Skip to content

Category: Culture

The best that has been thought and written and why these ideals are difficult to meet.

August 24, 2009 | 44 Comments

10 Books To Read Before You Die

G.K. Chesterton was asked what book would he most like to have with him on a desert island. Slick as ever, he said, Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding. And then there was the lady who was complaining to, I think, Bertrand Russell, that she couldn’t understand why all the fuss with the Bible and Shakespeare. “They are filled with cliches,” she said.

These anecdotes were on my mind when I learned that AOL published recently a list of books that must be read before handing in your dinner pail (my favorite euphemism for death, from Pelham Grenville W.). Here’s the list:

  1. Bible — Various

  3. Gone with the Wind — Margaret Mitchell

  5. The Lord of the Rings — JRR Tolkien

  7. Harry Potter — JK Rowling

  9. The Stand — Stephen King

  11. The Da Vinci Code — Dan Brown

  13. To Kill a Mockingbird — Harper Lee

  15. Angels and Demons — Dan Brown

  17. Atlas Shrugged — Ayn Rand

  19. The Catcher in the Rye — JD Salinger

When I saw these names, I first thought the roll was the result of an internet poll (regular readers know I learned my lesson here) and that the only thing missing was the, surely forthcoming, My Life by Steve Jobs, a publishing event likely to lead Apple fanboys to perpetual, unrelievable ecstasy. (I suggest that Jobs, before he cops it, farm the work out to whomever ghosted Obama’s books: gush is too weak a word to describe critics’ reactions to these entries.1) At any rate, the AOL offering is the work of one man, and more than anything, this list demonstrates the dangers and horrific consequences that can result from too much self-esteem, or watching too much television, or whatever excess it was that lead the author to such embarrassing revelations.

Incidentally, the #1 slot was given as the “Holy” Bible, fearing, as many must, that the document might be mistaken for the “Unholy” version of the same were the modifier absent. The author doesn’t say, but I strongly recommend King James’s effort for the pure beauty of the words and their, as Russell’s lady hinted, intimate familiarity.

Kahneman and Tversky’s warning about Anchoring and Adjustment is now relevant to us. We must, having read AOL’s recommendations, thoroughly purge them from our minds, lest we find they influence us in the creation of our own Top Ten. Thinking too much about the original can result in the kind of warped mental processes that lead “celebrities” to think writing children’s books are a good idea.

It is surely impossible to populate any kind of top ten list satisfactorily. No matter what is there, someone will argue persuasively that something else should have been, and many more will denounce particular choices. It’s also difficult to separate the prescriptive from the personal: am I suggesting these works to others, or are they the only books that will accompany me to a deserted isle? They must, at the least, be authors worth returning to again and again.

And whatever else the list will be, it will be too damn short, so the numbers geek in me insists I optimize both quality and quantity. Thus, here’s my (tentative) list, wherein I cheat by including multiple books that are clearly part of one whole, or are separate but can be found easily in omnibus collections, but in any case by one author (and in no particular order):

  1. Bible — King James edition

  3. Aubrey & Maturin — The Patrick O’Brian 20-book series

  5. Rumpole — John Mortimer’s collection (say, the first six to eight books)

  7. Jeeves & Wooster — PG Wodehouse (all of the series)

  9. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire — Edward Gibbon

  11. Essays — Montaigne

  13. Plays — Shakespeare

  15. Collection — The thickest you can find, of Mark Twain

  17. Trial and Death of Socrates — Plato

  19. The Rationality of Induction — David Stove

Even if you despise this compilation, you can be grateful that I resisted obvious bad jokes: like including the Collected Works of Karl Marx, printed on thin paper, because toilet paper on deserted archipelagos is scarce. Or having anything by a postmodernist, like Foucault, so that, whenever tedium drove me to his pages, I would be grateful for being so far from “civilization.”

The last book is not one I recommend to everybody (it is a work of epistemology containing highly technical arguments concerning induction and logical probability), but it’s one that I cannot imagine not having read. Stove (then Jaynes) has been more influential in my professional life than any other author.

We can now play David Lodge’s humiliation: name a book you haven’t read but think others have; one point awarded for each success. Unlike Changing Places‘s unlucky professor, I have read Hamlet; but I have not yet read more than the first two volumes of Gibbon. I’ll start: with Lodge, I’ll admit also to not reading War and Peace.


1For querulous readers inclined to dispute this, I suggest your time will be more profitably spent learning What Jane Austen heroine you are. I am Marianne Dashwood (who is “impulsive, romantic, impatient, and perhaps a bit too brutally honest”); this odd quiz was linked on a page discussing the AOL list. I am Marianne Dashwood

August 19, 2009 | 32 Comments

Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences by Steven Goldberg: Part IV

This article summarizes the main statistical arguments and the one logical argument used for and against Goldberg’s ideas. To be clear: I am convinced by his arguments in the main and differ from him only at the edges, and trivially. If you have not read him, I urge you too. He writes beautifully and clearly and has given much thought to answering his critics, and has more room in his three books than we have here.

  1. Group A members are more variable than group B members : The usual implication of this is that, even if there are just as many group A and B members near the mean, more of group A members than group B members will be found at the extremes of behavior. This is only “usual” because it is possible for group A members to be more variable but for group B members to have a higher or lower average and so be found more often in the upper or lower extremes. Each trait has to be judged on its own empirical findings.

  3. Correlation is not causation: This is true. But it is also true that when there is causation, there is correlation. When causation is absent, correlation can be present spuriously or it may be absent. Too often, Goldberg’s critics acknowledge a correlation but then drag out the “correlation isn’t causation” card, as if by displaying it they have proved that causation is absent. The proof of causation is extra-statistical in the following sense: we have to look beyond the data presented and the model used and ask whether or not the causation is plausible, highly probable, and consonant with other information we possess. What makes a statistical argument worthy is if it can be used to make reliable predictions and not just that is explains previously observed data well.

  5. The SAT/IQ test isn’t correlated with success: This is false in general but potentially true when conditioning on a subgroup. Suppose you follow graduates of University A, the best in the country (in a particular subject) that accepts only the best according to the SAT/IQ test. All graduates will have an SAT/IQ test and all will go on to success and failure. In this group, any measure of success will not be correlated between the SAT/IQ score because all of these scores are high. Across the population in general, however, SAT/IQ tests are highly predictive of success (and should only be used in their predictive sense).

  7. Between-group differences are larger than within-group differences: So what? As Goldberg points out, the within-group difference of height in men or women is much larger than the between-men-women difference, but nobody is foolish enough to think this means that men and women are equally tall, or that the small between-group difference doesn’t lead to large differences both on average and at the extremes. Several very good statisticians have been caught making this error.

  9. The difference in number of genes is small: And so it is. But again, so what? The number of different genes between humans and higher primates is small but the phenotypical differences are enormous. It’s not the number of different genes that count but what those different genes do.

  11. After controlling for income, group A is the same as group B: This is true, but in using this argument, Goldberg’s opponent has agreed with him. We return to our initial question: if Sally is over six feet and so is Bill, are both Sally and Bill over six feet? And if people are paid by height—the taller receiving more—Sally will be paid as much as Bill, but on average women will receive less than men because, on average, women are shorter than men. Therefore, if you took a group of men and women (all remunerated by height) and statistically controlled for height you would find that tall women received as much as tall men. You will not have proven that men and women are equally tall. It is the tallness —the difference—that has caused the economic success.

  13. You cannot derive an ought from an is: David Hume first taught us this and it is true. It does not follow, and nobody believes it is true, that therefore there can be no oughts. It is only true that whatever oughts exist are believed without reference to external evidence or empirical findings. Thus, the oughts we believe are based on a priori evidence; that is, our intuitions. This type of evidence should not be castigated: all of mathematics, for example, is founded on the very same kind of beliefs (the axioms). Further, we might not be able to prove an ought is true but we might be able to infer it is with high probability. It is also true that all cultures hold many of the same oughts.

A corollary to the last, and what comprises Goldberg’s main uphill battle, is to convince detractors (usually on the Left) that their criticisms are founded on unspoken and unacknowledged oughts.

Please use the letter of the item in question when replying to make it easy on the rest of us.

August 17, 2009 | 40 Comments

Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences by Steven Goldberg: Part III

Part I Part II

If we thought the last topic was contentious, and it was, then I’m not sure how to class these items. Merely mentioning them will raise blood pressure to dangerous levels in some. Because of this, I will be as careful as I can in discuss Goldberg’s ideas, making clear where mine are different, in as dry a language as I can manage. All emphases are in the original.

Race Exists

And everybody knows it. Goldberg says in this essay (read it!), “not a single black student of mine fails to find risible the claim that there is no such thing as race. Only the occasional white social science major claims to find this contention sensible.” Some, for noble reasons, surely, deny race because of their well-founded fear that some races will be treated, and are treated, and have been treated, worse than others. Interestingly, though Goldberg doesn’t mention this, the same people who deny race will often be the strongest supporters of Affirmative Action (USA) or Positive Discrimination (UK).

But, while race exists and while there are on-average differences between races, the context of these differences matters. If you are looking to increase the probability of finding a speedy runner, you’d do best to travel to East or West Africa and not by hunting around Canada. But if you do not care about runners, then there is no difference between the Africans and Canadians. If you were interested solely in height, then there is a difference in the peoples of Sweden and Laos: if you do not care about height, then there is no difference.

There is a statistical argument that some use to deny the existence of race, and the association with race and intelligence: I examine these next time, when I collect all the statistical methods used by supporters and detractors of Goldberg.

The Death Penalty Discriminates, But Not Like You Think

I am speaking here of the USA only. Goldberg examines, where the race of the perpetrators and victims are known, the two-by-two matrix of white and black murderers and their victims: that is, white murderer-white victim, white murderer-black victim, black murderer-white victim, black murderer-black victim. “Over half of all murders…are committed by blacks, but over half of all those executed for these crimes are white.” The “discrimination is against white murderers—and in favor of the black murderers.”

This “may well represent a feeling on the part of some judges and juries that the life of the white victim (who is usually the victim of the white murderer) is of greater value than the life of the black victim (who is usually the victim of a black murderer).”

Thus, if the discrimination is eliminated, it would have the effect of increasing the number of blacks sentenced to death.

Incidentally, Goldberg reminds us: “A sneer is not an argument.”

The Death Penalty Deters Murderers—Probably

I am speaking again of the USA only. Goldberg stresses continuously that deterrence “refers to other people besides the murderer”: after all, murderers were not deterred. The appropriate question to ask is: did the death penalty deter those who would have murdered? “There are good theoretical reasons, and suggestive statistical empirical reasons, for believing that it does, but these are far from conclusive.”

“It is often claimed that the death penalty is barbaric or uncivilized and that the penalty is vengeful…” Recall that the definition of “barbaric” is an “ought” and is not subject to empirical test.

If the death penalty does deter some people from murdering—and thereby does render the murder rate lower—then the opponent of the death penalty is in the position of claiming that the society permitting a higher murder rate is less barbaric or uncivilized than is one with a lower murder rate.

“There is no doubt that other factors are more important to the deterrence of murder than is the death penalty. The presence of a father during the boy’s years of development is clearly more important.”

Incidentally, by using “boys”—and in other places—Goldberg shows that men murder at a vastly higher rate than women.

Let’s say that the proponent of the death penalty is incorrect in his belief that the death penalty does deter and we do invoke the death penalty. “All” we have done is execute murderers who should not have been executed…and, undeniable and horribly, a very few people who are innocent.

But now let’s say that the opponent of the death penalty is incorrect in his belief tha the death penalty doesn’t deter and we don’t invoke the death penalty. We will be responsible for the deaths of innocent people—those whose deaths would have been prevented by the deterrent effect of the death penalty.

Almost certainly, the number of innocents executed would be less than the number of innocents murdered if the death penalty deters.


The best evidence (Goldberg explores a range of theories) is that “most homosexuality is not purely heredity” but that

heredity does play a predispositional role; that is, Male A, who lacks the predisposing heredity is unlikely to become homosexual no matter what his environment. Male B, who has the predisposing heredity, is not likely to become homosexual if he encounters some environments, but is likely to if he encounter others…

It is commonly, but incorrectly, claimed that some societies positively sanction—or at least do not negatively sanction—homosexuality and that this demonstrates the nonpathological nature of homosexuality in our society [homosexuals have higher rates of depression and suicide than non-homosexuals; the question is whether this is because of socialization or pathology]. Let us ignore the fact that the claim is untrue; while there are societies that practice berdache, permit adolescent homosexual servitude to adults, and the like, no society sees as equal the type of of ongoing homosexuality of which we speak.

(ber·dache: Among certain Native American peoples, a person, usually a male, who assumes the gender identity, and is granted the social status, of the opposite sex. See Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man for a fascinating fictional account.)

Conservatives…see the cost of an acceptance of homosexuality as self-evident…Those on the Right figure that little is lost if they’re wrong; conservatives have always been real good at enduring other people’s pain.

Liberals…feel insecure in acknowledging…that moral and political positions…are inherently founded on subjective assumptions. This insecurity forces liberals to too often make up evidence, as if such evidence—even if correct—could render objective the inherently subjective moral positions that reflect their socialization and psychological needs.

See also what he says about so-called “victimless” crimes—bribery is such a crime, he reminds us.

Goldberg has left out the fact that homosexuality per se is like race: the state is only interesting when it comes to certain behaviors. For example, in many of the medical studies in which I participated (as statistician), the question of whether a man is a homosexual is not asked; what is asked is whether the man has sex with other men; these people are labeled MSM (the acronym being obvious). MSM are at greater risk for certain diseases than men who do not have sex with men.


PLEASE! Please let us refrain from the usual degradation of argumentation here. Let us confine our comments solely to the logic of Goldberg’s argument. Let us have no “I’m for” or “I’m against” statements.

Neither side wishes to face the fact “that the abortion question is inherently and eternally unanswerable, though it can be settled by force…because the question of whether the fetus is or isn’t a person is a matter of the definition of ‘person.'”

If a fetus is a person, then abortion is murder. If a fetus is not a person, up until the moment of birth, then abortion is not murder. Arguments about when a fetus “develops a brain, becomes sentient, can survive outside the mother…cannot answer the ‘what is a person’ in any less arbitrary way than we can. Science cannot refute even the claim…that a baby becomes a person at age two…” Goldberg is once again reminding us that “is” cannot decide what “ought to be.” Please keep this in mind.

“[A] pro-choice advocate’s invocation of a ‘woman’s right to her own body’ merely unsuccessfully attempts to obfuscate…or unnecessarily confuses the issue…” that it is the definition of “person” that matters. If a fetus is a person, then she has no “right” to murder it. In other words, the question of her “right” is no differently, logically, than the question whether the fetus is a person.

Religion cannot be used except by its offering what is and is not a person—the very point in question—nor can the claim that the state “does not have the right” to declare the fetus a person be recognized unless we also recognize, say, that the state cannot decide if a slave is a person.

Goldberg has taken as his basis the “all or nothing” position. This is statement that either the fetus is a person at conception or at birth only. No discussion is given to the idea that the fetus becomes a person in utero: as was, in various cultures, the case; see, for example, the idea of “the quickening”. This was the time, roughly after the first trimester, in which the fetus was thought to be imbued by its soul. Our culture (in the USA in 2009) leans in this direction as witnessed by the debates over “late-term” abortions.

To be clear, the logic of Goldberg’s position is this: only the definition of what a person is matters in this debate. I take it that all of us have a position on this, but that position is irrelevant to what we want to talk about. The only question we want to attack is: is Goldberg’s logic flawed? (I don’t think it is.)

Next Time We examine the most common statistical arguments used against Goldberg and find that they are nearly always used incorrectly, including by some people who ought to know better. I have ignored patriarchy and will leave it until we review the book Why Men Rule.

Part I Part II

August 13, 2009 | 60 Comments

Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences by Steven Goldberg: Part II

Part I

We now discuss the first two of Goldberg’s main claims. Both of them are contentious, are bitterly contested, and passion inducing. Try to keep a cool head; certainly read the caveat in Part I. Remember, too, that I will not be able to present all of Goldberg’s book-length evidence.

Environmentalism cannot explain all behavior

It is obvious and true that one’s environment influences one’s behavior. A Chinese will tend to act differently than a Russian; for example, they will tend to celebrate different holidays and show variation in respect to their elders, purely because of socialization. No one disputes this.

It is also true and obvious that one’s physiology and biology, one’s neurochemical makeup, influences one’s behavior. A 250-pound, muscle-bound man is more likely to play for the NFL than is a short, 150-pound, desk-bound man. Goldberg is fond of repeating, “an adult male’s ability to grow a moustache is not caused by our telling little girls that facial hair is unfeminine” (emphasis in original).

Bizarrely, however, many dispute this. Not about all aspects of behavior, of course—there are only a few (but still they exist) that deny that the anatomical differences between males and females lead to differences in behaviors, even in reproductive terms—but usually in those behaviors related to intelligence. That is, a sociologist might allow that men taller than six feet would, on average, make better professional basketball players than men shorter than six feet, but she would dispute that some men might, say, evince greater mathematical aptitude than others except that those differences are caused by differences in socialization and not innate ability. Even stronger would she deny that there could be any differences in intellectual ability between males and females, or between other groups.

Before we get to that, let’s take care of a common statistical argument against the importance of group differences. People often say that “within-group differences are almost always greater than between-group differences” and so the between-group differences do not matter. Goldberg offers this brilliant analogy (all emphases in the original):

It is, of course, true that the difference between the means of two groups is usually much smaller than the range within either group, but this casts no doubt on the importance of the between-group differences. No one could doubt that the mean difference in height between men and women (four or five inches) is less than the four or five foot difference between the shortest man and the tallest man or between the shortest woman and the tallest woman. But no one could reasonably use this fact to deny that it is meaningful to say that men are taller than women, that the reason is primarily hereditary, and that the difference is important in some contexts.

Men and women exhibit different behaviors (Please read all of this section before reacting.)

On “virtually everything measurable” men exhibit more variability than do women. Often, the mean of the measures will be the same for the sexes, as it does in tests of mathematical ability, or even higher for women, but the variability has always shown to be greater in men. A typical consequence of this (without getting too deeply into this) is that at the extremes more men than women will be found. That is, in any collection of the “world’s greatest” mathematicians, poets, writers, musicians, or whatever, more men than women will be and are found. But it also means that in any collection of “world’s worst” “murderers, traitors,” etc., more men than women will be and are found. The exceptions to this are obvious and well known: maternal abilities are greater in women, paternal abilities in men. It is extremely important to emphasize that these facts are true not just in the U.S.A. in 2009 but in every culture and throughout history.

A consequence when the means are equal, as regarding mathematical ability, is that men and women are equally probable in being better than average (and worse than average). You cannot say “men are better than women at math” without adding “because they have a higher probability of exhibiting extreme brilliance” and “because they have a higher probability of exhibiting extreme stupidity.” To just say “men are better than women in math” is meaningless without those additions—as is saying “men and women are equally good at math” without them (see this example).

Now, you might want to believe that, in most areas, there are no innate differences between men and women on average, but you do so based on faith, or, rather, in exact opposition to the evidence. This is because there is no and has been no evidence that men and women are the same. Sometimes, this fact is accepted (the men and women differ) but sociologists argue that the differences are caused by socialization. Whereas this explanation might be plausible in one culture at one time (ours) it becomes highly implausible when regarding all cultures and times.

Pay attention: Sally is a professional, tenured mathematician and has four papers each with eight citations in the Journal of Topology. Bill is also a mathematician in the same department as Sally and also has four papers each with eight citations. Is Bill a better mathematician because he is male? No. Can Bill take pride that he is a mathematician because he is a man? No. (If you like, swap “top grades in math class” for “papers.”)

As asked in Part I, if Sally is over six feet tall and Bill is over six feet tall, are both Sally and Bill over six feet tall? Even though Sally is a woman and Bill a man? What irks the leftist in questions like this, and what motivates her to deny the obvious differences, is that Sally might be treated differently than Bill even though she has the same abilities as him because people foolishly and incorrectly conclude that because more men will be exceptional each man will.

Instead, it is true that any woman might be better (intellectually) than any man. Knowing a person is a woman does not allow you to conclude that she will not exceed any man in ability. In fact, the true statement that more men will be found in the extremes of behavior says absolutely nothing about any individual man or woman, and so the fact that men are more variable is of little use, especially political use. The only way to tell whether Sally is better than Bill, or vice versa, is to put them to the task and see.

Importantly, men have nothing whatsoever to crow about because more of them will be in the extremes—of which, it shouldn’t be necessary to remind ourselves, there are two. Nor should any woman suffer pangs of diminished self-esteem. Nor should she not apply herself to discover whether she is a Sally. Equally, however, neither should we create programs that mandate equal percentages of intellectual jobs go to men and women—unless we are prepared, in the name of fairness, to mandate equal numbers of men and women at the bottom of society1 (we’ll need to dramatically boost the number of women in prison, for one).

Obviously, we have barely touched on this subject (such as how the male/female ratios change from culture to culture, but with the men ever greater in the extremes; nor have we discussed why men and women are different), but we have already gone on too long. Again, I beg that you read Goldberg on this before becoming too exercised.

Update: I hope readers can see that I only placed one “ought” in this entire article; in the last sentence in the penultimate paragraph. Everything else is an “is.” See Part I.

Update: Friday morning. Reader Stephen Dawson reminds us of La Griffe di Lion’s analysis of the male/female math gap. Highly recommended. Pay attention to the shift in the axis limits of Figure 3 and to the cross-cultural analysis.

Still to come: race, patriarchy, homosexuality, capital punishment, abortion.

Part I


1This statement implies that mathematicians properly belong at the top of society.