Prettier Politicians Preferred At Polls

“It is well established that being beautiful confers many advantages on a person.” This is the opening sentence of a break-through paper by two Swedes and a Finn. From that true statement, our authors conclude pretty politicians do better than ugly ones, and that evaluations “of beauty explain success in real elections better than evaluations of competence, intelligence, likability, or trustworthiness.”

The paper is The Looks of a Winner: Beauty, Gender and Electoral Success (by Berggren, Jordahl, and Poutvaara). In it, our “researchers” define a “beauty premium”, which is a statistical quantification of the advantage the gorgeous have over the facially challenged (I’m not up on the PC euphemism for ugly; anybody know it?).

To discover the beauty premium, the men showed photos of about 2,000 Finnish politicians to around 3,000 non-Finnish non-politicians. They wanted to know “whether male and female respondents differ in their evaluation of candidates’ beauty and other traits.” Why? Because—and I don’t know whether to weep or laugh as I paste in this next quotation—”The beauty literature so far has paid scant attention to the gender

Beauty literature? Good grief!

Well, we might as well stick with it. They quote from a personage named Langlois:

The meta-analyses showed that, both within and across cultures, people agreed about who is and is not attractive. Furthermore, attractiveness is an advantage in a variety of important, real-life situations. We found not a single gender difference and surprisingly few age differences, suggesting that attractiveness is as important for males as for females and for children as for adults. (Our italics.)

Non! cry our crew. They say that Langlois might be right about beauty in other arenas, but in “electoral studies, rather little is reported on gender and beauty.” Thus a new paper—or even better, new papers—are needed. The only possible evidence is from one Hamermesh, who looked at elections at the “American Economic Association, and his results indicate that there is a large and almost statistically significant effect of beauty on the electoral success of a male candidate” but none with females.

Elections at the American Economic Association? Almost statistically significant? Why, that is as good as statistically significant!

Actually, I cannot fault them for this faux pas because, as I often argue, the term “statistically significant” should be banished from the kingdom for good and for all time. For one, it is ripe for abuse of the sort perpetrated by our authors. For another, almost nobody has any idea what it really means (not much, and not what most think it does).

The study itself is dull. The pictures are shuffled and shown and the raters are asked various questions related to beauty and other traits. There are no surprises; indeed, it would have been surprising if there were surprises. There are plenty of criticisms that can be leveled at the design and analysis, but why bother? This study is the kind of bad statistics I call “Type 1 Bad”, meaning it purports to prove something that was already obvious. It is therefore, as Douglas Adams might have said, mostly harmless.

So why mention it? Because our authors could not restrain themselves. They must have more! They went from saying something obviously true, to saying something stupid and false. They could not just present the results, they had to theorize about them. In comments to a gullible press, Berggren said, “One possible explanation is that people who are seen or consider themselves beautiful tend to be more anti-egalitarian and right wing.”

It was this statement that was picked up and highlighted in newspapers throughout the world. It even made the New York Post!

Now, there is not one word of theorizing in the paper. Yet Berggren and his brother authors could not resist opining on the popularity of (yes) Sarah Palin1 and Ronald Reagan. “I think the right has been more conscious of looks,” said Berggren. Evidence? And what’s that bit about people considering themselves beautiful? Wild, wishful extrapolation, that’s what.

It might be true—and probably is, if my mirror is any guide—that conservatives are better looking than lefties. But it does not follow from this that conservatives are more anti-egalitarian, unless by that word they mean “freedom loving.” We can conceded that in the contest of which side of the aisle is more efficient at removing freedoms, the left have compiled a steady stream of victories.

Let’s test out our authors’ theory. Pictured below are Berggren, Jordahl, and Poutvaara (in that order). Which are the lefties and which conservatives? (It will also be obvious which of these considers himself more beautiful.) Click on their names to land on their web pages, where their political beliefs will reveal themselves.

Berggran, Jordahl, and Poutvaara


1Laura, if you’re reading this: she is hot.

Midweek Catchup: The Natural Advantage Of Doomsayers

Micro-economics of the End of the World

As I sit contemplating my under-employment and its various causes, it became clear to me that my natural sunny disposition has hampered me. Too much sunshine has always been known to be harmful, incidentally.

Consider the doomsayer, a man who leads a charmed life in our culture. The doomsayer has a natural advantage over his more sanguine colleague. If he is, like most are, an academic, he writes a grant with the title, “The Calamity That Awaits Us When The Climate Changes.” The granting agency is skeptical, but they reason: “Although the probability of calamity is low, if it does occur the effects will be calamitous. Therefore, our doling out this meager sum is nothing compared to what it would cost us if the calamity occurred.”

Meanwhile, the other man writes a grant entitled, “People Worry Too Much: Life Is Pretty Good” which attracts no funders.

The doomsayer, sitting in his newly appointed office, writes his speculative papers which, when joined with the output of his nervous brothers, become authoritative because of their sheer number, just like ghost stories.

Worse, when it comes time to promotion the doomsayer can point to his steady stream of grants (which employ administrators) and papers, while the other man can only point to failures in these areas. The effect on the system is obvious.

Job Interview

“What is your ideal job? In the best of all worlds, tell me me what you see yourself doing?”

“I see myself winning the lottery.”

Pause. “Do you know the odds of that happening?”

“It’s because I know the odds that I’m sitting here!”

We’ll see if I get a call back.

Bot people

49erDweet points us to Patriot Action, which details one of the revelations from the HBGary hacking (see Sunday’s post).

The US government is offering private intelligence companies contracts to create software to manage “fake people” on social media sites and create the illusion of consensus on controversial issues.

The contract calls for the development of “Persona Management Software” which would help the user create and manage a variety of distinct fake profiles online.

The call for proposals, issued by the United States Air Force of all places, is found here ( or here; solicitation number RTB220610).

Jerry Pournelle writes that “I recall that in China there is the ‘fifty cent party’ of some 200,000 paid bloggers and commentors whose job is to make up a consensus of approval of the government and Party.” Various companies pay marketers to do similar things here, like touting for snack crackers, but with little success.

The Persona Management Software is not this, and is instead meant to be an Eliza-like system which will fool real people into thinking they are talking to other real people and not bots. The bots will feed real people whatever propaganda its masters deem important. The system must be opaque, so that if suspicions are cast on the bots, it can offer “powerful deniability.”

Given the context and content of the vast majority of on-line communications between real people, particularly through Facebook, Twitter, and the like, the influence of any such software package is likely to be minimal at best.

The Patriot Action Network is rightly worried, but I see it as the computerized equivalent of dropping leaflets, a practice that has almost never worked, except in the rare instances the leaflets announced that your house is right under the planned bombing route.

Planet Could Be ‘Unrecognizable’ By 2050: Doom Just Around The Corner

If you are in your 40s now, as yours truly is (am?), then by 2050 you and the rest of our cohort will be dead or in our 80s. If we last this long, this will be the age during which we will regularly misplace our glasses. Either way, then, pushing up marigolds (prettier than daisies) or tottering about on our canes, the world will look very different to us than it does now.

This, however, does not appear to be what a group of exceptionally nervous scientists meant when they said Mother Earth will be “Unrecognizable” by 2050. They claim that if we don’t actually see at least one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, then, as the saying goes, we will at least hear the approaching of his hoofbeats.

According to a news report, always a dangerous source upon which to rely, gatherants at the American Association for the Advancement of Science were concerned—deeply concerned—about the frequency of sexual intercourse of non-scientists. Specifically, they think there is too much of it. Breeding, that is, and subsequent births resulting from that oh-so-natural habit.

The guess is that by 2050 there will be 9 billion humans roaming to and fro across the surface of the Earth. Jason Clay, of the World Wildlife Fund, a non-partisan, ideology-free scientific organization estimates that to feed the newcomers, “we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000.” His conclusion is thus, “By 2050 we will not have a planet left that is recognizable.”

Food for the next 40 years will feed roughly 320 billion mouth years (summing the population through each year until 2050, figuring in a smooth growth trend). Now last year we fed just under 7 billion, the year before it was just under that, and the year before that it was a little lower and so on.. Progressing back to 1800, when there were only about 1 billion Johns and Janes, and to our present date shows that we have already produced enough food to feed 560 billion mouth years (approximately, of course).

Taking it back 8,000 years, the figure the uninterested Mr Clay provided, gives us about 4,200 billion mouth years of food that we have, as a race, so far provided for ourselves. Mr Clay, whose number is not just wrong, but wildly wrong, is thus either lying, exaggerating, or under the sway of theory. I don’t care to say which. (The fourth possibility is the reporter who questioned him mistranslated Mr Clay’s “8 years” to “8,000 years.”)

Mr Clay and his compatriots also appear to have forgotten a basic fact in biology (and here the possibility of misreporting is larger): we cannot have more humans alive than we can produce food for. That is, if there really will be 9 billion souls in 2050, then, ipso facto, we will have produced enough food to support 9 billion. Unlike our dear and caring governments, we cannot deficit spend in mouth years. If the food is not present, breeding cannot occur.

And if we have produced just enough food so that 9 billion people can live yet some of that food subsequently disappears, then we will soon have fewer than 9 billion people. Some of the living will die earlier than they would have had their stomachs been constantly filled, but a more important variable will be those who are will not be born to replace those who die (it takes more food to sustain a pregnant female than a similarly matched non-pregnant female).

Now it is true that, ceteris paribus, and ignoring the odd act-of-God calamity, if we “use up” a particular resource necessary in the production of food, then we might find ourselves being unable to sustain food production at current levels. This has often happened locally in human history. Land cannot be one of these resources, however, for we have always been stuck with what we have.

But things have never been ceteris paribus, and thus it is rational to suppose that they will not remain so. It was innovation that allowed us to produce more food, and it was this cheap food which led to an increase in the “surplus population” (the WWF and their ilk always write with more than a hint that many are undesirable). If we cease innovating, we slow or stop our increase in food supply, and we thus naturally reduce population. If we continue to innovate, then etc.

Plus we have the empirical fact, not predicted by evolutionary psychology, that as people do better materially the fewer children they produce (the selfish genes of the rich are money mad!). Thus, innovation will not only feed the poor, but it will distract the rich. Missing in the doomsday pronunciations were the demographic forecasts (frequently good) which show a diminishing world population after, say, 2100. The world really be unrecognizable, but probably from a surfeit in hedonism, not population.

Thanks to 49erDweet for today’s tip.

Weekly Mail

I receive regularly a lot of red hot tips from regular readers, but as the week goes on they are often buried by newer mail. Thus I will try out a weekly link compilation post. Beware that the links might show up used in a regular post later. Anonymity will be honored for those who want it.

Inside Story of the HBGary Hack

Fascinating write up of how Anonymous broke into security firm HBGary, from Ars Technica. A clearer introduction to basic computer security I have never seen. Read this and you’ll be prompted to change your passwords. Also a good plea to change to that most secure (and superior!) of operating systems, Linux.

Thanks to Eric Dailey, who was referred by

House votes 244-179 to kill U.S. funding of UN IPCC

Defund IPCC ‘amendment was sponsored by Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Missouri), who read aloud on the floor from the 2009 U.S. Senate Report of more than 700 dissenting scientists! (Written by Climate Depot’s Morano) — Luetkemeyer: Americans ‘should not have to continue to foot the bill for an (IPPC) organization to keep producing corrupt findings’

Thanks to Marc Morano.

Dawkins’ Genes Encode Memes

From “gene machine” (edited for length and to restrict content to memes, our subject of last week):

Did you read the book?…

If I remember correctly, Dawkins hypothesised that other natural replicators would have a similar selection for “phenotypes” which aid their replication. The only other example he could find in the natural world were “memes”. A fair point, in that we do copy behaviors/words/ideas of other people (they are replicators) and we’re more likely to copy someone rubbing 2 sticks together if it creates something useful like fire (there is a selection of “good” ones). There are important differences too, but it is interesting to note that they are another class of natural replicator and to look at what they have in common with genes.

Up to this point, has Dawkins said anything disagreeable? This is his “bizarre thesis”.

Some of your comments:

>Calling this mundane process a “transmission of memes” isn’t wrong, but an unnecessary obfuscation, a bureaucratic complication.

You may find it trivial, and it is obvious when you think about it, but there is something that is transmitted when one copies another. If Dawkins is going to discuss this then he might as well give these replicators a name and existing words such as “ideas” don’t quite describe the more general class of replicators he is discussing. Boring? that subjective, but not incorrect.

>it is impossible for one copy of a meme to benefit from other copies

No, but it is possible for rubbing sticks together to be more popular than rubbing stones when there is the reward of fire. On average, most ideas should be selected to not harm their own existence such as the “jumping off the cliff meme” and to fit into the ecosystem of memes they compliment or contradict. I don’t think Dawkins, if he used the word, meant “benefit” in the way that you facetiously imply he does.

>Memes are often welcomed by those who want freedom from responsibility for their own actions. If a man can’t point to his “selfish” genes and say “They made me do it!”, then perhaps memes are the real culprits. People aren’t really racists, they have racist memes.

Yeah and people only doubt that CO2 will destroy the universe because they are evil capitalist bastards. This is not an argument, this is just an insult.

>These arguments are identical with those saying there is no free will. “We must not punish the criminal! He has no free will, no choice to have done what he has done.”

I’m not aware of anybody is making an argument not to punish criminals (I’m including containment, along with attempted rehabilitation in punishment here) , isn’t this just a popular parody made of people who believe in causality? Genes, cultural influences, childhood brain injuries, experiences and the current situation all play a role in how we act at any moment, are you proposing that there is a supernatural input too or that some kind of quantum dice constitutes free will? The existence of free will depends on the details of the definition used.

Anyway, Dawkins was right-on with the genetics, this is rightly the most iconic popularisation of the, sometimes under appreciated, modern synthesis. Dawkins was right to look for other replicators to see how the ideas of the book could be generalised. Memes are not a bad label for these replicators. Personally I did not take too much from the memes part of the book, other than to ponder how (other!) stupid ideas can become popular. The real meat of the book, for me, was giving a foundation for understanding animal (and human) behaviors including sex differences, cooperation and deceit.

So, do the decent thing, go read the book if you have not already, and get your apology written. If you like I will buy you a copy.

Now, now, and tsk, tsk, Mr gene machine. It is rude to suggest that I have not read Dawkins. Proof that I have is evidenced by my surly attitude whenever his name is mentioned; after effects of exposure to poor arguments. I await your apology from your ungentlemanly accusation.

And I’ll bet that you have not read (much of) Midgley and none of Stove. Tell you what. Take the money you would have donated to me (see the upper left corner of this page) and use it to buy Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity and Other Fables of Evolution. Read that with a clear eye and then report back to me.

Further, I repeat that to call “behaviors/words/ideas” “replicators” is an unnecessary complication and is false. Ideas do not replicate, people may or may not pass on ideas. To stick just with ideas, these can be passed on regardless whether they are harmful or useful to people, in any dimension, or to the ideas themselves. Take socialism. A lovely but murderous idea. Yet it survives, even as “it” kills off its hosts.

Boy Wrestler Refuses To Compete With Girl

We’re all adults here, so I’m going to come right out and reveal my misogynistic thesis: men are better athletes than women, in the sense that if you pick any group of men and an equal number of women, such that the way both sexes are picked is identical, more men than women will on average be found to be better, faster, stronger.

Further, at the highest end of performance men will greatly outnumber women, again on average. Although statistics aren’t kept, it’s my guess that men will greatly outnumber women (on average) at the lowest end, too, since many of my sex are natural practitioners of the gentle art of indolence.

The reason for these gross discrepancies is because the biology, as yet uncontrolled by the government, of men and women is different. This is sad for women, of course, but (again, so far) an inescapable fact. Equality is not written in our genes, however much it is in our hearts.

Now, there lurk among us many who agitate for equality between the sexes (still largely just two). Many of these souls are satisfied if they can discover a strict—it must be strict, even though strict is probabilistically unlikely—statistical equality in employment or in other monetary terms.

The battle having largely been won in this arena, the agitators found themselves without a hobby. And so they turned to sports, where enormous statistical incongruities between males and females still existed. The activists started with money, an arena with familiar rules and turf. And it wasn’t even a battle. Equality, at least for public funding of sports, soon reigned.

But what to do about performance? The statistics of difference were plain, and most activists could understand enough biology to see that these differences were likely to continue even if laws were passed demanding these differences unjust.

Enter the wits: a clever minority who had no patience with activist antics. Or, better said, a too clever minority. They thought they could shut the mouths of the activists by pushing the activists’ arguments to their logical conclusions. Want real equality between boys and girls? Then eliminate separate sports programs and throw the boys and girls together! Don’t have boys’ football and girls’ football, just have football. Don’t create boys’ wrestling and girls’ wrestling, just have wrestling.

The wits thought that the activists would see that since participation on sports teams is merit based, the level of participation of females would drop like an “I voted for Reagan” comment at an Upper West Side dinner party. But the wits were wrong. Activists, whose minds are always in delicate balance, are often unable to appreciate sarcasm. They called the wits’ bluff.

In Iowa, girls can now wrestle with boys—and not just in cars in the parking lot at the Friday night dance. But in the rings and on the mats. The news reports that one young man refused to wrestle with his female opponent in the State final. He did so because he was a gentleman of the Old School. We commend him. But his forfeit allowed the girl to “win,” thus beginning an accumulation of statistics showing equality between girls and boys.

Of course, at the distant end of the 1970s at good old St. Mary’s High where yours truly matriculated, allowing boys to wrestle girls would have produced a surge of enrollment on the wrestling team. But today’s youth are more in tune with the near desperate desire for equality, it having been inculcated in them in every class in every grade. So most will play along.

However, that pesky boy-girl dimorphism will haunt equality efforts. In that same Iowa tournament, the only other girl lost her match with a boy not as reticent as his teammate. Yet equality must be had! So how long before the first sexual harassment charge which will be used to cancel a boy’s win? How many new rules—in football, basketball, wrestling, and on and on—will be instituted delineating just how hard, when, and especially where a boy may touch a girl? These rules will be implemented not just because some women hate the idea of boys touching girls, but to increase the advantages of the girls whose biology otherwise limits them.

Constraining and restraining boys thusly will, of course, bring the object of desire, but it will also hurt the sports themselves. Who would want to watch football game where the boys are not allowed to tackle the girls? Or a wrestling match were the boys must maintain a strict distance between his hands and most of the girls’ bodies?

Remember folks: it was predicted here first.

Why Memes Are Stupid: The Short Version

In 1976, in his The Selfish Gene, a book which revealed that most of us are slaves to our genes, biologist Richard Dawkins “discovered” the meme which, in one definition, is any “cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.”

Dawkins snuck memes into the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, after readers had been softened up by edematous arguments of how “selfish” genes are responsible for (mainly) reprehensible or harmful behaviors; yet behaviors and actions—approved of by Dawkins—outside the iron grip of genes were also (somehow) possible. He spent the next several years defending this bizarre thesis (presumably with the cooperation of his genes), making sounds like the yip yip yip of a lapdog affixed with a studded collar under the delusion he is a pit bull.

Most of his efforts were expended explaining how “selfish” didn’t really mean “selfish“, but sometimes “selfish” other times “selfish.” Strangely, only devotees had the power (via genetic mutation?) to understand this amorphous word. In an infamous review article which demolished Dawkins’s ideas, the philosopher and true pit bull Mary Midgley seized Dawkins by the throat and rattled him until she bored of it.

Dawkins reacted to this attack just as a lap dog would: with sullenness. One imagines him sitting in a quiet corner, a single tear escaping from the welling in his eyes, as he wrote, “[Midgley's paper is] hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic.” This coming from a man who boasted he would jam a black hood on Pope Benedict and toss him in a dungeon.

So “selfish” genes had difficulties and were not universally accepted. But memes had an easier time, at least at first. Now, a “cultural item” that is transmitted from one human to another is anything: a name, a joke, racism (of course), even a theory like memetics. Memes spread by changing, even creating, the behavior of the “host” such that the host, well, is made to pass on its mind viruses. This is not facetious: Dawkins himself prefers this phrase.

In one sense, “memes” are just a re-labeling of a trivial truth: people pass ideas to one another. Calling this mundane process a “transmission of memes” isn’t wrong, but an unnecessary obfuscation, a bureaucratic complication. The word also means a short-lived asinine idea passed between a small fraction of the Earth’s population who have leisure and access to a computer.

But Dawkins and his acolytes mean more than these. The philosopher David Stove, quotes from one of Dawkins’s works1 (all markings original):

Memes are living “are living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind2, you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking—the meme for, say [Pythagora's Theorem] is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men…”

Stove continues:

One might try saying to Dr. Dawkins: “Look, you are in the phone book, and they print millions of copies of the phone book—right? But now you don’t believe, do you, that you are there millions of times over ‘in the form of’ printed letters, or ‘realized in’ the chemistry of ink and newsprint?” But I would so afraid of being told by Dr. Dawkins that he does believe this that I do not think I would have the courage to put the questions to him.

Memes are also said to reproduce themselves, or to cause themselves to be reproduced, for their own “benefit.” But it is impossible for one copy of a meme to benefit from other copies. It is like saying a chair on sale as Walmart benefits by there being copies of itself for sale at other Walmarts.

Midgely asks

Why are we supposed to need the general word ‘meme’? It brackets together indiscriminately such mixed items as ideas, customs, beliefs, traditions, fancies, fashions, art-forms and art-works, tricks of the trade, opinions, doctrines, theories, images, concepts, attitudes, practices and habits. When we are actually trying to study culture, it is not helpful to blur these differences so grossly. Why do memeticists want to do this?

They do it because they think this simplification is scientific. They aim to explain changes in all these things by a single cause, and one of the same kind which is used to explain large-scale changes in evolution. This naturally has to be a cause quite outside our actual thinking. So they treat the various elements of culture, not as aspects of human life – ways in which people act and think – but as distinct entities, quasi-organisms or quasi-genes, substantial things existing on their own and somehow acting on people. These entities’ behaviour has then to be understood, like that of genes, in terms of their own supposed reproductive interests, their own competitive interactions with one another, bypassing all reference to human psychology.

Memes are often welcomed by those who want freedom from responsibility for their own actions. If a man can’t point to his “selfish” genes and say “They made me do it!”, then perhaps memes are the real culprits. People aren’t really racists, they have racist memes. Criminals rampage because of memetic influences, not because they are evil. Yet some of us (like Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and of course yours truly) have the ability to “move beyond” the influence of these pernicious mind viruses. We can will our minds to do other than what the memes (or genes) would have us do.

These arguments are identical with those saying there is no free will. “We must not punish the criminal! He has no free will, no choice to have done what he has done.” If you cannot spot the fallacy here, chances are good you will remain convinced memes are a viable scientific concept.


1Darwinian Fairytales: Selfish Genes, Errors of Heredity, and Other Fables of Evolution pp 194-195.

2Oh, baby!

Time Travel

I uncovered this photo of yours truly and one Robert E. Beamon Jr of (then) Chicago, Illinois. It was taken, with respect to our time, some twenty-eight years ago, in 1983, ostensibly in San Antonio, Texas. I am the one with the bigger, longer, and manlier gun. William Matt Briggs and Robert E. Beamon Jr.

This is shown because I have been asked many times to show my mug, and this example is as good as any other. This is as my personage was at one point in time. Little has changed except for the addition of depth and a fine chiseling due to maturity. My hair, for example, is of the same length, though my hat is now brown.

The phrase “with respect to our time” is necessary, because this picture was taken when Beamon and I were in the Air Force at Lackland AFB. It my belief that there we were subjected to a military experiment, during which the scene in this photo occurred.

Part of the experiment involved sleep deprivation coupled with extreme physical stress. I vividly remember being made to stand in line to receive drugs via an electric syringe. We also were made to eat substances which, judging by their taste, must have been laced with purposeful reagents.

From the photographic evidence I can only guess that we went back in time, and that, when in the past, we participated either in some nefarious activity or were part of a squad to quell such activities. I have no memory of which.

Since I cannot remember what happened, obviously the experiment was a success. But at least we have the evidence you see before you today.


I am on jury duty starting this morning. Posts may be somewhat irregular until I am released.

Posted in Fun