Quick hits (part II)

1) For my surfing fans out there, “What Can Surfing Tell Us About Addiction?” I’ll honestly probably never stand on a surfboard, but I feel like I totally get the appeal.

2) This was good from Persuasion, “How (Not) to Think About Race: Kmele Foster and Yascha Mounk discuss the perils of essentialist thinking about race.”

Mounk: [Let’s] focus on what’s actually being taught in K-12 education. How is that changing? What about it is good? And what about it should we be worrying about?

Foster: Race has become a center point for so many different conversations […] and considerations: our sense of the country’s place in history, our sense of our individual responsibility to one another. We’re framing it all with respect to race, [so] it only makes sense that in the context of public education, the same thing is beginning to happen. And I think there’s a sense in which it is good to scrutinize these concepts, these ideas, that are a part of our milieu and often a part of our relationships with one another in the world and our institutions.

But I don’t think that the conversations we’ve been having about race have become more sophisticated as a result. I think there’s kind of this veneer of sophistication. We don’t challenge the ideology of race; we assume it to be true. And there are a great many different essentialist threads that have been woven into the fabric of our conversations about these things: the inherent disadvantage of black people, the kind of “necessary” racist proclivities of white people, and a flattening of the world when it comes to outcomes. That is now pervasive in terms of beliefs about outcomes: [the belief that] when there are disparities in outcomes, all of those disparities are necessarily, by definition, racist. [It’s] essentially a changing of the definition of the word.

What’s important is that we’ve changed the way that we use [the word racism] in a practical way. But we haven’t taken away any of the sting of “racist”. I think that’s created no shortage of problems in virtually every context. And in the context of public education, it’s certainly no different.

Mounk: You mentioned the term “essentialism,” which I think is important in this context. How should we be thinking about the real way in which race structures our social relations, but without reifying a concept that can be very harmful?

Foster: For me, I think it’s about engaging with the genuine complexity of the world, and the genuine complexity of the historical circumstances that bring us into [our] present context. And I think, unfortunately, rather than engaging with that complexity, it’s very convenient to allow ourselves to slip into thinking it’s just about the primacy of race: “Race has been […] the principal [factor] with respect to oppression and repression and disadvantage in this country. So we’ll talk about things in that way, primarily, from now on, for the rest of time.”

[But] the reality is that it’s always “race, and…” [We must] engage with that complexity, rather than allowing ourselves to slip into a sensibility where all privilege is kind of derived in this fundamental hierarchical way. And if you are, in the intersectional sense, a woman, your sexuality is one thing, plus your race is another thing, then that gives us a sense of your “disadvantage score.” It’s obviously fraught to go about trying to understand the world in that way. You necessarily lose a lot of the nuance that’s really important for understanding things. 

3) Five years old but new to me and I loved it so much.  From McSweeney’s, “Actually, I’m teaching these kids way more than they’re teaching me.”

When I became a first-grade teacher I knew that it wouldn’t be an easy job. But what I never imagined was that these kids would end up teaching me more than I could ever teach them. And it’s good that I never imagined that because it hasn’t happened at all.

That’s not to say that these kids haven’t taught me anything. For instance, one of my students used to have trouble getting all the way across the monkey bars on the jungle gym. But she kept trying every day, even when the other kids laughed at her, and finally she made it. I consider that to be a poignant lesson about perseverance and never giving up on your dreams.

Now here is a very partial list of things that I have taught her: addition, subtraction, what a square is, what a triangle is, what a rectangle is, all five of the senses, the importance of sharing, basic units of measurement, how to make a Venn diagram, the names and characteristics of over thirty different types of animals, how to read a clock, and—oh, yeah—how to read.

As you can see, it’s not even close…

Although now that I think about it, the very idea that these kids could teach me more than I can teach them gets me a little hot under the collar. I went through four years of college and two years of graduate school and took on a mountain of debt to become a teacher, and if any one of those little snots thinks that he is going to teach me half as much as I teach him, he’s got another thing coming. If that ever happened I’d quit out of embarrassment and then nobody would be teaching anybody anything.

The other day a kid asked me, “Why isn’t birds my friends?” Was that supposed to be some kind of half-assed lesson? What the hell does it even mean? He’s going to have to try a lot harder than that if he wants to teach me something. And for the record, that same kid couldn’t name a single one of the days of the week before this school year started. Now he knows all seven of them. I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to I could count each of those days as a separate thing I taught him. Me: seven. Kid: zero.

4) Meant to post this last month.  No less depressing/distressing now, “Maker of Popular Covid Test Told Factory to Destroy Inventory”  How effective are the rapid tests?  Michael Mina with a wondefully useful summary.

5) Recently finished watching all of “Nathan for You” with my kids.  Loved it, loved it, loved it.  And here’s a great interview with Fielder.  His humor is definitely not for everybody (like my wife), but definitely for me and two of my boys– and JDW who insisted I watch it).  I think the “Claw of Shame” is one of my favorite TV episodes ever.

6) Nice list here, “The 24 Absolute Best Movies of the 2010s.”  Especially appreciated seeing the under-appreciated “Looper” and “Edge of Tomorrow” on here.  And, the appropriately-appreciated “Arrival.”

7) This is true, “Worrying About Your Carbon Footprint Is Exactly What Big Oil Wants You to Do”

Everybody’s going carbon neutral these days, from the big boys — Amazon, Microsoft, Unilever, Starbucks, JetBlue — to your favorite outdoor brand, even ski resorts. Probably your neighborhood coffee roaster, too.

What’s not to like? Becoming carbon neutral means cutting greenhouse gas emissions as much as you can, then offsetting what you can’t avoid with measures like tree planting. Seems admirable.

Well, not exactly. Carbon neutrality doesn’t achieve any sort of systemic change. A coal-powered business could be entirely carbon neutral as long as it stops some landfill gas in Malaysia from entering the atmosphere equal to the emissions it’s still releasing. American fossil fuel dependence would remain intact, and planet-warming emissions would continue to rise. The only way to fix that is through politics, policymakers and legislation. But distressingly, most businesses don’t want to play in that arena.

Instead, they’re doing exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants: staying in their lane, accepting some blame for a global problem and maintaining the dominance of fossil fuels. They’re well intentioned, sure, but also clueless, even complicit.

As a result, they avoid the chance to put in place systemic solutions in favor of carbon-neutral navel-gazing. Large corporations will protest, saying that they are lobbying on climate. But they are typically working both sides of the aisle. And their political contributions are mostly going in the wrong direction. Bloomberg Green examined political donations by more than 100 major American corporations and found last year that they were “throwing their support behind lawmakers who routinely stall climate legislation.”

Climate never ascends to the level of mission-critical issues like trade policy and taxation.

8) Really don’t like the movement against free speech from many of the Woke.  Nor that it’s implicitly endorsed by NPR.

9) Good stuff from Dana Milbank on Texas, “Texas shows us what post-democracy America would look like”

Texas this week showed us what a post-democracy America would look like.

Thanks to a series of actions by the Texas legislature and governor, we now see exactly what the Trumpified Republican Party wants: to take us to an America where women cannot get abortions, even in cases of rape and incest; an America where almost everybody can openly carry a gun in public, without license, without permit, without safety training and without fingerprinting; and an America where law-abiding Black and Latino citizens are disproportionately denied the right to vote.

This is where Texas and other red states are going, or have already gone. It is where the rest of America will go, unless those targeted by these new laws — women, people of color and all small “d” democrats — rise up…

Also Wednesday, a new law went into effect in Texas, over the objections of law enforcement, allowing all Texans otherwise allowed to own guns to carry them in public, without a license and without training. Now, 20 states have blessed such “permitless carry.”

And on Tuesday, the Texas legislature passed the final version of the Republican voting bill that bans drive-through and 24-hour voting, both used disproportionately by voters of color; imposes new limits on voting by mail, blocks election officials from distributing mail-ballot applications unless specifically requested; gives partisan poll watchers more leeway to influence vote counting; and places new rules and paperwork requirements that deter people from helping others to vote or to register. At least 17 states have adopted similar restrictions.

All three of these actions are deeply antidemocratic…

Also Wednesday, a new law went into effect in Texas, over the objections of law enforcement, allowing all Texans otherwise allowed to own guns to carry them in public, without a license and without training. Now, 20 states have blessed such “permitless carry.”

And on Tuesday, the Texas legislature passed the final version of the Republican voting bill that bans drive-through and 24-hour voting, both used disproportionately by voters of color; imposes new limits on voting by mail, blocks election officials from distributing mail-ballot applications unless specifically requested; gives partisan poll watchers more leeway to influence vote counting; and places new rules and paperwork requirements that deter people from helping others to vote or to register. At least 17 states have adopted similar restrictions.

All three of these actions are deeply antidemocratic.

10) Katherine Wu, “What We Actually Know About Waning Immunity: Reports of vaccines’ decline have been greatly overstated.”

11) And Jeremy Faust makes the case that waning vaccine efficacy is very much about Delta, not so much waning immunity.  What he somewhat elides, though, is that there’s clear evidence booster shots really help against Delta, regardless of waning immunity. 

12) You know I really like David Frum, but, oh boy is he off-base here, “How to Persuade Americans to Give Up Their Guns: The way to reduce gun violence is by convincing ordinary, “responsible” handgun owners that their weapons make them, their families, and those around them less safe.”  Raise your hand if you think gun owners are responding to rational, empirical arguments.

13) Don’t feel bad, “You’re Not Alone: Monkeys Choke Under Pressure Too: Now you can blame the primate brain. And neuroscientists are eager for a deeper look.”

14) I also love reading Freddie deBoer on genetic inheritance and society implications.  This is really good, “Genes Believe in You”

What they were looking for, if you go back in the record, was always that elusive direct genetic evidence. For decades researchers in behavioral genetics had performed kinship studies, research involving adoptees and identical twins, to determine the degree to which genes might influence behavioral traits such as intelligence, perseverance, extraversion, and more. Identical twins share more or less 100% of their DNA, with some complications, while ordinary siblings share an estimated 50% of their genetic code, with even more complications, and half-siblings share ~25%…. These estimates of genetic similarity allowed researchers to crudely match that estimated similarity with quantitative behavioral variables like IQ. Identical twins who were raised in different environments permitted a glimpse at how their nearly-identical DNA resulted in similarity under remarkably different circumstances, while the differences between adopted children and their siblings who were the biological progeny of the parents permitted similar questions through a different lens.

The findings were always the same: biological parentage, which is to say genetic parentage, was massively influential on human behavior, and consistently more influential than observable social and environmental factors like parenting. Identical twins shared remarkable similarity in all manner of variables, even when raised in profoundly different environments. By adulthood adopted children resembled their biological parents far more than their adoptive ones, and in many variables adopted siblings were found to be essentially no more similar to each other than any two random people – which, genetically, they were. There are many overviews of kinship research from completely mainstream publications that you can easily access which summarize these findings, findings that now stretch back more than a half-century.

All of this would appear to have merely lent additional credence to an entirely banal observation, which is that our genes influence absolutely every element of our selves. To assume that this included our behavioral selves would seem to me to be sensible rather than controversial. Our behavior is driven by our physiology, especially our brains, and as organs our brains are built according to the architecture described in our DNA, which passes to us from our parents and from far further back in our genealogy. Yet this simple observation about the world – that genes matter for our behavior – is not only not treated as banal but as a marker of irredeemable bigotry by many in liberal society. Even when care is taken to discuss the difference between a group genetic claim (such as genetic origins for racial or gender differences) and an individual genetic claim (the influence of parents’ genes on their progeny), any discussion of DNA and behavior is frequently greeted with extreme condemnation, especially discussion of how DNA influences academic ability…

Here are three statements I’m willing to make, of descending certainty – that is, the first is just true, the second is a seemingly obvious extrapolation from the first, and the third is a supposition about the nature of the second.

  1. People sort themselves into academic ability bands relative to peers at a very early age and at scale more or less remain in those bands throughout their academic lives. The star students in first grade are very likely to be the star students in college, again with exceptions but as a general rule with remarkable consistency. This general dynamic is observed across all manner of educational contexts and despite constant environmental changes over the course of life. I have made this case at great length here.

  2. The prior statement suggests that there is such a thing as innate academic ability, an intrinsic property of individuals that inclines them to be better or worse in school. To attribute that condition to pure environmentalism requires truly immense amounts of mental work, given how dramatically environments change over the course of life without attendant dramatic changes in student outcomes. But an assumption of some innate property of educational ability fits perfectly with the basic contours of static educational hierarchy.

  3. The most parsimonious explanation for such a quality as innate academic ability or tendency would be genes…

The rude thing is… I just don’t believe people, on this issue. When they say that they think all people have the same innate ability to perform well in school or on other cognitive tasks, that any difference is environmental, what I think inside is, I don’t believe that you believe that. When researchers in genetics and evolution who believe that the genome influences every aspect of our physiological selves say that they don’t believe that the genome has any influence on our behavioral selves, what I think inside is, I don’t believe you. I think people feel compelled to say this stuff because the idea of intrinsic differences in academic ability offend their sense of justice, and because the social and professional consequences of appearing to believe that idea are profound. But I think everyone who ever went to school as a kid knew in their heart back then that some kids were just smarter than others, and I think most people quietly believe that now. Like I said, it’s rude. But I can’t shake it.

15) John Dickerson is a terrific, thoughtful journalist, and clearly just a very good person.  And this is an amazing tribute to his rescue dog that unfortunately just died in an accident, “Every Dog Is a Rescue Dog”

16) Yes to this!! “California Aims to Ban Recycling Symbols on Things That Aren’t Recyclable: The well-known three-arrows symbol doesn’t necessarily mean that a product is actually recyclable. A new bill would limit the products allowed to feature the mark.”

17) Don’t love all of this, but very much appreciate the point that people tend to way overestimate just how much difference expensive test prep makes, “Why SAT Test Prep Doesn’t Help Who You Might Think It Helps”

One pillar of the case against standardized testing is the widespread belief that wealthy students carry an advantage because they can afford expensive test prep courses and tutors. That’s what critics mostly mean when they say the SAT is a test of family wealth, not of academic ability.

Is this true?

Let’s start with some findings that pretty much everyone who studies this stuff seems to agree on. First: It’s true that test prep, which I’ll define as outside help that costs money and requires an investment of time, is generally used by wealthier and better-connected students. But second: The effects of test prep have been studied pretty extensively, and while there’s far from any consensus on why some students do better than others, the published studies agree that the range of improvement, once controlled for a variety of factors like the fact that students who enroll in and complete test prep courses will likely be a self-selected group, is about 10 to 35 points.

Does test prep really help everyone who has the money to sign up for a course, even if it raises their scores just a little? Not quite. Two studies found that when you disaggregate for ethnicity, Americans of East Asian descent benefit far more from test prep than any other group, including white and other Asian American students. (There’s an interesting if somewhat unrelated distinction to make here: One-on-one tutoring seems to help nobody. Commercial test prep, which ranges from cram schools in East Asian enclaves to the Princeton Review, has some effects.) This might explain why Asian Americans’ SAT scores have steadily been rising over the past decade.

According to a study conducted by Julie Park and Ann Becks in The Review of Higher Education, “East Asian Americans were the only group where a form of test prep predicted a higher SAT score (about 50 points).” For everyone else, SAT prep has no significant effect or even, in some cases, a negative one. A previous study found that the majority of this improvement took place in East Asian immigrant enclaves like Flushing, in Queens, which has dozens of cram schools that serve ethnic communities.

18) Jonathan Rauch makes the case for $1000 payments for vaccinations:

The FDA’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine seems likely to help. A growing number of mandates by employers, universities, and government agencies will also help. Yet, unaccountably, one potent arrow remains in the quiver.

Time to use it. Pay people to get vaccinated.

Not half-heartedly, whimsically, or inanely, with a lottery ticket (in various places), or a $50 prepaid shopping card “while supplies last” (North Carolina), or $20 credit toward a hunting license (Arkansas), or—with no disrespect to Thin Mints—a box of Girl Scout cookies (Indiana). Do it generously, in a way that shows serious social appreciation and respect. Do it universally, including people who already got themselves vaccinated because it was the right thing to do. And do it smartly, incentivizing people to recruit friends and family to the cause.

Last year, in August, my Brookings colleague Robert Litan, a distinguished economist and lawyer who served in the Clinton administration, proposed just such a plan. It was generous. It was universal. It was smart. It was unheeded.

Litan proposed a plan with three interlocking elements. First, he suggested an attention-getting, head-turning amount: $1,000—an order of magnitude larger than the $100 that President Joe Biden suggested in July. That kind of money would break through any number of excuses and doubts. (But more about that in a moment.)

Second, pay not just latecomers but everyone who has been vaccinated, regardless of when. That is self-evidently fairer than stiffing people who got the shot early for all the right reasons. It also avoids perverse incentives to delay getting vaccinated in future pandemics. Biden didn’t endorse universal payments. But creating resentment and perverse incentives is a false economy.

Third, cleverly, Litan proposed withholding part of the payment until a certain percentage of other people have also been vaccinated. You might get half your payment up front and the rest when your state or community reaches, say, an eligible vaccination rate of 80 percent. That gives individuals a personal stake in recruiting others and reaching herd immunity. In economists’ jargon, it incentivizes the production of a social good.

Litan guesstimated his plan’s cost at about $275 billion. A large amount, surely, but small compared to the cost of the continued pandemic, and well in line with other pandemic relief measures.

19) Really loved this interview with Michael Stipe and if you love R.E.M. you probably will, too.

20) The media’s “liberal bias” is definitely over-stated.  But sometimes they give way too much ammo to their enemies.  This is just embarrassing and there can be no doubt because it confirmed their priors.  “The Media Fell for a Viral Hoax About Ivermectin Overdoses Straining Rural Hospitals”

21) There’s lots of good reasons for the full FDA approval (mostly, because now we can really mandate) but it was always fairly obvious all those people opposed to an “experimental” vaccine where just reaching for a reasonable-sounding excuse.  Christopher Ingraham, “Nobody was really “waiting for FDA approval,” as it turns out
Official data show no change in vaccination rates following the FDA’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine”

We’re now several weeks out from the FDA authorization, long enough that we can check the daily vaccination numbers to see if the unvaxxed signed up to get jabbed the way so many said they would. See for yourself.

This chart shows the seven-day rolling average of daily vaccines administered before and after the FDA authorization (I use this average because it smooths over the normal daily and weekly fluctuations that obscure the overall trend). It starts at July 10, which is basically the nadir of daily vaccination numbers in the U.S. Since then the numbers have been on a slow, steady upward climb which most experts attribute to the Delta variant spurring some of the unvaccinated to action. I would ignore, for the time being, that dip in the numbers on the right side of the chart. It coincides with a Labor Day reporting gap, and it’s too early yet to tell if it’s a real decline or just a bit of noise that needs to work its way out of the data.

We’re interested in the trajectory of the line before and after the August 23 announcement. If it caused a significant number of unvaccinated to get their shots, we’d expect to see some sort of spike or acceleration in the daily numbers. Alas, we emphatically do not see that.

22) This is a terrific discussion of standpoint epistemology (e.g., always defer to a Black person on discussions of race, a woman on questions of sexism, etc.).  What was most fascinating was that the original purveyors of the theory are actually plenty reasonable and its become the bastardized, anti-intellectual weapon of the woke.  

Mounk: […] I think it’s true that black men in the United States have an experience of mistreatment by police or fear of police, that is on average superior to that of white people, in that it gives them politically relevant knowledge. I think that a lot of that knowledge can be communicated in propositional form; that actually, one of the great benefits of a lot of traditional forms of storytelling, and what I think of as liberal humanist cultural activity, is precisely to make it possible for us to put ourselves, at least to some extent, in the shoes of another. […] It seems to me that when I hear, for example, about what it is like to live in a neighborhood that is over-policed, in which there is relentless stop and frisk, I can see from within my own set of values […] why we should be fighting against that. 

And it seems to me that trying to build those commonalities of values [and] political intention is much more likely to succeed than the idea of “You’re not gonna understand anyway. Just trust that I know more than you, and defer to me, and that’s how we’re somehow going to build a political coalition.” That doesn’t seem nearly as realistic to me. How would you put the puzzle pieces together?

Fraser: On this question of deference, the sense I’m getting is that you’re broadly sympathetic towards standpoint-flavored claims, at least up until we get to this kind of deferential model of discourse, right? And that’s where you [object]. I think [it’s] really interesting, the extent to which standpoint theorists agree with you. 

Patricia Hill Collins, for example, [is] one of the great standpoint theorists in the black feminist tradition. I’m just going to read [out] something she says, because I think it’s very, very instructive when it comes to seeing the way in which standpoint epistemology in its vulgarized forms is [somewhat] regulative of actual political discourses, [and] how it diverges from the much more sophisticated and more attractive versions of the theory which permeate academic discourse: 

One implication of some uses of standpoint theory is that the more subordinated the group, the purer the vision available to them. […] Although it is tempting to claim that Black women are more oppressed than everyone else and therefore have the best standpoint from which to understand the mechanisms, processes, and effects of oppression, this is not the case. 

Instead, those ideas that are validated as true by African-American women, African-American men, Latina lesbians, Asian-American women, Puerto Rican men, and other groups with distinctive standpoints, with each group using the epistemological approaches growing from its unique standpoint, thus become the most “objective” truths. Each group speaks from its own standpoint and shares its own partial, situated knowledge. But because each group perceives its own truth as partial, its knowledge is unfinished.

The rough idea that Patricia Hill Collins is getting at here, [is that] there’s this potential way of reading standpoint epistemology where we say, “Well, what we need to know is, first of all, how oppressed someone is, and then assign them a credibility score based on that, and then organize political discourse so that someone is deferred to, the higher their oppression score is.” Patricia Hill Collins is saying this is completely the wrong way to think about things. Rather, she wants to adopt a much more pluralist discursive model of political solidarity, where what you have is people with very different experiences, who with grace and compassion, rather than a kind of hostility, test each other’s claims. And then they use that process of testing claims against each other to arrive at a consensus which is acceptable to all. 

One of the things that is incredibly striking about this is just how similar it is to things that John Stuart Mill says in his defense of free speech. The idea is that it is precisely by testing ideas against competing viewpoints that you will arrive at the most attractive and most epistemically respectable picture of things. Obviously, there are differences between what Patricia Hill Collins thinks and what John Stuart Mill thinks. But I do think it’s a striking parallel and drawing that parallel is an extremely helpful corrective to certain ways of thinking about standpoint epistemology, where people assume we can draw a very straight line from the standpoint tradition to this kind of deferential epistemology that I think that you find, for good reason, unappealing.

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