Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Jonathan Haidt, Sam Harris, and the New Dogmatism

I've written about Jonathan Haidt's work before ("Aristotle and the Righteous Mind"). Haidt is a social scientist, and his various studies have turned up empirical evidence for the notion that we are moral intutionists, that we are born with intuitive understandings of what is right and wrong, and we routinely make moral judgments without really thinking why. He has also found that we typically adjust our thinking to fit our intuitions rather than the other way around. What this means is that in order for reason to affect our moral judgments, we have to possess an open-mind. If we are absolutely certain that we are right, then it's unlikely we'll ever be open to alternative opinions and the possibility that we might be wrong.

Which is why Haidt has recently offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who can change Sam Harris's mind ("Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change His Mind"). As some of you know, Harris is one of the "new atheists," a group that includes the biologist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennett. Haidt recently fed books written by Harris ("The End of Faith"), Dennett ("Breaking the Spell"), and Dawkins ("The God Delusion") into a text analysis program that counts certainty words (e.g., always, never, certainly, every, undeniable). He also fed in books by social scientists Jesse Bering ("The Belief Instinct") and Ara Norenzayan ("Big Gods"), as well as his own recent book ("The Righteous Mind"). And for good measure, he did the same with books by conservative commentators with a reputation for being close-minded, such as Sean Hannity ("Deliver us From Evil"), Ann Coulter ("Treason"), and Glenn Beck ("Common Sense"). The results of his analysis are presented in the chart below (image from on-line article by Haidt -- "Why Sam Harris is Unlikely to Change His Mind"):

What he found is that the new atheists, the so-called devotees of reason and opponents of dogmatism, were the most dogmatic of the authors analyzed. Their texts included more certainty words than did those by the conservative commentators Beck, Hannity, and Coulter and the social scientists Bering, Norenzayan, and Haidt. And Harris is the worst of the bunch, which is why Haidt's absolutely certain (no pun intended) he'll never have to pay up.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Aldon Smith, Incentives, and the NFL

The word on the street is that the 49ers have yet to give up on troubled defensive lineman, Aldon Smith, although Bay Area columnists are calling on the Niners to cut him loose. As many of you know, Smith was recently arrested at the LA airport for telling a TSA official that he had a bomb, and this isn't Smith's first brush with the law. It's his fourth arrest in the last couple of years, and it wouldn't be a surprise to learn that, privately, the Niners would love to let Smith go, but let's be honest: There's little or no incentive for the Niners to do so. Smith's so talented, there isn't a team in the NFL (yes, that includes the team you root for) that wouldn't consider offering him a contract, and the last thing the Niners need is for one of their rivals (e.g., the Seahawks) to sign him. In fact, aside from having him incarcerated, there's not really much at this point that the Niners can do. Much like the Baltimore Ravens felt that they couldn't afford to jettison Ray Lewis back in the day, the Niners feel that they can't afford to get rid of Smith even if they want to (which, I suspect, they do).

The only answer I see is for the NFL to flex its muscles and ban (rather than suspend) players when they step too far out of line. This will probably never happen because the players' union is far too strong. And that is why the Niners find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. They can't live with Smith and they can't live without him.

Proof The Dodgers Aren't America's Team and More

Remember last year when Los Angeles Dodger Manager Don Mattingly claimed that the Dodgers were “America’s Team” ("The Dodgers: America's Team?")? I argued then that Mattingly truly believed that, he's remarkably out of touch the rest of the baseball world. At the time I didn't have any empirical evidence to back up my claim, but now, thanks to the folks at Facebook and New York Times, I do. As many of you know, Facebook users often make their team preferences public on Facebook, and the New York Times used aggregated data provided by Facebook in order to create a geography of baseball fandom ("Up Close on Baseball's Borders"), which is pictured above. (The interactive map is even more interesting to play with ("A Map of Baseball Nation")). One doesn't have to be a genius to see that the Dodgers's fan base doesn't extend too far from Chavez Ravine. In fact, their rivals to the north (i.e., my beloved Giants) command a far greater one than do they. Oh well. As the Beatles reminded us many years ago, money can't buy you love.

We can learn something else from this map. There's a reason why the Oakland A's have a hard time selling seats and the Giants don't. The A's simply don't have the fans that the Giants do. In fact, there are more Giant fans in Oakland than there are A's fans. And based on the map below, it doesn't look like a move by the A's to San Jose will help.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Alcohol vs. Marijuana

Imagine a world just like ours except that neither alcohol or marijuana had been discovered. Then consider what might happen if tomorrow, both were discovered. What would happen? Would alcohol still remain the drug of choice or would marijuana? There is evidence that suggests that the social costs of alcohol are far higher than those of marijuana, so one could imagine that in this imagined world, marijuana would emerge victorious. This thought experiment is the subject of the latest Freakonomics podcast ("What’s More Dangerous: Marijuana or Alcohol?"). As with all Freakonomics podcasts, it can be downloaded from iTunes or you can listen to it at the Freakonomics website where you can also find the audio transcript.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Can Puig Do It Again?

Last year I argued that the Dodger's outfielder, Yasiel Puig, should be selected as the National League's MVP ("Puig for MVP"), which was very difficult to do for a Giants fan such as myself. Granted, the Pirates' Andrew McCutcheon probably deserved the award since he'd been passed over numerous times in previous years because the Pirates never made the playoffs (until last year, that is). Still, I don't think anybody meant more to a team than did Puig. Before he was called up, the Dodgers were an extremely talented team that consistently underachieved. But after he arrived, they became a completely different team. During the summer they were the best team in baseball. They cooled off before the playoffs, but it's no wonder that they are favorites to win it all this year.

But the question is: Can Puig do it again? Can he continue to transform the Dodgers into a powerhouse. I think he can, but to do so he's going to have to cut down on his strikeouts. Last year, he hit .316 with 122 hits and 97 strike outs in 382 at bats. That means he struck out over 25% of the time and that of the 285 times he put the ball into play, 43% of the time he reached base safely without the opposing team committing an error. I don't think that he (or anyone) can keep up that kind of pace over the long run. He will have to learn how to strike out less, or his lifetime stats will resemble those of Bobby Bonds rather than those of Barry Bonds.

P.S. How's Puig doing so far this year? Well, it's very early in the year, so we can't draw any conclusions from what's happened so far. Interestingly, though, he's striking out at about the same rate as last year (9 times in 38 at bats) but he's only hitting .237. In fact, he has just as many strikeouts as he has hits.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Legislate Morality for Me But Not for Thee

A favorite refrain among liberal critics of the conservative right is that it is trying to legislate morality, which, they argue, is a bad thing, probably because they think it violates the separation of church and state. What many of these critics forget (or did not even know) is that Southern Whites accused the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. of exactly the same thing. In fact, as then Senator Barack Obama, remarked back in 2006, all legislation reflects someone's or some group's morality:
Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King -- indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history -- were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
-- Barack Obama, 2006 (emphasis added) 
Keynote Speech, Call to Renewal (Sojourner’s Community)

The question, in other words, is not whether morality will be legislated but who's morality. Take the abortion debate, for instance. Some believe that abortion should be made illegal because it involves the taking of an innocent life. Others argue that the government should remain neutral on the question, that it shouldn’t take sides and allow women to decide for themselves. However, as the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel notes,
This argument does not succeed. For, if its true that the developing fetus is morally equivalent to a child, then abortion is morally equivalent to infanticide. And few would maintain that government should let parents decide for themselves whether to kill their children. So the “pro-choice” position in the abortion debate is not really neutral on the underlying moral and theological question; it implicitly rests on the assumption that the Catholic Church’s teaching on the moral status of the fetus -- that it is a person from the moment of conception -- is false (Sandel, Justice, 251).
Note that there is nothing in Sandel’s argument that precludes individuals from being pro-choice. However, it does hold that if they choose to be pro-choice, they should acknowledge that they are not being any more neutral than are those who choose to be pro-life:
It is not enough to say that the law should be neutral on moral and religious questions. The case for permitting abortion is no more neutral than the case for banning it. Both positions presuppose some answer to the underlying moral and religious controversy” (Sandel, 252).
The same can be argued for gay and lesbian rights. As with abortion, movements that seek to grant gay and lesbian rights are no less engaged in legislating morality than are those that seek to oppose them. Both positions presuppose some answer to the underlying moral (and religious) question of what is good.

Taking a step back, what I really think is going on is that most people have no problem with groups attempting to legislate morality as long as they agree with what the groups are trying to legislate. This is somewhat analogous to what Nat Hentoff, the former columnist for The Village Voice, once argued in his book, "Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee:" namely, that while in theory many Americans believe in the right to free speech, in practice they often only affirm it for those with whom they happen to agree. In other words, we can summarize how most folks' (unconsciously) view the legislation of morality with this play on Hentoff's book title: Legislate for Me But Not for Thee.

Monday, April 7, 2014

America's Best (and Worst) Airlines

For the second year in a row, the Airline Quality Rating (AQR) report has ranked Virgin America as the highest-quality major airline in the United States. The AQR has been conducted annually since 1991 and is considered the premier statistical study of US major airline performance. It focuses on four criteria: On-time arrivals, denied boardings, mishandled bags, and customer complaints. The final ranking is a weighted average of the four scores. Here they are:

I haven't risen all of the carriers, but I see that my least favorite (American Eagle) landed at the bottom of the list. No surprise there, at least not for me. An airline that's missing from the list is Spirit Airlines, which a recent Planet Money episode labeled the "The Fastest Growing, Least Popular Airline In America." If that report is correct, it would've almost certainly landed below American Eagle, which in my opinion is very hard to do.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

What's a Bitcoin?

Bitcoins are a digital currency (aka, as virtual currency, electronic money, or cryptocurrency) that was introduced in 2009. They are created by a process called mining, and users can send and receive them with a personal computer or mobile device. The Bitcoin system is not controlled by a single entity (e.g., a central bank), which is why they are considered a decentralized currency. The commercial use of bitcoins as a form of payment is small compared to how they have been bought and sold by speculators, which has led to considerable volatility in the price of bitcoins. That said, there has been some growth in their use as a currency because bitcoin transaction fees are typically lower than credit card fees. So far, the largest purchase using bitcoins was the purchase of a villa in Bali for over $500,000.

Bitcoins have been the subject of two recent podcasts: one on NPR's Planet Money and one on Freakonomics. The one on Planet Money ("Bitcoin Goes To The Moon") discusses the recent volatility in the price of bitcoins. There's also a link to an earlier 2011 Planet Money podcast ("Bitcoin"), which talks about the nuts and bolts of the Bitcoin system. The Freakonomics podcast ("Why Everybody Who Doesn’t Hate Bitcoin Loves It") examines what bitcoins are and why bitcoins (or something like them) could prove to be revolutionary. As the folks at Freakonomics put it: "thinking of Bitcoin as just a digital currency is like thinking about the Internet as just e-mail. Its potential is much more exciting than that." Both the Planet Money and Freakonomics podcasts can be downloaded from iTunes or you can listen to them at their respective websites. Just follow the links above.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Hobby Lobby, Ideology, and Constitutional Philosophy

As many readers know, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for an exemption to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (i.e., Obamacare) requirement that certain for-profit corporations have to provide contraception coverage to their workers. They are seeking an exclusion on religious grounds from the health care law's requirements, maintaining that some contraceptive products, like the morning-after pill, are equivalent to abortion. The case's outcome appears to hinge on whether freedom of religious conscience can be extended to corporations (rather than just for individuals). Oral arguments were held before the Supreme Court last week.

I've read several op-eds on the case, and I've come away with the sense that in most cases ideology trumps philosophy, that the side people take is largely determined by their ideological leanings rather than their constitutional philosophy. In other words, most of those who are pro-life find the argument that religious freedom can be extended to corporations compelling, while most of those who are pro-choice do not. No doubt there are exceptions (e.g., people who actually study constitutional law), but I'm willing to bet that the best predictor of someone's opinion on the case is not their constitutional philosophy concerning religious freedom but whether they are pro-life or pro-choice.