve this problem and obtain high levels of participation from their members. McBride also notes that some free-riding is actually important for church growth and discusses how the LDS works with “free-riders” to increase their levels of engagement. At the end of the podcast we speculate as to why other denominations haven’t adopted the LDS form of organization.
The podcast can be downloaded from iTunes or listened to at the Research on Religion website ("Michael McBride on Religious Free-Riding and the Mormon Church"). Papers that McBride has written on the topic can be found at the Research on Religion website or by clicking on the following links: