Quick hits (part I)

1) One of the better takes on the ransomware that’s made getting gas a nightmare in NC.  Just because I happened to be out running errands Monday evening and was low I serendipitously filled up as the craziness started Tuesday morning here.  Now, I regularly drive by mostly empty stations with a few stations having lines of dozens of cars.  Do better America!

2) Ummm, I definitely stick with my less intelligent, but friendlier/happier dog.  But, interesting, “Grumpy Dogs Outperform the Friendlies on Some Learning Tests
Dogs that would not be the first choice of many pet owners do better than some of the more agreeable fellows when they have to learn from a stranger.”

3) This, especially when it comes to summer camps this summer, “I Tell My Patients Not to Mask Their Kids Outside: For most young people, the social and emotional benefits of taking masks off outdoors greatly outweigh the personal and public-health advantages of keeping them on.”

4) There’s some really, really bad diversity training that really is out there based on absolutely nonsense, racist ideas like hard work and punctuality are “white supremacy” virtues.  As Yglesias points out, nobody really bothers to defend it (nor did they when he posted this), and, yet, it keeps getting propagated because nobody wants to speak against it and risk being labeled racist or “fragile” white person:

So I want to talk instead about one specific document, not because I think it’s the most important document in the world, but because I don’t really see anyone who I read and respect talking about it even though I’ve seen it arise multiple times in real life.

I’m talking about “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” by Tema Okun, which I first heard of this year from the leader of a progressive nonprofit group whose mission I strongly support. He told me that some people on the staff had started wielding this document in internal disputes and it was causing big headaches. Once I had that on my radar, I heard about it from a couple of other nonprofit workers. And I saw it come up at the Parent Teacher Association for my kid’s school.

It’s an excerpt from a longer book called Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups that was developed as a tool for Okun’s consulting and training gigs.

But today, even though it’s not what I would call a particularly intellectually influential work in highbrow circles — even ones that are very “woke” or left-wing — it does seem to be incredibly widely circulated. You see it everywhere from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence to the Sierra Club of Wisconsin to an organization of West Coast Quakers.

Which is to say it’s sloshing around quite broadly in progressive circles even though I’ve never heard a major writer, scholar, or political leader praise or recommend it. And to put it bluntly, it’s really dumb. In my more conspiratorial moments, I wonder if it’s not a psyop devised by some modern-day version of COINTELPRO to try to destroy progressive politics in the United States by making it impossible to run effective organizations. Even if not, I think the document is worth discussing on its own terms because it is broadly influential enough that if everyone actually agrees with me that it’s bad, we should stop citing it and object when other people do. And alternatively, if there are people who think it’s good, it would be nice to hear them say so, and then we could have a specific argument about that. But while I don’t think this document is exactly typical, I do think it’s emblematic of some broader, unfortunate cultural trends…

The craziest thing about “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” is that it has literally nothing to do with race.

Some of the things she condemns are genuinely bad. For example, it is true that some people have “the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it.” That is in fact not true and not a productive way to live your life, conduct political work, or run an organization of any size.

Mostly, though, she’s against things like “either/or thinking” and “perfectionism” where it’s pretty clearly a case in which you just don’t want to take things too far. I am the very opposite of a perfectionist, and in my old blogging days, I was infamous for my typos. Today I am still like that, but thanks to the help of Marc and Claire, I try to keep dumb mistakes out of Slow Boring since this is, after all, my job, and thousands of subscribers have kindly agreed to pay for it. But I still frequently find myself encountering people who are too perfectionist-oriented, and there are absolutely people who are too hung up on dichotomous thinking and false binaries. But there are also people who are too sloppy or too indecisive.

But big picture, none of this has anything to do with race or white supremacy!

And I don’t mean that in, like, “it’s not racist unless you’re wearing a Klan hood and burning a cross in my lawn.” I mean, nothing. If you don’t know any non-white people who sometimes strike you as excessively rigid in their thinking or seem like too much of perfectionists then you need to get out more. But then Okun herself concedes that there’s no necessary relationship between manifesting white supremacy culture and being white yourself, nor even the ethnic composition of the group…

Okay, but really who cares?

I think enough attention has been paid to the view that Cancel Culture Is A Totalitarian Menace Threatening Our Freedoms that a lot of people have trouble hearing any other kind of criticism, and it leads them to immediately retreat into whataboutism and minimization.

So for the record, I wholeheartedly agree — I do not think a bunch of folks running around telling the world that asking for written memos and focusing on measurable results is racist are going to take over the United States and extinguish human liberty. Frankly, I don’t think they’re going to do anything at all other than run a bunch of basically useless trainings and disrupt the internal functioning of progressive organizations. My concern is less that Woke Conservation Biologists are going to oppress us and more that they aren’t going to do conservation biology very well.

But this can still be very harmful.

If you tell teachers and principals that having a sense of urgency about teaching kids to read is a form of white supremacy, then that is going to hurt kids’ learning. And if young people entering the progressive nonprofit sector believe that any effort to construct disciplined, hierarchical organizations is a form of white supremacy, then they are not going to accomplish anything.

I would also say that the political faction that tends to pride itself on ideas like “taking the science seriously” and “trusting the experts” should ask itself how a white physical education major from Oberlin got to be such a guru on this subject…

But that not only has a range of first-order harms, but it also creates a situation where you then find yourself turning around later and wondering why nobody trusts the experts anymore. Some of the reason is that they’re under assault by bad-faith operators who derive personal benefits from discrediting the concept of neutral expertise. But some of it is that the participants in these institutions can’t be consistently bothered to uphold those values and ask really basic questions of the influential practitioners who happen to be aligned with the right politics.

5) Using drugs to cheat in sports is bad.  They way international athletics organizations horribly treat their athletes based on questionable drug test is… worse?  I mean, your career ruined for eating a steak?!

The American Olympic long jumper Jarrion Lawson, the first man since Jesse Owens to win the 100 meters, 200 meters and long jump at the same N.C.A.A. championships, had a similar experience. After he ate a beef teriyaki bowl at a Japanese restaurant in Arkansas in 2018, he also tested positive for a metabolite of trenbolone.

His agent, Paul Doyle, tracked down the restaurant’s beef supplier, which said it collected beef from farms that, like many farms across America, treated cows with trenbolone to make them grow. Because Mr. Lawson could not recover an exact sample of the beef he’d eaten before the test, he was exonerated in part through old text messages about what he wanted to have for lunch that day and a receipt the restaurant had retained. But he lost 19 months of competition to a provisional suspension while he fought the charge.

“Had he ordered the chicken bowl instead of the beef bowl, he would have saved himself $2 million and his reputation,” said Mr. Doyle, referring to losses from sponsor contracts, competition earnings and legal fees. “It’s very frustrating. Sometimes it seems like they’re taking the approach of ‘Let’s try and ban as many athletes as we can.’”

6) For a variety of reasons, the NHL is gone from a minor interest to me to being my favorite sport by a long shot.  They kind of suck on player safety (Tom Wilson!), though I appreciate the improvements from the constant fighting that really turned me off long ago, but, damn do they get it on air quality.  Kind of amazing that a sports league understands this so much better than major public health agencies.  I loved reading this about upcoming Hurricanes playoff games:

PNC Arena can normally seat 18,680 for hockey. Hurricanes president and general manager Don Waddell said Friday the team was still discussing with the NHL how many fans the team would initially be allowed to host, but that NHL ventilation standards would still limit PNC to about 10,000-12,000 fans until the team can bring in additional HVAC and dehumidifying equipment.

7) No, I’m never going to love wasps, but I can appreciate the important environmental roles they play, “Wasps have a bad rap. This summer, let’s learn to love them”

8) Love, love, love this headline, “Pandora ditching mined diamonds for lab-grown ones: The move by the world’s biggest jeweler reflects consumer demand for sustainability and ethical sourcing.”  I mean, diamonds are absurdly over-rated as gemstones (I mean, a good emerald, ruby, or sapphire over a diamond any day!!), but even worse their environmental and human impact, so, yes, more of this!

9) This was interesting and definitely a move in the right direction, “Is This the End of the Leotard?The German gymnastics team’s full-body uniforms are a bold statement against sexualization and wedgies.”  Also, I had no idea the wedgies were such a big thing.  Athletes should be comfortable, damnit.

10) Good stuff from Noah Smith, “Why politically guided science is bad: Research should not be an effort to reach one’s desired conclusions.”

The other day, a paper was published in the American Economic Review about incarceration’s effect on children. It caused quite a stir, because it concluded that kids can sometimes benefit in certain ways from having their parents locked up:

Every year, millions of Americans experience the incarceration of a family member. Using 30 years of administrative data from Ohio and exploiting differing incarceration propensities of randomly assigned judges, this paper provides the first quasi-experimental estimates of the effects of parental and sibling incarceration in the US. Parental incarceration has beneficial effects on some important outcomes for children, reducing their likelihood of incarceration by 4.9 percentage points and improving their adult neighborhood quality. While estimates on academic performance and teen parenthood are imprecise, we reject large positive or negative effects. Sibling incarceration leads to similar reductions in criminal activity.

There was a torrent of negative reactions to the paper. That’s understandable. You have to be pretty ghoulish to actually like incarceration, and finding out that it can have some beneficial effects for the very children and siblings of the people who get locked up would place us on the horns of a dilemma. Uncomfortably, this is not the first paper to find some sort of effect like this. Here’s another from 2020, which uses a similar methodology but looks at education instead.

Some defended the paper, but very many people were upset about it. Negative reactions from various academics on Twitter ranged from “yikes” to barf emojis to allegations that its publication represented a breach of ethics. Defenders responded that these negative reactions were merely cases of people encountering inconvenient facts.

Those facts — and we do not yet know if they’re facts — would certainly be inconvenient, if you don’t like mass incarceration (and I definitely do not like it!). The U.S. prison system is a human rights nightmare; it would be disgusting to think that casting more people into the maw of that nightmare could be good for their children and siblings. And on top of that, these papers imply that family is sometimes a bad thing — that parents can be such toxic people that throwing them into a dungeon actually makes life better for their kids! That disturbing idea cuts against our deep-seated family values.

Nevertheless, I think calls for the suppression of findings like this are wrong. (And saying that papers like this should not be published, or should have to clear greater-than-usual hurdles for publication, is definitely a call for suppression.) In fact, this reaction is part of what I see as a growing movement in recent years to make scientific inquiry more governed by political ideology. And I think that’s a very bad idea. Scientists can’t ever be fully free of biases, but being less political and more devoted to seeking the facts is a worthy goal that should not be abandoned…

One worry that’s commonly brought up in these debates is that if bad people get a hold of these research results, they will do bad things with it…

In other words, maybe people like John Pfaff know how to use this research to craft better alternatives to modern-day incarceration or subtly tweak sentencing policy, but Ben Shapiro will see it and start screaming “SEEEE? MASS INCARCERATION IS GOOOOOOOD!!!” to his twelve bazillion followers. And then where will we be?

In fact, you can make a similar argument for almost any piece of research, especially for scientific discoveries. The same technology that can cure disease might be used to create bioweapons. The same chemistry discoveries that can create useful new materials can be used to blow people up. And so on.

It’s reasonable for scientists (including social scientists) to be concerned about the evil uses to which their discoveries might be put. But to suppress or modify those discoveries is akin to the Noble Lie — it’s an expression of a belief that you, the researcher, can predict the uses to which society will put your discoveries, and can thus control social outcomes by deciding whether to report what you’ve found.

11) Sorry if I’ve already mentioned Julia Galef and her new book on Scout Mindset, but this is a great interview and I’m really looking forward to reading the book.

Dylan Matthews

Walk me through what you mean by “scout mindset.” What does it mean to have it? How do you know if you have it?

Julia Galef

It’s my term for the motivation to see things as they are and not as you wish they were, being or trying to be intellectually honest, objective, or fair minded, and curious about what’s actually true.

By default, a lot of the time we humans are in what I call “soldier mindset,” in which our motivation is to defend our beliefs against any evidence or arguments that might threaten them. Rationalization, motivated reasoning, wishful thinking: these are all facets of what I’m calling a soldier mindset.

I adopted this term because the way that we talk about reasoning in the English language is through militaristic metaphor. We try to “shore up” our beliefs, “support them” and “buttress them” as if they’re fortresses. We try to “shoot down” opposing arguments and we try to “poke holes” in the other side.

I call this “soldier mindset,” and “scout mindset” is an alternative to that. It’s a different way of thinking about what to believe or thinking about what’s true.

12) As a top-notch linguist and someone decidedly anti-woke, John McWhorter is always especially interesting on the N-word:

Some will despise that I am calling the new take on the word pious. But 25 years ago we all knew exactly those things about the word’s heritage, and felt modern and enlightened to, with sensible moderation, utter the word in reference rather than gesture. Under normal conditions, the etiquette would have stayed at that point. The only thing that makes that take on the word now seem backwards is a sense of outright “cover-your-mouth” taboo: i.e. religion. This performative refusal to distinguish, this embrace of the mythic, shows a take on the N-word analogous to taking the Lord’s name in vain.

I call this refusal performative – i.e. a put-on – because I simply cannot believe that so many people do not see the difference between using a word as a weapon and referring to the word in the abstract. I would be disrespecting them to suppose that they don’t get this difference between, say, Fuck! as something yelled and fuck as in a word referring to sexual intercourse. They understand the difference, but see some larger value in pretending that it doesn’t exist.

In my experience, a common idea is that if we allow the word to be used in reference, there is a slippery slope from there to whites feeling comfortable hurling the slur as well. There are two problems with this point. One: for decades civilized people could use the word in reference, and yet there was no sign of the epithet coming back into style. Today’s crusaders can’t claim to be holding off some rising tide. Second: what is the sociohistorical parallel? At what point in human history has a slur been proscribed, but then returned to general usage because it was considered okay to refer to the word as opposed to use it? That many people can just imagine this happening with the N-word is not an argument, especially since it’s hard not to notice that this hypothetical scenario fits so cozily into their professionally Manichaean take on race…

We are getting to a point where a generation of Elect people will be unable to even sit through a classic witfest like the film Blazing Saddles, their religion rendering them unable to process that the use of the N-word by vicious, stupid, silly characters was written as a way of decrying racism rather than fostering it.

Actually, I would not be surprised if we are already at that point, given things one sees and hears these days. True to form, in the fall of 2020 at Bard College, freshmen began a campaign of shaming against a professor who read out not the word n—– [McWhorter used the full word, but you sure won’t catch me doing that] but Negro in a discussion of Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail. The new idea is that even that word is profane, in being an outdated one black people no longer consider appropriate. The pretended inability to distinguish between the abusive and the antique is an indication that 2020 had been a Sunday School in Electism for these kids. They are showing that they have learned their lesson in suspending basic intelligence in favor of virtue signalling, in the face of something that would not matter a whit to most black people themselves…

Many ask why black people give whites the power to harm us so easily with this word. I for one have never and never will see it as a badge of strength to announce to white America that uttering a sequence of sounds will send me into therapy. I’d be embarrassed if it did, and that is what I call Black Power.

But I know I am missing the point. This performative transformation of the N-word into a taboo term affords a kind of power: black Elects get a way of getting back at whites by destroying their careers; white Elects spectating get to show they aren’t racists by cheering on the witch-hunting. To these people all of this feels healthy, active, restoring, noble.

But the problem is that while it may feel that way to them, to the rest of us – among whom are legions of thoroughly reasonable, intelligent, concerned, and sensitive persons of all races  – this new take on the N-word looks paranoid, fake, and mean.

What kind of antiracism is that?

13) I haven’t actually read all of this, but everybody sure does love it, “‘I’d Never Been Involved in Anything as Secret as This’ The plan to kill Osama bin Laden—from the spycraft to the assault to its bizarre political backdrop—as told by the people in the room.”

14) I’m not sure that the correct response from the CDC from being overly-cautious is to now be overly aggressive.  My take is that universal public indoor masking should be expected until all adults who want to be fully vaccinated have had the chance to be fully vaccinated, and, realistically, we’re talking about some time in June for that.  As, usual, I think Zeynep is right, “Maybe We Need Masks Indoors Just a Bit Longer”

On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to say it did not believe that fully vaccinated people needed to wear masks or distance indoors or out, with a few exceptions, like when using public transportation.

It’s difficult for officials to issue rules as conditions evolve and uncertainty continues. So I hesitate to question the agency’s approach. But it’s not clear whether it was responding to scientific evidence or public clamor to lift state and local mandates, which the C.D.C. said could remain in place.

It might have been better to have kept up indoor mask mandates to help suppress the virus for maybe as little as a few more weeks.

The C.D.C. could have set metrics to measure such progress, saying that guidelines would be maintained until the number of cases or the number vaccinations reached a certain level, determined by epidemiologists…

Telling everyone to wear masks indoors has a sociological effect. Grocery stores and workplaces cannot enforce mask wearing by vaccination status. We do not have vaccine passports in the U.S., and I do not see how we could. Places can either say “wear a mask regardless” or just accept that people who don’t want to wear one will not…

Even if the only people not protected by the vaccines were those hesitant to use them or who had false beliefs about them, public health principles would not allow us to say that any threat to their health is their problem, at least not while the virus is still spreading at substantive levels. Infectious diseases create risks for others.

There are those who are not yet vaccinated because they haven’t managed to navigate the process, or have started late, or are concerned because of bad experiences with the medical establishment. The immunocompromised remain vulnerable. Even if the unvaccinated were all conspiracy theorists and dead-end anti-vaxxers, we would need to take virus levels into account before discounting the risks even to them.

Plus, Covid-19 can still terribly burden our health resources, especially in those areas that still have many unvaccinated adults.

The C.D.C. guidelines are essentially implying that the risk that the vaccinated will transmit the virus to others, including their unvaccinated children, is so vanishingly low that it is not worth worrying about. But if that’s their position, they should state it clearly and explain it, not just say that “fully vaccinated people have a reduced risk of transmitting” the virus.

And is the expectation that the unvaccinated will all simply go with the guidance and stay masked? That does not fit with what we’ve observed in this country over the past year, especially with the ongoing polarization over these questions.


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

5 Responses to Quick hits (part I)

  1. Mika says:

    #6 One of the reasons I support Hurricanes is Rod Brind’Amour – coolest name ever! 🙂

    Btw. the name of the biggest Finnish band in the 70’s is Hurriganes. Once upon a time a reporter asked them why do they spell it with “g” and the answer was “It is much cooler that way.” Here’s their most famous song, Get On: https://youtu.be/M1pPwnah_eM

    • Mika says:

      And the idea of “scout mindset” sounds cool too but also time and cognitive resources consuming. This was pretty cool sentence in the Vox piece: “The people I see who talk a lot about people engaging in cognitive biases and fallacies prefer to point out those biases and fallacies in other people.”

      • Steve Greene says:

        That’s a great point. But, to some degree we are often using cognitive resources to buttress our priors and our tribe. Better to use those same resources while looking for truth.

      • Mika says:

        Absolutely. I like the way she talks about motivation in the piece.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Hurriganes rock!! As for RBA… cool name and as far as I can tell, truly a great guy.

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