Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Obama effect: Have blacks in general suddenly become smarter?

The NYT said so last January and the academic study upon which that claim is based has recently become available online. So I suppose I should say a few words about the absurdity. The first thing to notice is that everybody else seems to think it is an absurdity too. They don't put it as bluntly as I do, though. What they say is "This finding will have to be repeated by others before we take it seriously" -- or words to that effect. And the reason why they say that is that Left-leaning social scientists have been labouring mightily for many decades at the task of getting black intellectual achievement up to white levels. And nothing that they try works. So to say that the election of Obama has suddenly closed that pesky gap is improbable to say the least.

I don't have access to the full academic article but what I see in the abstract immediately reminds me of "the dog that didn't bark" in the delightful Sherlock Holmes story The Silver Blaze. The research involved giving the same group of people the same test four times. Now that immediately puts into the mind of any psychometrician "The practice effect" and so one would expect some mention of how that problem was dealt with. But there is no such mention. When you give the same test to the same people on two different occasions, you find, for various reasons, that they get higher scores the second time around. That is the practice effect. And to give the same test to the same people not twice but four times sets all the alarm bells about the practice effect ringing.

So there are two ways in which the final (post-Obama-election) results reported could simply be an artifact (product) of the practice effect: 1) Everybody had got so good at the test by then that hardly anybody got anything wrong -- thus equalizing the scores for blacks and whites; 2). Maybe blacks worked harder than whites at figuring out where they went wrong on the first couple of occasions and for that reason alone got their scores up to white levels eventually.

The only way those two possibilities could be precluded would have been for the authors to use not the same test four times but four parallel forms of the same test, and there is no mention of that. Parallel forms have to be very carefully constructed to ensure that they DO give the same scores for the same people and that is so onerous that I have never seen more than two forms of any test made available.

So the entire study would seem to be methodologically naive and incapable of supporting its conclusions.

I might mention that the entire study is the latest variation in the absurd "stereotype threat" literature. The stereotype threat theory says that blacks do badly at tests because they think blacks do badly at tests. The initial "proof" of the theory arose from a study wherein psychologists made some black test-takers especially aware of their blackness while others did not have their blackness mentioned. The more aware blacks got worse results. But the unaware blacks still scored the usual amount below whites. So it showed, rather clearly, that awareness of blackness was NOT the cause of the black/white gap -- as the unaware blacks still did badly. Awareness of blackness can WORSEN black performance but unawareness cannot IMPROVE black performance. But to this day the theory is believed by most academics who refer to it. They still assert that awareness of being black is why blacks do badly. There are many other absurdities in the theory, one of which is that it seems to apply only to blacks and not to all minorities, but anybody who wants to look at the matter in detail should read here, here, here, here, here and here.

REFERENCE: David M. Marx, Sei Jin Kob and Ray A. Friedman (2009) "The “Obama Effect”: How a salient role model reduces race-based performance differences". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Article in Press.


The Thatcher legacy 30 years later

Thirty years on from Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister, it is being suggested that we have come to the end of the Thatcher era. Don't believe it. Iron does not rust that easily.

There have been reversals of the direction that she set, with the partial nationalisation of banks and the increase in the higher rate of tax to 50 per cent. But the former is first aid to a tottering banking system rather than an ideologically motivated return to public ownership. The Government clearly wants out as soon as possible, recognising that it knows even less about banking than bankers, difficult as that is. We will not see Clause 4 exhumed.

The bonus classes largely have themselves to thank for the 50 per cent tax rate. Their excess made them an irresistible target. But the higher rate won't raise significant extra revenue. What it will do is deter effort, so Britain will lose out in tax competition with our market rivals, making it harder to restore the City's leading position in financial markets. The higher rate will have to be rolled back before long by whichever party is in government to avoid jeopardising economic recovery.

I don't see either of these measures - regrettable as they are - as a definitive rejection of Thatcherism. The real story is not that the Thatcher era is over but that it continues unabated. Nineteen years after she left office, no successor government has deliberately undone or reversed any of the main changes she brought about. Nor have they come up with anything better. The “Thatcher settlement” remains largely intact.

The best test of this is to imagine where Britain would be had her successors reverted to the political trajectory charted by both parties until 1979. It would be a case of hello there, Zimbabwe, can we join you? Serious as our present problems are, we would be in a very much worse state were it not for the strong foundations that Margaret Thatcher built.

She was asked some years ago what she had changed in Britain and replied “everything”. That is pretty well true, the exceptions being Parliament - to which she was too indulgent - the Armed Forces and the Post Office. Nationalised industries were privatised, tax rates dramatically lowered to encourage initiative and entrepreneurship, trade unions curbed, council housing sold to its tenants, the size of the Civil Service reduced and several of its functions hived off to executive agencies, the City opened up to competition, the professions compelled to adapt. I could go on and on, to quote a phrase. She also embarked on serious reform of education and the NHS but left them too late to complete in her term.

Her great and unusual strength as leader of the Conservative Party was natural empathy with the basic instincts of the electorate. The instincts may not necessarily be admired by Guardian readers or the politically correct, but they are none the worse for that. She understood that owning your own home, spending more of what you earn rather than have the Government spend it for you, dislike of the nanny state, support for our Armed Forces, independence from bossy Brussels and the aspiration to a middle-class lifestyle were not ambitions to sneer at but to be fulfilled. Platitudes about listening government are beside the point: she simply shared the instincts.

The only moment when this empathy deserted her was over the poll tax. Intellectually the case was strong, and benefited many of “her” people. But it loaded costs on an even greater number of “her” people, which they refused to accept.

She was and remains scornful of conventional wisdom. Just because something has always been so in the past does not mean that it has to be so in the future. It made her healthily sceptical of much of the expert advice with which all prime ministers are flooded in an attempt to drown their political instincts. The best known example was the 364 economists who opposed her early Budget. I suspect that John Maynard Keynes would be getting short shrift if she were Prime Minister today.

The other secrets of her success are clear thinking, careful preparation, extraordinary energy and, above all, willpower. The energy was truly remarkable. She viewed holidays with distaste, as an unwelcome interruption in the tempo of work. She punctuated them with eager telephone calls to No10 seeking an excuse for an early return as soon as the obligatory photograph on a beach with Denis and a borrowed dog had been snapped.

I was asked recently how she would cope with the test of being awakened by a 3am telephone call announcing some disaster - which Hillary Clinton implied President Obama would flunk - and was able to say with certainty that it would not be a problem. The chances are she would be up and about at 3am anyway.

Whether this perpetuum mobile was the best way to run a government is something for historians and psychiatrists to argue over. But it was embedded in her character from early on as illustrated by the passage in her memoirs recording schoolgirl holidays occupied with “PT exercises in the public gardens [of Skegness]... rather than sitting around day-dreaming”.

Her ability to focus remorselessly on the task in hand was another strength. She has never been inclined to see two sides to any question or work for consensus because that would imply doubt and indecision. She believed in backing her judgment and was reinforced in that when the electorate backed her three times. Yes, she knew how to be pragmatic and when to retreat, making smoke. But the ratio of pragmatism to steely resolve was lower than in any government before or since.

Not everything in the garden was lovely. There were victims, though far outnumbered by beneficiaries. And the egregious bonus culture has taken some of the moral shine off Thatcherism. But overall the changes she made to Britain have given us more than two decades of unprecedented prosperity. They saw Britain reinstalled as the world's fourth- largest economy, losing our reputation as the sick man of Europe and taken seriously again as a leading world power.

The new generation of Conservatives who will be called on to cart away the rubble from new Labour's implosion will inherit stronger fundamentals than Margaret Thatcher herself was bequeathed in 1979. They will need years of discipline and thrift in public spending to overcome the consequences of the Government's reckless expansion of borrowing and the untrammelled growth of the public sector.

They must also maintain Britain's defence strength. A defence review is certainly needed, and a radical one at that. But the ability to field forces in distant conflicts and deploy an effective nuclear deterrent is what makes the US take us seriously and leverages our influence globally. That will be more not less important as China and India play a greater world role and as more nuclear weapons states emerge. For conservatives, defence must surely be a sacred trust. Most of all they will need to acknowledge the continued relevance of Margaret Thatcher's agenda and achievements, and recapture the momentum of change that Thatcherism created.

The legacy of someone who killed off socialism in Britain, changed the face of the country and rescued us from being a nation in retreat is the best inheritance that an incoming Conservative government will have.




British police respond to capitalistic incentives too: "There was a big fall in the number of speed-camera penalties after police and local authorities lost the right to keep the proceeds. The drop came in the same year that road deaths fell to their lowest level since records began, undermining claims that an increase in cameras improves road safety. In 2007, 1.26 million fixed penalties were issued — down 370,000, or 23 per cent, on the previous year. Over the same period, road deaths fell below 3,000 for the first time, down 226 to 2,946. Until April 1, 2007, camera partnerships operated by police and local authorities were allowed to keep a proportion of fines to pay for more cameras. Since then, they have received a fixed amount for all aspects of road safety. The drop in fines suggests that police chiefs decided to put fewer resources into speed enforcement when they stopped being able to recover the costs of installing and operating cameras. Many camera housings are being left empty and some forces have reduced their use of camera vans".

Yuk! Britain gets an angry feminist as a poet laureate: "Duffy, 53, who has been an advocate of women’s rights ever since she was shocked by sexism on the poetry —circuit in the 1970s, told The Times that she felt deeply that the post should go to a woman. She favoured Jackie Kay, her former partner, or Alice Oswald. “I have a sense of humility because there are so many poets who should take this role. To have refused it would have been a bit cowardly. She said that she hoped to be a controversial figure, a role that she fulfilled last year when one of her poems, Education for Leisure, was pulled from the GCSE curriculum because examiners feared that it promoted knife crime. Duffy responded with a reply in verse that pointed out the quantity of knife usage in Shakespeare’s plays. Duffy was considered a frontrunner for the post ten years ago but lost out amid rumours that senior politicians had reservations about how the popular press would respond to the appointment of a lesbian."

Fawlty Towers not dead: "At a recent “excellence awards” ceremony organised to celebrate the very best in domestic hotels and visitor attractions by Enjoy England — the English tourist board — the great and the good of hospitality were in a hopeful mood. “Boom times” lay ahead for holidays in these isles. Tough economic conditions meant that fewer people would be flying abroad. Airport security queues and higher flight taxes would put off travellers heading for the skies, tourism board grandees predicted. It all seemed win-win. But then one official dared to strike a note of discord. “This is going to be the year of the complaint,” he whispered. “Hotels and attractions have been making staff cutbacks. And you’ve got the Poles going home of their own accord.” Many places are unlikely to cope in the busy summer, he said. The expected swarms of tourists from Europe taking advantage of the weak pound will only add to the bustle. John Cleese, playing the hapless hotel owner Basil Fawlty, once declared: “A satisfied customer — we should have him stuffed!” How many British hoteliers will be saying the same by the end of August? We’ll just have to wait and see".

Traffic lights a hindrance or a help?: "What would happen if traffic lights were suddenly switched off? Would there be gridlock or would the queues of frustrated drivers miraculously disappear? People in London are about to find out the answer in Britain’s first test of the theory that removing lights will cure congestion. For six months, lights at up to seven junctions in Ealing will be concealed by bags and drivers will be left to negotiate their way across by establishing eye contact with pedestrians and other motorists. Ealing Council believes that, far from improving the flow of traffic, lights cause delays and may even increase road danger. Drivers race towards green lights to make it across before they turn red. Confidence that they have right of way lulls them into a false sense of security, meaning that they fail to anticipate hazards coming from the side. The council hopes that drivers will learn to co-operate, crossing junctions on a first-come first-served basis rather than obeying robotic signals that have no sense of where people are waiting. Ealing found evidence to support its theory when the lights failed one day at a busy junction and traffic flowed better than before." [There have been similar reports from South Africa and Holland]

Swine flu hype fading: "Scientists are coming to the conclusion that the new strain of swine flu that has killed at least ten people around the world may actually be less dangerous than the average annual flu season. The World Health Organisation is expected to move quickly to designate a full pandemic - at level 6 of its 6-point scale - within days to reflect the continuing spread of swine flu among people who have not been to Mexico, including in Europe. But, though some people have died, the most common complaint from sufferers infected with the virus has been diarrhoea - and, despite the hype, the rate of infection appears to be more of a trickle than a deluge. This morning the World Health Organisation said on its website that as of 6am GMT, swine flu had infected 331 people in 11 countries, killing ten of them. Other estimates of the infections and deaths are higher - for instance Mexico says up to 176 people have died there and the authorities have confirmed 12 deaths. However, despite the variations, the numbers are still relatively small - and they don't seem to be multiplying"

Federal prosecution of pro-Israel Jews dropped: "The Justice Department Friday ended the high-profile prosecution of two former pro-Israel lobbyists suspected of having sought and distributed classified information involving Iran and Iraq — a decision that could strengthen the rights of reporters, lobbyists and social activists to obtain and publicize government secrets. The decision to drop the case against Steven J. Rosen and Keith Weissman, who were dismissed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in 2005, was anticipated for several months. It came after the Justice Department lost a series of pretrial rulings on the classification of the evidence it wanted to bring to court and on the bar the prosecution would have to meet... The two purportedly talked to a reporter and an Israeli diplomat about policy options toward Iran then under review by the Bush administration and about threats to Israelis in Iraqi Kurdistan. While the counts fall under the 1917 Espionage Act, the prosecution explicitly stated that the two former AIPAC officials were not considered agents of a foreign power. The case aroused considerable controversy in Washington because of the Israel lobby's high profile and the fact that Mr. Rosen and Mr. Weissman were the first private citizens prosecuted under the Espionage Act for mishandling classified information obtained through conversation. The precedent, if upheld, could have made much national-security journalism and foreign-policy lobbying a federal crime".


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The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialist) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party" (In German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)


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