Saturday, July 09, 2005

Another Perplexing Statistic

From The Gallup Organization:
June 22, 2005
Many Americans Reluctant to Support Their Child Joining Military
Nearly half would suggest a different occupation

by Jeffrey M. Jones
A new Gallup survey finds only a bare majority of Americans saying they would support their child's decision to enter the military if he or she made that choice, while a substantial proportion would suggest their child try a different occupation. This represents a significant decline from 1999, when two-thirds said they would support their child's decision to enter the military. A majority of Americans oppose mandatory military training for young men, and more than 8 in 10 Americans are opposed to re-instituting the draft.
You have to pay to get the full report, which I am not willing to do.  It probably would not answer the question, though: how is it that anyone could support their child's decision to join the military?  A recent editorial in the Fairfield Daily Republic reminds us of an important historical note:
"Why, of course, the people don't want war, (but) the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

- Hermann Goering, April 18, 1946
They go on to point out that Bush's credibility has taken such a beating that most people didn't bother to listen to his last speech; the speech during which the military audience did not applaud:
There's a reason why President Bush's speech on Iraq last week went unheard by most Americans and hasn't changed his sagging poll numbers. He and his administration have a credibility problem that Democrats and Independents have seen for some time and some Republicans are starting to acknowledge.

The 2002 Downing Street Memo is just the latest blow. While the memo has been trashed by conservative bloggers and right-wing blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, it has been authenticated by two senior British officials. It states that the British believed Bush had decided to go to war long before he told the public and says that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."
As far as I am concerned, the term "Downing Street Memo" is becoming a convenient shorthand reference for the sum total of evidence for the deceptions that led us to war.  

For someone to enroll in the military now, it would not be a sign of patriotism.  It would be an expression of validation of a policy of secrecy and lies.  It would encourage the Administration to continue the practice of war profiteering, to the detriment of all.  Well, almost all.  A select few are getting rich off of the Iraq Adventure, but most of us are paying for it and will continue to pay for it for decades.

There has been talk of another war, this time in Iran.  That is impossible now, because we simply do not have enough troops to do it.  The declining enlistment numbers indicate that we will not be able to get those troops through voluntary enlistment.  We need to keep it that way.  After all we know there won't be a draft.  From the second Presidential Debate (October 8, 2004):
FARLEY: Mr. President, since we continue to police the world, how do you intend to maintain our military presence without reinstituting a draft?

BUSH: Yes, that's a great question. Thanks.

I hear there's rumors on the Internets (sic) that we're going to have a draft. We're not going to have a draft, period. The all- volunteer army works. It works particularly when we pay our troops well. It works when we make sure they've got housing, like we have done in the last military budgets.

An all-volunteer army is best suited to fight the new wars of the 21st century, which is to be specialized and to find these people as they hide around the world.

We don't need mass armies anymore. [...]
Now, if only we could believe that.  I would say that if a military draft is started, we would have two options: impeachment, and/or a general strike.  The Administration needs to know that we will not stand for more military adventurism.

So the question remains: Why would anyone support their child's decision to volunteer for military service?  

Categories: war, politics
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Another Victory For Empiricism

The Truth About Job Growth

...will not be found in this post.  I cannot claim to know the truth.  However, I do know that the headlines are misleading.  Unemployment and poor economic conditions still are major issues.  I suppose, though, if you really believe in the ideology of trickle-down economics, you know that economic conditions must be improving.  And that becomes your truth.  For example, we are told by CNN that the unemployment rate is at a 4-year low.  Great.  but further down in the article:
June marked the ninth time in the last 12 months that employer payrolls came in weaker than forecasts. The 146,000 jobs added last month is barely enough to keep up with growth in the labor force, according to most economists, and it trailed the average increase of about 172,000 jobs a month added over the last 12 months.

John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas, said employers are clearly still more cautious about adding employees than in past expansions.

"With the economy growing at a steady pace and healthy corporate earnings, the lack of much stronger job growth is a mystery," he said in a statement.
So job growth is barely keeping up with population growth, meaning that we really are not making progress.  Wages are stagnant as well:
The average hourly wage edged up 3 cents to $16.06. That was in line with forecasts and brought hourly wages up 2.7 percent over the last 12 months, while consumer prices are up 2.8 percent for the 12 months through May, meaning wages for hourly workers are barely keeping pace with inflation.
Recall that the consumer price index does not include energy costs, and the price of gasoline has gone up quite a bit.  In other words, ordinary people are doing worse.  Perhaps this tepid economic news results from a lack of information about how to stimulate job growth.  

Well, no, actually there five major indexes that rank geographic areas in terms of their potential for economic development.  These purport to show exactly what needs to be done to promote job growth.  Interestingly, the Economic Policy Institute just published a critique of the indices, and found that 34 of our 50 states could claim to be in the top 10, according to at least one index.  Their conclusion:
It is precisely because the competitiveness indexes produced by the ideological think tanks are aimed at promoting particular kinds of legislation that they do a poor job of predicting state economic growth: the measures used must pass an ideology screen, so the validity and relevance criteria go by the wayside. This is also why these rankings are ignored by the business people actually making the decisions. They should be ignored by policy makers for the same reason.
Perhaps if we really want to know what policies produce the kind of job growth that we are seeking, we should look at what actually works.  This article from CBC indicates that Ontario won a major auto plant because their workers are better trained, and because the health care costs are lower:
Toyota to build 100,000 vehicles per year in Woodstock, Ont., starting 2008
12:26 AM EDT Jul 09
CBC News

WOODSTOCK, Ont. (CP) - Ontario workers are well-trained.

That simple explanation was cited as a main reason why Toyota turned its back on hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies offered from several American states in favour of building a second Ontario plant.

Industry experts say Ontarians are easier and cheaper to train - helping make it more cost-efficient to train workers when the new Woodstock plant opens in 2008, 40 kilometres away from its skilled workforce in Cambridge.

"The level of the workforce in general is so high that the training program you need for people, even for people who have not worked in a Toyota plant before, is minimal compared to what you have to go through in the southeastern United States," said Gerry Fedchun, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association, whose members will see increased business with the new plant. [...]

Several U.S. states were reportedly prepared to offer more than double that amount of subsidy. But Fedchun said much of that extra money would have been eaten away by higher training costs than are necessary for the Woodstock project.

He said Nissan and Honda have encountered difficulties getting new plants up to full production in recent years in Mississippi and Alabama due to an untrained - and often illiterate - workforce. In Alabama, trainers had to use "pictorials" to teach some illiterate workers how to use high-tech plant equipment.

"The educational level and the skill level of the people down there is so much lower than it is in Ontario," Fedchun said.

In addition to lower training costs, Canadian workers are also $4 to $5 cheaper to employ partly thanks to the taxpayer-funded health-care system in Canada, said federal Industry Minister David Emmerson.
So if you happen to have a copy of the  "Metro Area and State Competitiveness Report," toss it in the trash.  Do not pay any attention to what your pet theory says ought to work.  Instead, look at what actually does work.

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Thursday, July 07, 2005

Trying To Figure This Out

When I encountered this article in the British Medical Journal, I was hoping to find some reliable report of the accuracy of the test they mention.  All they do is repeat the manufacturer's claim of 99.9% accuracy.  Then I tried to figure out why this product exists.
BMJ  2005;331:69 (9 July), doi:10.1136/bmj.331.7508.69-c

Home test shows sex of fetus at five weeks of pregnancy
Janice Hopkins Tanne

A finger prick test for pregnant women that can tell them the sex of their child has aroused huge public interest since it was featured on a US television show. The test, which can allegedly show the sex of the fetus at only five weeks of pregnancy, is claimed to be 99.9% accurate.

"We've had more than a thousand inquiries in just three weeks. Our phone is ringing off the hook," said Sherry Bonelli, president of the Pregnancy Store, the company that sells the test kit, the Baby Gender Mentor test (www.pregnancystore.com).

She said the company would promote the test in pregnancy and parenting magazines. "We're always on a hunt for new products," she added.

She said that Acu-Gen, a biotech company in Massachusetts, performs the new test. Woman can order the $25 (£14; {euro}21) kit from the company's website (pictured below), take a finger prick blood sample, and send the dried sample to Acu-Gen for analysis, which costs $250. The laboratory analyses fetal DNA in the woman's blood sample, looking for a Y chromosome, indicating that the fetus is male. Two to three days later women use their assigned code to learn the sex of the fetus over the internet. Users are offered a refund if the result is later found to be wrong. The cost is not covered by health insurance but is similar to the cost of ultrasonography ordered by a doctor or commercial ultrasonography used by parents who want pictures of their fetus ( BMJ 2004;328: 853[Free Full Text]).

Ms Bonelli said that the test gave results at an earlier stage of pregnancy than chorionic villus sampling, which gives results at 11 weeks, or amniocentesis, which gives results at 18 weeks or later and carries some small risks. The Baby Gender Mentor test had no risks, she said.

She said that expectant parents were eager to learn the sex of their fetus. It "personalises the child," she said, meaning that the parents can name the child and prepare nursery rooms.

Concern about using sex selection and abortion to balance the sexes in a family with two or three children of one sex "has come up," she said, but she felt that parents were glad to accept any child and she thought this would not be a problem in the United States.

She emphasised that the test was not intended for diagnostic purposes, such as to detect sex linked disorders, and was not marketed to doctors.
So the test kit costs $25, and the test itself is another $250.  You find out quickly if the fetus is a boy or a girl.  The fundamental methodology is sound, since there is only one possible reason for a Y chromosome to be circulating in a pregnant woman's blood.  I suppose that if you get a big enough sample, and examine it carefully, the test should be accurate.  However, since it is not being marketed as a medical test, it has not undergone the rigorous testing that the FDA would require.  

The company does provide the abstracts of some studies to back up their claims, but I note that none of the studies actually validates the test as they provide it.   That is, if you do the test on a limited basis, with every step of the process conducted by trained personnel, monitored and governed by a research protocol, you get good results.  We do not see any evidence that an effort has been made to see if the results in the lab correlate to the results one gets with the commercially-available test, as performed by ordinary folks.  

So there is one question that remains unanswered: how accurate is the test when performed in an uncontrolled setting?  That, however, is not what I am trying to figure out.  Since there is no way to figure it out with the information provided, there is no point in trying.  What I am trying to figure out, is why this thing should be so popular.  The company estimates that 50-70% of parents-to-be want to know if they’re having a baby boy or girl.  

Come on, people!  Life is full of uncertainties.  That's what makes life interesting.

I don't want to pull a Cruise, and pass judgment on how others choose to handle their pregnancies; if someone else wants to know the baby's gender ahead of time, that is fine with me.  I just can't figure out why they would want to.

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Monday, July 04, 2005

An Essay On Being A Responsible Citizen

Meandering Amongst Neurobiology, Russian Literature, and Political Philosophy

There now is evidence for a biological basis for peer pressure.  

Everyone knows that there is a strong tendency for members of a group to tend to agree with each other.  There is a tendency, especially, for persons with certain leadership qualities to define certain social norms.  What has been discovered recently is one of the mechanisms for this phenomenon.  Surprisingly, it is not merely an appeal to emotion.  Rather, it is an alteration in the perception of reality.

In an elegant study , Gregory Berns, MD, PhD, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Emory University, studied the effects of peer pressure on the functioning of the brain, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).  Details are here: NYT permalink; the 452KB PDF of the original study is here (BIOL PSYCHIATRY 2005;xx:xxx; article in press).  The study was designed to answer an old question in psychology, posed by Solomon Asch:
Dr. Asch, who died in 1996, always wondered about the findings. Did the people who gave in to group do so knowing that their answers was wrong? Or did the social pressure actually change their perceptions?

The reason this is an appropriate Independence Day post, is explained in the introduction to the paper by Berns, et. al.:
Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1762)

Individuals in democratic societies are free to make choices and express their opinions, but the price of such freedom is sometimes the subjugation of individual choice to the general will—Rousseau’s social contract. The accepted resolution of the conflict between individual and group decision making is the well-known “rule of the majority.” There is a sound basis for this compromise: a group of individuals is statistically more likely to make a better decision than any one person alone (Arrow 1963;Grofman and Feld 1988). But the superiority of the group disappears when individuals influence each other (Ladha 1992). Moreover, individuals might capitulate to a group, not as part of the social contract, but because the unpleasantness of standing alone makes the majority opinion more appealing than one’s own beliefs (Cialdini and Goldstein 2004). How and why this happens has been debated contentiously. Here, we bring functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to bear on the problem of social conformity.

[links added, -ed.]
--Berns, et.al.
In other words:
...Thou wouldst have satisfied the universal and everlasting craving of humanity—to find someone to worship. So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship. But man seeks to worship what is established beyond dispute, so that all men would agree at once to worship it. For these pitiful creatures are concerned not only to find what one or the other can worship, but to find community of worship is the chief misery of every man individually and of all humanity from the beginning of time. For the sake of common worship they’ve slain each other with the sword...

The Brothers Karamazov, Part II, Book V, Chapter 5: The Grand Inquisitor
Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881) | 1879 | Translation by Constance Garnett (1861-1946) | Public Domain

The actual paper by Berns, et. al., is nine pages of dense neuroanatomical jargon, but is worth reading if your only alternative is self-flagellation.  At least it is shorter than The Brothers Karamazov. (The entire text of Karamazov is online, here.)

In the Berns study, people were shown pairs of drawings of objects that had been rotated to different orientations.  They were asked to say whether the figures were the same, or different.  This required them to mentally rotate the images to see if there were superimposable.  During the task, they were told the conclusions  that certain peers had drawn.  In fact, the peers were trained actors, who sometimes deliberately gave false information.  What Berns et. al. found was that, when people agreed under the influence of peer pressure, there were alterations in the function of the brain area responsible for spatial awareness: the right intraparietal sulcus.   When they gave their own responses, in defiance of peer pressure, there was increased activity in emotional centers of the brain: right amygdala and right caudate nucleus.  

This would imply that emotional energy is required to act contrary to peer pressure; it is emotionally easier simply to go along with the group.  Not only that, but going along with the group results in actual changes in a person's perception.  When one's very perception is altered, there is no way they can invoke the higher-order function of reality testing to determine the validity of their observation.  This would be expected to lead to a state of mind in which the belief is firmly held.  

Although I am extending the conclusions here a bit, this may explain why it is so difficult for some people to reach agreement in an argument, if the belief they are defending corresponds to a belief that they feel is held by their peer group.  The belief they are defending actually looks like the truth to them; they have no way of seeing otherwise.

The NYT interviewed some experts regarding the conclusions of the study, and the implications.  One was Dan Ariely, PhD, a professor of management and decision making at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  Dr. Ariely has a PhD in Marketing, and one in Cognitive Psychology.  
"It's a very important piece of work," said Dr. Dan Ariely, a professor of management and decision making at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the study. "It suggests that information from other people may color our perception at a very deep level."

If other people's views can actually affect how someone perceives the external world, then truth itself is called into question.

There is no way out of this problem, Dr. Ariely said.

But if people are made aware of their vulnerability, they may be able to avoid conforming to social pressure when it is not in their self-interest.

That final comment seems sensible.  If people are aware of this phenomenon, they may be able to overcome the effects of peer pressure, and engage in independent thought.  Indeed, I would argue that we all have a responsibility to do so.  If democracy is to function optimally, we have a duty to think and act independently.  I wonder, though, how feasible that is.  

Most people believe that they are smart enough to recognize peer pressure, and to resist it when necessary.  The Berns study shows that it may not be possible to recognize it in all cases.  

Bringing a clinical perspective into this essay, I must say that I have seen numerous patients who have disorders of perception.  For example, I saw a person who thought he/she saw an object fly into his/her mouth, then became convinced that the FBI had implanted a "chip" in his/her throat, that functioned as a listening device.  No amount of persuasion could alter this belief.  One reason that the belief was so firmly entrenched was that it was based upon the person's direct observation, faulty though it was.  The tendency to believe what you see is very strong, even if you do not have schizophrenia.

One might argue that the experience of someone with schizophrenia says little about the cognitive function of the general population.  Perhaps.  But I also have seen persons who have had altered perceptions while in a temporary state of altered consciousness: delirium.  Even when normal consciousness is restored, it is very difficult for them to believe that what they saw while delirious did not actually happen.  This appears to be different than the experience of someone who knowingly takes an hallucinogenic drug, such as LSD.  Such persons generally have no difficulty distinguishing hallucinations from reality, once the drug wears off.  But they have a conscious awareness of the fact that their perceptions have been altered, and an understanding of the reason for the alteration.  When conscious perception is altered without a person's awareness of the alteration, the capacity for reality testing is seriously strained.  Therefore, I suspect that perceptions that have been altered by peer pressure would be very difficult to challenge.

Of course, one way that people test the plausibility of their observations is to check with other people.  If one's peer group shares the altered perception, then there is very little chance that the alteration of the perception will be detected.  This is true especially if one affiliates only with those who share their views.

The Berns study does not address the issue of how one might be able to overcome the perceptual distortions imposed by peer pressure.  I hope that will be their next project.  I note that part of their research protocol involved an exercise in which participants and actors interacted, "to form group cohesiveness."  One wonders how the outcome of the study would have been affected, if the participants and the actors had not become acquainted beforehand.  Is there some particular element of kinship or camaraderie  that is necessary for peer pressure to distort one's perceptions?  If so, is it possible for one to learn to recognize this, and correct for the resultant biases?  

There is another hypothesis, one that might be even more interesting to test.  Would it be possible for a person to overcome the perceptual biases by forming relationships with persons of divergent viewpoints?  That is, if we cultivate and maintain friendships with persons with different views, will we be able to overcome the biases of peer pressure more readily?  Note that I am not referring merely to sharing a campus or a workplace with a diverse population, but actually having a relationship with them.  Dostoevsky claimed that "For the sake of common worship they’ve slain each other with the sword."  This suggests that it is not easy for those with divergent beliefs to form a tolerant community.

Is there a practical application to this line of reasoning?  Perhaps, most pertinently: if we have a leader who is a uniter, not a divider, will the democratic process work more effectively, leading to better, more rational decisions?  If we are encouraged to respect the opinions of others, to embrace those with diverse opinions as valid members of our community, will we be able to discern the truth more reliably?

And what about the converse?  Will the current political trend of incessantly vilifying one's opponents lead to such severely distorted perceptions that we cannot see the truth for what it is?  Will a population under such influence unwittingly develop a de facto one-party state, a body politic in which absolute power corrupts absolutely?
But let me tell Thee that now, to-day, people are more persuaded than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. But that has been our doing. Was this what Thou didst? Was this Thy freedom?’”

“I don’t understand again.” Alyosha broke in. “Is he ironical, is he jesting?”

“Not a bit of it! He claims it as a merit for himself and his Church that at last they have vanquished freedom and have done so to make men happy. ‘For now’ (he is speaking of the Inquisition, of course) ‘for the first time it has become possible to think of the happiness of men. Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy? ...

... And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, “Make us your slaves, but feed us.” ...

As I said, we have a duty to do what we can, to be sure that our perceptions are accurate; that we are not unduly influenced by peer pressure, groupthink, propaganda, pop culture, or mass media.  To this end, we must learn to tolerate diversity, to converse with those who have differing beliefs, and to be willing to use those beliefs to challenge our own.  Failing in this duty, we open ourselves to demagoguery, and ultimately, tyranny.

On this Independence Day, we must remember that our soldiers did not thrust themselves in harm's way, only to see us lay our freedom at the feet of some politician.

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