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1. The pros and cons of research preregistration

Research transparency is a hot topic these days in academia, especially with respect to the replication or reproduction of published results.

There are many initiatives that have recently sprung into operation to help improve transparency, and in this regard political scientists are taking the lead. Research transparency has long been a focus of effort of The Society for Political Methodology, and of the journal that I co-edit for the Society, Political Analysis. More recently the American Political Science Association (APSA) has launched an important initiative in Data Access and Research Transparency. It’s likely that other social sciences will be following closely what APSA produces in terms of guidelines and standards.

One way to increase transparency is for scholars to “preregister” their research. That is, they can write up their research plan and publish that prior to the actual implementation of their research plan. A number of social scientists have advocated research preregistration, and Political Analysis will soon release new author guidelines that will encourage scholars who are interested in preregistering their research plans to do so.

However, concerns have been raised about research preregistration. In the Winter 2013 issue of Political Analysis, we published a Symposium on Research Registration. This symposium included two longer papers outlining the rationale for registration: one by Macartan Humphreys, Raul Sanchez de la Sierra, and Peter van der Windt; the other by Jamie Monogan. The symposium included comments from Richard Anderson, Andrew Gelman, and David Laitin.

In order to facilitate further discussion of the pros and cons of research preregistration, I recently asked Jaime Monogan to write a brief essay that outlines the case for preregistration, and I also asked Joshua Tucker to write about some of the concerns that have been raised about how journals may deal with research preregistration.

*   *   *   *   *

The pros of preregistration for political science

By Jamie Monogan, Department of Political Science, University of Georgia

 

1024px-Howard_Tilton_Library_Computers_2010
Howard Tilton Library Computers, Tulane University by Tulane Public Relations. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Study registration is the idea that a researcher can publicly release a data analysis plan prior to observing a project’s outcome variable. In a Political Analysis symposium on this topic, two articles make the case that this practice can raise research transparency and the overall quality of research in the discipline (“Humphreys, de la Sierra, and van der Windt 2013; Monogan 2013).

Together, these two articles describe seven reasons that study registration benefits our discipline. To start, preregistration can curb four causes of publication bias, or the disproportionate publishing of positive, rather than null, findings:

  1. Preregistration would make evaluating the research design more central to the review process, reducing the importance of significance tests in publication decisions. Whether the decision is made before or after observing results, releasing a design early would highlight study quality for reviewers and editors.
  2. Preregistration would help the problem of null findings that stay in the author’s file drawer because the discipline would at least have a record of the registered study, even if no publication emerged. This will convey where past research was conducted that may not have been fruitful.
  3. Preregistration would reduce the ability to add observations to achieve significance because the registered design would signal in advance the appropriate sample size. It is possible to monitor the analysis until a positive result emerges before stopping data collection, and this would prevent that.
  4. Preregistration can prevent fishing, or manipulating the model to achieve a desired result, because the researcher must describe the model specification ahead of time. By sorting out the best specification of a model using theory and past work ahead of time, a researcher can commit to the results of a well-reasoned model.

Additionally, there are three advantages of study registration beyond the issue of publication bias:

  1. Preregistration prevents inductive studies from being written-up as deductive studies. Inductive research is valuable, but the discipline is being misled if findings that are observed inductively are reported as if they were hypothesis tests of a theory.
  2. Preregistration allows researchers to signal that they did not fish for results, thereby showing that their research design was not driven by an ideological or funding-based desire to produce a result.
  3. Preregistration provides leverage for scholars who face result-oriented pressure from financial benefactors or policy makers. If the scholar has committed to a design beforehand, the lack of flexibility at the final stage can prevent others from influencing the results.

Overall, there is an array of reasons why the added transparency of study registration can serve the discipline, chiefly the opportunity to reduce publication bias. Whatever you think of this case, though, the best way to form an opinion about study registration is to try it by preregistering one of your own studies. Online study registries are available, so you are encouraged to try the process yourself and then weigh in on the preregistration debate with your own firsthand experience.

*   *   *   *   *

Experiments, preregistration, and journals

By Joshua Tucker, Professor of Politics (NYU) and Co-Editor, Journal of Experimental Political Science

 
I want to make one simple point in this blog post: I think it would be a mistake for journals to come up with any set of standards that involves publically recognizing some publications as having “successfully” followed their pre-registration design while identifying others publications as not having done so. This could include a special section for articles that matched their pre-registration design, an A, B, C type rating system for how faithfully articles had stuck with the pre-registration design, or even an asterisk for articles that passed a pre-registration faithfulness bar.

Let me be equally clear that I have no problem with the use of registries for recording experimental designs before those experiments are implemented. Nor do I believe that these registries should not be referenced in published works featuring the results of those experiments. On the contrary, I think authors who have pre-registered designs ought to be free to reference what they registered, as well as to discuss in their publications how much the eventual implementation of the experiment might have differed from what was originally proposed in the registry and why.

My concern is much more narrow: I want to prevent some arbitrary third party from being given the authority to “grade” researchers on how well they stuck to their original design and then to be able to report that grade publically, as opposed to simply allowing readers to make up their own mind in this regard. My concerns are three-fold.

First, I have absolutely no idea how such a standard would actually be applied. Would it count as violating a pre-design registry if you changed the number of subjects enrolled in a study? What if the original subject pool was unwilling to participate for the planned monetary incentive, and the incentive had to be increased, or the subject pool had to be changed? What if the pre-registry called for using one statistical model to analyze the data, but the author eventually realized that another model was more appropriate? What if survey questions that was registered on a 1-4 scale was changed to a 1-5 scale? Which, if any of these, would invalidate the faithful application of the registry? Would all of them together? It seems to the only truly objective way to rate compliance is to have an all or nothing approach: either you do exactly what you say you do, or you didn’t follow the registry. Of course, then we are lumping “p-value fishing” in the same category as applying a better a statistical model or changing the wording of a survey question.

This bring me to my second point, which is a concern that giving people a grade for faithfully sticking to a registry could lead to people conducting sub-optimal research — and stifle creativity — out of fear that it will cost them their “A” registry-faithfulness grade. To take but one example, those of us who use survey experiments have long been taught to pre-test questions precisely because sometime some of the ideas we have when sitting at our desks don’t work in practice. So if someone registers a particular technique for inducing an emotional response and then runs a pre-test and figures out their technique is not working, do we really want the researcher to use the sub-optimal design in order to preserve their faithfulness to the registered design? Or consider a student who plans to run a field experiment in a foreign country that is based on the idea that certain last names convey ethnic identity. What happens if the student arrives in the field and learns that this assumption was incorrect? Should the student stick with the bad research design to preserve the ability to publish in the “registry faithful” section of JEPS? Moreover, research sometimes proceeds in fits and spurts. If as a graduate student I am able to secure funds to conduct experiments in country A but later as a faculty member can secure funds to replicate these experiments in countries B and C as well, should I fear including the results from country A in a comparative analysis because my original registry was for a single country study? Overall, I think we have to be careful about assuming that we can have everything about a study figured out at the time we submit a registry design, and that there will be nothing left for us to learn about how to improve the research — or that there won’t be new questions that can be explored with previously collected data — once we start implementing an experiment.

At this point a fair critique to raise is that the points in preceding paragraph could be taken as an indictment of registries generally. Here we venture more into simply a point of view, but I believe that there is a difference between asking people to document what their original plans were and giving them a chance in their own words — if they choose to do so — to explain how their research project evolved as opposed to having to deal with a public “grade” of whatever form that might take. In my mind, the former is part of producing transparent research, while the latter — however well intentioned — could prove paralyzing in terms of making adjustments during the research process or following new lines of interesting research.

This brings me to my final concern, which is that untenured faculty would end up feeling the most pressure in this regard. For tenured faculty, a publication without the requisite asterisks noting registry compliance might not end up being too big a concern — although I’m not even sure of that — but I could easily imagine junior faculty being especially worried that publications without registry asterisks could be held against them during tenure considerations.

The bottom line is that registries bring with them a host of benefits — as Jamie has nicely laid out above — but we should think carefully about how to best maximize those benefits in order to minimize new costs. Even if we could agree on how to rate a proposal in terms of faithfulness to registry design, I would suggest caution in trying to integrate ratings into the publication process.

The views expressed here are mine alone and do not represent either the Journal of Experimental Political Science or the APSA Organized Section on Experimental Research Methods.

Heading image: Interior of Rijksmuseum research library. Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed. CC-BY-SA-3.0-nl via Wikimedia Commons.

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2. Cinematic tragedies for the intractable issues of our times

Tragedies certainly aren’t the most popular types of performances these days. When you hear a film is a tragedy, you might think “outdated Ancient Greek genre, no thanks!” Back in those times, Athenians thought it their civic duty to attend tragic performances of dramas like Antigone or Agammemnon. Were they on to something that we have lost in contemporary Western society? That there is something specifically valuable in a tragic performance that a spectator doesn’t get from other types or performances, such as those of our modern genres of comedy, farce, and melodrama?

Since films reach a greater audience in our culture than plays, after updating Aristotle’s Poetics for the twenty-first century, we analyzed what we call “cinematic tragedies”: films that demonstrate the key components of Aristotelian tragedy. We conclude that a tragedy must consist in the representation of an action that is: (1) complete; (2) serious; (3) probable; (4) has universal significance; (5) involves a reversal of fortune (from good to bad); (6) includes recognition (a change in epistemic state from ignorance to knowledge); (7) includes a specific kind of irrevocable suffering (in the form of death, agony or a terrible wound); (8) has a protagonist who is capable of arousing compassion; and (9) is performed by actors. The effects of the tragedy must include: (10) the arousal in the spectator of pity and fear; and (11) a resolution of pity and fear that is internal to the experience of the drama.

Unlike melodrama (which we hold is the most common film genre), tragedy calls on spectators to ponder thorny moral issues and to navigate them with their own moral compass. One such cinematic tragedy — Into The Wild, 2007, directed by Sean Penn — thematizes the preciousness and precariousness of human life alongside environmental problems, raising questions about human beings’ apparent inability to live on earth without despoiling the beauty and integrity of the biosphere. Other cinematic tragedies deal with a variety of problems with which our modern societies must grapple.

One such topic is illegal immigration, a highly politicized issue that is far more complex than national governments seem equipped to handle, especially beyond the powers of the two parties in the American system. Cinematic tragedies that deal with this issue have been produced over several decades involving immigration into various Western countries, especially the United States; these include Black Girl (France, 1966), El norte (US/UK, 1983), and Sin nombre (Mexico, 2009), the last of which we will expand on here.

Paulina Gaitan (left) and Edgar Flores (right) star in writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga's epic dramatic thriller Sin Nombre, a Focus Features release. Photo credit: Cary Joji Fukunaga via Focus Features
Paulina Gaitan (left) and Edgar Flores (right) star in writer/director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s epic dramatic thriller Sin Nombre, a Focus Features release. Photo credit: Cary Joji Fukunaga via Focus Features

In US director Cary Fukunaga’s Sin nombre (which means “Nameless” but which was released in the United States under the Spanish title), Hondurans escaping from their harsh political and economic realities risk their lives in order to make it to the United States, through Mexico, on the tops of rail cars. They travel in this manner since, as we all know, there would be no other legal way for most of these foreign citizens to come to the United States. Over the course of the journey, the immigrants endure terrible suffering or die at the hands of gang members who rob, rape, and even kill some of them.

The film focuses on just a few of the multitudes atop the trains: on a teenage Honduran girl, Sayra, migrating with her father and uncle; and on a few of the gang members. One of them, Casper, has had a change of heart and is no longer loyal to the gang, after its leader killed Casper’s girlfriend after trying to rape her. Casper and other gang members are atop the train robbing the migrants, but he defends Sayra by killing the leader when he tries to rape her. Ultimately, Sayra will arrive in the United States. However, she realizes that the cost has been too great—her father has died falling off of the train; she has lost Casper who is, ironically, shot to death by the pre-pubescent boy whom he himself had trained in the ways of the gang in the opening scenes of the film.

The tremendous losses, and the scenes of suffering, rape, and murder, make unlikely the possibility that the spectator will feel that Sayra’s arrival constitutes a happy ending. In some other aesthetic treatment, Casper’s ultimate death might have been melodramatized as redemptive selflessness for the sake of his new girlfriend. But in Fukunaga’s film, the juxtaposed images imply a continuing cycle of despair and death: Casper’s young killer in Mexico is promoted up the ranks of the gang with a new tattoo, while Sayra’s uncle, back in Honduras after being deported from Mexico, starts the voyage to the United States all over again. Sayra too may face deportation in the future. Following the scene of the reinvigoration of the criminal gang system, as its new young leader gets his first tattoo, the viewer sees Sayra outside a shopping mall in the American southwest. The teenage girl has arrived in the United States and may aspire to participate in advanced consumer capitalism, yet she has lost so much and suffered so undeservingly.

This aesthetic juxtaposition prompts the spectator to attend to the failure of Western political leaders to create a humane system of immigration for the twenty-first century, one which cannot be reached with the entrenched politicized views of the “two sides of the aisle” who miss the human story of immigrants’ plight. This film—like all tragedies—promotes the spectator’s active pondering, that is, it challenges them to respond in some way.

In the tradition of philosophers as various as Aristotle, Seneca, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Martha Nussbaum, and Bernard Williams, we find that tragedies bring to conscious awareness the most significant moral, social, political, and existential problems of the human condition. A film such as Sin nombre, through its tragic performance, points to one of these terrible necessities with which our contemporary Western culture must grapple. While it doesn’t offer an answer, this cinematic tragedy prompts us to recognize and deal with a seemingly intractable problem that needs to move beyond the current impasse of political debate, as we in the industrialized nations continue to shop for and watch movies in the comfort of our malls.

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3. Plagiarism and patriotism

Thou shall not plagiarize. Warnings of this sort are delivered to students each fall, and by spring at least a few have violated this academic commandment. The recent scandal involving Senator John Walsh of Montana, who took his name off the ballot after evidence emerged that he had copied without attribution parts of his master’s thesis, shows how plagiarism can come back to haunt.

But back in the days of 1776, plagiarism did not appear as a sign of ethical weakness or questionable judgment. Indeed, as the example of Mercy Otis Warren suggests, plagiarism was a tactic for spreading Revolutionary sentiments.

An intimate of American propagandists such as Sam Adams, Warren used her rhetorical skill to pillory the corrupt administration of colonial Massachusetts. She excelled at producing newspaper dramas that savaged the governor, Thomas Hutchinson, and his cast of flunkies and bootlickers. Her friend John Adams helped arrange for the anonymous publication of satires so sharp that they might well have given readers paper cuts.

An expanded version soon followed, replete with new scenes in which patriot leaders inspired crowds to resist tyrants. Although the added material uses her characters and echoes her language, they were not written by Warren. As she tells the story, her original drama was “taken up and interlarded with the productions of an unknown hand. The plagiary swelled” her satirical sketch into a pamphlet.

Mercy Otis Warren
Portrait of Mercy Otis Warren, American writer, by John Singleton Copley (1763). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But Warren didn’t seem to mind the trespass all that much. Her goal was to disseminate the critique of colonial government. There’s evidence that she intentionally left gaps in her plays so that readers could turn author and add new scenes to the Revolutionary drama.

Original art was never the point; instead art suitable for copying formed the basis of her public aesthetic. In place of authenticity, imitation allowed others to join the cause and continue the propagation of Revolutionary messages.

Could it be that plagiarism was patriotic?

Thankfully, this justification is not likely to hold up in today’s classroom. There’s no compelling national interest that requires a student to buy and download a paper on Heart of Darkness.

Warren’s standards are woefully out of date. And yet, she does offer a lesson about political communication that still has relevance. Where today we see plagiarism, she saw a form of dissent had been made available to others.

Headline image credit: La balle a frappé son amante, gravé par L. Halbou. Library of Congress.

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4. Do health apps really matter?

Apps are all the rage nowadays, including apps to help fight rage. That’s right, the iTunes app store contains several dozen apps designed to manage anger or reduce stress. Smartphones have become such a prevalent component of everyday life, it’s no surprise that a demand has risen for phone programs (also known as apps) that help us manage some of life’s most important elements, including personal health. But do these programs improve our ability to manage our health? Do health apps really matter?

Early apps for patients with diabetes demonstrate how a proposed app idea can sound useful in theory but provide limited tangible health benefits in practice. First generation diabetes apps worked like a digital notebook, in which apps linked with blood glucose monitors to record and catalog measured glucose levels. Although doctors and patients were initially charmed by high tech appeal and app convenience, the charm wore off as app use failed to improve patient glucose monitoring habits or medication compliance.

Fitness apps are another example of rough starts among early health app attempts. Initial running apps served as an electronic pedometer, recording the number of steps and/or the total distance ran. These apps again provided a useful convenience over using a conventional pedometer, but were unlikely to lead to increased exercise levels or appeal to individuals who didn’t already run. Apps for other health related topics such as nutrition, diet, and air pollution ran into similar limitations in improving healthy habits. For a while, it seemed as if the initial excitement among the life sciences community for e-health simply couldn’t be translated to tangible health benefits among target populations.

800px-Personal_Health_Apps_for_Smartphones
Image credit: Personal Health Apps for Smartphones.jgp, by Intel Free Press. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Luckily, recent changes in app development ideology have led to noticeable increases in health app impacts. Health app developers are now focused on providing useful tools, rather than collections of information, to app users. The diabetes app ManageBGL.com, for example, predicts when a patient may develop hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels) before the visual/physical signs and adverse effects of hypoglycemia occur. The running app RunKeeper connects to other friend’s running profiles to share information, provide suggested running routes, and encourage runners to speed up or slow down for reaching a target pace. Air pollution apps let users set customized warning levels, and then predict and warn users when they’re heading towards an area with air pollution that exceeds warning levels. Health apps are progressing beyond providing mere convenience towards a state where they can help the user make informed decisions or perform actions that positively affect and/or protect personal health.

So, do health apps really matter? It’s unlikely that the next generation of health apps will have the same popularity as Facebook or widespread utility such as Google maps. The impact, utility, and popularity of health apps, however, are increasing at a noticeable rate. As health app developers continue to better their understanding of health app strengths and limitations and upcoming technologies that can improve health apps such as miniaturized sensors and smartglass become available, the importance of health related apps and proportion of the general public interested in health apps are only going to get larger.

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5. Why do you love the VSIs?

The 400th Very Short Introduction, ‘Knowledge‘, was published this week. In order to celebrate this remarkable series, we asked various colleagues at Oxford University Press to explain why they love the VSIs:

*   *   *   *   *

“Why do I love the VSIs? They’re an easy, yet comprehensive way to learn about a topic. From general topics like Philosophy to more specific like Alexander the Great, I finish the book after a few trips on the train and I feel smarter. VSIs also help to quickly fill knowledge gaps that I may have–I never took a chemistry class in college but in just 150 pages, I can have a better understanding of physical chemistry should it ever come up during a trivia challenge. It’s true, VSIs give you the knowledge so you can lead your team to victory at your next pub trivia challenge.”

Brian Hughes, Senior Platform Marketing Manager

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“They’re very effective knowledge pills after taking which I feel so much better equipped for exploring new disciplines. Each ends with a very helpful bibliography section which is a great guide for getting more and more interested in the subject. They’re concise, authoritative and fun to read, and that’s precisely why I love them so much!”

Anna Ready, Online Project Manager

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“I love VSIs because it’s like talking to an expert who is approachable and personable, and doesn’t mind if it takes you a while to understand what they’re saying! They walk you through difficult ideas and concepts in an easily understandable way and you come away feeling like you have a deeper understanding of the topic, often wanting to find out more.”

Hannah Charters, Senior Marketing Executive

VSI cake
‘VSI 400 cake’, by Jack Campbell-Smith. Image used with permission.

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“With the VSI series, you can expect to see a clear explanation of the subject matter presented in a consistent style.”

Martin Buckmaster, Data Engineer

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“A book is a gift. The precious gift of knowledge hard earned by humankind through generations of experience, deep contemplation and a bursts of single minded desire to push the very limits of curiosity. But I’m a postmodern man in a postmodern world; my attention span is wrecked and presented with all the information in the world at my fingertips the best I can manage is to look up pictures of cats. I don’t know what I need to know from what I don’t or even where to start. What I need is a starting point, a rock solid foundation of just what I need to know on the topic of my choice, enough to know if I want to know more, enough to light that old spark of curiosity and easily enough to win an argument down the pub. Not just the gift of knowledge, but the gift of time. That’s why I love VSIs.”

Anonymous

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“I love the VSIs because there is a never ending supply of interesting topics to learn more about. Whenever I found out I would be taking on the Religion & Theology list, I raided my neighbors cubicles for any religion-themed VSIs to read. Whenever I’m out of a book for the train ride home, I go next door to the VSI Marketing Manger’s cubicle, to see what new VSIs she has that I can borrow. They’re the perfect book to fit in your purse and go.”

Alyssa Bender, Marketing Coordinator

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“I told Mrs Dalloway’s this week that purchasing the VSIs from Oxford was just like printing money. They’re smaller than an electronic reading device and fit in my cargo shorts, I mean blazer pocket. I can’t wait for Translation: A Very Short Introduction.”

George Carroll, Commissioning Rep from Great Northwest, USA

*   *   *   *   *

“I love the VSI series because it is so wonderfully wide-ranging. With almost any topic that comes to mind, if I wonder ‘is there a VSI to that?’, the answer is usually yes. It’s a great way to learn a little more about an area you’re already interested in, or as a first foray into one which is entirely new. Long live VSIs!”

Simon Thomas, Oxford Dictionaries Marketing Executive

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“VSIs allow me to sound like I know a lot more about a subject than I actually do, in a very short space of time. An essential cheat for job interviews, pub quizzes, dates etc.”

Rachel Fenwick, Associate Marketing Manager

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“I love the VSIs because they make such broad subjects immediately accessible. If you ever want to understand a subject in its entirety or fill in the gaps in your knowledge, the VSIs should always be your first port of call. From my University studies to my morning commute, the VSIs have, without fail, filled in the gaping holes in my knowledge and allowed me to converse with much smarter people about subjects I would never have previously understood. For that, I’m very grateful!”

Daniel Parker, Social Media Executive

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6. World War I in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations

Coverage of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has made us freshly familiar with many memorable sayings, from Edward Grey’s ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe’, to Wilfred Owen’s ‘My subject is War, and the pity of war/ The Poetry is in the pity’, and Lena Guilbert Horne’s exhortation to ‘Keep the Home-fires burning’.

But as I prepared the new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, I was aware that numerous other ‘quotable quotes’ also shed light on aspects of the conflict. Here are just five.

One vivid evocations of the conflict striking passage comes not from a War Poet but from an American novelist writing in the 1930s. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night (1934), Dick Diver describes the process of trench warfare:

See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.

This was, of course, on the Western Front, but there were other theatres of war. One such was the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915–16, where many ‘Anzacs’ lost their lives. In 1934, a group of Australians visited Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, and heard an address by Kemal Atatürk—Commander of the Turkish forces during the war, and by then President of Turkey. Speaking of the dead on both sides, he said:

There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.

Atatürk’s words were subsequently inscribed on the memorial at Gallipoli, and on memorials in Canberra and Wellington.

World War I is often is often seen as a watershed, after which nothing could be the same again. (The young Robert Graves’s autobiography published in 1929 was entitled Goodbye to All That.) Two quotations from ODQ look ahead from the end of the war to what might be the consequences. For Jan Christiaan Smuts, President of South Africa, the moment was one of promise. He saw the setting up of the League of Nations in the aftermath of the war as a hope for better things:

Mankind is once more on the move. The very foundations have been shaken and loosened, and things are again fluid. The tents have been struck, and the great caravan of humanity is once more on the march.

However a much less optimistic, and regrettably more prescient comment, had been recorded in 1919 by Marshal Foch on the Treaty of Versailles,

This is not a peace treaty, it is an armistice for twenty years.

Not all ‘war poems’ are immediately recognizable as such. In 1916, the poet and army officer Frederick William Harvey was made a prisoner of war (the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us that he went on to experience seven different prison camps). Returning from a period of solitary confinement, he apparently noticed the drawing of a duck on water made by a fellow-prisoner. This inspired what has become a very well-loved poem.

From troubles of the world
I turn to ducks
Beautiful comical things.

How many people, encountering the poem today, consider that the ‘troubles’ might include a world war?

Headline image credit: A message-carrying pigeon being released from a port-hole in the side of a British tank, near Albert, France. Photo by David McLellan, August 1918. Imperial War Museums. IWM Non-Commercial License via Wikimedia Commons.

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7. The Hunger Games and a dystopian Eurozone economy

The following is an extract from ‘Europe’s Hunger Games: Income Distribution, Cost Competitiveness and Crisis‘, published in the Cambridge Journal of Economics. In this section, Servaas Storm and C.W.M. Naastepad are comparing The Hunger Games to Eurozone economies:

Dystopias are trending in contemporary popular culture. Novels and movies abound that deal with fictional societies within which humans, individually and collectively, have to cope with repressive, technologically powerful states that do not usually care for the well-being or safety of their citizens, but instead focus on their control and extortion. The latest resounding dystopian success is The Hunger Games—a box-office hit located in a nation known as Panem, which consists of 12 poor districts, starved for resources, under the absolute control of a wealthy centre called the Capitol. In the story, competitive struggle is carried to its brutal extreme, as poor young adults in a reality TV show must fight to death in an outdoor arena controlled by an authoritarian Gamemaker, until only one individual remains. The poverty and starvation, combined with terror, create an atmosphere of fear and helplessness that pre-empts any resistance based on hope for a better world.

We fear that part of the popularity of this science fiction action-drama, in Europe at least, lies in the fact that it has a real-life analogue: the Spectacle—in Debord’s (1967) meaning of the term—of the current ‘competitiveness game’ in which the Eurozone economies are fighting for their survival. Its Gamemaker is the European Central Bank (ECB), which—completely stuck to Berlin’s hard line that fiscal profligacy in combination with rigid, over-regulated labour markets has created a deep crisis of labour cost competitiveness—has been keeping the pressure on Eurozone countries so as to let them pay for their alleged fiscal sins. The ECB insists that there will be ‘no gain without pain’ and that the more one is prepared to suffer, the more one is expected to prosper later on.

The contestants in the game are the Eurozone members—each one trying to bootstrap its economy out of the throes of the most severe crisis in living memory. The audience judging each country’s performance is not made up of reality TV watchers but of financial (bond) markets and credit rating agencies, whose supposedly rational views can make or break any economy. The name of the game is boosting cost-competitiveness and exports—and its rules are carved into stone in March 2011 in a Euro Plus ‘Competitiveness Pact’ (Gros, 2011).

The Hunger Games, by Kendra Miller. CC-BY-2.0 via flickr.
The Hunger Games, by Kendra Miller. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Raising competitiveness here means reducing costs, and more specifically cutting labour costs, which means lowering the wage share by means of reducing employment protection, lowering minimum wages, raising retirement ages, lowering pensions and, last but not least, cutting real wages. Economic inequality, poverty and social exclusion will all initially increase, but don’t worry: structural reforms hurt in the beginning, but their negative effects will be offset over time by changes in ‘confidence,’ boosting spending and exports. But it will not work, and the damage done by austerity and structural reforms is enormous; sadly, most of it was and is avoidable. The wrong policies follow from ‘design faults’ built into the Euro project right from the start—the creation of an ‘independent’ European Central Bank being the biggest ‘fault’, as it precluded the necessary co-ordination of fiscal and monetary policy and disabled the central banking system from providing support to national governments (Arestis and Sawyer, 2011). But as Palma (2009) reminds us, it is wrong to think about these ‘faults’ as being caused by perpetual incompetence—the monetarist Euro project should instead be read as a purposeful ‘technology of power’ to transform capitalism into a rentiers’ paradise. This way, one can understand why policy makers persist in abandoning the unemployed.

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8. A Study in Brown and in a Brown Study, Part 1

Color words are among the most mysterious ones to a historian of language and culture, and brown is perhaps the most mysterious of them all. At first blush (and we will see that it can have a brownish tint), everything is clear. Brown is produced by mixing red, yellow, and black. Other authorities suggest: orange and black. In any case, it has two sides: dark (black) and bright (red or orange). This color name does not seem to occur in the New Testament, and that is why of all the Old Germanic languages only Gothic lacks it (in Gothic a sizable part of a fourth-century translation of the New Testament has been preserved). In the Old Testament, the word appears most rarely. Genesis XXX: 32, 35, and 40 describes the division of Laban’s cattle. According to Verse 35 from the Authorized Version, “…he removed that day the he goats that were ringstraked and spotted, and all the she goats that were speckled and spotted, and every one that had some white in it, and all the brown among the sheep, and gave them into the hand of his sons.” Those sheep were indeed brown, but the situation is not always so clear. For example, an Old English poet called waves brown, and brown is a common epithet attached to swords in early Germanic poetry. Were waves and swords really brown, like Laban’s sheep?

In Old Germanic languages, brown had the form brun, with a long vowel (that is, with the vowel of Modern Engl. boo), and we can be fairly certain that the ancient Indo-Europeans had the same hue in mind we do, because at least three unmistakably brown animals were called brown. One of them is the bear, also known as Bruin (the word is pure Dutch). People were afraid of pronouncing the terrible beast’s name and coined a euphemism (“the brown one”). When they said brown, the bear could no longer think that is was summoned and would not come. The other animal with a “brown” name is beaver. If bears and beavers were called “brown” and the biblical Laban had brown sheep, why then brown waves and brown swords? We’ll have to wait rather long for the answer: this blog is a serial.

Let us first look at etymology. Those who have read the relatively recent posts on gray may remember that that Germanic color name made its way into Romance languages. The same holds for brown (vide French brun and Italian brun). Later, as happened more than once, Old French brun returned to Middle English and reinforced the native word; compare also brunet(te), from French, with reference to people with chestnut-colored or black (!) hair. In the posts on gray, I mentioned two current explanations of why gray, brown, and some other color names enjoyed such popularity outside their country of origin. Allegedly, Germanic mercenaries brought them to the Romance-speaking territory with either the words for their horse breeds or for their shields. There must have been something special about both. The root of brown can also be seen in Engl. burnish. The suffix -ish was added to the root of Old French burnir, from brunir. “To make brown” acquired the meaning “polish (metal) by friction.” This returns us to the brown weapons of Old Germanic.

Abkaou, reçoit ses offrandes. 11e dynastie. Louvre Museum. Photo by Rama. CC BY-SA 2.0 FR via Wikimedia Commons.
Abkaou, reçoit ses offrandes. 11e dynastie. Louvre Museum. Photo by Rama. CC BY-SA 2.0 FR via Wikimedia Commons.

The origin of bear and beaver from brown, though highly probable, is not absolutely assured, but the derivation of the Greek word phryne “toad” (stress on the first syllable) can hardly be put into question. Phryne looks like a perfect cognate of brown. (The famous hetaera Phryne is said to have received this nickname for her sallow skin, but other prostitutes were often called the same, and I have my own explanation of this fact; see below.) Toads, detested by some for all kinds of reasons, have occupied a conspicuous place in the superstitions of the whole world, beginning with at least the ancient Egyptian times. In Egypt, far from being shunned, they stood for fertility, and an amulet in the form of a toad supposedly replicated the uterus. Hequet was a goddess with the head of a frog.

Stories about frogs and toads are countless. One is especially famous. It is about a young man (prince) marrying a frog, which turns into a beautiful maiden. The Grimms knew a short and uninspiring version of this story (it is the opening one in their collection). In it the frog that insists on sleeping in the girl’s bed becomes a handsome prince, which is a variant of “Beauty and the Beast”; as a rule, in such tales the frog or the toad is a female. I would like to suggest, that the nickname Phryne had nothing to do with the hetaera’s skin. All other prostitutes who were called this could not have had the same tint. Since in the popular imagination toads and fertility went together and since Egyptian mythology and beliefs exercised a strong influence on the Greek mind, calling prostitutes toads would have made good sense.

Thus, as we can see, toads (brown creatures) were associated with things bad and good. On the one hand, they were feared for their supposed ugliness and identified with witches. On the other, they were venerated and thought to promote fertility. In that capacity, they frequently received votive offerings. From Egypt we should go to the British Isles, for whose sake I have told my story. As far as I can judge, no accepted etymology of brownie “imp” exists. The books at my disposal only say that brownies, benevolent imps, originated in Scotland and were brown. The earliest citations go back to the early seventeenth century. I have as little trust in brown brownies as in the brown-skinned Phryne among the Greeks. The name must have had magic connotations, but whether positive or negative is open to question. As time goes on, such creatures often change their attitude toward the houses they haunt. They can be friendly if treated well and hostile if offended. By contrast, brownies, chocolate cakes with nuts, are always brown and sweet (chocolate-colored, by definition).

My second example is literary. In Dickens’s novel Dombey and Son, Mr. Dombey’s little daughter Florence is abducted by an ugly old rag and bone vendor. When the girl asks the woman about her name, it is given to her as Mrs. Brown and amended to Good Mrs. Brown. “She was a very ugly old woman, with red rims round her eyes, and a mouth that mumbled and chattered of itself when she was not speaking.” This is how she introduced herself to Florence: “…don’t vex me. If you don’t, I tell you I won’t hurt you. But if you do, I’ll kill you. I could have killed you at any time—even if you was in your own bed at home.” I am sure somewhere in the immense literature on Dickens the folklore of Mrs. Brown was explained long ago. In any case, Dickens must have had a reason for calling the witch Mrs. Brown and adding ominously the ironic epithet good to the name, to reinforce the impression.

And here is a final flourish for today. I will be grateful for some reliable information on the origin of the last name Brown ~ Braune. Dictionaries say that the name goes back to the color of its bearers. I find this explanation puzzling. It is as though thousands of our neighbors were bears, beavers, and toads.

To be continued.

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9. Intergenerational perspectives on psychology, aging, and well-being

Why are people afraid to get old? Research shows that having a bad attitude toward aging at a young age is only detrimental to the young person’s health and well-being in the long-run. Contrary to common wisdom, our sense of well-being actually increases with our age–often even in the presence of illness or disability. Mindy Greenstein, PhD, and Jimmie Holland, MD, debunk the myth that growing older is something to fear in their new book Lighter as We Go: Virtues, Character Strengths, and Aging. In the following videos, Dr. Greenstein and Dr. Holland are joined by Holland’s granddaughter Madeline in a thought-provoking discussion about their different perspectives on aging in correlation to well-being.

The Relationship between Wisdom and Age

The Bridge between Older People and Younger Generations

On Fluctuations in Well-Being throughout Life

The Vintage Readers Book Club

Headline image credit: Cloud Sky over Brest. Photo by Luca Lorenzi. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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10. The Oxford DNB at 10: new perspectives on medieval biography

September 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Over the next month a series of blog posts explore aspects of the Dictionary’s online evolution in the decade since 2004. In this post, Henry Summerson considers how new research in medieval biography is reflected in ODNB updates.

Today’s publication of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s September 2014 update—marking the Dictionary’s tenth anniversary—contains a chronological bombshell. The ODNB covers the history of Britons worldwide ‘from the earliest times’, a phrase which until now has meant since the fourth century BC, as represented by Pytheas, the Marseilles merchant whose account of the British Isles is the earliest known to survive. But a new ‘biography’ of the Red Lady of Paviland—whose incomplete skeleton was discovered in 1823 in Wales, and which today resides in Oxford’s Museum of Natural History—takes us back to distant prehistory. As the earliest known site of ceremonial human burial in western Europe, Paviland expands the Dictionary’s range by over 32,000 years.

The Red Lady’s is not the only ODNB biography pieced together from unidentified human remains (Lindow Man and the Sutton Hoo burial are others), while the new update also adds the fifteenth-century ‘Worcester Pilgrim’ whose skeleton and clothing are on display at the city’s cathedral. However, the Red Lady is the only one of these ‘historical bodies’ whose subject has changed sex—the bones having been found to be those of a pre-historical man, and not (as was thought when they were discovered), of a Roman woman.

The process of re-examination and re-interpretation which led to this discovery can serve as a paradigm for the development of the DNB, from its first edition (1885-1900) to its second (2004), and its ongoing programme of online updates. In the case of the Red Lady the moving force was in its broadest sense scientific. In this ‘he’ is not unique in the Dictionary. The bones of the East Frankish queen Eadgyth (d.946), discovered in 2008 provide another example of human remains giving rise to a recent biography. But changes in analysis have more often originated in more conventional forms of historical scholarship. Since 2004 these processes have extended the ODNB’s pre-1600 coverage by 300 men and women, so bringing the Dictionary’s complement for this period to more than 7000 individuals.

In part, these new biographies are an evolution of the Dictionary as it stood in 2004 as we broaden areas of coverage in the light of current scholarship. One example is the 100 new biographies of medieval bishops that, added to the ODNB’s existing selection, now provide a comprehensive survey of every member of the English episcopacy from the Conquest to the Reformation—a project further encouraged by the publication of new sources by the Canterbury and York Society and the Early English Episcopal Acta series.

Taken together these new biographies offer opportunities to explore the medieval church, with reference to incumbents’ background and education, the place of patronage networks, or the shifting influence of royal and papal authority. That William Alnwick (d.1449), ‘a peasant born of a low family’, could become bishop of Norwich and Lincoln is, for example, indicative of the growing complexity of later medieval episcopal administration and its need for talented men. A second ODNB project (still in progress) focuses on late-medieval monasticism. Again, some notable people have come to light, including the redoubtable Elizabeth Cressener, prioress of Dartford, who opposed even Thomas Cromwell with success.

Magna Carta, courtesy of the British Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Magna Carta, courtesy of the British Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Away from religious life, recent projects to augment the Dictionary’s medieval and early modern coverage have focused on new histories of philanthropy—with men like Thomas Alleyne, a Staffordshire clergyman whose name is preserved by three schools—and of royal courts and courtly life. Hence first-time biographies of Sir George Blage, whom Henry VIII used to address as ‘my pig’, and at a lower social level, John Skut, the tailor who made clothes for most of the king’s wives: ‘while Henry’s queens came and went, John Skut remained.’

Alongside these are many included for remarkable or interesting lives which illuminate the past in sometimes unexpected ways. At the lowest social level, such lives may have been very ordinary, but precisely because they were commonplace they were seldom recorded. Where a full biography is possible, figures of this kind are of considerable interest to historians. One such is Agnes Cowper, a Southwark ‘servant and vagrant’ in the years around 1600; attempts to discover who was responsible for her maintenance shed a fascinating light on a humble and precarious life, and an experience shared by thousands of late-Tudor Londoners. Such light falls only rarely, but the survival of sources, and the readiness of scholars to investigate them, have also led to recent biographies of the Roman officers and their wives at Vindolanda, based on the famous ‘tablets’ found at Chesterholm in Northumberland; the early fourteenth-century anchorite Christina Carpenter, who provoked outrage by leaving her cell (but later returned to it), and whose story has inspired a film, a play and a novel; and trumpeter John Blanke, whose fanfares enlivened the early Tudor court and whose portrait image is the only identifiable likeness of a black person in sixteenth-century British art.

While people like Blanke are included for their distinctiveness, most ODNB subjects can be related to the wider world of their contemporaries. A significant component of the Dictionary since 2004 has been an interest in recreating medieval and early modern networks and associations; they include the sixth-century bringers of Christianity to England, the companions of William I, and the enforcers of Magna Carta. Each establishes connections between historical figures, sets the latter in context, and charts how appreciations of these networks and their participants have developed over time—from the works of early chroniclers to contemporary historians. Indeed, in several instances, notably the Round Table knights or the ‘Merrie Men’, it is this (often imaginative) interpretation and recreation of Britain’s medieval past that is to the fore.

The importance of medieval afterlives returns us to the Red Lady of Paviland. His biography presents what can be known, or plausibly surmised, about its subject, alongside the ways in which his bodily remains (and the resulting life) have been interpreted by successive generations—each perceptibly influenced by the cultural as well as scholarly outlook of the day. Next year sees the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta, a centenary which can be confidently expected to bring further medieval subjects into Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. It is unlikely that the historians responsible will be unaffected by considerations of the long-term significance of the Charter. Nor, indeed, should they be—it is the interaction of past and present which does most to bring historical biography to life.

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11. Q&A with Jake Bowers, co-author of 2014 Miller Prize Paper

Despite what many of my colleagues think, being a journal editor is usually a pretty interesting job. The best part about being a journal editor is working with authors to help frame, shape, and improve their research. We also have many chances to honor specific authors and their work for being of particular importance. One of those honors is the Miller Prize, awarded annually by the Society for Political Methodology for the best paper published in Political Analysis the proceeding year.

The 2013 Miller Prize was awarded to Jake Bowers, Mark M. Fredrickson, and Costas Panagopoulos, for their paper, “Reasoning about Interference Between Units: A General Framework.” To recognize the significance of this paper, it is available for free online access for the next year. The award committee summarized the contribution of the paper:

“..the article tackles an difficult and pervasive problem—interference among units—in a novel and compelling way. Rather than treating spillover effects as a nuisance to be marginalized over or, worse, ignored, Bowers et al. use them as an opportunity to test substantive questions regarding interference … Their work also brings together causal inference and network analysis in an innovative and compelling way, pointing the way to future convergence between these domains.”

In other words, this is an important contribution to political methodology.

I recently posed a number of question to one of the authors of the Miller Prize paper, Jake Bowers, asking him to talk more about this paper and its origins.

R. Michael Alvarez: Your paper, “Reasoning about Interference Between Units: A General Framework” recently won the Miller Prize for the best paper published in Political Analysis in the past year. What motivated you to write this paper?

Jake Bowers: Let me provide a little background for readers not already familiar with randomization-based statistical inference.

Randomized designs provide clear answers to two of the most common questions that we ask about empirical research: The Interpretation Question: “What does it mean that people in group A act differently from people in group B?” and The Information Question: “How precise is our summary of A-vs-B?” (Or, more defensively, “Do we really have enough information to distinguish A from B?”).

If we have randomly assigned some A-vs-B intervention, then we can answer the interpretation question very simply: “If group A differs from group B, it is only because of the A-vs-B intervention. Randomization ought to erase any other pre-existing differences between groups A and B.”

In answering the information question, randomization alone also allows us to characterize other ways that the experiment might have turned out: “Here are all of the possible ways that groups A and B could differ if we re-randomized the A-vs-B intervention to the experimental pool while entertaining the idea that A and B do not differ. If few (or none) of these differences is as large as the one we observe, we have a lot of information against the idea that A and B do not differ. If many of these differences are as large as the one we see, we don’t have much information to counter the argument that A and B do not differ.”

Of course, these are not the only questions one should ask about research, and interpretation should not end with knowing that an input created an output. Yet, these concerns about meaning and information are fundamental and the answers allowed by randomization offer a particularly clear starting place for learning from observation. In fact, many randomization-based methods for summarizing answers to the information question tend to have validity guarantees even with small samples. If we really did repeat the experiment all the possible ways that it could have been done, and repeated a common hypothesis test many times, we would reject a true null hypothesis no more than α% of the time even if we had observed only eight people (Rosenbaum 2002, Chap 2).

In fact a project with only eight cities impelled this paper. Costa Panagopoulos had administered a field experiment of newspaper advertising and turnout to eight US cities, and he and I began to discuss how to produce substantively meaningful, easy to interpret, and statistically valid, answers to the question about the effect of advertising on turnout. Could we hypothesize that, for example, the effect was zero for three of the treated cites, and more than zero for one of the treated cites? The answer was yes.

I realized that hypotheses about causal effects do not need to be simple, and, furthermore, they could represent substantive, theoretical models very directly. Soon, Mark Fredrickson and I started thinking about substantive models in which treatment given to one city might have an effect on another city. It seemed straightforward to write down these models. We had read Peter Aronow’s and Paul Rosenbaum’s papers on the sharp null model of no effects and interference, and so we didn’t think we were completely off base to imagine that, if we side-stepped estimation of average treatment effects and focused on testing hypotheses, we could learn something about what we called “models of interference”. But, we had not seen this done before. So, in part because we worried about whether we were right about how simple it was to write down and test hypotheses generated from models of spillover or interference between units, we wrote the “Reasoning about Interference” paper to see if what we were doing with Panagopoulos’ eight cities would scale, and whether it would perform as randomization-based tests should. The paper shows that we were right.

R. Michael Alvarez: In your paper, you focus on the “no interference” assumption that is widely discussed in the contemporary literature on causal models. What is this assumption and why is it important?

Jake Bowers: When we say that some intervention, (Zi), caused some outcome for some person, (i), we often mean that the outcome we would have seen for person (i) when the intervention is not-active, (Zi=0) — written as (y{i,Zi=0}) — would have been different from the outcome we would have seen if the intervention were active for that same person (at that same moment in time), (Zi=1), — written as (y{i,Z_i=1}). Most people would say that the treatment had an effect on person (i) when (i) would have acted differently under the intervention than under the control condition such that y{i,Zi=1} does not equal y{i,Zi=0}. David Cox (1958) noticed that this definition of causal effects involves an assumption that an intervention assigned to one person does not influence the potential outcomes for another person. (Henry Brady’s piece, “Causation and Explanation in Social Science” in the Oxford Handbook of Political Methodology provides an excellent discussion of the no-interference assumption and Don Rubin’s formalization and generalization of Cox’s no-interference assumption.)

As an illustration of the confusion that interference can cause, imagine we had four people in our study such that (i in {1,2,3,4}). When we write that the intervention had an effect for person (i=1),(y{i=1,Z1=1} does not equal y{i=1,Z1=0}), we are saying that person 1 would act the same when (Z{i=1}=1) regardless of how intervention was assigned to any other person such that

(y{i=1,{Z_1=1,Z_2=1,Z_3=0,Z_4=0}}=y{i=1,{Z_1=1,Z_2=0,Z_3=1,Z_4=0\}}=y{i=1,\{Zi=1,…}})

If we do not make this assumption then we cannot write down a treatment effect in terms of a simple comparison of two groups. Even if we randomly assigned the intervention to two of the four people in this little study, we would have six potential outcomes per person rather than only two potential outcomes (you can see two of the six potential outcomes for person 1 in above). Randomization does not help us decide what a “treatment effect” means and six counterfactuals per person poses a challenge for the conceptualization of causal effects.

So, interference is a problem with the definition of causal effects. It is also a problem with estimation. Many folks know about what Paul Holland (1986) calls the “Fundamental Problem of Causal Inference” that the potential outcomes heuristic for thinking about causality reveals: we cannot ever know the causal effect for person (i) directly because we can never observe both potential outcomes. I know of three main solutions for this problem, each of which have to deal with problems of interference:

  • Jerzy Neyman (1923) showed that if we change our substantive focus from individual level to group level comparisons, and to averages in particular, then randomization would allow us to learn about the true, underlying, average treatment effect using the difference of means observed in the actual study (where we only see responses to intervention for some but not all of the experimental subjects).
  • Don Rubin (1978) showed a Bayesian predictive approach — a probability model of the outcomes of your study and a probability model for the treatment effect itself allows you can predict the unobserved potential outcomes for each person in your study and then take averages of those predictions to produce an estimate of the average treatment effect.
  • Ronald Fisher (1935) suggested another approach which maintained attention on the individual level potential outcomes, but did not use models to predict them. He showed that randomization alone allows you to test the hypothesis of “no effects” at the individual level. Interference makes it difficult to interpret Neyman’s comparisons of observed averages and Rubin’s comparison of predicted averages as telling us about causal effects because we have too many possible averages.

It turns out that Fisher’s sharp null hypothesis test of no effects is simple to interpret even when we have unknown interference between units. Our paper starts from that idea and shows that, in fact, one can test sharp hypotheses about effects rather than only no effects.

Note that there has been a lot of great recent work trying to define and estimate average treatment effects recently by folks like Cyrus Samii and Peter Aronow, Neelan Sircar and Alex Coppock, Panos Toulis and Edward Kao, Tyler Vanderweele, Eric Tchetgen Tchetgen and Betsy Ogburn, Michael Sobel, and Michael Hudgens, among others. I also think that interference poses a smaller problem for Rubin’s approach in principle — one would add a model of interference to the list of models (of outcomes, of intervention, of effects) used to predict the unobserved outcomes. (This approach has been used without formalization in terms of counterfactuals in both the spatial and networks models worlds.) One might then focus on posterior distributions of quantities other than simple differences of averages or interpret such differences reflecting the kinds of weightings used in the work that I gestured to at the start of this paragraph.

R. Michael Alvarez: How do you relax the “no interference” assumption in your paper?

Jake Bowers: I would say that we did not really relax an assumption, but rather side-stepped the need to think of interference as an assumption. Since we did not use the average causal effect, we were not facing the same problems of requiring that all potential outcomes collapse down to two averages. However, what we had to do instead was use what Paul Rosenbaum might call Fisher’s solution to the fundamental problem of causal inference. Fisher noticed that, even if you couldn’t say that a treatment had an effect on person (i), you could ask whether we had enough information (in our design and data) to shed light on a question about whether or not the treatment had an effect on person (i). In our paper, Fisher’s approach meant that we did not need to define our scientifically interesting quantity in terms of averages. Instead, we had to write down hypotheses about no interference. That is, we did not really relax an assumption, but instead we directly modelled a process.

Rosenbaum (2007) and Aronow (2011), among others, had noticed that the hypothesis that Fisher is most famous for, the sharp null hypothesis of no effects, in fact does not assume no interference, but rather implies no interference (i.e., if the treatment has no effect for any person, then it does not matter how treatment has been assigned). So, in fact, the assumption of no interference is not really a fundamental piece of how we talk about counterfactual causality, but a by-product of a commitment to the use of a particular technology (simple comparisons of averages). We took a next step in our paper and realized that Fisher’s sharp null hypothesis implied a particular, and very simple, model of interference (a model of no interference). We then set out to see if we could write other, more substantively interesting models of interference. So, that is what we show in the paper: one can write down a substantive theoretical model of interference (and of the mechanism for an experimental effect to come to matter for the units in the study) and then this model can be understood as a generator of sharp null hypotheses, each of which could be tested using the same randomization inference tools that we have been studying for their clarity and validity previously.

R. Michael Alvarez: What are the applications for the approach you develop in your paper?

Jake Bowers: We are working on a couple of applications. In general, our approach is useful as a way to learn about substantive models of the mechanisms for the effects of experimental treatments.

For example, Bruce Desmarais, Mark Fredrickson, and I are working with Nahomi Ichino, Wayne Lee, and Simi Wang on how to design randomized experiments to learn about models of the propagation of treatments across a social network. If we think that an experimental intervention on some subset of Facebook users should spread in some certain manner, then we are hoping to have a general way to think about how to design that experiment (using our approach to learn about that propagation model, but also using some of the new developments in network-weighted average treatment effects that I referenced above). Our very early work suggests that, if treatment does propagate across a social network following a common infectious disease model, that you might prefer to assign relatively few units to direct intervention.

In another application, Nahomi Ichino, Mark Fredrickson, and I are using this approach to learn about agent-based models of the interaction of ethnicity and party strategies of voter registration fraud using a field experiment in Ghana. To improve our formal models, another collaborator, Chris Grady, is going to Ghana to do in-depth interviews with local party activists this fall.

R. Michael Alvarez: Political methodologists have made many contributions to the area of causal inference. If you had to recommend to a graduate student two or three things in this area that they might consider working on in the next year, what would they be?

Jake Bowers: About advice for graduate students: Here are some of the questions I would love to learn about.

  • How should we move from formal, equilibrium-oriented, theories of behavior to models of mechanisms of treatment effects that would allow us to test hypotheses and learn about theory from data?
  • How can we take advantage of estimation-based procedures or procedures developed without specific focus on counterfactual causal inference if we want to make counterfactual causal inferences about models of interference? How should we reinterpret or use tools from spatial analysis like those developed by Rob Franzese and Jude Hayes or tools from network analysis like those developed by Mark Handcock to answer causal inference questions?
  • How can we provide general advice about how to choose test-statistics to summarize the observable implications of these theoretical models? We know that the KS-test used in our article is pretty low-powered. And we know from Rosenbaum (Chap 2, 2002) that certain classes of test statistics have excellent properties in one-dimension, but I wonder about general properties of multi-parameter models and test statistics that can be sensitive to multi-way differences in distribution between experimental groups.
  • How should we apply ideas from randomized studies to the observational world? What does adjustment for confounding/omitted variable bias (by matching or “controlling for” or weighting) mean in the context of social networks or spatial relations? How should we do and judge such adjustment? Would might what Rosenbaum-inspired sensitivity analysis or Manski-inspired bounds analysis might mean when we move away from testing one parameter or estimating one quantity?

R. Michael Alvarez: You do a lot of work with software tool development and statistical computing. What are you working on now that you are most excited about?

Jake Bowers: I am working on two computationally oriented projects that I find very exciting. The first involves using machine learning/statistical learning for optimal covariance adjustment in experiments (with Mark Fredrickson and Ben Hansen). The second involves collecting thousands of hand-drawn maps on Google maps as GIS objects to learn about how people define and understand the places where they live in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States (with Cara Wong, Daniel Rubenson, Mark Fredrickson, Ashlea Rundlett, Jane Green, and Edward Fieldhouse).

When an experimental intervention has produced a difference in outcomes, comparisons of treated to control outcomes can sometimes fail to detect this effect, in part, because the outcomes themselves are naturally noisy in comparison to the strength of the treatment effect. We would like to reduce the noise that is unrelated to treatment (say, remove the noise related to background covariates, like education) without ever estimating a treatment effect (or testing a hypothesis about a treatment effect). So far, people shy away from using covariates for precision enhancement of this type because of every model in which they soak up noise with covariates is also a model in which they look at the p-value for their treatment effect. This project learns from the growing literature in machine learning (aka statistical learning) to turn specification of the covariance adjustment part of a statistical model over to an automated system focused on the control group only which thus bypasses concerns about data snooping and multiple p-values.

The second project involves using Google maps embedded in online surveys to capture hand-drawn maps representing how people respond when asked to draw the boundaries of their “local communities.” So far we have over 7000 such maps from a large survey of Canadians, and we plan to have data from this module carried on the British Election Study and the US Cooperative Congressional Election Study within the next year. We are using these maps and associated data to add to the “context/neighborhood effects” literature to learn how psychological understandings of place by individuals relates to Census measurements and also to individual level attitudes about inter-group relations and public goods provision.

Headline image credit: Abstract city and statistics. CC0 via Pixabay.

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12. Seven fun facts about the ukulele

The ukulele, a small four-stringed instrument of Portuguese origin, was patented in Hawaii in 1917, deriving its name from the Hawaiian word for “leaping flea.” Immigrants from the island of Madeira first brought to Hawaii a pair of Portuguese instruments in the late 1870s from which the ukuleles eventually developed. Trace back to the origins of the ukulele, follow its evolution and path to present-day popularity, and explore interesting facts about this instrument with Oxford Reference.

1. Developed from a four-string Madeiran instrument and built from Hawaiian koa wood, ukuleles were popular among the Hawaiian royalty in the late 19th century.

2. 1893’s World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago saw the first major performance of Hawaiian music with ukulele on the mainland.

3. By 1916, Hawaiian music became a national craze, and the ukulele was incorporated into popular American culture soon afterwards.

4. Singin’ In The Rain vocalist Cliff Edwards was also known as Ukulele Ike, and was one of the best known ukulele players during the height of the instrument’s popularity in the United States.

Cliff Edwards playing ukulele with phonograph, 1947. Photography from the William P. Gottlieb Collection. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Cliff Edwards playing ukulele with phonograph, 1947. Photography from the William P. Gottlieb Collection. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

5. When its sales reached millions in the 1920s, the ukulele became an icon of the decade in the United States.

6. Ernest Ka’ai wrote the earliest known ukulele method in The Ukulele, A Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It, 1906.

7. The highest paid entertainer and top box office attraction in Britain during the 1930s and 40s, George Fromby, popularized the ukulele in the United Kingdom.

Headline image credit: Ukuleles. Photo by Ian Ransley. CC BY 2.0 via design-dog Flickr.

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13. What’s so great about being the VSI commissioning editor?

With the 400th Very Short Introduction on the topic of ‘Knowledge’ publishing this month, I’ve been thinking about how long this series has been around, and how long I have been a commissioning editor for the series, from before the 200th VSI published (number 163 – Human Rights in fact), through number 300 and 400, and how undoubtedly I’ll still be here for the 500th VSI!

Having previously been an editor for law, tax, and accountancy lists, and latterly the OUP Police list, the opportunity to be the VSI editor was one that I simply could not pass up. I already owned, and had read, several VSIs, so I understood broadly what the series was trying to do and who the series was aimed at. I liked the idea of working across a wide range of topics (except science – these VSIs are commissioned by my esteemed colleague Latha Menon) and with a vast array of different authors. I also liked the idea that I would learn lots of new things and be a pub quiz team whizz. Unfortunately in order to be good at pub quizzes you have to be able to retain and recall information and details quickly. I like to think that if someone was able to explore deep inside my brain they would find hundreds of fascinating facts about hundreds of topics that are buried in there somewhere. (What has been exciting is to have on occasion been able to answer a University Challenge question, causing much excitement).

I naively thought that authors would be able to write 35,000 (or so) words easily and quickly, and therefore that they would deliver perfect manuscripts on time which would be easy to edit and a pleasure to read. For the most part I think this is true, but in my seven years as editor, I think I’ve seen and heard it all. ‘The dog ate my homework’ excuses, authors taking eight or nine years to deliver their manuscripts, and one author delivering a 70,000 word manuscript thinking that we could just ‘cut it a little’. There’s never a dull moment. I’ve seen ebooks come into fruition, an online service being launched, and new editions of old and popular VSIs come into being. Marketing has changed too, from the traditional brochure and bookshop displays, to YouTube videos, Facebook pages, and blog posts.

400
“VSI 400″ image courtesy of VSI editorial team.

I often get asked what I do all day. The myth is that I do a lot of wining and dining, drinking coffee, putting my feet up on the desk reading manuscripts, and jetting to conferences. The reality is that I do a bit of everything and it doesn’t involve enough wining and dining – the tax authors ten years ago were far worse for this! I decide (with input from sales, marketing, the US VSI editor, and the science VSI editor) what topics to commission, I seek out the best authors I possibly can, I negotiate contracts, I talk to agents, I read manuscripts, I look at cover blurbs, and I panic about the size of my overflowing inbox.

People also ask me what my favourite VSI is, which is a very difficult question to answer. The first VSI I ever read was Mary Beard and John Henderson’s Classics (number 1 in the series) and I still think it’s a wonderful book. Of those I’ve commissioned, I love Angels and English Literature. And who is my favourite author? Now that would be telling, but I have passed countless happy hours with many of my authors. And that’s the best thing about being the VSI editor. I get to meet so many different authors and help them turn their vast amount of knowledge (and sometimes their lifetime’s work) into a short book that they can be proud of. My favourite quote from an author is, ‘now my children, grandchildren and friends might finally understand what I do’!

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14. Do children make you happier?

A new study shows that women who have difficulty accepting the fact that they can’t have children following unsuccessful fertility treatment, have worse long-term mental health than women who are able to let go of their desire for children. It is the first to look at a large group of women (over 7,000) to try to disentangle the different factors that may affect women’s mental health over a decade after unsuccessful fertility treatment. These factors include whether or not they have children, whether they still want children, their diagnosis, and their medical treatment.

It was already known that people who have infertility treatment and remain childless have worse mental health than those who do manage to conceive with treatment. However, most previous research assumed that this was due exclusively to having children or not, and did not consider the role of other factors. Alongside my research colleagues from the Netherlands, where the study took place, we found only that there is a link between an unfulfilled wish for children and worse mental health, and not that the unfulfilled wish is causing the mental health problems. This is due to the nature of the study, in which the women’s mental health was measured at only one point in time rather than continuously since the end of fertility treatment.

We analysed answers to questionnaires completed by 7,148 women who started fertility treatment at any of 12 IVF hospitals in the Netherlands between 1995-2000. The questionnaires were sent out to the women between January 2011 and 2012, meaning that for most women their last fertility treatment would have been between 11-17 years ago. The women were asked about their age, marital status, education and menopausal status, whether the infertility was due to them, their partner, both or of unknown cause, and what treatment they had received, including ovarian stimulation, intrauterine insemination, and in vitro fertilisation / intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (IVF/ICSI). In addition, they completed a mental health questionnaire, which asked them how they felt during the past four weeks. The women were asked whether or not they had children, and, if they did, whether they were their biological children or adopted (or both). They were also asked whether they still wished for children.

The majority of women in the study had come to terms with the failure of their fertility treatment. However, 6% (419) still wanted children at the time of answering the study’s questionnaire and this was connected with worse mental health. We found that women who still wished to have children were up to 2.8 times more likely to develop clinically significant mental health problems than women who did not sustain a child-wish. The strength of this association varied according to whether women had children or not. For women with no children, those with a child-wish were 2.8 times more likely to have worse mental health than women without a child-wish. For women with children, those who sustained a child-wish were 1.5 times more likely to have worse mental health than those without a child-wish. This link between a sustained wish for children and worse mental health was irrespective of the women’s fertility diagnosis and treatment history.

Happy Family photo
Happy family photo by Vera Kratochvil. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Our research found that women had better mental health if the infertility was due to male factors or had an unknown cause. Women who started fertility treatment at an older age had better mental health than women who started younger, and those who were married or cohabiting with their partner reported better mental health than women who were single, divorced, or widowed. Better educated women also had better mental health than the less well educated.

This study improves our understanding of why childless people have poorer adjustment. It shows that it is more strongly associated with their inability to let go of their desire to have children. It is quite striking to see that women who do have children but still wish for more children report poorer mental health than those who have no children but have come to accept it. The findings underline the importance of psychological care of infertility patients and, in particular, more attention should be paid to their long-term adjustment, whatever the outcome of the fertility treatment.

The possibility of treatment failure should not be avoided during treatment and a consultation at the end of treatment should always happen, whether the treatment is successful or unsuccessful, to discuss future implications. This would enable fertility staff to identify patients more likely to have difficulties adjusting to the long term, by assessing the women’s possibilities to come to terms with their unfulfilled child-wish. These patients could be advised to seek additional support from mental health professionals and patient support networks.

It is not known why some women may find it more difficult to let go of their child-wish than others. Psychological theories would claim that how important the goal is for the person would be a relevant factor. The availability of other meaningful life goals is another relevant factor. It is easier to let go of a child-wish if women find other things in life that are fulfilling, like a career.

We live in societies that embrace determination and persistence. However, there is a moment when letting go of unachievable goals (be it parenthood or other important life goals) is a necessary and adaptive process for well-being. We need to consider if societies nowadays actually allow people to let go of their goals and provide them with the necessary mechanisms to realistically assess when is the right moment to let go.

Featured image: Baby feet by Nina-81. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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15. Peace treaties that changed the world

From their remotest origins, treaties have fulfilled numerous different functions. Their contents are as diverse as the substance of human contacts across borders themselves. From pre-classical Antiquity to the present, they have not only been used to govern relations between governments, but also to regulate the position of foreigners or to organise relations between citizens of different polities.

The backbones of the ‘classical law of nations’ or the jus publicum Europaeum of the late 17th and 18th centuries were the networks of bilateral treaties between the princes and republics of Europe, as well as the common principles, values, and customary rules of law that could be induced from the shared practices that were employed in diplomacy in general and in treaty-making in particular. Some treaties, particularly the sets of peace treaties that were made at multiparty peace conferences — such as those of Westphalia (1648, from 1 CTS 1), Nijmegen [Nimeguen] (1678/79, from 14 CTS 365), Rijswijk [Ryswick] (1697, from 21 CTS 347), Utrecht (1713, from 27 CTS 475), Aachen [Aix-la-Chapelle] (1748, 38 CTS 297) or Paris/Hubertusburg (1763, 42 CTS 279 and from 42 CTS 347) — gained special significance and were considered foundational to the general political and legal order of Europe.

This interactive map shows a selection of significant peace treaties that were signed from 1648 to 1919. All of the treaties mapped here include citations to their respective entries in the Consolidated Treaty Series, edited and annotated by Clive Parry (1917-1982). (Please note that this map is not intended to be an exhaustive representation of the most important peace treaties from this period.)

Headline image credit: Dove. CC0 via Pixabay.

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16. An interview with Shadi Hamid

With turmoil in the Middle East, from Egypt’s changing government to the emergence of the Isalmic State, we recently sat down with Shadi Hamid, author of Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, to discuss about his research before and during the Arab Spring, working with Islamists across the Middle East, and his thoughts on the future of the region.

In your recent New York Times essay “The Brotherhood Will Be Back,” you argue that there is still support for the mixing of religion and politics, despite the Muslim Brotherhood’s recent failure in power. So do you see a way for Egypt to achieve stability in the years ahead? Can they look toward their neighbors (Jordan, Tunisia?) for a positive example?

Cultural attitudes toward religion do not change overnight, particularly when they’ve been entrenched for decades. Even if a growing number of Egyptians are disillusioned with the way Islam is “used” for political gain, this does not necessarily translated into support for “secularism,” a word which is still anathema in Egyptian public discourse. One of my book’s arguments I is that democratization not only pushes Islamists toward greater conservatism but that it also skews the entire political spectrum rightwards.

In Chapter 3, for instance, I look at the Arab world’s “forgotten decade,” when there were several intriguing but ultimately short-lived democratic experiments. Here, the ostensibly secular Wafd party, sensing the shift in the country toward greater piety, opted to Islamize its political program, something which was all too obvious (perhaps even a bit too obvious) in its 1984 program. It devoted an entire section to the application of Islamic law, in which the Wafd stated that Islam was both “religion and state.” The program also called for combating moral “deviation” in society and purifying the media of anything contradicting the sharia and general morals. The Wafd party also supported the supposedly secular regime of Anwar Sadat’s ambitious effort in the late 1970s and early 1980s to reconcile Egyptian law with Islamic law. Led by speaker of parliament and close Sadat confidant Sufi Abu Talib, the initiative wasn’t just mere rhetoric; Abu Talib’s committees painstakingly produced hundreds of pages of detailed legislation, covering civil transactions, tort reform, criminal punishments, as well as the maritime code.

The point here is that the Islamization of society (itself pushed ahead by Islamists) doesn’t just affect Islamists. Even Egypt’s president, former general Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, cannot escape these deeply embedded social realities.

Egypt is de-democratizing right now, but the Sissi regime, unlike Mubarak’s, is a popular autocracy where the brutal suppression of one particular group — the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists — is cheered on by millions of Egyptians. Sissi, then, is not immune from mass sentiment. A populist in the classic vein, Sissi seems to understand this and, like the Brotherhood, instrumentalizes religion for partisan ends. In many ways, Sissi’s efforts surpass those of Islamists before him, asserting great control over al-Azhar, the premier seat of Sunni scholarship in the region, and using the clerical establishment to shore up his regime’s legitimacy. Sissi has said that it’s the president’s role to promote a “correct understanding” of Islam. His regime has also been politically ostentatious with religion in its crackdown against the Gay community, leading one observer to note that

Religion is a powerful tool in a deeply religious society and Sissi, whatever his personal inclinations, can’t escape that basic fact, particularly with a mobilized citizenry.

Looking at the region more broadly, there are really no successful models of reconciling democracy with Islamism, at least not yet, and this failure is likely to have long-term consequences on the region’s trajectory. Turkish Islamists had to effectively concede who they were and become something else — “conservative democrats” — in order to be fully incorporated in Turkish politics. In Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party, threatened with Egypt-style mass protests and with the secular opposition calling for the dissolution of parliament and government, opted to step down from power. The true test for Tunisia, then, is still to come: what happens if Ennahda wins the next scheduled elections, and the elections after that, and feels the need to be more responsive to its conservative base? Will this lead, again, to a breakdown in political order, with secular parties unwilling to live with greater “Islamization”?

You began your research on Islamist movements before the start of the Arab Spring. How did your project change after the unrest in 2011? What book did you think you would write when you began living in the region — and what did it become after the revolutions?

I began my research on Islamist movements in 2004-5, when I was living in Jordan as a Fulbright fellow. These were movements that displayed an ambivalence toward power, to the extent that they even lost elections on purpose (an odd phenomenon that was particularly evident in Jordan). Power, and its responsibilities, were dangerous. After the Islamic Salvation Front dominated the first round of the 1991 Algerian elections, and with the military preparing to intervene, the Algerian Islamist Abdelkader Hachani warned a crowd of supporters: “Victory is more dangerous than defeat.” In a sense, then, I was lucky to be able to expand the book’s scope to cover the tumultuous events of 2011-3, allowing me to explore evolving, and increasingly contradictory, attitudes toward power. Because if power was dangerous, it was also tempting, and so this became a recurring theme in the book: the potentially corrupting effects of political power, a problem which was particularly pronounced with groups that claimed a kind of religious purity that transcended politics. The book became about these two phases in the Islamist narrative, in opposition and under repression, on one hand, and during democratic openings, on the other. And then, of course, back again. I knew the military coup of 3 July 2013 and then the Rabaa massacre of 14 August — a dark, tragic blot on Egypt’s history — provided the appropriate bookend. The Brotherhood had returned to its original, purer state of opposition.

The Arab Spring also provided an opportunity to think more seriously and carefully about the effects of democratization. Would democratization have a moderating effect on mainstream Islamist movements, as the academic and conventional wisdom would suggest? Or was there a darker undercurrent, with democratization unleashing ideological polarization and pushing Islamists further to the right? I wanted to challenge a kind of cultural essentialism in reverse: that Islamists, like its ideological counterparts in Latin America or Western Europe, would be no match for “liberal democracy,” history’s apparent end state. Any kind of determinism, even the liberal variety, would prove problematic, especially for us as Americans with our tendency to believe that the process of history would overwhelm the whims of ideology. In a way, I wanted to believe it too, and for many years I did. As someone who has long been a proponent of supporting democracy in the Middle East, this puts me in a bit of a bind: In the Middle East, democracy is simply less attractive. Yes. And now, since the book has come out, I’ve been challenged along these very lines: “Maybe democracy isn’t so good after all… Maybe the dictators were right.” Well, in a sense, they were right. But this is only a problem if we conceive of democracy as some sort of panacea or short-term fix. Democracy is supposed to be difficult, and this is perhaps where the comparisons to the third-wave democracies of the 1980s and 1990s were misleading. The divides of Arab countries were “foundational,” meaning that they weren’t primarily “policy” problems; they were the more basic problems of the State, its meaning, its purpose, and, of course, the role of religion in public life, which inevitably brings us back to the identity of the State. What kind of conception of the Good should the Egyptian or Tunisian states be promoting? Should the state be neutral or should it be a state with a moral or religious mission? These are raw, existential divides that hearken back more to 1848 than 1989.

Tahrir Square on February11 by Jonathan Rashad. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Tahrir Square on 11 February 2011, by Jonathan Rashad CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

You conducted many interviews to research Temptations of Power. How did the interviews craft your argument — whether you were speaking with political leaders, activists, students, or citizens? Feel free to mention some examples.

Spending so much time with Islamist activists and leaders over the course of a decade, some of whom I got to know quite well, was absolutely critical. And this book — and pretty much every thing I know and think about Islamist movements — has been informed and shaped by those discussions. I guess I’m a bit old-fashioned that way; that to understand Islamists, you have to sit with them, talk to them, and get to know them as individuals with their own fears and aspirations. This is where I think it’s important for scholars of political Islam to cordon off their own beliefs and political commitments. Just because I’m an American and a small-l liberal (and those two, in my case, are intertwined), doesn’t mean that Egyptians or Jordanians should be subject to my ideological preferences. If you go into the study of Islamism trying to compare Islamists to some liberal ideal, then that’s distorting. Islamists, after all, are products of their own political context, and not ours. So that’s the first thing.

Second, as a political scientist, my tendency has always been to put the focus on political structures, and the first half of my book does quite a bit of that. In other words, context takes precedence: that Islamists — or, for that matter, Islam — are best understood as products of various political variables. This is true, but only up to a point and I worry that we as academics have gone too much in this direction, perhaps over-correcting for what, decades ago, was a seeming obsession with belief and doctrine.

When religion is less relevant in our own lives, it can be difficult to make that jump, to not just understand — but to relate — to its meaning and power for believers, and for those, in particular, who believe they have a cause beyond this life. But I think that outsiders have to make an extra effort to close that gap. And that, in some ways, is the most challenging, and ultimately rewarding, aspect of my work: to be exposed to something fundamentally different. I think, at this point, I feel like I have a good grasp on how mainstream Islamists see the world around them. What I still struggle with is the willingness to die. If I was at a sit-in and the army was coming in with live fire, I’d run for the hills. And that’s why my time interviewing Brotherhood members in Rabaa — before the worst massacre in modern Egyptian history — was so fascinating and forced me to at least try and transcend my own limitations as an analyst. Gehad al-Haddad — who had given up a successful business career in England to return to Egypt — told me was “very much at peace.” He was ready to die, and I knew that he, and so many others, weren’t just saying it. Because many of them — more than 600 — did, in fact, die.

Where does this willingness to die come from? I found myself pondering this same question just a few weeks ago when I was in London. One Brotherhood activist, now unable to return to Egypt, relayed the story of a protester standing at the front line, when the military moved in to “disperse” the sit-in. A bullet grazed his shoulder. Behind him, a man fell to the ground. He had been shot to death. He looked over and began to cry. He could have died a martyr. He knew the man behind him had gone to heaven, in God’s great glory. This is what he longed for. As I heard this story, it couldn’t have been any more clear: this wasn’t politics in any normal sense. Purity, absolution. This was the language of religion, the language of certainties. Where politics, in a sense, is about accepting, or at least coming to terms, with impossibility of purity.

Are you working on any new publications at the moment?

I’m hoping to build on the main arguments in my book and look more closely at how the inherent tensions between religion and mundane politics are expressed in various contexts. This, I think, is at least part of what makes Islamists so important to our understanding of the Middle East. Because their story is, in some ways, the story of a region that is breaking apart because of the inability to answer the fundamental questions of identity, religion, God, citizenship, and State-ness. One project will look at how various Islamist movements have responded to a defining moment in the Islamist narrative — the military coup of July 3, 2013, which has quickly replaced the Algerian coup of 1992 as the thing that always inevitably comes up when you talk to an Islamist. In some ways, I suspect it will prove even more defining in the long-run. Algeria, as devastating as it was, was still somehow remote (and, ironically enough, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Algerian offshoot allowed itself to be co-opted by the military government throughout most of Algeria’s “black decade”).

This time around, there are any number of lessons to be learned. One response among Islamists is that the Brotherhood should have been more confrontational, moving more aggressively against the “deep state” instead of seeking temporary accommodation. While others fault the Brotherhood for not being inclusive enough, and alienating the very allies who had helped bring it to power. But, of course, these two “lessons” are not mutually exclusive, with many believing that the Brotherhood — although it’s not entirely clear how exactly this would work in practice — should have been both more aggressive and more inclusive.

You recently went on a US tour to promote and discuss Temptations of Power­ — any recent discussion items, comments or questions which supported your conclusions or refined your thinking that you would like to share?

During the tour, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to discuss the more philosophical aspects of the book, including the “nature” of Islam, liberalism, and democracy. These are contested terms; Islam, for instance, can mean very different things to different people. A number of people would ask about Narendra Modi, India’s democratically-elected prime minister and somewhat notorious Hindu nationalist. Here’s someone who, in addition to being illiberal, was complicit in genocidal acts against the Muslim minority in Gujarat. But an overwhelming number of Indians voted for him in a free, democratic process. There’s something inspiring about accepting electoral outcomes that might very well be personally threatening to you. Another allied country, Israel, is a democracy with strong (and seemingly stronger) illiberal tendencies. Popular majorities

In some sense, the tensions between liberalism and democracy are universal and trying to find the right balance is an ongoing struggle (although it’s more pronounced and more difficult to address in the Middle Eastern context). So it makes little sense to expect a given Arab country to become anything resembling a liberal democracy in two or three years, when, even in our own history as Americans, our liberalism as well as our democracy were very much in doubt at any number of key points. (I just read this excellent Peter Beinart piece on our descent into populary-backed illiberalism during World War I. Cincinnati actually banned pretzels).

At the same time, looking at other cases has helped me better grasp what, exactly, makes the Middle East different. For example, as illiberal as Modi and the BJP might be, the ideological distance between them and the Congress Party isn’t as much as we might think. In part, this is because the Hindu tradition, to use Michael Cook’s framing, is simply less relevant to modern politics. As Cook writes, “Christians have no law to restore while Hindus do have one but show little interest in restoring it.” Islamists, on the other hand, do have a law and it’s a law that’s taken seriously by large majorities in much of the region. The distinctive nature of “law” — and its continued relevance — in today’s Middle East does add a layer of complexity to the problem of pluralism. This gets us into some uncomfortable territory but I think to ignore it would be a mistake. Islam is distinctive in how it relates to modern politics, at least relative to other major religions. This isn’t bad or good. It just is, and I think this is worth grappling with. As the region plunges into ever greater violence, with questions of religion at the fore, we will need to be more honest about this, even if it’s uncomfortable. This, sometimes, can be as simple as taking religion, and “Islam” in particular, more seriously in an age of secularism. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, which I cite in the book, from the great historian of the Muslim Brotherhood, Richard Mitchell. The Islamic movement, he said, “would not be a serious movement worthy of our attention were it not, above all, an idea and a personal commitment honestly felt.”

Heading image: Protesters fests toward Pearl roundabout. By Bahrain in pictures, CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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17. The lure of sounds

There’s something about the idea of ‘original pronunciation’ (OP) that gets the pulse racing. I’ve been amazed by the public interest shown in this unusual application of a little-known branch of linguistics — historical phonology, a subject that explores how the sounds of a language change over time. I little expected, when I was approached by Shakespeare’s Globe in 2004 to help them mount a production of Romeo and Juliet in OP, that ten years on the approach would become a thriving linguistic industry. Nor could I have predicted that a short documentary recording about OP for the Open University (which I made with actor son Ben in 2011) would for no apparent reason go viral towards the end of 2013, with 1.5 million hits in recent months.

A dozen Shakespeare plays have now been produced in original pronunciation, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Kansas University in 2010 and Hamlet at the University of Nevada (Reno) in 2011. This year a group from the University of Texas (Houston) brought an OP production of Julius Caesar to the Edinburgh Fringe. Next January, Ben Crystal and his OP ensemble are presenting Pericles in Stockholm as part of an Interplay series along with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra. More productions are in the pipeline.

But it isn’t just Shakespeare. The interest in him tops the list, but it is a long list, in which the work of any dramatist from the period can be treated in this way. And not just drama. Poems and prose too. My recording of the Sonnets is available on the website associated with the book Pronouncing Shakespeare. An OP recording by Ben of one of John Donne’s long sermons can now be heard as part of the Virtual St Paul’s Cross project.

Donne takes us forward in time to the 1620s. Going backwards in time, the British Library wanted an original pronunciation recording of William Tyndale to accompany the publication of its facsimile of the Tyndale Gospels. They chose the Matthew Gospel, and I recorded this for them in 2013. That takes us back to 1525. There are earlier recordings in the BL archive, made for the Evolving English winter exhibition in 2011-12, including extracts from Beowulf, Chaucer, Caxton, and Paston. The British Library also commissioned a CD of Shakespeare extracts from Ben and his ensemble: Shakespeare’s Original Pronunciation.

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (© Library of the University of California, Los Angeles).
William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 (© Library of the University of California, Los Angeles).

But the interest extends well beyond literature. Notably present in the talkback sessions after the first original pronunciation productions at the Globe were people interested in early music. And since then there have been many explorations into the kind of pronunciation used by Purcell (late 17th century), Dowland, and other composers. As with their literary counterparts, musicologists have been struck by the fact that so many of the rhymes in songs, madrigals, and operatic texts simply don’t work in modern English, and they want to hear them as they would have been. They note the way many of the vowels and consonants would have had different values in those days, and they want to explore how the texts would sound with those old values articulated. The result is a very different auditory experience, and — by all accounts — an exciting one.

Finally there are the heritage people. It’s all well and good establishing a historical centre where an old period is recreated, and people dress up in old clothes and walk around — but how should they speak? The occasional ‘verily’ and ‘forsooth’ isn’t enough. Here too we see an interest in recreating styles of speech that would have been used in those days.

Add all these constituencies together and you can see why the original pronunciation experiment has become something of an OP movement, with more and more people wanting to learn about OP, to hear it in practice, and to explore its application in texts that so far have received no study. Every new text brings to light something new — such as a previously unnoticed pun, or a fresh way of speaking a line. At university level, people are beginning to write dissertations on the subject. Ben, as I write, is exploring ways for his ensemble to cope with new OP commitments. There’s plenty to do. With only a dozen Shakespeare plays explored so far, that leaves a couple of dozen more awaiting investigation.

The consequence is an urgent need to provide materials to help people take original pronunciation activities forward. Paul Meier already has some tutorial material on his website, and his Dream production is available both as an audio recording and on a DVD. Several articles have now been written answering the usual questions people ask (such as ‘how do you know’?). And I am hard at work on an OP Shakespeare dictionary, which will enable people to make transcripts for themselves. I have paused, in the middle of letter N, to write this post. But with luck and a good following wind, I should have it finished in time for the great anniversary in 2016. And it will be published, of course, by Oxford University Press.

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18. From “Checkers” to Watergate

Forty years ago, President Richard M. Nixon faced certain impeachment by the Congress for the Watergate scandal. He resigned the presidency, expressing a sort of conditional regret:

I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision. I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.

Nixon is not apologizing here as much as offering what sociologist Erving Goffman calls an account—a verbal reframing of his actions aimed at reducing their offensiveness. Nixon treats himself as a victim of his own mistakes and treats his mistakes as managerial, not criminal. His language is loaded with such words as “any,” “may,” “would,” and “if,” among others and circumlocutions likes “in the course of the events that led to this decision” and “what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the Nation.” Nixon offers regret, but there is no unconditional apology, and there never was.

I sometimes wonder how Nixon’s attitudes toward Watergate and his resignation were shaped by the 1952 presidential campaign, and the events that led to his so-called “Checkers” speech.

It was the home stretch of the 1952 campaign, in which the Republican ticket of Dwight Eisenhower and then-Senator Nixon were pitted against Democrats Adlai Stevenson II and John J. Sparkman to succeed President Harry Truman. Truman’s popularity was at a low point and Eisenhower and Nixon were optimistic about their chances. Then, in mid-September, the press began reporting stories of a secret expense fund established in 1950 by Nixon supporters. The New York Post offered the sensational headline that “Secret Rich Men’s Trust Fund Keeps Nixon in Style Far Beyond His Salary.” As the story developed, many Democrats (and less publicly some Republicans) called for Nixon to be dropped from the ticket. News editorials disapproved of Nixon’s actions two-to-one. Even the Washington Post, which had endorsed the Republican ticket, called for Nixon to withdraw from the race.

The issue took some of the optimism out of the Eisenhower campaign. Eisenhower defended his Vice President publicly, but also promised that there would be a full reporting of the facts by independent auditors. The 39-year-old Nixon offered his account in a half-hour television address broadcast from the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, on 23 September 1952.

“I want to tell you my side of the case,” he began, and in a speech that ran just over 4,500 words, Nixon used a series of rhetorical questions guide his audience through his version of events. He used the strategy that rhetoricians called differentiation by claiming that the fund issue was not what it seemed to be. Nixon said that there was no moral wrong because none of the money—about $18,000—was for Senatorial expenses and that none of the contributors receive special favors. He asserted his own good character by explaining why he needed the money: because he was not a rich man and he didn’t feel the taxpayers should pay his expenses.

Nixon bolstered his character further with his biography—explaining his modest background and finances, giving details down to the amount of his life insurance, mortgages, and material of his wife’s coat: not mink but “a respectable Republican cloth coat,” adding that “And I always tell her that she’d look good in anything.”

He added another rhetorical turn in the second half of his speech: “Why do I feel so deeply? Why do I feel that in spite of the smears, the misunderstandings, the necessity for a man to come up here and bare his soul as I have?” Nixon’s answer was “Because, you see, I love my country. And I think my country is in danger.” Here Nixon implies that he is motivated by a greater good and he pivots to an attack on his political opponents and his avowal that Eisenhower was “the man that can clean up the mess in Washington.”

The speech was the first ever use of television by a national candidate to speak directly to the nation and to defend himself against accusations of wrong-doing. And the public was impressed. For many, the most memorable part was when Nixon told the viewers about a black and white cocker spaniel puppy that a supporter from Texas had given his daughters. One of them named it Checkers, and Nixon defiantly asserted that, “regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.” The speech thus became known as “The Checkers Speech.”

Nixon finished with a call to action, asking his listeners to write to the Republican National Committee to show their support. His broadcast was seen by an estimated 60 million viewers, and letters and telegrams to the Republican National Committee were overwhelmingly supportive. Eisenhower kept him on the ticket and a few weeks later the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket carried the day with over 55% of the popular vote and 442 electoral votes.

Nixon accomplished three key verbal self-defense strategies in the “Checkers” speech. He argued that the fund was not what it seemed to be. He argued that he was a good steward of public funds and exposed his personal finances. He implied that he was serving a higher good because he supported General Eisenhower and opposed Communism.

But by 1974, things were different. Nixon was in trouble again, much worse trouble of his own making, and there was no “Checkers” speech, no way reframing his situation that would save his presidency. He resigned but he never apologized. Three years after resigning, in interviews with journalist David Frost, Nixon was unequivocally defiant:

When I resigned, people didn’t think it was enough to admit mistakes; fine. If they want me to get down and grovel on the floor, no. Never. Because I don’t believe I should.

Perhaps he was thinking about the “Checkers” speech.

Headline image credit: President Richard Nixon delivers remarks to the White House staff on his final day in office. From left to right are David Eisenhower, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, the president, First Lady Pat Nixon, Tricia Nixon Cox, and Ed Cox. 9 August 1974. White House photo, Courtesy Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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19. On the Town, flashpoint for racial distress

When the first production of On the Town in 1944 featured the Japanese American ballerina Sono Osato as its star, as part of a cast that also included whites and blacks, it aimed for a realistic depiction of the diversity among US citizens during World War II. It did so at a time when African Americans were expressing affinity with Nisei – that is, with second-generation children of Japanese nationals who had immigrated to other countries. The two communities shared the struggle of discrimination by the majority culture.

In 1942, the Office of War Information conducted a survey in Harlem, trying to gain an African-American perspective on the war, and opinions about the Japanese emerged in the process. Many Harlemites communicated a feeling that “these Japanese are colored people.” That quotation comes from a letter written by William Pickens, an African-American journalist who worked for the US Department of Treasury during World War II. When asked “Would you be better off if America or the Axis won the war?” most blacks in the survey stated they “would be treated either the same or better under Japanese rule, although a large majority responded that conditions would be worse under the Germans.”

Yet relationships between these two marginalized communities were not always easy, and On the Town became a flash point for racial distress. A striking case appeared in the memoir Long Old Road (Trident Press, 1965), written by Horace R. Cayton, Jr. An African American sociologist from Chicago, Cayton attended On the Town soon after he heard about the bombing of Hiroshima, which occurred on 6 August 1945. He articulated a shared mission between Nisei and African Americans, yet he did so with considerable agitation. “Our seats were good, and the theater was cool after the heat of New York,” wrote Cayton. He responded positively to the opening number, “New York, New York,” then launched into an assessment of the racial and political complexities posed by Osato’s appearance on stage at that particular moment in time. He perceived her as racially accommodating.

Sono Osato modeling a dress by Pattullo Modes, early 1940s. Dance Clipping Files, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
Sono Osato modeling a dress by Pattullo Modes, early 1940s. Dance Clipping Files, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

“It was a catchy tune with cute lyrics, but when the beautiful Sono Osato, who is of Japanese descent, appeared and frolicked with the American sailors, I was filled with anger and disgust,” wrote Cayton. “I care more about your people than you do, I thought, as I sat through the rest of the first act looking at the floor and wondering how soon I could escape to the bar next door.”

Cayton’s “anger and disgust” came from watching Osato engage directly and uncritically with white actors playing the role of sailors. At intermission, Cayton’s wife June, who was white, said to him: “This is the first good musical I’ve seen in years. Isn’t Sono Osato wonderful?” Cayton then recounted a tense conversation between the two of them:

“If I were half-Japanese I wouldn’t be dancing with three American sailors at a time like this,” I [Cayton] commented sourly.

“Why shouldn’t she? She’s as America as you or I.” June began to warm to her subject. “She was born in this country. She’s one hundred per cent American, doesn’t even understand Japanese.”

[Cayton replied:] ‘She’s a Jap, I’m a nigger, and you’re a white girl. Let none of us forget what we are.”

Cayton’s outburst comes across as a racial polemic. But there was deep complexity to his reaction, as he expressed solidarity with other non-white races as they confronted the hegemonic power of Caucasians. Even though his language is disturbing, it is extraordinarily frank, acknowledging the era’s venomous racism against the Japanese and the degree to which African Americans felt themselves to be backed against a wall during World War II. Cayton continued:

“I’m torn a dozen ways. I didn’t want the Japanese to win; after all, I am an American. But the mighty white man was being humiliated, and by the little yellow bastards he had nothing but contempt for. It gave me a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that white wasn’t always right, not always able to enforce its will on everyone who was colored. All those fine white liberals rejoicing because we dropped a bomb killing or maiming seventy-eight thousand helpless civilians. Why couldn’t we have dropped it on the Germans—because they were white? No, save it for the yellow bastards.”

Those multi-layered thoughts were unleashed by watching Sono Osato on stage, dancing an identity that was intended to portray her as “All-American” yet could not avoid the realities of her mixed-race heritage at a harrowing historical moment.

Headline Image: Sono Osato modeling a dress by Pattullo Modes, early 1940s. Dance Clipping Files, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.

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20. Facebook, the gender binary, and third-person pronouns

The death rattle of the gender binary has been ringing for decades now, leaving us to wonder when it will take its last gasp. In this third decade of third wave feminism and the queer critique, dismantling the binary remains a critical task in the gender revolution. Language is among the most socially pervasive tools through which culture is negotiated, but in a language like English, with its minimal linguistic marking of gender, it can be difficult to find concrete signs that linguistic structures are changing to reflect new ways of thinking about the gender binary rather than simply repackaging old ideas.

Sign from Genderblur at Twin Cities Pride 2003. Photo by Transguyjay. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.
Sign from Genderblur at Twin Cities Pride 2003. Photo by Transguyjay. CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

One direction we might look, though, is toward the gendering of third person pronouns, which is what led me to write this post about pronouns on Facebook. Yes, Facebook. The social media giant may not be your first thought when it comes to feminist language activism, but this year’s shift in the way Facebook categorizes gender is among the most widely-felt signs of a sea change in institutional attitudes about gendered third person pronouns. Although Facebook does not have the same force as the educational system, governments, or traditional print media, it carries its own linguistic caché established through its corporate authority, its place in the cultural negotiation of coolness and social connection, and its near inescapable presence in everyday life.

In response to long-standing calls from transgender and gender non-conforming users to broaden its approach to gender, Facebook announced earlier this year that it would offer a new set of options. Rather than limiting members of the site to the selection of female or male, an extensive list of gender identities is offered, along with the option of a custom entry, including labels like agender, bigender, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, trans person, two-spirit, transgender (wo)man and cisgender (i.e. non-transgender) (wo)man.

Screenshot couresty of Lal Zimman.
Screenshot courtesy of Lal Zimman.

With all of the potential complexity afforded by these categories, Facebook couldn’t rely on a simple algorithm of assigning gendered pronouns for those occasions on which the website generates a third person reference to the user (e.g. “Wish ___ a happy birthday!”). Instead, it asks which set of pronouns a user prefers among three options: he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs. As a result, there are two important ways that Facebook’s reconsideration of its gender classification system goes beyond the listing of additional gender categories. The first is the more obvious of the two: offering singular they as an option for those who prefer gender neutral reference forms. The other is simply the practice of asking for a pronoun preference rather than deriving it from gender or sex.

Screenshot courtesy of Lal Zimman
Screenshot courtesy of Lal Zimman

Sanctioning the use of singular they as a gender neutral pronoun counters the centuries-old grammarian’s complaint that they can only be used in reference to plural third person referents. Proponents of singular they, however, point out that the pronoun has been used by some of the English-speaking world’s finest writers and that it was in wide-spread use even before blatantly misogynistic language policies determined that he should be the gender-neutral pronoun in official texts of the British government. More recently, an additional source of support for singular they has arisen: for those who do not wish to be slotted into one side of the gender binary or the other, they is perhaps the most intuitive way to avoid gendered third-person pronouns because of its already familiar presence in most dialects of English. (Other options include innovative pronouns like ze/hir/hirs or ey/em/em’s.) In this case, a speaker must choose between upholding grammatical conventions and affirming someone’s identity.

Courtesy of Lal Zimman.
Courtesy of Lal Zimman.

But wait, you might ask – don’t we need a distinction between singular and plural they? How are we supposed to know when someone is talking about a single person and when they’re talking about a group? Though my post isn’t necessarily meant to defend the use of singular they in reference to specific individuals (an argument others have made quite extensively), this point is worth addressing briefly if only to dispel the notion that the standard pronoun system is logical while deviations are somehow logically flawed. As the pronoun charts included here illustrate, there is already a major gap in the standard English pronoun system when compared to many other languages: a distinction between singular and plural you. Somehow we get by, however, relying on context and sometimes asking for clarification. Could we do the same with they?

Courtesy of Lal Zimman.
Courtesy of Lal Zimman.

The second pronoun-related change Facebook has made – asking for preferred pronouns rather than determining them based on gender category – is a more fundamental challenge to the normative take on assigning pronouns. According to conventional wisdom, a speaker will select whether to use she or he based on certain types of information about the person being referred to: how their bodily sex is perceived, how they present their gender, and in some cases other contextual factors like their name. To be uncertain about which gendered pronoun to use can be a source of great anxiety, exemplified by cultural artifacts like Saturday Night Live’s androgynous character from the 1990s known only as Pat. No one ever asks Pat about their gender because to do so would presumably be a grave insult, as Pat apparently has no idea that they have an androgynous appearance (were you able to follow me, despite the singular they’s?).

But transgender and queer communities are increasingly turning this logic on its head. Rather than risk being “mis-pronouned,” as community members sometimes call it, it is becoming the norm for introductions in many trans and queer contexts to include pronouns preferences along with names. For instance, my name is Lal and I prefer he/him/his pronouns. (Even the custom of calling these “male” pronouns has been critiqued on the basis that one needn’t identify as male in order to prefer he/him/his pronouns.) The goal behind this move is to remove the tension of uncertainty and to avoid potential offense or embarrassment before it takes place. But this is not just a practice for transgender and gender non-conforming people; the ideal is that no one’s pronoun preferences be taken for granted. Instead of determining pronouns according to appearance, they become a matter of open negotiation in which one can demonstrate an interest in using language that feel maximally respectful to others.

Facebook’s adoption of this new approach to pronouns, despite prescriptive grammarians’ objections, suggests that the acceptance and use of singular they is expanding. More than that, it furthers the normalization of self-selected pronouns since even those who are totally unfamiliar with the use of singular they as a preferred pronoun, or the very idea of pronoun preferences, may be faced with unexpected pronouns in their daily newsfeeds.

For those of us at academic institutions with sizable transgender and gender non-conforming communities, the practices discussed here may already be underway on campus. During my time teaching at Reed College, for instance, I found students to be enthusiastic about including pronoun preferences in our beginning-of-semester introductions even in classes where everyone’s pronoun preferences aligned with normative expectations.

My goal here isn’t to argue that the gender binary is dissolving in the face of new pronoun practices. Indeed, linguistic negotiations of gender and sexual binaries are far too complex to draw such a simple conclusion. However, what I do want to suggest is that we are in the midst of some kind of shift in the way pronouns are used and understood among speakers of English. Describing a more fully complete change of this sort, linguistic anthropologist Michael Silverstein has explained how religious and political ideology among speakers of Early Modern English resulted in a collapse of the second person pronouns thou (singular, informal) and you (plural, formal). In the present case, rapidly changing ideologies about the gender binary may be pushing us toward a different organization of third person pronouns of the sort illustrated by the non-binary pronoun chart above.

The effect of Facebook on linguistic practice more broadly has yet to be fully uncovered, but its capital-driven flexibility and omnipresence in contemporary social life suggests that it may be a powerful tool in ideologically-driven language change.

Headline image credit: People and gender. CC0 via Pixabay.

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21. Caught in Satan’s Storm

On 22 September 1692 eight more victims of the Salem witch trials were executed on Gallows Hill. After watching the executions of Martha Cory, Margaret Scott, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Willmott Redd, Samuel Wardwell, and Mary Parker, Salem’s junior minister Nicholas Noyes exclaimed “What a sad thing to see eight firebrands of hell hanging there.” These would be the last of the executions, for the trials were facing increasing opposition amid a growing dissatisfaction with the political and spiritual leadership of the colony. Symbolic of that displeasure, less than two months later Noyes’s cousin, Sarah Noyes Hale, the wife of Beverly’s Reverend John Hale, would stand accused of witchcraft.

The Court of Oyer and Terminer, created by Governor Sir William Phips to deal with the witchcraft crisis, increasingly mimicked the arbitrary rule of the former governor Sir Edmond Andros and his hated Dominion of New England. Andros restricted rights and controlled the legal system through his appointment of judges, officials and “packed and picked” juries that did his bidding. In 1687 when several Essex County towns rose up in a tax revolt, protesting what they saw as Andros’s arbitrary and illegal tax law, Sir Edmond acted quickly to try and convict the leaders before a specially established Court of Oyer and Terminer. One of the judges on that panel was William Stoughton, a former minister.

Now five years later, under a new government and royal charter that had supposedly restored English liberties to Massachusetts, William Stoughton headed another Court of Oyer and Terminer that was again making quick and arbitrary decisions. This time people were losing their lives. In a two week session in early September, the court heard 15 cases and convicted 15 people of witchcraft. It was a rush to judgment, especially when the evidence was not as strong as in earlier prosecutions. Judges increasingly relied on dubious spectral evidence, and many observers must have been taken aback by the treatment of Giles Cory. He had been pressed to death on 19 September for standing mute when asked if he would accept a trial by jury. Worse, no one who confessed to being a witch had been executed – with the exception of Samuel Wardwell, who recanted his confession. Only those who refused to confess met death.

The house built for Reverend John and Sarah Hale in 1694, in Beverly, Massachusetts. Today it is operated as a museum by the Beverly Historical Society. Photo by Emerson W. Baker.
The house built for Reverend John and Sarah Hale in 1694, in Beverly, Massachusetts. Today it is operated as a museum by the Beverly Historical Society. Photo by Emerson W. Baker.

The trials were but one failure of a weak government that continued to mismanage a war that had damaged the colony’s economy and threatened its very existence. The conflict against the French Catholics of Canada and their Native allies was also symbolic of the ongoing spiritual struggle in Massachusetts. Religious and political leaders had long called for a campaign for moral reformation to end the perceived decline of Puritan faith. The many accusations of witchcraft against the religious and political elite and their families show the extreme level of discontent at the failure of these policy makers.

A total of 20 people (11%) of the 172 formally accused or informally cried out on for witchcraft in 1692 were ministers or their close relatives. The number grows to 50 if one includes extended kin and in-laws of ministers – fully 30% of the people accused in 1692. In all, five ministers, four minister’s wives, three daughters, a son, two brothers and five grandchildren of ministers were cried out upon. Warrants were issued for only five of the twenty, and only two – George Burroughs and Abigail Dane Faulkner (daughter of Andover’s Reverend Francis Dane) would face the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

Burrough’s story is well known but historians have given little attention to Samuel Willard, Francis Dane, John Busse and Jeremiah Shepard, for none were ever formally charged. But they form an important part of an overlooked pattern of accusations against ministers and their families. Virtually all of the ministers who were accused or had family accused preached in New England churches that had accepted the Halfway Covenant – a controversial compromise that conservatives saw as a threat to Puritan orthodoxy.

These ministerial families were allied to each other by marriage, as can be seen in the example of Sarah Noyes Hale who was related to eight ministers. Her brother James would later be one of the seven ministers who founded Yale University. These families also married into the leading political families of the colony, so the accusations were a critique of the political and military leadership as well, including the witchcraft judges. And, the accusations went to the very top. Both Lady Mary Spencer Phips and Maria Cotton Mather were cried out upon. Clearly they served as stand-ins for their husbands – Governor Phips and his chief confidante, Reverend Increase Mather.

Maria Mather was the lynchpin connecting the two most important families of Puritan divines in Massachusetts. Her husband Increase was the President of Harvard College and the son of the prominent Reverend Richard Mather, while her father John Cotton was perhaps the leading Puritan theologian to join the Great Migration. Maria was also the sister of two ministers, sister-in-law of four more, and mother of Reverends Cotton and Samuel Mather. Increase and Cotton were both longstanding advocates of the Halfway Covenant but their conservative North Church had refused to accept it. During the trials, the Mathers were in the final stages of a campaign to get the North Church to adopt the Halfway Covenant. One of the few stalwart church members who stood in the way was Oyer and Terminer Judge John Richards.

The executions of 22 September were clearly the last straw for many observers of the witch trials. They generated opposition to the proceedings and the government, as well as accusations against the colony’s elite. It is notable that soon after his wife was cried out upon, Sir William Phips finally brought the Court of Oyer and Terminer to an end.

Headline image credit: Photo courtesy of Emerson “Tad” Baker.

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22. The impact of law on families

Strong, stable relationships are essential for both individuals and societies to flourish, but, from transportation policy to the criminal justice system, and from divorce rules to the child welfare system, the legal system makes it harder for parents to provide children with these kinds of relationships.

In her book Failure to Flourish: How Law Undermines Family Relationships, Clare Huntington argues that the legal regulation of families stands fundamentally at odds with the needs of families. We interviewed Professor Huntington about the connection between families and inequality. In the clips below, she explains policies and misconceptions that prevent us from helping families during the crucial first years of a child’s life, provides examples of supportive family law and good neighborhood development, and describes how helping families plays a role in fighting poverty.

Family law and how it affects families

Politics and policy in family law

The role of families in fighting poverty

How do you get into family law?

Headline image credit: family traffic sign. Public domain via Pixabay.

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23. The Responsibility to Protect in the Ebola outbreak

When the UN General Assembly endorsed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005, the members of the United Nations recognized the responsibility of states to protect the basic human and humanitarian rights of the world’s citizens. In fact, R2P articulates concentric circles of responsibility, starting with the individual state’s obligation to ensure the well-being of its own people; nested within the collective responsibility of the community of nations to assist individual states in meeting those obligations; in turn encircled by the responsibility of the United Nations to respond if necessary to ensure the basic rights of civilians, with military means only contemplated as a last resort, and only with the consent of the Security Council.

The Responsibility to Protect is a response to war crimes, genocide, and other crimes against humanity. But R2P is also a response to pattern and practice human rights abuses that include entrenched poverty, widespread hunger and malnutrition, and endemic disease and denials of basic health care — all socio-economic conditions which themselves feed and exacerbate armed conflict. In fact, socio-economic development is a powerful mechanism for guaranteeing the full panoply of human rights, just as the Millennium Development Goals are a means of fulfilling the Responsibility to Protect.

While Responsibility to Protect is often misconstrued as a mandate for military action, it is more intrinsically a call to social action, and the embodiment of the joint and several responsibilities of the community of nations to seek a coordinated global response to life-threatening conditions of armed conflict, repression, and socio-economic misery. While diplomats and public servants debate the legality and prudence of military responses to criminal uses of military force against civilians, we must not neglect the legality, prudence, and urgency of non-military responses to public health and poverty emergencies throughout the world.

The United States has put out a call to like-minded nations to join forces, literally and figuratively, in the degradation and destruction of the criminal militancy of the so-called Islamic State [ISIL or ISIL]. Despite concerns that the 2003-2011 US war in Iraq itself may have led to the inception and flourishing of ISIS, and despite warnings that the training, arming, and assisting of Iraqi forces, Shia militias in Iraq and non-ISIS Sunni militants in Syria may inflame sectarian violence and threaten civilians in both countries, the United States is contemplating another open-ended military intervention in the Levant.

A military intervention against ISIS is not justified by the principles of Responsibility to Protect. Without the authorization of the Security Council or the consent of the Syrian government, military intervention is unlawful in Syria, offending both the UN Charter and the tenets of R2P. In either Syria or Iraq a military intervention, even with the permission of the responsible governments, is unlawful if it is likely to lead to further outrages against civilians. Military action that predictably causes the suffering of civilians disproportionate to any legitimate military objectives violates the principles of humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions, as well as the UN Charter and R2P.

UNICEF and partners visit the crowded Marché Niger to continue explaining to families how to they can protect themselves from Ebola. We have visited many markets, churches, mosques, schools, and community centers throughout Conakry and in the Forest region where the outbreak began. CC BY-NC 2.0 via UNICEF Guinea Flickr.
UNICEF and partners visit the crowded Marché Niger to continue explaining to families how to they can protect themselves from Ebola. UNICEF have visited many markets, churches, mosques, schools, and community centers throughout Conakry and in the Forest region where the outbreak began. CC BY-NC 2.0 via UNICEF Guinea Flickr.

Alongside the criminal militancy of ISIS we face the existential threat of the Ebola virus in West Africa, endangering the people of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and their neighbors. Over the past two months, approximately 5000 people have been infected by this hemorrhagic disease, and around 2500 have died, over 150 of them health care workers. At current rates of infection, with new cases doubling every three weeks, the virus could sicken 10,000 by the end of September, 40,000 by mid-November, and 120,000 by the New Year.

Ebola can be contained through basic public health responses: quarantining of the sick, tracing of exposure in families and communities, safe recovery of the bodies of the deceased, regular hand-washing and sanitation, and the all-important rebuilding of trust between effected community members, health care workers, and government officials. But the very countries impacted have fragile health care systems, insufficient hospital beds, and dedicated Red Cross workers, doctors, and nurses nearly besieged by the number of sick people needing care. By funding and supporting more health care and humanitarian relief workers at the international and local levels, more Ebola field hospitals and clinics, and more food, rehydration fluids, and safe blood supplies for transfusions, less new people will fall sick, and more of the infected will be treated and cured. At the same time, the fragile economies and political systems of the effected countries will be strengthened and the threat of regional insecurity will be addressed. Ebola in West Africa is calling out for a coordinated global public health intervention, which will serve our Responsibility to Protect at the local level, while furthering our collective security at the global level.

As the US Congress debates the funding of so-called moderate rebels in Syria in the pursuit of containing the criminal militancy of ISIS, we should turn our national attention to funding Ebola emergency relief in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Such action is consistent with our enlightened self-interest, and required by our humanitarian principles and obligations.

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24. Learning with body participation through motion-sensing technologies

Have you ever thought that your body movements can be transformed into learning stimuli and help to deal with abstract concepts? Subjects in natural science contain plenty of abstract concepts which are difficult to understand through reading-based materials, in particular for younger learners who are at the stage of developing their cognitive ability. For example, elementary school students would find it hard to distinguish the differences in similar concepts of fundamental optics such as concave lens imaging versus convex lens imaging. By performing a simulated exercise in person, learners can comprehend concepts easily because of the content-related actions involved during the process of learning natural science.

As far as commonly adopted virtual simulations of natural science experiments are concerned, the learning approach with keyboard and mouse lacks a comprehensive design. To make the learning design more comprehensive, we suggested that learners be provided with a holistic learning context based on embodied cognition, which views mental simulations in the brain, bodily states, environment, and situated actions as integral parts of cognition. In light of recent development in learning technologies, motion-sensing devices have the potential to be incorporated into a learning-by-doing activity for enhancing the learning of abstract concepts.

When younger learners study natural science, their body movements with external perceptions can positively contribute to knowledge construction during the period of performing simulated exercises. The way of using keyboard/mouse for simulated exercises is capable of conveying procedural information to learners. However, it only reproduces physical experimental procedures on a computer. For example, when younger learners use conventional controllers to perform fundamental optics simulation exercises, they might not benefit from such controller-based interaction due to the routine-like operations. If environmental factors, namely bodily states and situated actions, were well-designed as external information, the additional input can further help learners to better grasp the concepts through meaningful and educational body participation.

learning body participation
Photo by Nian-Shing Chen. Used with permission.

Based on the aforementioned idea, we designed an embodiment-based learning strategy to help younger learners perform optics simulation exercises and learn fundamental optics better. With this learning strategy enabled by the motion-sensing technologies, younger learners can interact with digital learning content directly through their gestures. Instead of routine-like operations, the gestures are designed as content-related actions for performing optics simulation exercises. Younger learners can then construct fundamental optics knowledge in a holistic learning context.

One of the learning goals is to acquire knowledge. Therefore, we created a quasi-experiment to evaluate the embodiment-based learning strategy by comparing the leaning performance of the embodiment-based learning group with that of the keyboard-mouse learning group. The result shows that the embodiment-based learning group significantly outperformed the keyboard-mouse learning group. Further analysis shows that no significant difference of cognitive load was found between these two groups although applying new technologies in learning could increase the consumption of learners’ cognitive resources. As it turned out, the embodiment-based learning strategy is an effective learning design to help younger learners comprehend abstract concepts of fundamental optics.

For natural science learning, the learning content and the process of physically experimenting are both important for learners’ cognition and thinking. The operational process conveys implicit knowledge regarding how something works to learners. In the experiments of lens imaging, the position of virtual light source and the type of virtual lens can help learners determine the attributes of the virtual image. By synchronizing gestures with virtual light source, a learner not only concentrates on the simulated experimental process but realizes the details of the external perception. Accordingly, learners can further understand how movements of the virtual light source and the types of virtual lens change the virtual image and learn the knowledge of fundamental optics better.

Our body movements have the potential to improve our learning if adequate learning strategies and designs are applied. Although motion-sensing technologies are now available to the general public, massive applications will depend on economical price and evidence-based approaches recommended for the educational purposes. The embodiment-based design has launched a new direction and is hoped to continuously shed light on improving our future learning.

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25. Atheism and feminism

At first glance atheism and feminism are two sides of the same coin.

After all, the most passionate criticism of patriarchy has come from religious (or formerly religious) female scholars. First-hand experience of male domination in such contexts has led many to translate their views into direct political activism. As a result, the fight for women’s rights has often been inseparable from the critique of organised religion.

For example, a nineteenth-century campaigner for civil rights, Ernestine Rose, began by rebelling against an arranged marriage at the tender age of 16, and then gradually added other injustices she witnessed during her travels around Europe and the United States to her list of causes.

Rose was born in a Jewish family, and her religious background certainly affected her subsequent life in two distinct ways. Judaism fostered an inquisitive and critical attitude to the world around her, while at the same time making her aware of the gender inequalities in her own and other religious traditions. She went to the United States in 1836 where she soon started to give public lectures on ending slavery, religious freedom and women’s rights. After one of such public appearance, she was described by the local paper as a ‘female Atheist … a thousand times below a prostitute’.

Negative publicity meant that Rose’s popularity grew significantly, although her speeches were met with such outrage that had to flee the more conservative towns. She continued to make appearances at women’s rights conventions across the United States, although her outspoken atheism caused unease to both men and women.

It did not, however, stop her from becoming the president of the National Women’s Rights Convention in 1854. She worked and made friends with other politically involved women of her time, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Sojourner Truth. Rose’s atheism was not exactly at the forefront of her struggle for justice but it implicitly informed her views and actions. For example, she blamed both organised religion and capitalism for the inferior status of women.

Bali 033 - Ubud - flower offerings
Flower offerings. By mckaysavage. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Well over a century later the number and variety of female atheists are growing. Nonetheless, atheism remains a male-dominated affair. Data collected by the Atheist Alliance International (2011) show that in Britain, women account for 21.6% of atheists (as opposed to 77.9% men). In the United States men make up 70% of Americans who identify as atheist. In Poland, 32% of atheists are female, and similarly in Australia it is 31.5% .

On rare occasions when female atheists appear in the media, they are invariably feminist activists. This is hardly a problem but unfortunately it leads to a conflation of feminist activism and atheism, which in turn makes the ‘everyday’ female atheists invisible. It also encourages stereotyping of the most simplistic sort whereby the feminist stance becomes the primary focus while the atheism is treated as an add-on. But the two do not necessarily go together, and the women may not see them as equally central to their lives.

As significant progress has been made with regard to gender equality, and traditional religion has largely lost its influence over women’s lives, the connection between atheism and feminism has become more complicated.

My current project involves talking to self-identified female atheists from Britain, Poland, Australia, and the United States. Times may have changed but the core values held by these women closely resemble those espoused by Ernestine Rose, and the passion with which they speak about global and local injustice indicates a very particular atheism, far removed from the detached, rational and scientific front presented by some of the famous (male) faces of the atheist movement.

Two themes have emerged. One is the ease with which an atheist identity can be combined with ethics of care and altruism (thus demonstrating the compatibility of non-belief with goodness). Two is discrimination against women within the atheist movement.

ErnestineRose
Ernestine Rose. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The latter reminds me of a paper I once heard at a Gender and Religion conference in Tel Aviv. The presenter compared two synagogues in Paris: a progressive and liberal one which had a female rabbi, and a conservative one which preserved the strict division of gender roles. The paradox lay in the fact that more instances of discrimination against women, including overt sexism and sexual harassment, were reported among the members of the liberal synagogue.

Clearly, nobody looks for sexism in a place defined as non-sexist. A similar paradox applies to atheists. An activist in the atheist community told me that she received the worst abuse from her fellow (male) atheists, not religious hardliners.

One of the explanations for women’s greater religiosity is their need for community, emotional support, and a guiding light in life. Conservative religions perform this role very well, but so do alternative spiritualities where traditional religion is in decline and women suffer from emotional, not material, deprivation.

Atheism does the same for my interviewees. The task of a sociologist is to de-familiarise the familiar and to find the unexpected in the everyday through the grace of serendipity. Female atheists find empowerment and means of expression in their atheism, while at the same time defining it for themselves, rather than relying on the prominent male figures in the atheist community. While on the surface they lack the structure present in religious communities of women, they create networks of support with other women where atheism is but one, albeit a crucial one, feature of their self-definition.

The openness provides a more inclusive and flexible starting point for coming together and fighting for equality and justice, not necessarily on the barricades. Activism is inspiring but values spread more effectively it is in the everyday, mundane activities. In this sense, deeply religious and deeply atheist women have a lot in common. Both find fulfilment and joy in forging connections with other people and creating a safe haven for themselves and those close to them.

The female atheist activists all say the same thing: ‘I do it because I want to help’. A modest statement which can achieve a lot in the long run.

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