Wednesday, 23 July 2003

Speaking of lack of cognitive integration...

Via Lily Malcolm of The Kitchen Cabinet, who is currently fearing the Virginia bar exam:

“I went to Wal-Mart for the first time. I always thought they sold wallpaper. I didn’t realize it has everything. You can get anything you want there for really, really cheap.” ~ Socialite Paris Hilton.

As Lily put it, “And Target will really blow her mind.” So would Meijer (who I am not, nor have ever been, employed by; alas, I must admit I did work for both Target and Wal-Mart in the past).

Partial defense withdrawn

In this post, I defended the research of four psychologists on the psychological determinants of conservatism. After reading the actual article in question, a response, and their response to the response, I am convinced I was in error in defending their work as not being politically motivated. The authors’ response to the critical response is particularly awful. Anyone who can make the following statement with a straight face is clearly partisan:

Sticking with contemporary American politics, it has been observed that Republicans are far more single-mindedly and unambiguously aggressive in pursuing Democratic scandals (e.g., Whitewater, the Clinton–Lewinsky affair) than Democrats have been in pursuing Republican scandals (e.g., Iran Contra, Bush–Harken Energy, Halliburton). (authors’ response, 391)

Iran-Contra resulted in prison terms for many its participants; with the exception of some peripheral figures (most notably, the self-martyring Susan McDougal and the otherwise-corrupt Jim Guy Tucker), Whitewater and Monicagate combined produced none. The authors also somehow forget about the Watergate scandal, doggedly (and rightly) pursued by Democrats, which brought down Richard Nixon and contributed to the defeat of Gerald Ford in 1976. Furthermore, citing Paul Krugman’s NYT op-eds twice as an authority on whether conservatives are more dogmatic than liberals doesn’t pass the laugh test.

More generally, I return to my previous criticisms based on the press release. They repeatedly use single indicators to represent latent constructs. They aggregate across nations without regard for contextual factors. They present bivariate correlations as evidence of causation (just having a bazillion similar correlations does not demonstrate causation). They dismiss exceptional cases out-of-hand, rather than attempting to explain them in terms of their research design (although they do make a half-hearted effort to do so in their response to the critics). They make no effort to integrate any of the previous hypotheses into a well-specified model.

And, to top it all off, most of the research is based on student populations, who are almost certainly atypical of the public at large in terms of their level of political socialization (an important explanation of conservatism in their half-baked theory). Anyone who thinks conservative extremists are less integratively complex than liberal extremists hasn’t had the dubious pleasure of reading both and (two popular cesspits for extremists on the right and left respectively, in case you haven’t had the pleasure). Coupled with a lack of any serious understanding of any of the research done on ideology outside psychology (Converse barely rates a footnote, while nothing newer than McCloskey and Zaller, a 1984 piece, is cited from the political science literature), this turkey doesn’t fly.

One hopes, not knowing the journal hierarchy in psychology, that the Psychological Bulletin is the intellectual equivalent of toilet paper among the APA’s journals, but somehow I doubt that. The editor and reviewers who allowed this garbage to be published ought to be embarrassed.

John Jay Ray, a well-published political psychologist in his own right, has been savaging the piece at Dissecting Leftism.

Libertarians and the do-not-call list

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber has a lengthy response to Tyler Cowan’s (Volokh Conspiracy) libertarian counter-argument against the federal do-not-call list; Will Baude (Crescat Sententia) and Radley Balko (The Agitator) have other, thoughtful libertarian arguments against the do-not-call list.

I don’t have any particular thoughts to add on either side. I do wonder why Mississippi went ahead and created a separate, state-specific do-not-call list this year that covers less types of marketing and fewer numbers (only residential landline telephones) while the FTC action was pending; undoutably the program is solely an election-year boondoggle that a few incumbents can point to to justify their continued occupation of space in the legislature.

However, as a self-interested social scientist, these events may significantly improve the response rates for telephone surveys (which have dropped substantially since the telemarketing industry took off), so at least the part of me that likes getting publications has no problems with the do-not-call list whatsoever.

Agonist Watch returns

The ever-popular Agonist Watch is back with a vengeance, complete with a $500 reward for identifying its author and responding to a backlog of mail and blog posts.

Lott lie?

Wyeth alerted me to this post in which he says:

John Lott—whose survey evidence for More Guns, Less Crime disappeared in a mysterious computer hard drive crash*—is trying to make the case that an armed Iraq is a safe Iraq:
“Yet, despite Iraqis owning machine guns and the country still not under control, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld pointed out that Baghdad is experiencing fewer murders than Washington, D.C., where handguns are banned.”

Let’s forget for a moment whether it is good politics to tell the American people that you want Iraqis to have as many guns as possible at a time when our soldiers are being killed every day by those guns.

Let’s focus on a smaller point—are John Lott’s statistics even accurate? Is the murder rate in Washington DC higher than the murder rate in Baghdad?

Now, it’s possible to know anecdotally what the approximate murder rate is without having detailed statistics available from a central agency. Presumably someone in Baghdad is still making out death certificates, and deaths are being investigated. So, if there are fewer than 262/365 (0.72) murders per day on average (i.e., a murder is only reported every other day, or less often), the murder rate is lower in Baghdad than in Washington.

You can reasonably argue about the causal mechanism; I suspect murder rates could be lower for more complex reasons than “everyone’s armed” (for example, many of the sociopaths who would otherwise be inclined to commit murder were likely Saddam Fedayeen recruits and have been wiped out by the 3ID and others, or maybe it’s just part of the post-war adjustment to a new government by the population). But I’m not sure quoting a statement by a senior administration official is, in and of itself, a lie; at worst, it’s disingenuous support for one’s own position, particularly in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary.

For example, if I say “Bill Clinton says he did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” that doesn’t make me the liar; it does make Bill a liar, unless you want to quibble over the definition of “sex.” In February 1998, it would have been reasonable for me to take Clinton’s statement at face value. Today, even in the light of compelling evidence to the contrary, unless I say “this proves Bill didn’t have sex with Monica” I’m still not a liar.

So, unless someone has statistics showing that the current murder rate in Baghdad is greater than 0.72 people per day (which translates to just over five murders per week), John Lott isn’t necessarily a liar. It is, however, distinctly possible that Lott is wrong. Now, if Lott is subsequently informed that Rumsfeld is factually incorrect, yet continues to repeat the claim, then it would be reasonable to claim he is lying.

Again, a review for those of you just joining us here at SN: lying requires foreknowledge that you are making a factually incorrect statement. Being wrong just requires that the statement being made (or quoted) is factually incorrect. In other words, lying requires intentional deception on behalf of the speaker in addition to factual incorrectness.

James Joyner (in trackback below) makes an important point:

Of course, univariate analysis is silly. Baghdad and Washington are hardly comparable cities. Indeed, one would expect a lower homicide rate in a police state than in a free society.

Indeed. And, that would be a worthwhile critique of Lott’s analysis, which gets to the whole “causal mechanism” thing I discussed above. The best I can say for Lott (if you accept his claims about the dispensation of the survey data, which I find dubious but not entirely improbable) is that he’s a sloppy social scientist—albeit perhaps not an not extraordinarily sloppy one, given the pure sludge that often is passed off as strong evidence in many peer-reviewed journals.

I must be missing something here

InstaPundit approvingly links to a post by the Angry Clam, who is “pissed off” about a study conducted by psychology professors at Berkeley, Stanford and Maryland that purports to describe the psychological determinants of conservatism.

I’ll admit that the press release linked to by the Clam makes the research seem rather simplistic, and some of the editorializing by assistant (i.e. untenured) professor Jack Glaser seems inappropriate. And, frankly, I think the researchers are really describing what Virginia Postrel calls “staisism” rather than conservatism. Say what you will about the Contract with America and the post-1994 Republican majority, but planning to roll back decades of creeping socialism is hardly a conservative position (in their terms); the neo-liberal policies of Britain’s successive governments since 1979 are not exactly “conservative” either, even though many of them were pioneered by the political right. And, as a political scientist, I’m not entirely sold on the idea that J. Random Psychologist is qualified to do research on political concepts, just as I’d have serious concerns if a political scientist tried to perform psychotherapy. To top it all off, I generally despise meta-analysis as a research technique, but that’s neither here nor there.

At the same time, though, the research itself, rather than the stupid commentary it was dressed up with in the press release, doesn’t seem (from its description) excessively political. I’d rather read the article (which appeared in the May 2003 Psychological Bulletin, according to the table of contents) and draw my own conclusions, thanks.