Shermer rides again!

Jesus. He’s written a climatological ‘Dear Muslima’ for Scientific American, defending Bjorn Lomborg. It feeds directly into a common Republican trope: ‘sure, climate change occurs, and maybe humans contribute to it, but it’s just too costly do what is necessary’. He lists a bunch of problems, and then does a “cost-benefit analysis”.

The ranking is based on a cost-benefit analysis. For example, an investment of $300 million “would prevent the deaths of 300,000 children, if it were used to strengthen the Global Fund’s malaria-financing mechanism.” Another $300 million would deworm 300 million children, and $122 million would lead to total hepatitis B vaccine coverage and thereby prevent another 150,000 annual deaths. Low-cost drugs to treat acute heart disease would cost just $200 million and save 300,000 people.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do more about climate change. But what? Both books posit technological solutions: Lomborg’s Copenhagen experts recommend spending $1 billion for research on planet-cooling geoengineering technologies; Oreskes and Conway have humanity saved by the creation in 2090 of a lichenized fungus that consumes atmospheric carbon dioxide. Whatever we do about climate, we should recognize that the world has many problems. If you are malnourished and diseased, what the climate will be like at the end of the century is not a high priority. Given limited resources, we should not let ourselves be swept away by the apocalyptic fear generated by any one threat.

I fucking hate “cost-benefit analysis” — it’s always accomplished by sweeping a lot of costs under the carpet to reach the desired conclusion. It’s such an easy way to create imaginary books that you can fudge without consequences. Do they factor in the cost of losing New Orleans and Miami? Wanna bet everything is lowballed?

The argument about other problems is bogus, too: if we could wrest government out of the control of goddamned Libertarians and Republicans, we could talk about rational policy making and trying to fund all of those projects. Does anyone really believe progressive politicians are arguing we can’t save those children because we’ve only got money for ONE project, and we can’t prioritize to support humanitarian goals? Does anyone seriously believe for one second that if we follow the Libertarian dream and spend less on carbon reduction (as if we spend enough now), that suddenly the wretched conservatives in congress will decide they can invest a few hundred million dollars to prevent the deaths of foreign children?

NO ONE is claiming that we need to stop everything else and deal only with climate change right now. But they are arguing that we need to carry out an appropriate, necessary, and immediate change in our carbon consumption habits — which we are not doing, thanks to obstructionists and pseudo-scientific rationalizers for the status quo, like Shermer. Pretending that climate scientists want everyone to be “swept away” to deal with “one threat” is simply dishonest. Reprehensibly dishonest. What they’re doing instead is explaining how the long term costs of climate change represent a far greater concern than phony ‘cost-benefit analyses’ allow.

And citing Oreskes and Conway…they wrote The Merchants of Doubt, which is all about how industry assholes have connived to lie to us about the scientific consensus on tobacco, ozone, acid rain, and climate change — Oreskes does not agree with Lomborg. Yet here Shermer lumps Conway and Oreskes into the same camp with Lomborg. And what is this nonsense about ‘lichenized fungus’ in 2090? Nobody can make that absurd claim now, nor give it a date of arrival, let alone a couple of historians of science. What are they going to do, switch to molecular biology and develop it themselves? Why should we trust magic bullet solutions to complex problems?

Simply citing the discredited conservative hack Lomborg is grounds for suspecting Shermer’s ability to judge the quality of the arguments. He might have been well off reading Scientific American’s 12 year old demolition of Lomborg’s credibility. I don’t know what has happened at SciAm that they continue to encourage a Libertarian crank to publish in their once respectable journal…and this after his bogus article on a liberal war on science, and his more recent lying with statistics to dismiss concerns about wealth inequity. Do they simply not care any more?

Bread and circuses…well, circuses anyway, not so much bread

Michael Shermer indulges in some shabby Libertarian statistical games to wave away American economic inequality. Sure, there are inequities, he argues, but they’re not so bad — the poor are also getting slightly richer.

The rich are getting richer, as Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless found by analyzing tax data from the Congressional Budget Office for after-tax income trends from 1979 through 2010 (including government assistance). The top-fifth income earners in the U.S. increased their share of the national income from 43 percent in 1979 to 48 percent in 2010, and the top 1 percent increased their share of the pie from 8 percent in 1979 to 13 percent in 2010. But note what has not happened: the rest have not gotten poorer. They’ve gotten richer: the income of the other quintiles increased by 49, 37, 36 and 45 percent, respectively.

I have a few problems with this. First, in an article titled “The Myth of Income Inequality”, he’s doing a bit of bait-and-switch: it doesn’t matter if the baseline is rising, the question is about the disparity. Income disparity is greater now than it was before. His own numbers show that.

This argument is basically a version of the “Well, the poor all have cell phones!” dismissal. They’ve also got refrigerators and TVs, therefore, you should just ignore the fact that the wealthiest are sucking up all our prosperity to fund luxuries and frivolities. We should just pretend that we’re all getting the benefit of a rising tide, and never mind that yacht towering above your dinghy.

But there are other funny things going on in this economy. Look at this chart: the costs of TVs and toys and cell phones (the latter at least is essential now; but it’s a new cost for the poor, even if it is dropping) are plummeting, but the stuff that really matters for upward income mobility, like child care, health care, and education are going up. Especially education. We are saddling new graduates with overwhelming amounts of debt.


Another interesting game Shermer plays is to ignore the difference between income and wealth. It’s good that the poor are getting some increase in income, but if you’re using it to make ends meet or dig out from under a pile of debt, you’re not going to be accumulating any wealth — you can still get poorer. Meanwhile, the rich don’t have to worry about covering essential living expenses, and can invest and get richer. It’s useful to be able to see the distinction, so here’s a handy table of wealth and income in the US.

Income, net worth, and financial worth in the U.S. by percentile, in 2010 dollars
Wealth or income class Mean household income Mean household net worth Mean household financial (non-home) wealth
Top 1 percent $1,318,200 $16,439,400 $15,171,600
Top 20 percent $226,200 $2,061,600 $1,719,800
60th-80th percentile $72,000 $216,900 $100,700
40th-60th percentile $41,700 $61,000 $12,200
Bottom 40 percent $17,300 -$10,600 -$14,800
From Wolff (2012); only mean figures are available, not medians.  Note that income and wealth are separate measures; so, for example, the top 1% of income-earners is not exactly the same group of people as the top 1% of wealth-holders, although there is considerable overlap.

Here’s another sneaky trick. When the concern is inequality, let’s ignore the most extreme and instead focus on perceptions.

One reason for the controversy is that people overestimate differences between the rich and poor. In a 2013 study published in Psychological Science entitled “Better Off Than We Know,” St. Louis University psychologist John R. Chambers and his colleagues found that most people estimate that the richest 20 percent make 31 times more than the poorest 20 percent (it is 15.5 times), and they believe that the average annual income of the richest 20 percent of Americans is $2 million, whereas in fact it is $169,000, a perceptual difference of nearly 12 times. “Almost all of our study participants,” the authors concluded, “grossly underestimated Americans’ average household incomes and overestimated the level of income inequality.”

That’s beautiful sleight of hand. First, as previously mentioned, talk only about income, not wealth (and most of us already have poor intuition about the difference; notice also that if you look at the table above, the guesses pretty much hit the mark on wealth, rather than income). Then talk only about the top 20%, rather than the top 1%. And then make much of the fact that people’s guesses about rich people’s incomes are wrong. Har har, the proles guessed that managers make 31 times as much money as they do, when it’s really only 12 times.

Really? Try this exercise: imagine that you got paid just 10 times as much as you do now. “Just” 10 times. How much of a difference would that make in your life? I’m in a comfortable position; optimistically, I’m probably somewhere in the bottom of the 20%, so I don’t have to worry much about making ends meet, and give me an order of magnitude more money and I’d just be socking it away in a bank. But if you’re poor, if you’re struggling to cover child care and rent and keep the family fed, that’s an immense difference.

And of course the other factor is that the 20% aren’t actually working any harder than the 80% — their labor may require more training (which we’re trying hard to lock poor people out of with skyrocketing education costs), but they’re not actually working any harder than you are. My father was often working two jobs in order to keep spinning his wheels in poverty, so I’ve seen this inequality at work, and am well aware that I’m on the lucky side of the rich-poor divide.

But set aside all the squinty-eyed statistical games, and simply ask the fundamental question: Who owns the country? Where is the product of 315 million people’s labor going?

In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2010, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 35.4% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 53.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 89%, leaving only 11% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one’s home), the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 42.1%.

That’s the inequality that we’re concerned about, that a mere 1% own well over a third of the wealth of the country, and it’s increasing — they use that wealth to manipulate media and politics to steal even greater quantities of our work. We are becoming a kleptocracy.

But never mind that. Look! Over there! There’s a poor person with an Xbox!

But wait! Even that claim that the poor have gotten richer may be dodgy: this analysis of reported incomes shows that we’ve been experiencing a decline.

Setting the bar low. Burying it, actually.

Penn Jillete defends Anthony Cumia. We’re all missing the important detail that exonerates him — sure, he went off for hours in a racist tirade, but don’t you all realize that Cumia is licensed to carry a concealed handgun?

Penn Jillette says that people are burying the lede in the alleged incident that led to SiriusXM’s decision to fire “Opie and Anthony” host Anthony Cumia. He also argued that he’s never seen any evidence that suggests Cumia is racist as many of his critics have alleged.

We are burying the lede of this story, which is that Anthony, who has a reputation for being a bit of a hot head, is carrying, comes up gets hit in the face and does not hurt the person back, Jillette said during his “Penn’s Sunday School” podcast this weekend.

That is incredible. If I am in the position where I cross somebody who is carrying a gun and who can defend themselves and hurt me, and their choice is to write angry stuff on Twitter instead of fighting me back — wonderful. Gandhi! That’s Gandhi! … That is Martin Luther King, he continued.

Seriously? He just compared a racist ranter to Gandhi and Martin Luther King because he didn’t shoot a black woman in the face?

Sure. This sounds exactly like something King or Gandhi would say.

Savage violent animal fucks prey on white people. Easy targets. This CUNT has no clue how lucky she was. She belted me 10 times. I had a gun

No,an ANIMAL BITCH used it’s instinctual violence on me. I restrained myself from putting it to sleep

It’s a jungle out in our cities after midnight. Violent savages own the streets. They all came 2 defend this pig. I had to yell like at dogs

Gosh. I’ve never shot anyone, and I’ve never even raged at minorities as animals. I guess that means I must be like Jesus!

By the way, the article strangely features a photo of Cumia’s concealed carry license…with a 2012 expiration date. I guess True Skeptics™ don’t give a damn about little details like that.


Because Indians are magic!

So you wish you were an Indian, because they’re so spiritual and noble and one with nature — they’re so magical that having a name like Manny Two Feathers or Vicki Ghost Horse means the crap you sell on e-bay has extra cred and is worth more money.

Now you can be! It’s easy. There are plastic tribes popping up all over the place, and all it takes to become one is money.

The "United Cherokee Nation," which did not respond to Phoenix inquiries, charges a $35 application fee, while the "Western Cherokee Nation of Arkansas and Missouri" has a $60 application fee and a $10 annual roll fee. The "Cherokee of Lawrence County" don’t charge for membership but instead asks its members to "make it a priority to send $10 a month to help with the tribe" and $12 to subscribe to its newsletter.

Membership fees and dues are just two signs a "Cherokee" group isn’t legitimate, task force members said. Other signs include members using Indian-sounding names such as "Two Feathers" and "Wind Caller," acting and dressing like Hollywood-stereotyped Indians or Plains Indians, asking for money to perform DNA tests or genealogical research, requirements to wear regalia to meetings and requirements to go through an Indian-naming ceremony.

Once admitted into the groups, members usually get membership cards, bogus "Certified Degree of Indian Blood" cards and genealogy certificates "proving" they are eligible for membership.

You might notice the Cherokee mystique: most of the fake tribes seem to be some branch of the Cherokee nation. Apparently nobody wants to be a long lost member of the Humptulips tribe, or a Stillaguamish — although you’d think Lakota, with their history as the stereotypical Plains Indian, would be more popular.

They usually dress it up more, of course. The Red Nation of the Cherokee (totally fake) thinks that if you really feel like an Indian in your heart, then you ought to join the tribe.

We do not need to follow the standards of the antiquated BIA regulations/policies of the late 1700’s or after any longer! Which, dices people up into fractions and percentages, we are true human beings and a whole person.

Our beliefs are, if an individual is of multi-Nations, then they should be allowed to honor each of them in their own way, not being forced to choose one over the other.

We of the Red Clay People of all Nations believe, we should not have to prove our heritage’s on the talking leaves paper, but be allowed to prove in the older way, what is truth in our hearts.

The Creator has heard the prayers of the people, and gave vision to start RedNation of the Cherokee. To make a place, for all the people to have a home and family, to come to and to be finally called brother or sister and to be recognized as blood.

The “talking leaves paper”? Jebus. I know a lot of local Indians (UMM offers free tuition to people of real Indian descent, verified by membership on a real tribal roll), and not a one talks like that. They also don’t wear fringed buckskin clothes with feathers in their hair. You will occasionally see them in traditional costume — which is usually jeans and a plaid work shirt, with maybe a decorative bit of bead jewelry, or a feather in their cowboy hat — when artists and cultural representatives show up on campus for our yearly powwow of native music and dancing. But get real, these are human beings who are part of a changing culture — they are not the TV Indians who never left the 18th century.

I did find this fake tribe’s rationale amusing.

Another group asking for federal recognition is the Cherokee of Lawrence County, Tenn. The tribe’s principal chief, Joe "Sitting Owl" White, said he eventually expects his tribe to be federally recognized because he and his 800 fellow members are Cherokee, and he cites photography as proof.

We’ve been called every name in the book, but we are Cherokee, he said. We can take photos of our members and hold them up and see the Cherokee in us.

He also said his tribe has scientifically proven with DNA evidence that the Cherokee people are Jewish.

You know, I actually wouldn’t be at all surprised if some members of the Cherokee of Lawrence County were certifiably and demonstrably of Jewish descent, so he might not be wrong about that. I should apply and join — they could test me and prove that Indians were also Celts who drifted over on a coracle, and Vikings who colonized the entire continent.

The difference between skeptical thinking and scientific thinking

Skepticism has a serious problem, and there are a couple of reasons I’ve grown disenchanted with its current incarnation. Belief is a continuum, and I think that skepticism as it stands occupies an untenable part of that continuum.

On one side lie the extremely gullible; people who drift with the wind, and believe anything a sufficiently charismatic guru tells them, no matter how absurd. Far to the other side are the conspiracy theorists. These are people who believe fervently in something, who have a fixed ideology and will happily twist the evidence to support it, and are therefore completely refractory to reason and empiricism.

And then, somewhere in the middle lie science and skepticism. People readily conflate those two, unfortunately, and I think that’s wrong. Science is all about following the evidence. If a bit of evidence supports a hypothesis, you willingly accept it tentatively, and follow where it leads, strengthening or discarding your initial ideas appropriately with the quality of the evidence. You end up with theories that are held provisionally, as long as they provide fruitful guidance in digging deeper. It is ultimately a positive approach that winnows out bad ideas ruthlessly, but all in the cause of advancing our knowledge. I am far more comfortable with science then skepticism, because I’d rather be working towards a goal.

Skepticism is the flip side. It’s all about falsification and disproof and dismantling proposals. I think it is the wrong approach.

Consider one classic example: Bigfoot. Skepticism is all about taking apart case by case, demonstrating fakery or error, and demolishing the stories of the Bigfoot frauds. That’s useful — in fact, skepticism is most useful in dealing with malicious intent and human fakery — but it doesn’t advance our knowledge significantly. The scientific approach would involve actually studying forest ecology, understanding how the ecosystem works, and getting a handle on what lives in the forest…and at the end, you’re left with something informative about the nature of the habitat, as well as a recognition that a giant ape isn’t part of the puzzle.

Again, sure, there are good and necessary aspects of skepticism. When you’ve got a fraud like Burzynski peddling fake cancer cures, the skeptical toolbox is helpful. But in the end, when you’ve shown that injecting processed horse urine into people doesn’t help anything, what are you left with? Better to understand the nature of cancer and normal physiology, providing alternatives and useful explanations for why the cancer quacks are wrong. That’s why the best skeptics of quackery are doctors and scientists — they have positive insights to contribute in addition to simple falsification.

So far, I haven’t said anything that makes skepticism bad; it might be better regarded as a complement to the scientific approach, that clears away the garbage to unclutter the operating field. Unfortunately, the current doctrines of organized skepticism open the doors to pathology, because they so poorly define the proper domain of skepticism, and what they do say are inconsistent and incoherent. What we’re stuck with is a schema that tolerates motivated reasoning, as long as it looks like debunking.

So we get skeptics who argue against the dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke, or anthropogenic climate change — it’s OK, because they’re being critical — and these same skeptical entertainers are lauded for berating an MD and throwing him out of a party, because he had criticized their pandering to a quack…and also their climate change denialism. Do I even need to get into their contemptible sexism or their Libertarian bullshit?

And then the movement as a whole has been wracked with this bizarre denial of sexual harassment, and refusal to deal with the issue. I think part of it has to be a culture of dealing with complications by rejecting them — that the movement is full of individuals whose favored approach to the deplorable messiness of human interactions and the existence of malefactors is by retreating into a Spock-like insistence that the problem does not compute, and therefore can be ignored. It’s a culture of explaining away, rather than explaining.

Also…hyperskepticism. Some people take their skepticism to such pathological extremes that they become conspiracy theorists or fanatical denialists of simple human behavior. I encountered an example of this yesterday that had me stunned with its contrarian stupidity. Not all skeptics (hah!) are this bad, but too many tolerate and approve of it.

A short while ago, I received a very nice letter from a young woman in Indiana who liked my book. I scanned it and posted it, with her name and town redacted — it was a lovely example of a phenomenon we’ve noticed for quite some time, of the way the internet and books about atheism have opened the door for many people who had previously felt isolated. It also said kind things about The Happy Atheist, so of course I was glad to share it.

Some nut named Cavanaugh, in the name of True Atheism and Skepticism, has posted a lengthy dissection of the letter. He doesn’t believe it’s real. He thinks I wrote it myself. To prove his point, all he has is the scan I posted…so he has taken it apart at excruciating and obsessive length. He has carefully snipped out all the letters “w” in the letter, lining them up so you can easily compare them. My god, they’re not identical! He has another figure in which he has sliced out a collection of ligatures — would you believe the spacing between letters, in a handwritten letter, is not consistent? She used the word “oblivious” a couple of times…a word that I also have used many times. She wrote exactly one page, not two. He mansplains the psychology of teenaged girls to assert that there’s no way a 15-year-old woman could have written the letter. You get the idea. He is being properly skeptical, accumulating a body of “facts” to disprove the possibility that someone in Indiana actually wrote a letter.

Furthermore, he lards his account with purely imaginative stories about what my correspondent was thinking — he injects his account with the most contemptible interpolations, like this one.

It’s okay, Mr. Myers, she reassures him, I think you’re cool. I’m just like you, and if I can make it through, so can you. Keep spreading the word. Oh, and come rescue me from Indiana — I’ll be legal in 2016.

That was not in the letter, of course: he made it all up. On the basis of his own foul-minded speculations, he transformed a pleasant fan letter into a come-on from a small town Lolita. It’s a disgusting spectacle of hyperskepticism gone wild. Oh, and skepticism and atheism: Jebus, but you do have a misogyny problem. Please stop pretending you don’t.

And boy, am I glad I cut out the name and hometown from that letter. Can you imagine if I’d left it in, and asshole Matt Cavanaugh thought it would be clever to do some investigative skepticism, tracked down her phone number, and called her up to slime her with innuendo directly? It would be a natural and expected step in the hyperskeptical toolbox to make such a thorough examination of all the data.

So stands movement skepticism, perfectly tuned to question the existence of chupacabras or UFOs. But also poised to doubt the existence of the US Postal Service, while simultaneously sneering at atheists who reject the biggest chupacabra of them all, god, flying in the grandest possible UFO, heaven. When your whole business model is simply about rejecting fringe claims, rather than following the evidence no matter how mainstream the target, you’ll inevitably end up with a pathologically skewed audience that uses motivated reasoning to abuse the weak. And you end up valuing flamboyance and showmanship over the contributions of science…unless, of course, the scientist has grope-worthy breasts.

So no thanks, skepticism. I’ll stick with science.

Also, if my Indiana correspondent should stumble across this faux “controversy,” I am very, very sorry. Apparently it isn’t quite safe yet for everyone to come out — the wider internet, as well as rural America, has its share of small-minded, pettily vicious shit-weasels.

Weird ways of thinking

Breatharian crank Jasmuheen believes she doesn’t need food or water to live — she claims to absorb nutrients from sunlight and air. She was rather easily exposed, as are all these breatharians, by putting her up in a nice hotel with people to monitor her eating, and observing the subsequent quite rapid deterioration as she failed to thrive and wasted away quite dangerously.

The people who were testing her terminated the experiment to avoid risking her health. Breatharian claims are absurd and trivially debunked, but what is fascinating is Jasmuheen’s logic as she is gradually falling apart. She has to know that in her day-to-day life she is regularly drinking and eating; she has to know that she’s hungry and thirsty during the test; she has to know that she’s physically suffering from dehydration and starvation. Yet she denies it all.

I think she was trusting the common sense of her testers: she knew that they could not in good conscience allow her to go on, that the experiment would be terminated while she protested that she was fine, and that she could get out of the dangerous situation while maintaining her fiction of dietary abstinence, no problem.

Her claims are not interesting at all — they’re ludicrous — but I find her psychology fascinating. Last year she was in a bogus documentary about ‘living on light’, and now, years after her failed test, she twists it into a triumphant victory.

Wow. New Age delusion at its finest. I loved this statement, though:

What was recorded, what was presented to the world was not my truth, was not how I interpreted it.

So truth is entirely subjective, it’s whatever you decide it should be, and we can entirely disregard physiology…or video technology. Nothing can beat that rationalization — these are people living lives of radical solipsism. It’s too bad that people are dying trying to follow their claims.

Speaking of psychology, another odd thing in the documentary jumped out at me. It’s a German documentary. I’ve run into these breatharian loons sporadically over the years, and they always babble about not eating anything ever…but leave it to the Germans to focus on something I hadn’t heard much about before, that breatharianism meant never pooping. The German obsession with all matters fecal is just a little odd. Odd but harmless, compared to the American obsession with shooting things and blowing them up, I suppose.

Secularism has a tunnel-vision problem


There was a time, back when I was a paying subscriber to the Skeptical Inquirer, that I received this issue in the mail: the January/February 2000 issue, which proudly announced the Ten Outstanding Skeptics of the Twentieth Century. It stopped me cold, and I decided to not bother to renew my subscription.

Why? It starts this way:

We put that question to an elite group of scholars who should know—the Fellows and Scientific Consultants of CSICOP.

Sound familiar? A small group of really smart people appoint themselves to pick who the really smart people are. Unsurprisingly, a whole lot of the winners of this self-selected poll turned out to be…the Fellows and Scientific Consultants of CSICOP, leavened with a few big name additions, like Albert Einstein and Harry Houdini. It was so painfully incestuous, and it was terribly undefined: what does “outstanding” mean? Just the most famous? So it was some kind of popularity contest within CSICOP? And it was made the cover story?

And then, the list…the so oblivious and self-congratulatory list. It consists of ten white men. They also include a list of 14 runners-up who received multiple votes or at least one first-place vote: every one of them a white man. Where was Rachel Carson, Ellen Swallow Richards, Theo Colborn, or any of the women activists in the environmental movement? Not only were women invisible on this list, but you could tell that there was a bias against some significant areas of human endeavor. Where were the black civil rights leaders, like A. Philip Randolph, who questioned the social and political assumptions of the country, and was a humanist/atheist? Where was Emma Goldman? Where was the labor movement? There wasn’t even the slightest effort to reach out beyond the narrow bounds of their rarefied academic skepticism, no interest in expanding the scope of skepticism to stuff that mattered.

That still seems to be the problem. I really want to say to any organization that tries to represent atheists: get out more. Broaden your circle of friends. Circle jerks tend to be self-perpetuating and pointless.

The hbd delusion

A confession: I have long disliked Nicholas Wade’s science journalism. He has often written about biology in the NY Times, and every time he seems to make a botch of the reporting, because he actually doesn’t understand biology very well. For example, in his very last article for the NYT, he described some work that identified 12 genes found on the Y chromosome that are globally expressed — they aren’t just involved in testis development, for instance. This is no surprise. There are genes required for sperm differentiation found on autosomes, for instance, and the Y chromosome is not a gentleman’s club with “No Girls Allowed” tacked on the door. But Wade turned it into a phenomenon that explained the differences between men and women.

Differences between male and female tissues are often attributed to the powerful influence of sex hormones. But now that the 12 regulatory genes are known to be active throughout the body, there is clearly an intrinsic difference in male and female cells even before the sex hormones are brought into play.

I can sort of see his thinking: if there are genes that are found only on the Y chromosome that are expressed in all the cells of the body, then maybe they confer a non-sexual difference on only male behavior and physiology.

But that’s all nonsense. Those genes aren’t found only on the Y chromosome: they have homologs on the X chromosome. They aren’t “male” genes at all! As Sarah Richardson explains:

The 12 genes residing on the Y chromosome exist to ensure sexual similarity. The genes are “dosage-sensitive,” meaning that two copies are needed for them to function properly. We’ve long known that those 12 genes exist on X chromosomes. Females have the 12 genes active on both of their X chromosomes. If males, who have just one X, didn’t have them on the Y, they would not have a sufficient dosage of those genes. Now we know they do. Just like women.

You see what I mean? I’ve never trusted Wade’s science reporting, because it’s always been grossly wrong on the subjects I know well. I wouldn’t want Wade defending evolution education, either, especially since he argues for an evolutionary ladder. I’m not very interested in his ideas about the origin of life, which are rather bogus.

So you can imagine how I groaned when I heard that Wade was coming out with a new book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Wade doesn’t understand genes, so now he’s going to misapply his incomprehension to a hot-button issue like race? Great. Expect all the ‘scientific racists’ to come out cheering. Steve Sailer, the racist ignoramus who likes to cloak himself in pseudoscience, considers it another shot in Wade’s long-running war with liberals. John Derbyshire, the guy who was too racist for the National Review because he wrote a grossly bigoted screed (published on the same site that published Sailer’s review!), who also serves up large dollops of sexism, thinks it is a significant step for race realism.

Oh, a hot tip: these new racists really hate being called racists, so they’ve been struggling for years to come up with a new label. “Scientific Racism” and “Academic Racism” didn’t test well; they’ve still got “racism” in the name. For a long time they called themselves “Race Realists”, which I always read as “really racist”. That’s gone by the wayside now, mostly. The term of art you’re looking for now is “Human Biodiversity”, or “hbd” for short. Notice — “race” isn’t in the label any more. But don’t be fooled, hbd really is just the slick new marketing term for modern racism.

A good (but too generous) review of Wade’s book by Andrew Gelman notes that racism never really seems to change — it’s just that the targets always shift to reflect current stereotypes.

I suspect that had this book been written 100 years ago, it would have featured strong views not on the genetic similarities but on the racial divides that explained the difference between the warlike Japanese and the decadent Chinese, as well as the differences between the German and French races. Nicholas Wade in 2014 includes Italy within the main European grouping, but the racial theorists of 100 years ago had strong opinions on the differences between northern and southern Europeans.

We don’t even have to go back a century — racial presuppositions have changed within my lifetime.

One of Wade’s key data points is the rapid economic growth of East Asia in the past half-century: “In the early 1950s Ghana and South Korea had similar economies and levels of gross national product per capita. Some 30 years later, South Korea had become the 14th largest economy in the world, exporting sophisticated manufactures. Ghana had stagnated.” Wade approvingly quotes political scientist Samuel Huntington’s statement, “South Koreans valued thrift, investment, hard work, education, organization, and discipline. Ghanaians had different values.” And Wade attributes these attitudes toward thrift, investment, etc., to the Koreans’ East Asian genes.

This all fits together and could well be true. But … what if Wade had been writing his book in 1954 rather than 2014? Would we still be hearing about the Korean values of thrift, organization, and discipline? A more logical position, given the economic history up to that time, would be to consider the poverty of East Asia to be never-changing, perhaps an inevitable result of their genes for conformity and the lack of useful evolution after thousands of years of relative peace. We might also be hearing a lot about Japan’s genetic exclusion from the rest of Asia, along with a patient explanation of why we should not expect China and Korea to attain any rapid economic success.

Isn’t that convenient? Somehow, the reality of race realists — excuse me, hbd proponents — always seems to mirror our prejudices. And most strangely, when asked for evidence, they always simply point to current trends or current sweeping characterizations of whole groups as supporting their contentions…never mind that we see rapid shifts in the overall behavior or status of those cultures that cannot be explained by genetics.

Noah Smith has an excellent explanation of the pseudo-scientific strategem of the hbd crowd. It’s all about overfitting.

Here’s how academic racism generally works. Suppose you see two groups that have an observable difference: for example, suppose you note that Hungary has a higher per capita income than Romania. Now you have a data point. To explain that data point, you come up with a theory: the Hungarian race is more industrious than the Romanian race. But suppose you notice that Romanians generally do better at gymnastics than Hungarians. To explain that second data point, you come up with a new piece of theory: The Romanian race must have some genes for gymnastics that the Hungarian race lacks.

You can keep doing this. Any time you see different average outcomes between two different groups, you can assume that there is a genetic basis for the difference. You can also tell "just-so stories" to back up each new assumption – for example, you might talk about how Hungarians are descended from steppe nomads who had to be industrious to survive, etc. etc. As new data arrive, you make more assumptions and more stories to explain them. Irish people used to be poor and are now rich? They must have been breeding for richness genes! Korea used to be poorer than Japan and is now just as rich? Their genes must be more suited to the modern economy! For every racial outcome, there is a just-so story about why it happened. Read an academic-racist blog, like Steve Sailer’s, and you will very quickly see that this kind of thinking is pervasive and rampant.

There’s just one little problem with this strategy. Each new assumption that you make adds a parameter to your model. You’re overfitting the data – building a theory that can explain everything but predict nothing. Another way to put this is that your model has a "K=N" problem – the number of parameters in your model is equal to the number of observations. If you use some sort of goodness-of-fit criterion that penalizes you for adding more parameters, you’ll find that your model is useless (no matter how true or false it happens to be!). This is one form of a more general scientific error known as "testing hypotheses suggested by the data", or "post-hoc reasoning". It’s a mistake that is by no means unique to academic racism, but instead is common in many scientific disciplines (cough cough, sociobiology, cough cough).

Wade continues in this fine tradition. I considered reading his book, just to tear it up, but I don’t think it’s worth the effort, from the reviews — it’s just another collection of anecdotes dressed up with Wade’s sloppy understanding of genes.

Things that correlate

Did you know that US crude oil imports from Norway correlate almost perfectly with drivers killed in collision with railway train? It’s true! Obviously, Norwegian oil magnates are murdering Americans with trains now.

It’s all from a little site called Things that correlate, which takes any one set of numbers you choose, and then dredges through a database of other numbers to find similar patterns. This is going to be useful next time I have to teach my genetics students a little basic statistics: correlation is not causation, and you can cherry pick data sets to find all kinds of meaningless patterns.