pedantic ridicule never convinced anybody of anything

Lauren Davis of io9 has a collection of internet comics that, she claims, “shut down terrible internet arguments.” I suppose that depends on your definition of “shutting down.” If that just means “insult and dismiss the person you’re arguing with,” then sure, those comics are very effective. They suggest the superiority of the people who agree with them with maximum derision and haughtiness. (They include, of course, a comic from xkcd, which covers a lot of different topics but has essentially only one main idea, which is that the guy who  writes it and the people who share it are better than everyone else.) But if your interest was to actually prevent the proliferation of the bad argument, through convincing the people who espouse it, they’re terrible. Because people do not respond to pedantry and they don’t respond to ridicule and they don’t respond to superiority. They just don’t. That’s not how humans work.

This past semester I had the great pleasure of having lunch with Dan Fagin, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Toms River, about the environmental and health impacts of a major chemical plant in New Jersey. Fagin is a talented and experienced science communicator. We were talking about the effort against global warming. One of his points is that far, far too much climate scientists and their liberal political allies communicate about climate change aggressively and derisively, which simply does not work. Adults really do not like the sensation that they’re being educated by another adult, particularly one that attacks their various communal and affinity groups. So the question becomes, do you care enough about slowing global warming to drop the psychically satisfying routine of ridiculing people with whom you disagree?

I can’t find it now (edit: here), but some Facebook friends of mine last year were sharing a comic about white privilege that was essentially the “argument through aggressive disdain and ridicule” thing to the absolute zenith. It literally ended with a cartoon character looking into the frame and saying “fucking educate yourselves!” to its implied audience. Let me assure you of something: no one, in the history of persuasion, has ever been persuaded by someone indignantly ordering them to educate themselves. Telling people to educate themselves in that manner is essentially ensuring that they won’t. At some point you have to decide if you’re more invested in the fun of feeling righteously superior or the actual need to convince others.

a scientific definition of causation

Whenever I get into these correlation and causation battles (and I do frequently, both in the university and online), they seem to go wrong in two ways: one, people often insist on an entirely unhelpful definition of the word “implies,” and two, people often presume some quantitative signifier of absolute causation that does not exist in most fields.

For the first case, there’s a widespread and strange contention that “implies” is synonymous with “proves.” I find this out of character with conventional use: the word implies seems to exist specifically to indicate a softer claim that the word proves. “Officer, did the suspect specifically state that he wanted to buy drugs?” “No, your honor, but he implied it.” My boss implied I would get fired if I didn’t do my work. The woman at the bar implied she’d like me to buy her a drink. Etc etc. To say that an implication amounts to proof positive just seems contrary to the way we use that term, to me. If you’d prefer “suggests” or “provides evidence for,” then I’ll use that instead. But in each case, we are make a probabilistic judgement call, not a simple quantitative conclusion, because of point two: in the large majority of fields, causation is a philosophical, epistemological concept, not a mathematical one. In those fields where there are communal standards of causation, from my limited knowledge, they tend to be beyond the reach of a vast majority of the social sciences.

Take a field where the stakes for research are high indeed: medicine. Robert Koch, a pioneering epidemiologist and physician, proposed four criteria for demonstrating that a particular pathogen caused a disease.

1. the microorganism or other pathogen must be present in all cases of the disease
2. the pathogen can be isolated from the diseased host and grown in pure culture
3. the pathogen from the pure culture must cause the disease when inoculated into a healthy, susceptible laboratory animal
4. the pathogen must be reisolated from the new host and shown to be the same as the originally inoculated pathogen

You can already imagine the host of problems here, even for a field as “hard” as the medical sciences. We know that there are agents in medicine which contribute to diseases or conditions but which are not necessarily present in all cases. (10% of lung  cancer victims, for example, have never smoked.) Growing pathogens in cultures is very straightforward if that pathogen is a bacterium, but far less clear when we’re talking about many kinds of environmental and behavioral risk factors. Replicating certain behaviors or conditions in lab animals is often a practical impossibility, and in many instances, human epidemiology varies drastically from that of mice or similar lab animals. Reisolating a causal agent again makes sense if we’re hunting for a bacteria and no sense if we’re asking if exposure to soot causes scrotal cancer. And so on. So eventually, Koch’s requirements had to be discarded in some avenues of medicine such as carcinogenesis; the bar was simply too high, and the need for more cancer science far too great.

In some fields, the only responsible way to assign a cause is through a controlled experiment. That often means that the researchers must themselves control the given exposure or other independent variables, introducing them into the test group themselves. The ethical quandary is obvious: no institutional review board in the world will allow you to deliberately expose a test group of babies to tobacco smoke in hopes of determining strong empirical proof of causation. (I hope!) Similarly, no one could or should divide babies into a cohort to be raised in affluence and a cohort to be raised in poverty for the sake of experimental value, even though we might learn more in doing so that we have in decades of educational research. Instead, we are left to muddle through with observational and quasi-experimental designs in which researchers cannot themselves control exposure to a given independent variable, which some serious epistemologists would say is a requirement of truly demonstrating causation. And we do alright, sometimes, if we’re careful, limited in our claims, and we replicate. (With lung cancer, at least, we can see the physiological changes that occur from smoking. How could we ever look for a physiological sign of causation in the brain of an impoverished child struggling to succeed in school? Where would we look?)

So I will again go out on this limb: I believe that poverty causes poor educational outcomes. I think by a rational, fair standard of what we mean in common human language by a cause, that statement is true. The evidence? Decade upon decade of studies that demonstrate a strong correlation between the socioeconomic class of students (or their parents) and educational outcomes. Across a broad variety of contexts, for a number of different age groups, in all manner of different levels and types of schools, we see that basic dynamic. I’m not suggesting simplicity here. While I believe poverty is cause of educational failure, it is surely not the only cause. And while this basic dynamic is present in reams of data, the effect size is not always the same, the effect is not always equally distributed across the income spectrum, the effect sometimes changes according to age cohort, and on and on. Yet I feel confident enough in the relationship I’m describing — and in my readers to understand nuance and appropriate limitation — to say that poverty causes poor educational performance.

If you think that my use of the word “cause” here is problematic, or simply wrong, I’m very happy to have that discussion. The literature on this topic is vast, and I’m nothing resembling an expert. But for practical purposes we have to allow for sufficient linguistic and epistemological simplicity to actually grow the “storehouse of human knowledge.” We might get experts together from a variety of fields to debate and develop fair, pragmatically-useful definitions of cause that are reasonable for those fields. But I find that debate so much less fruitful than many other forms of inquiry we can undertake if we all agree to understand causation as contingent and complex.

I again recommend The Emperor of All Maladies for a very cogent discussion of how all of this played out in the realm of cancer where, despite being on the forefront of modern science, with incredible resources, the best-trained researchers could not prove causality to Koch’s standard, which the tobacco companies used to nefarious ends. Siddartha Mukherjee writes on page 256, “Rather than fussing about the metaphysical idea about causality (what, in the purest sense, constitutes ’cause’?), [Bradford] Hill changed it to a functional or operational idea. Cause is what cause does, Hill claimed.” If that’s good enough for investigating cancer, it’s good enough for me.

Update: Forgot to mention that this essay by Greg Laden is just terrific on these topics.

“correlation does not imply causation,” New Years 2015 edition

I’ve written, in the past, that I think the reflexive statement “correlation is not causation” has actually become more dangerous than people naively assuming that correlation does equal causation. I was reminded of this recently when I was reading Siddartha Mukherjee’s magnificent “biography of cancer,” The Emperor of All Maladies. The relationship between lung cancer and smoking is the perfect example of how correlational studies can lead us to better understand the world, and in a way that has clear stakes. In time, causal evidence for the link was found, but this took years, and in fact Mukherjee devotes many pages to the difficulty of defining causation and establishing it in a situation where an experiment would have been deeply unethical. Correlational data can go wrong. It can also save lives.

I wrote a long piece about this issue here, and you should check it out if you’re interested. I just want to look at one example of how statistical skepticism could become more of a hindrance than a benefit.

Consider this graph, courtesy of The Washington Post and via the Dish:

Now. Here is a case where we have a simple, intuitive relationship between a statistical observation, the spike in searches for hangover cures, and a potential cause, a holiday associated with the consumption of alcohol. What I want to point out first is that you could just as accurately say “correlation does not equal causation” here as you can with any of the intentionally absurd correlations that are trotted out for rhetorical effect. That correlation does not prove causation is just as true with people Googling “hangover cure” as it is with the famous example of ice cream sales being strongly correlated with deaths by drowning. (Sticklers would in fact call this particular relationship an association, not a correlation, as the holiday is a categorical value and not a numerical one.) In both cases, it is accurate to say that the observed correlation does not prove causation. And yet with this example, but not the latter, I am willing to say that correlation in fact strongly implies causation. 

How can I say that, when the fact that “correlation does not imply causation” has become holy writ on the internet? I can say it because I have a functioning human intelligence and the power of discrimination. I can say it because I have common sense. I can say it because I know that the definition of the word “imply” is not identical to the definition of the word “prove.” Most of all, I can say it because I have a strong theoretical, deductive basis for assuming causation. Or, to put it another way, I lack any remotely satisfying alternative explanation for why this search would spike around New Years. It might be true that all of these people are Googling hangover cures around this date because their great uncle Pappy died around this time, and they are drinking to forget. But that is exceedingly unlikely, far less likely than the simpler explanation that people drink too much at New Years and get hangovers. Contrast that with the ice cream sales and drowning deaths one. We lack a coherent explanation for how one could cause the other, and we have a perfectly good deductive reason for understanding the association — people both eat more ice cream and swim more often when the temperature goes up. It would indeed be dumb to assume that people eating more ice cream causes drownings, but luckily, we aren’t dumb. We have a broader understanding of the world and can use that understanding to avoid such a confused interpretation.

Now we could complicate things. Here’s the same search over a larger time frame, from January of 2010 to December of 2014.

hangover cures googling Jan 2010 Dec 2014

Here, we can see that a similar pattern exists — peaks that are fairly consistent around December and January. We’ve lost some of the granularity by broadening out, making it harder to see the specific concentration around New Years. But we can also see that the relationship, while consistent, is not exclusive; the rate of interest in hangover cures is not static at other times of the year, either. Nor is it immediately clear why the relative volume of searches for hangover cures has risen over time. You could easily imagine people making an intuitive leap based on some of this data that may not be responsible. But it is not irresponsible to look at the massive peak in searches in the first graph and assume a causal relationship.

What I’m arguing here, ultimately, is simple: that we have the benefit of our broader understanding of the world when we examine statistical data, and we should use it. I am also arguing that people who say “correlation is not causation” face a burden of proof too. If you want to look at that peak and sniff that correlation does not imply causation, that’s fine, but you better be able to bring theory and evidence to bear to justify that skepticism. And your burden of proof will be higher than if I said that ice cream sales cause drowning deaths, because the situation is different. Methodological ideas do not exist in a vacuum, but occupy a broad theoretical and empirical framework that complicates them at every turn. We don’t have a general problem, online, with people being either too credulous or too skeptical towards statistical data. We have both too many writers running simple linear regressions and drawing overly broad conclusions from them without appropriate checks and skepticism, and too many people repeating this cliche like parrots without actually bothering to dig into the intellectual work of understanding the world. When I become frustrated by the overt credulity of some data journalism, I read the comments on sites that are home to many skeptics, such as io9, where I find standards of evidence so absurdly high, no real truth claims could ever survive them. The goal has to be to develop a happy medium, one that recognizes the difference between different claims, their strengths, their theoretical backing, and the presence or absence of plausible alternatives.

People who blindly repeat that correlation does not imply causation act as though appropriate empirical skepticism requires us to act as though we are all dumb. We aren’t all dumb. We get things wrong, we fall prey to spurious associations, we bite off more than we can chew, but we aren’t dumb. Let’s be skeptics, not nihilists, in 2015.

let 2015 be the year we stop writing these essays

I am 100% with Will Leitch when he says that the internet has made it easier to live in enclaves, and that this is a political and social problem with profound negative consequences. However.

“this is now accepted public policy. You don’t have to find anyone to contradict you, if you don’t want to.

This isn’t just common practice now: This is how you win. The entire strategy for succeeding at anything, whether it’s winning elections, selling a product or attracting visitors for your Website, revolves around pitching yourself as loudly as you can to those people on your side and turning those who disagree with you into the worst version of themselves, demonizing them into something subhuman and venal. Nuance is tossed out, even if you know a situation is desperately nuanced, in favor of quick points and splash; we’ve all become the New York Post.”

First: “the New York Post” is a dog-whistle too. Just because your signals may have a more cultured pedigree does not make them any less a matter of preaching to your choir.

More importantly: there is no value, for anyone, in not being the New York Post in the way Leitch means. It does no good for us. It does no good for anyone. And since people are literally dying in the streets, it is perhaps time for progressives to recognize that their decade-plus sighing spell has to come to an end, for the good of progressives and the constituencies they speak for. I’m reminded of nothing so much as Jon Stewart’s tepid, directionless Rally to Restore Sanity, a performance of exasperation that pitted a vague, cranky proceduralism against any definition of a positive, actionable agenda around which human beings could actually rally. The genre of the put-upon liberal brow-furrower has this fussy quality, like an actual agenda is too coarse, too indicative of the sordid state of modern affairs. It’s like politics by Andy Rooney. Personally, I’ve always liked the cranks more than the cranky.

Maybe, someday, when substantive change has been achieved, through hard work, then we can futz. There’s time for futzing, after all, and many of Leitch’s complaints are ones that I endorse in a vacuum. But we don’t live in a vacuum, and more importantly, the oppressed among us don’t live in a vacuum. If this is the way you win, now, then let it be the way we win, now. Let 2015 be the year we put liberal sighs to bed.

memento

This letter to the editor was written in response to my father’s obituary and published in my hometown paper, The Middletown Press. My stepmother had a copy, I think, but with the dissolution of my relationship with her in the years after his death, I had no way to get my hands on it. For years I’ve looked for it, but the local library’s microfilm collection had a gap in the months following his death, and I didn’t have any idea of the exact date. This week, after hours of searching through microfilm in the basement of a university research library, I finally found it, published June 3rd, 1997, the day after my 16th birthday.

2014-12-23 10.37.56

race “science” and shoulds

I am and have always been cool with people not liking me or what I write; being disliked is as comfortable for me as my old coat. But I would really, truly appreciate it if people would stop attacking me for a position that I don’t hold and didn’t express on the issue of TNR and The Bell Curve. People claiming that I’m making an argument about having untrammeled debate; people saying that I’m claiming that we should “teach the controversy”; people claiming that I’m defending The New Republic‘s role in all of this, when I find that role as odious as I do everything else the magazine has done in my lifetime; people claiming that I’m saying that we should follow the truth wherever it may lead, in this situation, as though I think it might lead to the conclusions of The Bell Curve; the out-and-out claims that I think race science is correct, when I’ve probably written more words on why it’s incorrect than I have on any other subject — those are wrong, running to dishonest.

What I believe is pretty simple: despite claims that the basic argument of The Bell Curve is so rare and so debunked that it represents no threat, the notion is in fact prevalent in our deeply racist culture, though it is expressed carefully, as we have entered an era where racism is endorsed quietly and through codes. Further, I think it’s wrong to believe that race science lived and died with that particular book. I particularly find it flatly wrong to suggest that by merely mentioning the fact that race science is incorrect, I somehow support it. This is the notion that, by working hard to establish that race science has no credible basis in fact, I am in fact “signal boosting” the concept, as if absent my mentioning it, no one would ever even think to hold that opinion. I instead believe that racism encoded in the terms of science is common enough and pernicious enough to merit fighting. I truly would love to live in the world that these people live in; one of the most persistent and pernicious of racist tropes has been defeated there, long ago. But I don’t live in that world, and neither do they.

We live in a world where 44% of white respondents to a large, rigorous, and very well-respected survey report that they believe white people are more intelligent than black people. We live in a world where just a few years ago, Slate ran a multi-part series endorsing the basic arguments of race and IQ, by a writer who is still employed there and given a position of great prominence. We live in a world where Nicholas Wade was writing for the New York Times just a couple of years ago. We live in a world where the number of people who utilize the anonymity of the internet to express what they quietly believe about black people’s supposed lack of intelligence are legion. We live in the world that produced literacy tests and has not moved that far from their basic logic. And we live in a world where I encounter, in far too much academic work that touches on intelligence testing and race, a kind of tip-toeing, sotto voce agreement to look the other way, a refusal to really look at the question that comes not from the agreement that it has been dispositively disproven but rather from the fear that it has not been disproven at all, so best not to look, and into that lacuna rushes in the worst sort of people.

Along with this discussion comes attendant questions that are meant to demonstrate the obvious absurdity of my position,  but which are not nearly so obvious at all. “Would you bother to fight against astrology?” Sure, and have. Many charlatans and cranks extract a lot of money from the credulous with astrology, and the potential ill-effects of racist science are far worse than those of astrology, and thus more worthy of being rebutted. “Would you waste energy rebutting creationism?” Yes! I would! I have! Creationists have power in our society! They get their mythology written into textbooks! They take seats on school boards of large states and huge school systems, the worm their way into the sciences. How can you be so assured of the popularity of your own ideas as to fail to see the need to fight bad ones?

This whole issue is almost a perfect parody of the current state of the American left, which is a state of enclaves and echo chambers. What could be a better indication of liberal delusion than statements of the kind “this attitude does not exist within my sphere, thus there is no need to fight it”? Your Twitter feed is not the world. Your Tumblr dashboard does not reveal all types of people to you. Brooklyn is not America. Though it may seem that way from your vantage, not everyone alive acquired left-wing theory at Sarah Lawrence or Oberlin. Your enclave, so studiously defined, so easily pruned by the many digital tools that allow you to deny the existence of attitudes you don’t like, cannot and will not protect you. And it cannot and will not protect those who are less privileged and more oppressed than you.

The response that I both respect the most, and which discourages me the most, is this one: black people should not have to debate their intellectual equality. And indeed, it’s true. They shouldn’t have to. But I don’t know what that “should” means. I don’t know what it refers to. I don’t know what valence it has. What does should have to do with anything? Eric Garner should be alive. Chelsea Manning should be free. The poor should be clothed and fed. Racism should be over. Of course black people shouldn’t have to debate their intellectual equality, and it’s nice that in progressive environs, they largely don’t have to. But America writ large does not operate by the social norms of lefty Twitter, and the effects of the presumption of black stupidity are pernicious and destructive, and so that should has no meaning, to me. Lots of things should be, and aren’t, and so you are forced to deal with the world as it is.

The word “should” is the worst thing that ever happened to the left. “Should” has become a virus in the contemporary left, a word that is more effective at defeating left-wing resistance than any right-wing argument ever could be. It seems like every day I read fellow leftists telling me what they should and shouldn’t have to do, rather than what they are compelled by injustice to do. “Feminists should not have to teach people the importance of feminism; it’s their responsibility to educate themselves.” Perhaps it is. But they won’t educate themselves. No one will make the world a just place but us. That’s why there is such a thing as feminism. The struggle exists precisely because the world does not fix itself and its people do not educate themselves. That’s such a basic statement of political principles it frightens me that it has to be said at all.

I ask this basic question of young leftists I meet all the time, the ones who insist to me, with great passion, that my suggestion that we have a duty to fix a broken world is itself oppression: are we winning, or are we losing? That’s what I want to know. Do you think we’re winning or losing? I cannot imagine a leftist or progressive who thinks we’re winning. Not in a world of Tamir Rice and campus rape and Barack Obama’s Wall Street presidency. Yet the attitude that we need to change anything at all, that we need to consider our tactics and our strategy, that we have a responsibility to adapt to our movement’s failures to better succeed, is anathema. That contradiction cannot stand. It is incoherent to say that your movement has failed and yet has no obligation to change. Only those who are protected by privilege from the consequences of this failure could ever be so opposed to overcoming it. Continuing to repeated the word “intersectionality” to the same small group of the already-converted, in the face of so much failure, is to endorse the conditions that you call unjust.

All of it — the misrepresentation of my position, the echo chambers, the shoulds– all are indicative of a political movement that is incapable of looking at the world as it is and dealing with its challenges. You are perfectly free to disagree with my belief that the best way to invalidate these arguments is to debunk them, rather than to ignore them in the hope that they’ll go away. You are perfectly free to disagree with me on the best tactics and strategy to oppose racism. But when you feel compelled to lie about what I believe in disagreeing with me, what does that say about your ability to engage with the broader world, given that on the fundamental issue of substance here I agree with you completely? How could you ever engage with those who don’t agree with you about anything, and who have power, and are inclined to use it against you?

Unless you prefer to pretend that those people don’t exist at all.

Merry Christmas

Hey friends, I’m writing from my home in Connecticut on Christmas morning, which I’m celebrating with family. I just wanted to take a moment and thank you all for your various forms of support. The Christmas Funding Drive was far more successful than I could have imagined and saved my bacon this holiday season. I also want to thank you all for your continued readership, your support, and even the occasional crazy emails. I have a few year-end posts to come in the next few days, but today I’ll be relaxing and celebrating.

It’s been a tough year for me on a number of fronts, but things have been turning around lately. I have finally gotten a little momentum on the professional front, and a developing number of options, and I hope to be able to share good news with you all before too long. But either way, I’m reminded again of my many privileges and the great luck I have to be leading the life I do. Thanks for being a part of it. It means more than I can say.

So Merry Christmas, or what you will.

what’s Jeet Heer afraid of?

Sadly necessary preamble: please, read this post to see what it actually does and doesn’t say

Long layovers make for good blogging time.

So Jeet Heer has a response to Andrew Sullivan’s response to Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the form of one of his long Twitter considerations. The topic, this time, is on the legitimacy of publishing portions of the Bell Curve (along with rebuttals) in a national magazine. Well, I bow to no one in my distaste for TNR, and I also have a long record of opposing race science. But I find it indicative of a very common kind of liberal incoherence on this issue that, ultimately, makes it harder to combat racism.

Heer is of the opinion, as many people are, that publishing portions of The Bell Curve is ipso facto a racist enterprise and something no publication should do. He seems even to find exploring the question to be off-limits. I find all of this strange. We investigate claims to rebut them as much as we do to confirm them. I am not afraid that we will discover a scientific basis for treating black people as inferior human beings. I’m confident that black people have perfectly equal rights to political equality, to economic opportunity and material security, to human dignity and respect. I don’t think black people are inherently genetically inferior in intelligence. And I think the arguments necessary for making that case are perfectly capable of being mustered in the dispassionate manner of social science. It isn’t necessary to become so defensive about the issue that you shut out perspectives that you find offensive. Those perspectives are perfectly subject to criticism, and to my mind comprehensive rejection, precisely by examining them closely. I’ve written a lot of that kind of criticism here and at my old blog. And because race science types constantly play to the perception that their opinions are harsh truths that liberal society cannot face, this only plays to their narrative. It’s a clear strategic failure, and not a necessary one.

Typically, there are two reasons to argue that we shouldn’t look at the arguments of those who advance race science. The first is the argument that I glossed above, which is that there are some ideas that are just too dangerous to look at. I wrote about that idea at some length here. It’s like I said: I’m not afraid to look, and I think telling people we shouldn’t look out of fear of what we might find is just disastrous from a political and strategic point of view.

The second reason is that the ideas are so self-evidently weak, so obviously false, that we needn’t bother to rebut them. To the degree that Jeer articulates any reasons for his stance, this is his take, tweeting “Reasons not to give Bell Curve TNR imprinteur: it wasn’t peer reviewed and Sullivan lacked scientific training to evaluate.”

True, there was no peer review. And the claim that you can “detox” with certain diets also does not have the benefit of peer review. Nor the claim that magnets have healing properties. Nor the notion that MSG causes long-term health problems. And yet all of these ideas, and many more that have never been peer reviewed, have received a full review from serious people. Why? Because they are prevalent ideas, and because things that are believed should be examined, and if necessary, rebutted — and all of these claims have been. I suspect that this is a line of argument that Heer doesn’t apply remotely consistently. The notion that only peer reviewed arguments require rebuttal simply doesn’t pass the smell test. And while Heer might respond that race science is not widely enough believed to be worth rebutting, I find this deeply naive. Precisely because I think our society is deeply racist, but now usually tacitly and secretly racist, I think the idea that black people are inherently intellectually inferior is prevalent. I think many more people believe that than would admit to it in polite society. That is reason enough to present the arguments for the opportunity to rebut them.

And while Sullivan may not have been qualified to interpret the evidence, many of TNR’s readers were. And indeed: many powerful rebuttals of the book emerged from academics.

There’s something to this kind of argument that, I think, fundamentally misrepresents the strongest objections to race science. You occasionally get people incredulously quoting claims that black people score lower on IQ tests or standardized tests of education, as if that claim itself were what’s racist. But we know that black students score well below white students on a whole swath of educational assessments and metrics. The argument isn’t that this racial achievement gap isn’t real; if it wasn’t, then essentially the entire fields of educational testing, assessment, cognitive and developmental psychology, sociology, and psychometrics would be a massive racist conspiracy. Instead, the argument opponents make — the argument I make — is that these differing outcomes are the result of massive and entrenched disadvantages that reflect this country’s legacy of hideous racism and its ongoing, massive racial inequality in economic and sociological factors that impact quality of life. Often, race science types will say that a particular piece of research “controlled for poverty.” But such controls are typically limited to income level or parent’s wealth. Because racism is such a pervasive and all-encompassing phenomenon, these controls are never remotely adequate. In order to really assess these differences, I’d have to feel comfortable accounting for cultural biases in the nature of the questions, parent’s income, parent’s wealth, parent’s level of education, family stability, exposure to crime, exposure to drug abuse and alcoholism, the psychological and social impact of explicit and implicit racism, the Matthew Effect…. Take exposure to lead. We know that black children have significantly higher exposure to lead than white children even after controlling for poverty level. This is what I mean when I say that saying “we controlled for social class” is so inadequate.

I reject the notion of inherent black genetic inferiority because I think that we have far stronger evidence of enormous social and educational factors that serve in aggregate to depress black student performance across the board. The fact that these factors are hard to isolate only demonstrates the degree to which racism is an ambient and diffuse phenomenon in our society. (For similar reasons, I don’t think we’ll ever find a smoking gun for the source of these gaps, but that they are an aggregate of copious types of racial inequality that must be combated with mass redistribution.) All of that objection is simple assessment theory. It’s statistics and empiricism. It doesn’t require a political, emotional, or social revulsion towards asking the question. It simply requires faith in the process and confidence that, well, that black people aren’t inferior.

Ultimately, I get from Heer’s many, many tweets not a lot in terms of why he thinks publishing those excerpts was necessarily racist, but a lot of emotive righteousness, which of course is very popular with is Twitter followers. But that doesn’t help combat a quiet but pernicious attitude about black inferiority in this country. I find liberals are often not very useful allies on this question; typically, they haven’t looked very closely at the arguments they are rebutting and haven’t thought through their objections. I have. I find the principle of racial equality remains as strong as ever. I think maybe more people should try thinking through these things more carefully, exactly because we need to give our objections the necessary juice.

Update: As I’ve said many times, believing in race science is ipso facto racist; it’s the belief that one race is inherently inferior to another. But then, supporting the drug war is ipso facto racist, and I think that’s worth debating too. Fundamentally, I don’t see how these two separate thoughts can both be true: one, that the race science argument is so inherently weak that it does not need to be refuted, and two, that the race science argument is pernicious and potentially destructive. Those both can’t be true. I think the race science argument is dangerous, and so it has to be refuted.

Update II: I’m working on something larger about this phenomenon, hopefully for another publication, but this is a very good example of a broad issue with the left. My critics on this piece believe, as I do, that racism is real and that its effects are pernicious. And yet they also seem to think that the theory that black people are unintelligent is so disreputable that no one needs to rebut it– that rebutting it serves only to legitimize it. But I don’t think that people need to have that view legitimized because far too many of them already believe it. Look at this poll from the American National Election Studies, a very reputable polling project. 44% of whites surveyed said they think white people are more intelligent than black people. How can it be that an idea that’s so prevalent doesn’t need to be fought, and in fact needs to be legitimized by our willingness to fight it? I don’t understand how people who are so confident (and so correct) that our society is deeply racist can also be so confident that the notion that black people are less intelligent than white is only believed by an uninfluential fringe.

dear Louisa, meet my friends Eric, Trayvon, and Michael

It’s tough to be a professional writer, but there are beats you can work. There are roles you can occupy and never go hungry. Few are safer than to be an imperial scribe, the kind of writer who tells Americans that their country is good and that others are evil. Grantland’s Louisa Thomas, an enterprising sort, mashes up that hoary old genre with the perennial moneymaker, the end-of-year retrospective. Cast your eyes back, she counsels a burning nation, and think about those innocent days of Sochi, when we were all united in our contempt for our old antagonists. She describes Russia:

“a country that had recently banned gay “propaganda,” harassed and imprisoned political dissidents, and was run by a man who appealed to imperialist traditions and fear of foreigners”

That the United States is a country of enormous historic and contemporary homophobia; that this is a country that has locked up, sexually assaulted, and tortured to death its own political enemies; that this is the country that has been more aggressive, more blatantly imperial, than any other in the post-1945 world; that this country simultaneously relies on and despises an army of underpaid, precarious brown foreigners — these things are unspoken, because unspeakable.

“It was funny, at first,” she writes of Sochi, and indeed it was, but never in the way she might mean. It was indeed funny to watch a generation of Millennials ho-ho-hoing at their televisions before trumbling off to work as baristas, making $10/hour and carrying $75,000 in student loan debt. It was indeed funny to watch Americans snarking at a broken decorative snowflake while, in New York, the Monstrosity Formerly Known as the Freedom Tower was slowly completed, a monument to the hubris of a country that has no right to any, its purpose to satiate a billionaire land developer rather than the people of the city or the country, its immediate environs an unlivable stretch of cold urban vacuity, every inch of its 1776 feet a sad, unsatisfying compromise. It was indeed funny to see Americans laughing at the rosy, false version of Russian history on display, given that they live in the country that celebrates Thanksgiving, that contains Custer State Park, that publishes textbooks that claim that Moses invented the United States, that releases a torture report after 5 long years of obstruction and then only in pieces. That was funny.

The Cossacks were never funny. Cops never are. I invite you to imagine the international outrage and American horror, had one of Putin’s police choked an innocent man to death on camera for the crime of selling loose cigarettes.

Thomas calls Sochi a mass spectacle of irony, and I suppose it was. But there are worse things in life. Worse than public, open irony is a citizenry who is caught in a kind of arrested half-irony, dripping snark and condescension over everything but those things that deserve them the most, skeptical of most everything except the central lie of their lives, which is the notion that they live in a great, healthy, free, fair nation. I will take the unadulterated version of irony over the desperate, scared, defeated version that people my age stuff into hashtags to distract themselves from their own lives.

Thomas says that every year is the year we’re let down by our heroes, but this implies a lack of agency, like we only let it happen. We do not let that happen. We make it happen. Thomas, in this piece, is making it happen. She is choosing to tell herself a series of lies that she and her audience find more palatable than the truth, and she is being paid for her work. To make the decision Thomas makes, and everyone who LOLs at Russia while their country stumbles around like the violent oaf it is, is to be American. It’s to shake your head at Crimea and not call to mind Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya. It’s to discuss another country’s currency crisis and neglect to mention that your own economy has become a machine for distributing more and more resources to a tiny elite. It’s to laugh at broken elevators for Sochi but to not admit that your country’s infrastructure is a dangerous embarrassment. It’s to talk about what Jesse Owens came home to after the ’36 games but not recognize all the ways he still wouldn’t be home in 2014 America. It’s to see the lie in every other country’s myths but your own.

Like I said: she’ll never lack for work.

the transitive property of making it about gender

So Michelle Dean has a typically sharp post on the accusation of “making it about gender.” She’s 100% right. The basic reality is that, if you find yourself asking why someone is making it about gender, it was already about gender. The fact that things are always about other things than gender too doesn’t change that.

There is a moment in the essay that I want to look at a bit, though, because I think it speaks to a certain danger we can fall into when we voice exasperation about this sort of thing. Dean writes, “one of the other students starting waxing philosophic about fact-checking and John D’Agata.” There it rests; Dean is a writer of exquisite reticence, which is a rare and valuable skill, these days. She lets the associations with those subjects remain tacit, which makes them more effective.

But not everyone has Dean’s ability, or her poise. In many progressive contexts, that detail would become a trope — fact-checking and John D’Agata would not merely be the concern of this particular bro but would rather be rendered as somehow intrinsically bro-y. Despite the neutrality of fact-checking, in the current idiom of progressive elites, the subject could very easily become a Dude Thing, to which an appropriate level of derision would be applied by all good and right people, many of them dudes, but Not That Type of Dude Dudes. The transitive property of symbolic gender would apply: this thing has been associated with a spate of shitty behaviors (in this case, casual sexism and defensiveness in the face of accurate identification of that sexism) and so this thing becomes a way to signal to the right crowd ridiculousness and political imperfection. It’s shorthand politics for a generation of people who take their political arguments predigested.

Take, say, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac is a good example of a subject that has become so associated with dudeism that just his name functions as a kind of shorthand for that small sliver of humanity that, like me, is turned on to post-collegiate culture vulture social signals and dog whistles. Kerouac = sweaty self-important bro earnestness. These codes are, now, all around us, a digital bath. It’s one of the many, many ways in which the aforementioned elites treat each other with an aggressively reductive disdain, a kind of ritualized intellectual violence that I can only presume is part of the legacy of growing up desperate to get into Harvard or start for the field hockey team or be the furthest ahead in second grade reading group or whatever. You can see this particular manifestation expressed perfectly in this piece by Kate Hakala, titled with admirable clarity “Why I Will Never Sleep with a Kerouac Fanatic.” Human behavior is reduced to a series of shallow affectations and loose associations that are nevertheless rendered with the certain superiority that is the default vocabulary of The Way We Internet Now, and all framed, of course, in terms of who you would deign to fuck.

Hakala has a series of complaints about the kind of dude she’s talking about, and they’re indeed frustrating, cliched behaviors. The connection to Kerouac seems less entirely clear; for sure, there are those associations with him, but mostly I think those guys misread him, as thoroughly as his critics do. Which isn’t to say that I’m a fan. It’s been many years since I’ve read Jack Kerouac. There was a time in my life when it was time to read Kerouac, and then that time ended. I’m meant to be embarrassed by that, I suppose, just like I’m meant to be embarrassed by all the sadboy emo I used to listen to in my early 20s. But that was what I did at the time I was meant to do it. I was once a sad boy, after all. I will never quite understand the notion that you should be embarrassed to have once been the age and the person you were.

In any event, this is what I’m talking about: the way in which certain subjects take on a kind of unchosen symbolic weight which elite culture then uses for its favorite band of affect politics. Few things are more valuable to that crew than a spiteful association. The problem isn’t really that those Kerouac boys might have their feelings hurt; there’s little danger in that. The problem is, first, that these associations always exclude those who aren’t actually dudes, and in that way contribute to the kind of savvy essentializing that is part and parcel with these aggressive cultural politics. It forces female fans of Kerouac to ask, am I a dude? Here’s Katie J.M. Baker asking that essential question. But more importantly, because this reflex ties genuinely undesirable social behaviors to particular interests, even though the actual associations are so loose, it makes it harder to address the actual shitty behavior. The problem with the men Hakal describes is the entitlement and the self-importance, not their choice in novels. By making those synonymous with a book, you encourage men who like the book to reject the critique of the behavior and confuse those who have no opinion of the book and don’t plan on developing one. This is part of a broader phenomenon where many cultured progressives seem to address secondary phenomena related with political problems more than the problems themselves.

If the question was just opinions about Beat writers of declining reputations, there would be little at stake. But this transitive property has a really distressing habit of occurring even with vitally important political issues. I got into a useless argument about a puff piece about Samantha Power, and the woman I was arguing with said only that criticizing Samantha Power is a “dude thing.” Power is one of the most destructive political figures in the world today, someone who has championed absolutely calamitous military interventions, like the one that made Libya a hellish quagmire. To defend Power by arguing, inaccurately, that only men criticize her, you lose the opportunity to talk about America’s terrible legacy of causing misery through its “humanitarian” interventions. (And I know plenty of women, not all of them socialists or anarchists, who hate Power more than I do.) Dean quotes Rebecca Solnit. Solnit has done more than anyone to write about mansplaining. Mansplaining is a real, troubling problem. But Solnit also has written utterly terrible pieces of redbaiting, anti-left invective. She’s forever inveighing against those of us on the left who think we have a project that goes beyond celebrating the Democrats. When people dismiss any criticism of her as ipso facto mansplaining, we have no room to talk about what the left needs to do to challenge the terrible, centrist myopia of the Democrats and their president. The only thing I want to explain to Solnit is that her politics suck.

Lately, I’ve noticed a deeply, deeply harmful divide between some of those who talk primarily about identity and cultural politics and some of those who talk about civil liberties and foreign policy. That divide is often rendered in starkly gendered terms. That’s an analytical mistake, as these problems are connected at the root, and a  political disaster, for everyone involved. Not to mention an enormous victory for the forces of conservatism. Whenever someone starts complaining on Twitter that only bros care about drones, I imagine the guy from the cover of Monopoly chuckling to himself as he lights a cigar with a $100 bill.

I guess it all comes down to a choice that I have identified many times. Progressive elites have built themselves something of an enclave, one which encompasses many in the media, in politics, in professional writing, and in the general class of tastemakers. I make fun of that class quite a bit, but in many ways it is my own culture, and while I disagree on many subjects, more or less those are my politics. The question is who the political expressions of this class should serve. Should it be turn inward, to make the members of the enclave chuckle? That’s a forgivable, human impulse. But it just doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t solve the problems that create the exasperation, exhaustion, and rage for which the jokes are a temporary, limited antidote. And I think that, with more and more people seeming to recognize the depth of the failure of the politics of outrage, we need to find some other way to go about doing this. Progressive elites have to decide whether the care more about pleasing each other with self-aggrandizing jokes or about winning through appeals to those they find culturally distasteful.

In the end, it has nothing to do with being nice to the dudes. It starts, in fact, with recognizing that, in a very real way, keeping it all jokes just leaves them off the hook.