Saturday, December 22, 2007

Facts Are Stupid Things

My abject apologies for the recent lack of blogging. Life has been even more hectic than usual this December, including for example a week spent traveling from one city to another across the United States to attend focus groups on political attitudes--a different time zone every night. (Fascinating but quite disorienting.) As partial atonement for my long silence, here are a few quick items, including a couple of points I've been looking for opportunities to write about.

* * *

Just saw a report on the NBC morning news about lackluster retail sales this holiday season. Reporter commented, "When people think it's a recession, they shop like it's a recession." I feel bad for the retailers but good for the Democrats--a crummy economy plus a lousy war spells electoral change even more than a lousy war alone.

When Mary-Jo and I visited Bangladesh last January-February, we were stunned by the prices of clothes--six dollars for a shirt, seven dollars for a tunic, forty dollars for a suit, etc. We joked that when we next visit we should bring empty suitcases and buy an entire wardrobe on our first day in Dhaka.

Now, on the same NBC news show I mentioned, an English family visiting America, delighted by the weak dollar, says they are planning to do exactly that--only in New York, not Dhaka. It's a sad comment on what we've come to when London : New York :: New York : Dhaka.

* * *

A fine op-ed piece about the baseball steroids scandal in today's Times by a couple of professors from the University of Chicago. Unlike 99 percent of the other impassioned commentators on this topic, these guys actually looked at the evidence concerning the effects of steroids on baseball performance. What did they find? Not much. Most pitchers and hitters who started using steroids (according to the Mitchell report) showed little or no improvement in their performance--and many declined.

One might object that the players themselves obviously believed that steroids enhanced their abilities, and who should know better than the athletes? But this wouldn't be the first time that a fad swept through an industry based on little or no actual demonstrated benefit. In the end, history may judge that the steroids "scandal" was really just a stupid, self-destructive craze that had no real impact on the game except to trigger a wave of anti-drug hysteria with psychosocial and political roots.

I for one would like to see some proof that steroids alters players' performance before we start meting out the draconian punishments today's baseball puritans are demanding--suspensions, expulsions, revocation of awards, barring from the Hall for Fame, etc. etc.

(Although I could be induced to support the proposal that the 2000 Yankees, because of their high number of steroid users, should have their World Series victory taken away and given to their opponent in that series. Hmm, let's see, who would that have been . . .?)

* * *

In the "Things People Say" department, the current New Yorker contains a letter featuring one of today's most annoying unsupported-yet-ubiquitous assertions. The letter, written by someone named Brendan Hayward from Santa Monica, is a response to a review by Jeffrey Toobin of a recent book by Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. The letter reads, in part:
. . . perhaps Thomas's transparent vehemence actually reinforces the need for an alternative to affirmative action, as it is evident that prejudice combined with reverse prejudice does nothing but cause confusion and anger. Sure, it assuages guilt for past wrongs, and gives opportunity to those born unto oppression; but, at the same time, it brands those who succeed, thus reinforcing the very prejudice that it seeks to negate.
Conservative opponents of affirmative action have been using this "affirmative action stigmatizes its beneficiaries" idea for decades. They like it because it allows them to pretend that their position is based on sincere, selfless concern for the poor Blacks who they fear are being hurt by affirmative action. (It sounds better than saying, "As a white person I don't see why I should have to give up the advantages my people stole fair and square.")

The problem is that scientists who have actually studied the evidence about affirmative action (sorry for my tiresome insistence on facts!) have found little or no actual evidence that this "stigmatization" effect exists, as you can read about here and here.

Of course, it may be that the unspoken hope of those who constantly decry the stigmatization of affirmative action recipients is that, simply by talking about it constantly, they will make it come true. Kind of like saying to your cousin (whom you dislike), "Gee, I'm so proud of the way you ignore your huge nose. I don't care what anybody says, I think having a giant schnozzola gives you character. All those people who make fun of your nose are so mean. Just ignore them, I support you," etc. etc.

Say this to someone long enough and maybe she will eventually come to believe she has a big nose. In the same way, if conservatives keep asserting, without evidence, that Blacks (and women) feel embarrassed about affirmative action, maybe they will make it happen.

* * *

Finally, Muhammad Yunus's new book, which I helped him write, is about to reach bookstores. I hope you'll find it worth a read. Although it deals primarily with Professor Yunus's new "big idea," social business, rather than with microcredit as practiced by Grameen Bank, I suspect that the publication of the book is likely to be the occasion for a conservative backlash against the concept of microcredit.

One reason for this suspicion is the recent appearance of a couple of articles "debunking" microcredit. Here is the latest example. For the most part, these articles are built around the straw man fallacy, "disproving" claims that no one has really made--for example, the notion that microcredit can eliminate world poverty all by itself.

However, microcredit opponents are also not above making up facts that suit their positions. For example, Thomas Dichter of the Cato Institute, a well-known proponent of the aid-to-poor-countries-doesn't-work-so-let's-keep-the-money-ourselves school of economic development, is quoted in the article I linked to as saying, "In Bangladesh, 30 years after Yunus's invention, poverty statistics are worse than they've ever been, so something else is the source of the problem and micro-credit is not helping."

Ever since reading this line, I've been scouring the web, trying to find out where Dichter said this and what evidence he cited, if any. (There I go again, still obsessed with mere facts.) I've been unsuccessful so far--if any of you can help, please do. But as far as I can see, there is no basis for Dichter's claim that poverty in Bangladesh is worse than ever. In fact, in Creating a World Without Poverty, Yunus and I devote three full pages (pages 105-108) to statistics from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank showing how poverty in Bangladesh has been reduced over the past three decades.

Don't believe everything you read. Just because someone who is treated as an "expert" says something in a tone of glib self-assurance doesn't mean he is right. Demand evidence, and then judge the facts for yourself.
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

"Infused with entrepreneurial spirit and the excitement of a worthy challenge."--Publishers Weekly

Read more . . .


What do GE, Pepsi, and Toyota know that Exxon, Wal-Mart, and Hershey don't?  It's sustainability . . . the business secret of the twenty-first century.

Read more . . .