March 31, 2023

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, March 2023

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste, and no qualifications to opine on African-American political psychology, opinion-survey research, medieval Islamic Indology, or the history of the scientific revolution. Also, most of my reading this month was done while recovering from foot surgery and/or while bottle-feeding a baby, so I'm much less reliable and more cranky than usual.

Kel Symons et al., I Love Trouble
Cecil Castellucci and Marley Zarcone, Shade, the Changing Girl
Cullen Bunn et al., Harrow County, vols. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Philippe Thirault et al., Miss: Better Living Through Crime
Kurt Busiek et al., The Autumnlands, vols. 1 and 2
Ryan North et al., The Midas Flesh, vol. 2
Comic-book mind candy, assorted. Autumnlands reminds me a little of Zelazny from the 1960s or 1970s. --- Previously for Midas Flesh; previously for Harrow County.
Paul M. Sniderman and Thomas Piazza, Black Pride and Black Prejudice [JSTOR]
The central question here is whether, among African Americans in the greater Chicago area circa 2000, higher levels of racial pride lead to higher levels of prejudice against those not in the race, especially (but not exclusively) against Jews. The authors addressed this through opinion surveys, including some ingenious survey experiments *.
On substantive grounds I have little to say here. What troubles me about this though is that the authors (and their critics) seems content to take few-level ordinal data and run it through linear regression after linear regression, endlessly permuting which variable goes on the left hand side and which ones are on the right. The ideas about validating measurements are hopeless, along the lines of the Zeller and Carmines book which so disappointed me (unsurprisingly, since Sniderman and Carmines collaborated). They are also prone to the fallacy of confusing "this regression coefficient is not statistically significant" with "this relationship is unimportant" **, and they never once look at their residuals to check their a regression specification. To be clear, I have no doubt that the survey was done as well as humanly possible; it's the analysis of the results which drives me nuts.
At some point, I confess, I wanted to make them shut down their statistical software, hand over the data set, and run the whole thing through pcalg myself, using the chi-squared test for conditional independence that works for categorical variables. (This would assume all the systematically-important variables are measured, but then, so do their regressions.) I would then hand them back the inferred graphical causal model, and let them use it to address their substantive questions. (This is of course a fantasy, because pcalg didn't exist --- but not such a fantasy, because TETRAD was a thing in 2002.) The upshot of my fantasy would be a comprehensible, reliably-constructed guess at how all their different variables inter-relate, allowing one to draw real inferences. The way they actually proceeded instead gave them an uninterpretable mush --- or, rather, a mush which demands interpretation rather than supporting calculation. In all this, of course, they are no worse than most quantitative social science. §
*: Reassuringly, including indicator variables for their experimental treatments makes no differences to the coefficients of other variables in their regressions. They do not appear to appreciate that this has to be true if the treatments were successfully randomized (so the treatment indicator is linearly unpredictable from the covariates). This would not be true if the treatment interacted with the covariates, but they never consider interactions anyway. ^
**: To repeat a teaching example: "Imagine hearing what sounds like the noise of an animal in the next room. If the room is small, brightly lit, free of obstructions, and you make a thorough search of it with unimpaired vision and concentration, not finding an animal in it is, in fact, good evidence that there was no animal there to be found. If on the other hand the room is dark, large, full of hiding places, and you make a hurried search while distracted, without your contact lenses and after a few too many drinks, you could easily have missed all sorts of things, and your negative report has little weight as evidence. (In this parable, the difference between a large [coefficient] and a small [coefficient] is the difference between looking for a Siberian tiger and looking for a little black cat.)" ^
Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, Alberuni's India: An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws and Astrology of India about A.D. 1030 (trans. Edward C. Sachau, 1888; online in two volumes)
Biruni went to India in the wake of the armies of his patron/captor, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni, and stayed for a dozen years or so, learning languages, studying the country, and assimilating Hindu learning. This is his attempt at summarizing what he thought was most important about Indian culture for a Muslim audience. It's encyclopedic, sympathetic, admiring, sometimes exasperated, occasionally baffled. I can't find a more recent translation into English, so this one from the 19th century had to do. It's mostly readable, though there are quite a few places where the translator calls for more research and this reprint, naturally, doesn't say whether it's been followed up *. In any event, I found this fascinating. One aspect which particularly struck me is Biruni's concern with convincing the reader that educated Hindus are really monotheists, drawing explicit analogies to Christian veneration of saints, "idols", etc. I think the goal here is to get the reader to not dismiss Indian thought as mere pagan superstition. (But might he be hinting that Hindus are really a People of the Book?) §
*: Sachau does have the odd habit of rendering some of Biruni's Arabic technical and philosophical vocabulary as (English renditions of) Greek words. I found this vexing, because he never explains whether this is because an Arabic term was itself a translation of a Hellenistic original, or whether he just thinks Greek would be more familiar to a Victorian audience, or what. I realize this is me tweaking a 19th century Orientalist scholar for insufficient philological exactitude, and can't wait to find out what form karma will take. ^
David Wootton, Galileo: Watcher of the Skies
For the most part, this is a very able, even exciting, biography of Galileo, and a defense of him as a scientist and a natural philosopher from criticisms by the likes of Feyerabend. There are, however, one or two passages of truly wild psychoanalysis, so wild I can't begin to say whether Wootton means those bits seriously. So: mostly what I expected from the author of The Invention of Science. §

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Writing for Antiquity; Islam and Islamic Civilization; The Great Transformation; Commit a Social Science; Enigmas of Chance; The Beloved Republic

Posted at March 31, 2023 23:59 | permanent link

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