Thursday, January 31, 2008

Nannies and Moloch

I caught Diane Rehm on Sirius coming home today and was surprised to hear the gentle southernisms of one Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) talking about his new book on morality, religion and values. Of course I was drawn in and managed to suppress the vague feeling of creepiness that kept coming and going in waves enough to be able to make it to the end of the show.

Senator DeMint was described as the most conservative member of Congress and delivered on that description in his interview. After a short intro on his endorsement of Mitt Romney and a discussion of the currently pending economic stimulus package, DeMint sketched his thesis: anyone who expresses religious values is oppressed by the government; that the reduction in religiosity in America since the 60s has been accompanied by the erosion of the greatness of our society; that the government promotes immorality through various policies; and that the “Democrat Party” was in opposition to good values (he sort of apologized when someone pointed out that “Democrat Party” was a slur and that the party is the “Democratic Party,” though he said that we are a democratic nation and he didn’t associate that with Democrats, thus compounding his slur while claiming he would try to do better)

Now, I can safely say that Jim DeMint has some serious problems with facts, categories and logical argumentation. But that’s to be expected. For instance, he floats the case about a parent in Massachusetts who was incensed that same-sex relationships were mentioned in his child’s school. He then claimed that the parent was arrested for speaking out about this “immoral” education, when in reality (as Diane Rehm’s stand-in from the BBC noted) the parent was arrested for refusing to leave the school premises. DeMint continued on a strange quest to conflate the notion that free speech was being thwarted when people were unable to change policy, as opposed to the commonsense notion of free speech having to do with speech acts, written or verbal.

Many callers questioned his statistical claims concerning a range of issues, as well. When pressed on why he claimed abstinence education was being blocked by evil secular government forces, for instance, rather than the recent discovery that they didn’t much work, he claimed that the Heritage Foundation had statistics that showed that if you combined abstinence education with a commitment on the part of parents to furthering the abstinence cause, that then you might get a 75% reduction in out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Fair enough, but he is completely redefining the problem. I could achieve the same results with secular humanist education: if you get pregnant before you are ready, it will have negative consequences to you, your partner, your parents and society. Don’t do it. Given good basic values of respect for oneself and others, care for others, and belief that harming others is wrong, you get precisely the same result.

DeMint is easily criticized and I didn’t come away with a deep respect for his intellect or his willingness to stretch intellectually to fathom the complex issues. Indeed, he was so wedded to his theses that I felt queasy. But there was one topic that he mentioned that was somewhat interesting to me: does government, though its policies, serve to direct, encourage or sanction moral behavior? DeMint suggested that our values have changed regarding smoking based on government action. A similar argument applies to seatbelts or talking on cell phones while driving.

The odd thing to me is how an arch-conservative seems to have adopted a nanny-state attitude that also reveals a divide between liberals and conservatives. Jonathan Haidt’s research shows that liberals and conservatives differ on a couple of measures, with conservatives valuing “reverence” more than liberals, and liberals value “fairness” more than conservatives. Now an easy application of this principle shows the divide: DeMint castigates homosexuality as immoral while liberals don’t care what others do with their lives and think they should be treated fairly. But for DeMint, government has been shaping those attitudes by failing to criticize the gay community for (in his analysis) the cost to society from AIDS, STDs and other alleged problems. Gay marriage, oddly, remains a problem for DeMint despite the claim that it might lead to longer-term relationships and reduce exactly the issues that he is concerned over. So DeMint wants a nanny state for personal morality, but also wants a small government that is less nanniful about business regulation, guns and the environment.

A strange collection of virtues and values that shows how the 1800s live-on in the backwaters of America.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Wine and Irrationality

Over a rather spectacular kick-off dinner with two of my consultants in Las Vegas last week, I had the pleasure of basking in the meal/wine pairing choices of chefs and sommeliers, deliciously devoid of any need for my decision making as to how to eat, much less how to pair wines with food. At the beginning of the meal I was handed a tablet computer that we could use to try to pick our wine, but by choosing the tasting menu we avoided having to do anything more than play around with the user interface.

What amuses me about this is that just how to do that pairing, or how to evaluate wine quality, is not just a mystery, but is a profound black hole of irrationality and subtle psychology. If determining wine quality was rational, we would expect consistency among experts. We would expect predictability in the Wine Spectator scorings. There isn’t. We would not expect to find that people buy wines with animals on the bottle more than other wines, or that you can label the same wine at $40/bottle and at $3/bottle and get remarkably different reviews from tasters (the $40 version is remarkably better!)

In the end, though, no one really knows anything beyond some simple rules about how to combine wine and food flavors together. Sweeter wines with spicier foods. More robust meats with richer and darker reds. A sommelier and a tasting menu makes much better sense than any of us wine spectators.

Sitting at that table, one of my consultants managed to dig out an 1899 Rothchild Pauillac from the tablet computer. Price tag would have been $8999.00. I nixed the idea. I promised him that someday, maybe, we might get it in a fit of irrationality.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Codes and Fervor

I stumbled onto the continuing saga of the so-called “bible code” the other day and was amused to see that the issue continues to percolate along fourteen years after the original effort appeared in Statistical Science as a “puzzle.” My own involvement was briefly in the early years when I developed some code for performing searches in documents that matched the original effort. I handed the code off to Dave Thomas of New Mexicans for Science and Reason, though I believe he was already using the results from Brendon McKay from Australian National University for his work.

A brief description may help.

Some Israeli researchers following a Kabbalah-like speculation about hidden codes in the Hebrew OT looked for words and word relationships hidden in the characters. The way they thought the words were hidden was as what they called equidistant letter sequences (ELSs). An ELS is where each letter of a word is separated in the text by a certain number of other characters. When they found an ELS, they then looked in the immediate area of the text around the words for other ELS sequences that said something interesting about the original word. They paired these together as questions and answers.

Needless to say, it is pretty easy to take any text, find interesting short words as ELSs and then find interesting words as ELSs around them. With my original code, I used the system to decide what to have for lunch. I would find the word “lunch” as an ELS, then look around and get words like “taco,” “steak” and “fish.” As one can imagine, shorter words tend to have greater representation!

Here's some examples borrowed from Brendan McKay showing ELS patterns predicting the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the text of Moby Dick:

More are here.

The whole episode demonstrates a surprising vitality to craziness impregnated by religious fervor, considering the start in 1994, the analyses and counter-analyses from various fronts, the publication of a best-selling book, and the availability of commercial systems that help you now do your own bible code analyses.

A slightly less crazy speculation comes from Clifford Pickover (although it's not clear what the original source is) that given a (countably) infinite digit sequence for PI, Shakespeare must be inevitability coded with those numbers given a suitable representation scheme. While that might be, ELSs in PI would be rarer than in human language texts, I think, because the digit probabilities are very uniform for PI after a few thousand digits, unlike most languages that tend to have a more skew distribution of letters. So ELS words would be way down deep in the code, though not quite as far along as The Bard.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Santa and Universal Morality

Marc Hauser’s Moral Minds has been among my reading materials over the holiday period. In Moral Minds, Hauser postulates a universal grammar underlying all human moral decision making.

The moral dimension of decision making ended up pervading my holidays, with a perhaps only nominally healthy degree of worrying over the whys of many otherwise pedestrian considerations. I upset my nine-year-old as we drove by the Shaklee building in Pleasanton, California by asking whether he thought that the bombing of the building by animal rights extremists was at all justified given that some animals might have been harmed in the testing of health products. I was very surprised at how emotional the topic became for him—to the point that he was teary-eyed—and how quickly we had to discontinue discussion. For him, the idea of a moral tradeoff between harming animals and saving people was just so affective that he couldn’t go on with the discussion, demonstrating Hauser’s thesis that the universal moral grammar operates at a level that is not rational at its core.

A related concern arose in a commentary I made to the local paper: should we lie to children? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins argue absolutely no, and for the most part my wife and I have done very well with our own variation on this position. We dropped the ball a few years back, though, because of suburban parental expectations and the fear that our son would be castigated by his friends (as much if not more than he already has been by those who assert Hell is in his future!). What we did was to vaguely allow the Santa Claus myth to continue. The results two years back were perhaps predictable and, to this day, he reminds us that we cruelly deceived him and made him look like a fool. Never again.

So, when the inevitable “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” reprint came to the local paper, I made a disguised contribution:

Dear Virginia,

There are many things that The New York Sun is wrong about. We print retractions with some regularity because we are flawed but dedicated to trying to get things right as best we can. It is therefore with a heavy heart that I must point out that our previous letter to you from 1897 neglected some very important facts. And, because we consider it immoral to lie to children, we want to be as clear as we can in this retraction.

Virginia, we want you to understand that Santa Claus is a great idea and that a long time ago there really was someone named St. Nicholas and other people named Kris Kringle. In recent years, in our country, many celebrate Christmas and think of Santa Claus as a bringer of toys and good cheer to all of us. He represents a beautiful idea in his magical sleigh giving gifts to children and adults alike.

But, Virginia, we would be wrong to tell you Santa Claus really exists and lives at the North Pole while little elves build toys. We can’t tell you that because it isn’t true. Santa Claus is no more real than Odin, God, Yahweh, Allah, Zeus, Kali, Quetzalcoatl, ghosts, demons, devils, imps, djinns, leprechauns, or any of the many supernatural creatures that people have thought up down through the ages. There is simply no evidence for any of them.

Virginia, we want you to believe that we have your best interests at heart, and therefore we can’t lie to you about these things. Opinions differ about many of these ideas. Some people think that if we deceive you it helps you have a more interesting childhood. Some people think there are many gods swirling around in space. Some believe that forests are filled with wood spirits inhabiting the trees. But all evidence points to quite the opposite of all of these ideas.

Still, giving gifts of cheer, celebrating our lives together, and being kind to one another are all beautiful and very human ideas. We won’t lie to you, Virginia, but we do want you to be kind and enjoy the holidays. Be of good cheer, and the spirit of Santa Claus will always be with you.


The New Editorial Staff
New York Sun

But this is an example of a basic moral revulsion (do not lie to children) interfering with social and rational ideas. In any case, my son at least approves.