Theory’s Gonna Getchya: Incentives and Academic Fraud


This post floats an argument I have been kicking about in the wake of Don Green‘s retraction of the LaCour & Green article in Science.  Before jumping ino that, however, I want to observe impressed I am with how decisively and rapidly Green responded to the apparent fraud in his project.  While we expect leaders to take responsibility and act appropriately when scandal breaks, they rarely do.  And, given where he found himself over the weekend, Don Green just modeled exceptional behavior. I have spoken with many people who feel that “he had no choice” and that “we would all act that way.”  I am not that sanguine.[1]  As I see it, we should all hope to conduct ourselves that well should we find ourselves in the crucible.[2]

That said, Green’s retraction request shines a light on an issue that the causal inference zealots do not, as far as I am aware, widely appreciate: they are at greater risk to the fraud that appears to have occurred in this case than those of us who rely on theory and observational data to draw our causal inferences.  Bear with me, and see whether you think I am onto something here.

Kicking Theory to the Curb

Let me begin with Green’s 1990s work, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory and “Dirty Pool” <ungated PDF>.  I read “Dirty Pool” first, and while it contains a useful take away—fixed effects can serve as a useful benchmark when working with cross-sectional data—what jumped out at me was its apparent contempt for the role of theory in valid causal inference.  To be sure, it was more implied than boldly stated, but it was, in my view, unmistakable.

I then read Pathologies, which is an embarrassing straw man attack on rational choice theory, and updated my belief: this was a scholar who is definitely hostile to theory, and especially the rational choice variants.

What those works lacked was a positive alternative: if we are going to reduce the role of theory in causal inference, then what do we use in its place?[3]  Green, among others, would provide that answer.  Indeed, a nascent causal inference identification revolution was soon afoot, and Green became one of the leading zealots.

While I had little use for Green’s early zealotry, as a student of rebellions I am well aware of the positive role radical positions can play, and quickly came to appreciate (mostly due to colleagues at FSU) the value greater attention to design delivers.  Today it is clearly apparent that Green, his fellow zealots and their acolytes have brought remarkable benefits to scientific inquiry in our field.

That said, I sketch here how his disdain for rational choice theory absent “satisfactory” empirical evidence likely led him to under appreciate the elevated risk to data fraud his projects run.

The turn to greater attention to how designs might help us estimate causal inferences has been fantastic for science, and Green deserves a great deal of credit for playing a role in that shift in political science.  That said, his antipathy to theory in general, and rational choice theory in particular, sets the stage for an irony that I cannot resist pointing out.  If you have not yet guessed, ’tis a story about the incentive to cheat, principal–agent theories of human behavior and the risk of data fraud in academic research.

Consider a Distribution over That

Let’s embrace the world Green eschews and assume that the risk to data fraud varies across research projects.  What dimensions might we theoretically identify over which such risk might vary?  How about: the weight placed on the data?

Imagine a dimension describing the theory/data mix supporting an inference that ranges from 100% Theory, No Evidence on the left extreme value to 100% Evidence, No Theory on the right extreme value.  Now let the risk to data fraud be depicted on a vertical axis over some range that works for you.  What’s your belief about the shape of the curve depicting risk to data fraud as we move from the left to the right on the horizontal axis?

I confess, I don’t have a very precise belief about the curve beyond it’s basic shape: I am confident it rises monotonically.[4]   Why?

Scientific publication produces benefits and the probability of being caught cheating is less than one.  Holding the risk of being caught constant, as the importance of data to a project rises, the benefit to fudging the data should also rise.

“Fine,” you might say, “but what of principals and agents?”  Indeed.  Those of us who have collected data can attest that it generally involves hiring people to undertake much of the work.  Enter the PA problem (just theory here; no data up my sleeves).  All data collection efforts are exposed to the risk of fraudulent recording, and that risk rises as the number of people involved rises.

“Fine, fine,” you might say, “holding constant the number of people one hires, why would the PA problem be any worse for field experiment projects such as those headed by Don Green and the like?”

I have been involved in observational data collection efforts that one expects to be used for multiple research projects evaluating a variety of hypotheses implied by many theories.  Field experiment data tend to have a much more narrow purpose: to estimate a specific (set of) causal effect(s).  As such, the project’s success depends not upon completing and depositing the data, but generating a finding.  The value of a large field experiment project has a much more binary flavor than that of a large observational data project.  The former will and often can only be used “once”–the latter is often intended to provide for many future projects and general inquiry.  Both contribute to our understanding of politics, but the temptation to fudge is stronger in projects where the data are tailored in form to estimate the size of a very particular if not singular finding.

To summarize, my argument suggests that the PA problem intersects with the incentive to fudge, and they jointly make the risk to data fraud considerably higher in the work that Don Green does than the “theory and observational data” work that some zealots are so dismissive of.

What’s the Upshot?

At the end of the day we can trust that the social practice of science will work well, as Green’s retraction amply illustrates it can.

The import, then, is not for the community at large, but for each of us as we plan our multi-person, data collection projects.  I encourage folks to consider the risk to fraud in their projects.  I am confident that social science will continue to become more team based, making an issue Rick Wilson discussed increasingly important:

This case also raises the question of the role of LaCour’s co-author in monitoring the work… All of us who have co-authors trust what they have done. But at the same time, co-authors also serve as an important check on our work. I know that my co-authors constantly question what I have done and ask for additional tests to ensure that a finding is robust. I do the same when I see something produced by a co-author over which I had no direct involvement.

Regardless of whether my beliefs about the variance in risk to fraud are reasonable, I trust that few believe the risk to fraud is constant across all projects.   But I hope this post helps us begin to think more explicitly about risk to fraud, and about the construction of useful monitoring systems in our projects.[5]  There is, after all, a theoretical literature to which we can turn.

In closing, this post leaned on no data, much less an “identified” causal inference.  I hope we don’t need to wait for “gold-standard” field experiments before taking the issue seriously.


Too soon?


[1] This may be because I study dissent, repression and human rights violations, and do not see those processes as driven by good v evil human beings, but banal human processes in which any randomly selected one of us are much more likely to participate, given appropriate circumstances, than we want to believe.

[2] I am not suggesting that Green is “an innocent victim” here, though that may well prove to be true.  From where I sit Green, and other causal inference zealots who downgrade the role of theory, are prone to rely too strongly upon design and “getting the same result from two experiments” when they could rely upon theory to provide constraints on expected results, and especially the size of effects.  But that’s an issue for another post.

[3] The importance of theory to valid causal inference is generally credited to Karl Popper, and a useful account can be found in Designing Social Inquiry, among many others.  Imre Lakatos provided an important generalization that emphasizes science as a practice of a community, rather than a solitary exercise pitting hypotheses and data, an issue that is poorly understood even among scientists that I discuss here.

[4] More precisely, I believe it continues to rise monotonically, not just a rise as Evidence goes from a zero percentage to a non-zero percentage.

[5] For the Ill Treatment and Torture project Courtenay Conrad and I decided that a mix of recruitment screening, costly signalling before joining the project, and consistent emphasis on the fact that their wages were paid by the American tax payer (via an NSF grant), and that the ability of future students to gain such research experience depended on their doing excellent work.  We relied strictly on rational choice theory to design this system.

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Fraud Detection is Always Good, Science Stylee

There is moaning, wailing and gnashing of teeth on Facebook this morning by political scientists who are troubled by Donald Green‘s request to Science to retract a co-authored article of his that it recently published.  Political scientists are expressing concerns along the lines that this is horrible for the discipline, and so on.  They are wrong.  The detection of fraud is always good.  Full stop.

Let’s consider a case that genuinely warranted such concern: the use of the seal of the state of Montana in a mailer sent to voters in a get out the vote experiment.[1]  The problem with the decision to use the seal is that it was politically tone deaf, drew the ire of elected officials, and played into the hands of anti-science legislators.  Detection of academic fraud is none of these things.

If that’s the case, then why all the concern about this being bad for political science?  My best guess is that folks do not recognize an implicit assumption they have about science that is Pollyannaish: like crime, vanity, sloth, and so on, fraud does not occur among my people.  This fantasy is, of course, a bunch of unicorns and rainbows.  Just as the optimal level of crime and terror attacks is NOT zero, the optimal level of academic fraud is not zero.  And this implies that the hand wringing about hoping that deterrence will work next time is foolishness that professional political scientists should be embarrassed to post on social media.  Right?  Wrong.  And I explain why (i.e., discuss norms)  below.

Setting aside norms, academic fraud is banal: it would be really odd if it did not happen.   Why?  Because that would suggest that (1) there are no benefits from publishing influential work or (2) human beings are not involved in the production of scientific work.  Neither is true.[2]  So let’s now consider deterrence systems.  Political scientists study those, right?  And the findings are that they work 100% of the time, right?  And research into efficiency of deterrence suggests that we should spend infinite resources to design systems that are perfect, right?  Dick Cheney is right: deter all threats!  The NSA must monitor all communications!  I trust I have snarked my point.  When we teach and discuss the scientific process we really need to emphasize this.

And that is why the detection and detraction are such a good thing.  This genuinely is good news.  What is really, really bad is undetected fraud that influences future work.  And the great thing about the scientific process is that it is structured such that the really bad outcome is very, very unlikely despite the banal existence of academic fraud.  Detection is awesome because it demonstrates that science frigging works!  And we all now have an outstanding example we can use to teach our students this.  That. Is. Excellent.

OK, so if “everything is awesome,” what’s up with the concern on Facebook? That is norm reproduction.  Human societies rely strongly upon norms, and social media produce a new mechanism for norm reproduction.  Fables and similar tales were the oral standard, and when our species developed inexpensive means to produce and distribute texts, books, newspapers and magazines replaced the oral tradition.  During the 20th Century radio, film and television rivaled and eventually displaced print.  The World Wide Web has put individuals back in circulation, and social media has dramatically expanded our ability to cheaply signal our fealty to norms.

That said, what is undoubtedly troubling is the fact that shaming is the primary mechanism by which norms are enforced.  And we know that people are low information consumers; that we are drawn to train wrecks and scandal; and that those two in conjunction will lead to lots of academics to connect “academic fraud” and “political science,” and to engage in norm reproduction by sharing their mutual disdain for academic fraud over coffee, lunch and cocktails.  This will, of course, happen, and as political scientists our social stature within the academy will dip (and the extent of that dip will vary negatively with the level of information each academic consumes).  This is the primary source of the bleating, and I may well value that social stature less than my median colleague, and may thus be inappropriately cavalier.  What moves me to write this post, however, is that granting that cost, I think the benefit far outweighs it, and I want to urge my colleagues to push back and remind their shaming interlocutors that detection of academic fraud is good.  Full stop.

To summarize, the bleating we see on Facebook is part and parcel of norm reproduction. Yes, our clan will pay some social costs, but such is the process of norm reproduction.  More importantly, when we remove our social “hats” and replace them with our social scientist “hats” it should be apparent that a very influential researcher requesting that a very widely read journal retract a very widely reported finding this is nothing but good.  The system worked!  I may have more to say about this, but I’ll leave it there for now.


[1] See coverage here, here, and here, and a defense here.

[2] Brief jab at Don Green: That’s theory, bro, it ain’t a casually identified inference.

[2] See an example of gushing press coverage of the research here.  A circumspect post puzzling over how one might explain the strength of the findings can be found here.

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What’s up with Burning & Destruction, 2

I recently posted about why people burn and destroy stuff during large public protests, and it got a bit long and I failed to finish one of the points.  I do so here.

The bits I failed to address involve the targets of burning and destruction:

Why do people burn and destroy in their own neigborhoods, where they know the proprietors and damage neighbors property?

There is less research on the targets of property destruction during riots than one would like.  As one researcher put it, studies:[1]

have generally lacked the requisite data on the ownership and type of stores (both looted and non-looted) throughout the riot areas needed to [determine] patterns of destruction and damage.

We do have a few such studies, however, and they tell us that targeting is not random: certain types of businesses are burned and destroyed (and looted).  Two relevant findings stand out.

First, people tend to engage in such activity in their neighborhoods (few travel to a site, then burn and destroy).[2]

Second, people tend to burn, destroy and loot businesses where the police are not immediately present.[3]


[1] Celebration, Politics, Selective Looting and Riots: A Micro Level Study of the Bulls Riot of 1992 in Chicago Michael J. Rosenfeld Social Problems 1997, 44(4): 483-502.

[2] Target choice during extreme events: A discrete spatial choice model of the 2011 London riots P Baudains, A Braithwaite & SD Johnson Criminology, 2013,  51(2): 251–285.

[3] Rosenfeld (1997); Baudanis, et al (2013); and The Dynamics of Collective Violence: Dissecting Food Riots in Contemporary Argentina J Auyero & TP Moran Social Forces (2007) 85 (3): 1341-1367.

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What’s up with Burning & Destruction?

This is the second in a series of posts in which I answer some questions spurred by the protests and rioting in Baltimore following the police killing of Freddie Gray.  In the first post I explained why people loot.  In this post I address the questions:

Why do rioters trash their own neighborhoods?

Why do young men and women burn down affordable housing for their own neighbors and cut firehoses attempting to put out fires?

The question really has two parts:

(1) Why burn / wreck stuff?

(2) Why do it where you live?

The answer to each is jarringly simple.

(1) Burning and wrecking stuff is awesome.  Human beings, especially males, love it.

(2) People do stuff where they are.

Let’s explore each.

All human beings know that fire is captivating, scary, and thrilling.  Some of us are more drawn to (playing with) fire than others, but we all love fire in at least some of its forms.[1]  Now consider a typical image from Baltimore:

Two cars burn in the middle of an intersection at New Shiloh Baptist Church (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images) Source:

Two cars burn in the middle of an intersection at New Shiloh Baptist Church (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

As I noted in my first post, this sort of destruction is unnerving because of what it implies about social order and our safety.  But compare it with the trailer for what it likely to be a summer blockbuster:

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road

I don’t need to tell you that these types of images dominate the Action/Adventure film genre.  The genre appeals more to males than females, and more to younger than the older people,[2] and it it is the most popular genre:

Importantly, that young males like to destroy stuff is celebrated in comics such as Calvin & Hobbes[3] and Dennis the Menace.  But are these representations of the fun of burning and destruction in popular culture supported by scientific research?  Do they occur with frequency in the world?

The answers are “Yes, and yes.”  Let’s begin with the empirical world, and as one of hundreds of such examples, you may recall the recent story about fraternity members from University of Michigan trashing a ski resort in Boyne, MI.[4]

University of Michigan fraternity brothers trash 45 rooms at ski resort, cause $50,000 in damage Source:

University of Michigan fraternity brothers trash 45 rooms at ski resort, cause $50,000 in damage

And, of course, there is the sports riot: burning and destruction that occurs in the wake of a sporting championship (either loss or victory).[5]  I was amidst the crowds in Georgetown after the Redskins’s Super Bowl win in 1983 and Chicago after the Bears win in 1985 and saw small groups engage in destruction in both celebrations.  They looked like they were having fun, and the vast majority of the crowd cheered them on lustily.

And then there’s this company: “A San Diego entrepreneur has found a perfect business for frustrating times: Selling customers breakables to fling against walls.”

What of science that supports the entertainment value of burning and destruction?  Check this out from Why we are Drawn to Fire:

In societies in which fire is an everyday tool… fire play starts to wind down [by age 7].   Here in the West, many or most of us never get to that point. “The motives that drive fire learning are only incompletely satisfied, with the result that, throughout life, fire retains greater allure or fascination than would normally be the case.”

As for “smashing stuff,” doing so is especially appealing in response to frustration.  More specifically, expressing anger is an innately satisfying response to frustration:[6] this is why we generally feel better if we curse, swear, throw an object, or break something in response to frustration, and why a company that offers such a service might succeed.

One irony of contemporary protest policing–putting lines of riot police and paramilitary vehicles out on the street–is that it is quite likely to contributes to frustration among protestors.  Those who gather in public to protest are well aware that they have a legal right to do so.  Few respond positively to a phalanx of police dressed for battle.[7]

Police officers in riot gear monitor a rally from the State Capitol to the Xcel Center, site of the Republican National Convention (RNC), in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S., on Monday, Sept. 1, 2008. The RNC will be held from Sept. 1-4. Photographer: Keith Bedford/Bloomberg News

Police officers in riot gear monitor a rally from the State Capitol to the Xcel Center, site of the Republican National Convention (RNC), in St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S., on Monday, Sept. 1, 2008. The RNC will be held from Sept. 1-4. Photographer: Keith Bedford/Bloomberg News

This response is not limited to issues such as police killings of unarmed black men: it is universal.  For example, several years ago ESPN unwittingly televised this dynamic live when it covered students at Penn State protesting the university’s decision to fire football coach Joe Paterno.  I watched in frustration as the riot police deployed, unwittingly creating a target at which students–who had been aimlessly milling about to that point–could focus attention,  get even more frustrated, and eventually vent anger.

Returning to the burning and destruction we witnessed recently in Baltimore, we are able to see that there is nothing surprising about the fact that people, and young males in particular, participated in opportunities to burn and destroy.  It is both fun and an emotionally pleasing response to frustration.  Undoubtedly some of those who participated were more motivated by the fun whereas others by venting frustration.  We want to believe that none of our family, friends nor we ourselves would burn and destroy, but that is not likely, especially among those young and male.

Finally, in my first post of this series I noted how police response to large public protests communicates that our chances of getting caught for engaging in illegal activity are considerably lower than when police are spread out on standard patrol.  Witnessing people, in person or on via video media, break the law without sanction confirms that perception.  Participation in burning and destruction is a mix of psychological motivation (fun and venting) and rational calculation (might I get caught).  Contemporary deployment of riot police to face off peaceful protestors often produces unintended consequences that should not surprise us.


[1] “In the United States, children’s natural inclination to learn about fire is evidenced by the hundreds of deaths that occur each year due to “fire play,” or the deliberate setting of a fire for no purpose beyond the fire itself.”  Why we are Drawn to Fire.

[2]   Favorite Films and Film Genres As A Function of Race, Age, and Gender

[3] Researchers estimated that “Calvin’s destructive tendencies cost his parents approximately $15,955.50 over the course of the strip’s 10 years.”

[4] It turns out that back in the early 80s a pledge class  of my own fraternity also trashed some hotel rooms, as recorded below.

Source: Boulder Daily Camera

Source: Boulder Daily Camera

[5] The Nika Riots of 432 AD are believed to be the first sports riot.

[6] Frustration-aggression hypothesis: Examination and reformulation.  Berkowitz, Leonard. Psychological Bulletin, Vol 106(1), Jul 1989, 59-73.
Relative Deprivation: A Theoretical and Meta-Analytic Review. Heather J. Smith, Thomas F. Pettigrew, Gina M. Pippin & Silvana Bialosiewicz. Pers Soc Psychol Rev August 2012, 16(3): 203-232

[7] Policing Protest: The Control of Mass Demonstrations in Western Democracies. 1998. Donatella Della Porta, Herbert Reiter Reiter (eds). Univ of Minn Press; Seeing Blue: A Police-Centered Explanation of Protest Policing. Jennifer Earl and Sarah Soule (2006) Mobilization 11(2) 145-164; Describing and Accounting for the Trends in US Protest Policing, 1960−1995. Patrick Rafail, Sarah A. Soule & John D. McCarthy Journal of Conflict Resolution 2012 vol. 56(4) 736-765.

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What’s up with Looting?

After the protests and riots following the police killing for Freddie Gray in Baltimore I emailed a bunch of folks I went to college and asked them what questions they would like answered, based on what they saw and read about the events.  I promised to explain why the events are perfectly explicable: we may be alarmed by such events, but we should not be surprised.

I got a number of interesting replies, and this post addresses looting.  I will follow up with other posts responding to additional queries.  One friend wrote:

I think that’s a puzzle for a lot of people. Unfortunately it reinforces so many nasty stereotypes.

Another asked:

Why do young men and women… loot their neighbors’ and friends’ businesses?

The canonical image: looters at CVS

The canonical image: looters at CVS

CNN’s coverage was prototypical: “chaos reigns” as looters rob whatever they are able to find in a CVS pharmacy.  Wolf Blitzer’s hyperbolic “Where are the police?” and “I’m shocked this could happen in America today” narrative has been both criticized and mocked.[1]

Yet, looting is a fascinating and disturbing social phenomenon.  Social order–the rareness of human’s attacking or stealing from one another–is vitally important to our daily lives, and so ubiquitous that we take it for granted.  Few human beings restrict their interactions to people they know: we rely daily on the conviction that strangers we walk past or interact with will neither harm us, nor take our property.  And if we stop and think about it, that fact is slightly alarming: how do we know they will not do so?

The famous musings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau are but three examples, widely known to many Americans, that invert the question and ask “Why would social order exist?”  Their answers are, roughly, that government, as Max Weber famously put it, claims a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of coercion, thus providing us each with an authority to whom to appeal when we are done wrong.  The “magic” of the solution is that people interact “in the shadow of government.” which is to say, avoid assault and theft because if they did not, they would be punished for it.  Communities, commerce, and so on accordingly become possible, and Steven Pinker chronicles the remarkable decline in homicide among our species as government has increasingly developed the capacity to enforce that monopoly claim.[2]

That background helps us understand why so many of us react with concern when we see images of looting.  It also suggests that we might do well to invert the question if we are to avoid the Wolf Blitzer response of shock and concern.  This image helps us get started.

Note that the man who has household goods from CVS is in front of burning police cars.[3] To explain the looting we need to account for two facts.

(1) No government’s police force is capable of coercing everyone.  They actually rely on voluntary compliance.

(2) It is very well established that human beings are opportunistic: the voluntary cooperation that social order hinges upon depends upon our belief that we could get caught it we misbehave.

Let’s begin with the second point.  As a recent article put it:

human cooperative behavior is thought to be largely maintained by the social sanctions and reputational costs which tend to fall on those who are not sufficiently prosocial and whose behavior becomes known to others.[4]

In plainer language, people will take stuff if they don’t believe others will find out.  That this is true is well established, both in laboratory experiments[5] and field experiments.  For example, placing signs claiming that thieves were being watched dramatically reduced bicycle theft in a European city.[6]  Importantly, the results suggest that males in particular respond to the belief that they are being monitored, both behaving more positively in such settings, and less opportunistically.

This, then, is the unpleasant implication: human beings change our behavior as we are being observed, and the males among us more so than the females.

This is where the police enter the equation.  Most of us believe, most of the time, that were we to brazenly take goods from a store and walk out, we are taking a non-trivial risk.  Yet, when police respond to protest by calling out all of their forces, and doing so in dramatic, visible fashion (e.g., wearing riot gear, patrolling in paramilitary vehicles) most everyone in the area will come to realize that the vast majority of the city is not being watched.  During normal times police are distributed here and there, and the dispatch center can send officers to a reported crime locale in reasonably short order.  That is not the case when the police congregate in riot gear in a handful of locations, and those who live there will pretty quickly come to appreciate this.[7]  That this is true could hardly be more dramatically made evident than by the destruction of police property, which send the signal “the cops can’t respond right now.”

What would be curious, indeed, then, is if property crimes did not increase during large public protests during which the police turn out in force, and stand around providing a target at which protestors can express their ire.  The more apparent it becomes that the police are concentrated in some areas, and unable to respond to property crimes they normally respond to, the more likely and widespread we should expect looting and theft to become.  And while we would not expect only males to rob and steal, we should expect that more males than females will do so.

Finally, a rarely appreciated irony of the “riot patrol” response of most governments to large groups of public protest is that it actually increases the likelihood of looting.  When we stop to think through what we know about human beings, social order and government, this is really not very hard to see.  That, in my view, is the most interesting aspect of all of this: politicians and police have a strong tendency to make themselves worse off, and very few of them realize it.  I will elaborate in a future post, but before getting to that one, I have some other questions to answer.  Stay tuned.


[1] In a future post I will explain why we should not be surprised by the type of narrative Blitzer supplied.

[2] Regrettably, Pinker grounds his argument not in Weber’s monopoly of legitimate coercion but an account of “civilizing,” which is something I am likely to grouse about in a future post someday.

[3] I do not know whether this image is real or created via Photoshop, but it does not matter.  I am not using it as a description of reality, but a device to make a point.

[4] The Watching Eyes Effect in the Dictator Game.

[5] Nobody’s Watching?

[6] Cycle Thieves, we are Watching You

[7] I discuss here the “cat and mouse” dynamic that can develop between protestors and police as the latter discern that the former cannot “police” all in the crowd.

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On the Religion Excuse for Bigotry and Intolerance

In The Battle for God Karen Armstrong makes a compelling case for secular tolerance of religion.[1]  She sets out to explain the global rise of public violence by adherents to fundamentalist interpretations of the world’s major religions during the waning decades of the 20th Century.  Her basic argument is that the success of rational secularism (roughly, science) has led many people (i.e., both the rational secularists and the fundamentalists) to interpret religious texts literally, despite the fact that they are allegorical, mythical tales.  In other words, fundamentalism is the bitter fruit of the hegemonic success of scientific reasoning, and political conflict–which inevitably entails public violence–naturally follows.  The implication of her argument: chillax, you frigging science lovers, stop being so literal and embrace some tolerance.  You are getting people killed.[2]

One can find a similar dialectic process in Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights: A History.[3] Hunt offers a highly readable account of the remarkable political success of rights rhetoric since the 1780s, and highlights the backlash each success produced.   The Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that have been sweeping state legislatures across the US in recent years and the stories about male Orthodox Jews refusing to sit next to women on airplanes (e.g., here and here) are but two contemporary illustrations of such backlash: the fact that the terms of debate are religious “rights” demonstrates the hegemonic success of the rights project.

Let’s explore the arguments being advanced by the advocates of the religious right to bigotry and intolerance.

My literal interpretation of my religion’s teachings leads me to be uncomfortable around certain human beings, and I have a “religious right” to not be made uncomfortable.

That their literal interpretation of the religion is the problem, not the human being they are uncomfortable with, does not occur to them.  Further, the assertion of a “religious right” is empty sloganeering that grafts the hegemonic language while abandoning its accompanying logic.  That rhetorical move is as old as political rhetoric itself, and has persisted forever because it is effective among the anointed.[4]

So what is a rational secularist, a science lover, a humanist to do?  First, we need to double down and embrace tolerance.  Tolerance is difficult, especially in the face of righteous bigotry and intolerance.  Consult Gandhi or Martin Luther King.  

I especially want to endorse Armstrong’s idea that we embrace diversity in cognitive styles and the variety of means human beings pursue to find meaning on this cold orb.  That one finds comfort in deities has never made an iota of sense to me since I was first exposed to the notion as a child.  But I have long been accustomed to the understanding that not everyone thinks like I do.  And religious beliefs patently give meaning to large swaths of humanity.  Sure, there is no shortage of charlatans and opportunists among politicians and religious leaders, but one can find plenty among any other collection of human beings.

Mysticism, faith in deity, and appeal to allegory and myth have assisted the success of our species for all of recorded history, and certainly long before then.  Casting it aside would not only be foolhardy, but doing so beyond a personal decision is also antithetical to rights and tolerance. We must consistently and vigorously challenge bigotry and intolerance, and unmask the rhetorical shenanigans in defense of them.  But historical political forces are interactive: one need not subscribe to dialectical theorizing to appreciate that.  Religion is here to stay, for at least the medium run, but I would guess the long, long run.  Embracing tolerance is an important challenge that those of us on the rational secular side can do better.


[1] You can read the Introduction to her book here.

[2] Though Armstrong is happy to be provocative, she does not spell out the implications that way.  I am.

[3] You can find reviews here and here.

[4] See, for example, the American idiom preaching to the choir.

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An Email Exchange that went South

So, this came in over the transom yesterday:


I was surprised: why would someone at APSA, and a newbie Dir of Communications, want to pick my brain?  So I thought I’d ask:


Now, you might be thinking: Why ask?  Does it matter?  And at some level, no, it does not matter at all.  After all, had he phoned, I would have answered and we would have chatted.

But this is a great example of a situation where one of my aspie tendencies reveals itself.[1]  You see, I have an insane desire to do things correctly.  Worse, I am the relevant audience. So this request for a phone call made me a bit anxious because it was not clear to me what the person wanted, and it was far from obvious to me that I have anything useful to offer.  I asked for clarification so that I could be reasonably prepared, the purpose of which was to manage my own internal dialogue.  It had nothing whatever to do with the person who contacted me: I know that when I got done with the interaction I would judge whether I was pleased with my performance or not.  I have no earthly idea how to “turn that off.”  It is just a part of my existence.  So, undoubtedly unbeknownst to my interlocutor, he had induced a small amount of stress into my life, and I wanted some info to manage it.  I often have this sort of experience when I interact with a friend of mine, David Davis, who is (to me) infuriatingly vague (casual) about things, and I know full well that’s just his style.  It wouldn’t surprise if this person has a similar personality/style.

This morning I received this reply:


This irritated me.  “Why didn’t you answer my question?!?” my brain hollered.  And I thought about whether I should (a) just suck it up; (b) ask again (nicely); or (c) register my irritation, hoping that might prompt a reply.  After all, I am happy to help out, but I was miffed.  I kicked this around for 45 seconds or so, trying out a couple of different phrasings, and settled on signalling my irritation:


The reply came quickly:


I rolled my eyes, and decided to cancel:


I suspect that my correspondent is a perfectly decent sort who found my query about why his lack of a response to my question about the topic asinine and rude.  I suspect at least some, perhaps most, readers will agree.  And I confess that there must be more effective messages I could have written to elicit the information I sought.  But here’s the thing: I did make some effort to do so.  I just came up blank, and being useful in this situation just wasn’t that important to me.

This is a weakness I am aware of: I sometimes find myself at a loss with respect to how to respond to someone who has irritated me in a fashion that does not escalate the situation.  I have learned to seek counsel, when doing so seems to be a good plan, and am often surprised—Why didn’t I think of that?!?–at how obvious the proposed course of action can appear in hindsight.  I am sure such an opportunity existed here, though as I type this I honestly don’t know what that might have been.  And in a situation like this, I don’t find it worthwhile to seek someone’s counsel.  So I just winged it, and it turned out much less pleasantly than I had anticipated.  And that is a shame.

Oh well.  I am sure the American Political Science Association, which has never sought my counsel before, will be perfectly fine without it.


[1] This is not the first time where the communication style of the sender of an email irritated me.

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