Friday, August 09, 2013

The Headline 'Smarter Women Have Fewer Children' is an Excellent Illustration of Why Correlation is Not Causation

A Japanese researcher who likes to provoke controversy, Satoshi Kanazawa, has proclaimed that women with high IQs have few or no children.  This leads him to proclaim in his book The Intelligence Paradox that "the urge to have kids among women drops by 25 percent with every extra 15 IQ points above a certain rate."

The correlation is likely true.  The causation, though, is not likely to be that high IQ leads women to want fewer children, and certainly not that the highest IQ women want no children.

Rather, high IQ women have many choices in life, and are much more likely to have long years of education and highly demanding jobs than lower IQ women do.  Therefore, the whole population of high IQ women is likely to have fewer children than women with average or low IQs.  The correlation, though, is not the cause.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Conservative 'Righteous Minds' Conserve Sanctity the Most

Jonathan Haidt gives three pictures of the moral matrices of liberals, libertarians, and social conservatives at the end of Righteous Minds. Each matrix is attached by lines of varying thickness to six moral spectra – care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

In the liberal picture, care/harm is twice as thick as liberty/oppression, which is twice as thick as fairness/cheating. The other three are minimal.

In the libertarian picture, liberty/oppression if four times as thick as fairness/cheating; the other four are minimal.

In the social conservative picture, all six lines are of equal thickness.

I think he is wrong that social conservatives place equal value on all six moral foundations.   

Conservatives get the greatest emotional reward from conserving. The things most worth conserving, most worth defending from degradation, are sacred things. Authority is authoritative because it defends – and defines – what is sacred. Institutionalized authority that defends the sacred creates institutions worth being loyal to.

Haidt's larger picture would be more symmetrical if liberals emphasized Care/Harm the most, and conservatives emphasized Sanctity/Degradation the most.  Symmetry is not a necessary feature of his theory, of course.  Indeed, one of his main points is that conservatives understand liberals more than the reverse because conservatives draw from all six moral foundations, whereas liberals only draw from three.

Nonetheless, I think envisioning the social conservative position as heavier on conserving sanctity, just as the liberal position is heavier on preventing harm, is closer to the truth than the picture Haidt draws in the book.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Robert E. Lee Had Good Morals But Bad Ethics

I subscribe to the view that "morals" applies to individuals and "ethics" applies to social structures.  I learned this distinction in graduate school from Louis Dupré, who described it as the Hegelian view.  I know other people distinguish morals and ethics differently, but this distinction makes the most sense to me.

It is often hard in teaching sociology to individualistic Americans to give a clear example of the distinction between a whole bunch of individuals and a social structure.  A good society, they figure, is just the sum of the actions of a bunch of good individuals.  But social structures, I try to show, have values embedded in them that serve the institution's ends, regardless of the morals of the individuals acting within them.

Most Americans who study Robert E. Lee find him to be an admirably honorable man.  I do, too.  And nearly all Americans now see slavery as a great evil.

Yet Lee fought for slavery. 

Without a distinction between individual morals and structural ethics, most Americans are left morally dumbfounded, caught between their two opposing judgments.

"Robert E. Lee had good individual morals but served a bad ethical structure" is a teachable case that I believe most of my students will find helpful.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Bureaucracies Are the Heaviest Superorganisms of the Social World

Jonathan Haidt argues in The Righteous Mind that creatures that can create 'superorganisms' come to dominate their field.  

There are billions of insects, and thousands of species of insects, but the social insects comprise the majority of all insects by weight.

There are billions of mammals, and hundreds of species of mammals, but human beings, plus the animals they cultivate, comprise the majority of all mammals by weight.

I think we can make a parallel statement about bureaucracies.  There are, at least, hundreds of millions of organizations, but I think it safe to say that bureaucracies - corporate and government, especially - comprise a majority of all organizations by weight. And wealth.  And power. 

I draw another conclusion from this comparison - the superorganisms may be the dominant form in their field, but they are far from the only one.  Superorganisms are also brittle, vulnerable to attack and infection precisely because they are so integrated and coordinated. 

The foundational organizational form of human life is the family.  Any given family is vulnerable to all sorts of threats, and all families (if not lineages) succumb eventually to time.  But the family form is so adaptable that it has held its own in every social environment that humans have created.  Including our current environment that is dominated by bureaucracies.