Doesn’t it defeat the point if “Ossoli” is larger than “Fuller”?

Margaret Fuller Ossoli Square, Cambridge

Who’s wonking who?

About a third of the way into Ezra Klein’s new essay “How Politics Makes Us Stupid,” I met a stumbling block. Klein begins his essay by describing a 2013 study that tested whether political affiliation could compromise people’s ability to solve a simple statistical problem. In an experiment, researchers gave some subjects a stats problem about the efficacy of a skin-rash lotion, and others a structurally identical problem about the efficacy of a gun-control law. Here’s Klein’s summary of the results:

Being better at math didn’t just fail to help partisans converge on the right answer. It actually drove them further apart. Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.

Consider how utterly insane that is: being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problem correctly when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts. People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.

Something’s not quite right with Klein’s inferences here, I’m pretty sure. Here’s a link to the research paper that Klein is describing: “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government” by Dan Kahan, Ellen Peters, Erica Dawson, and Paul Slovic. And here’s how the original authors phrase the results that have caught Klein’s eye:

On average, the high Numeracy partisan whose political outlooks were affirmed by the data, properly interpreted, was 45 percentage points more likely (± 14, LC = 0.95) to identify the conclusion actually supported by the gun-ban experiment than was the high Numeracy partisan whose political outlooks were affirmed by selecting the incorrect response. The average difference in the case of low Numeracy partisans was 25 percentage points (± 10)—a difference of 20 percentage points (± 16).

Klein has reported the numbers accurately, but his interpretation of them is fallacious. As you can see by comparing Kahan et al.’s words with Klein’s, Klein is correct when he writes that “Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology.” But Klein is in error when he adds, “The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.” If higher-numeracy subjects are 45 percent more likely to identify the correct answer when they find it congenial, and lower-numeracy subjects are only 25 percent more likely to do the same under the same conditions, then math skills improve the ability to solve the problem under those conditions by 20 percentage points, as Kahan, Peters, Dawson, and Slovic note. Smarter people are in fact smarter (the trouble is that they only bother to use their smarts to confirm their political bias—more on that in a moment).

Klein also writes, “Being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problem correctly when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts.” That’s not an accurate report of Kahan et al.’s results. In their study, being better at math did make partisans a tiny bit more likely to solve the stats problem correctly even when the correct answer contradicted their partisan druthers. (For the evidence, see the dotted blue and solid red curves in the lower graph of figure 6 in Kahan et al.’s paper; the drift is upward in both cases, though it’s an exceptionally modest upward; that is, when solving a puzzle that declares that gun control increases crime, a liberal’s odds go up very slightly as his math skills improve, and so do a conservative’s odds when solving a puzzle that declares that gun control lowers crime.) Kahan et al. didn’t discover that math hurt problem solving. They discovered that math skills helped disproportionately more when the correct answer confirmed the subject’s political biases.

Klein writes that “People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.” In fact, the original researchers’ explanation was a bit more subtle. They noted that an easy wrong answer tempts anyone who first glances at the type of statistics puzzle they chose, and they suggested that when the easy wrong answer confirmed a partisan’s bias, he was more likely to fall for it. Partisans resorted to brain-taxing math skills only when the easy wrong answer contradicted what they hoped to hear.

Kahan et al. did discover that math skills increased polarization. Not polarization in political bias, though: within the experiment’s sample of subjects, polarity in political bias was a given. The polarization that worsened was between likelihood of solving the problem correctly when it confirmed biases and likelihood of solving it correctly when it contradicted biases. Intriguingly, that polarization was not only higher when math skills were higher. It was also higher among conservatives than among liberals. (The evidence is in the lower two graphs in figure 7 of Kahan et al.’s paper. In both graphs, the red bumps are much further from one another than the blue bumps are, which suggests that conservatives’ ability to solve the problem diverges more according to bias than liberals’ ability does.)

All wet

Noah, stained glass window from Canterbury Cathedral, 1178–80, on display in the exhibit 'Radiant Light' in the Cloisters, NYC, until May 18, 2014

Over at the Paris Review Daily, I write about the misrepresentations of Biblical vegetarianism in Darren Aronofsky’s movie Noah.

(The image above, of Noah in a characteristically talky pose, is from a stained glass window temporarily removed from Canterbury Cathedral during restoration work and on display in the exhibit Radiant Light in New York City’s Cloisters until May 18.)

Public Books, Warby Parker, a Man in Manila, and the Brandeis Hoot

A few new reactions to Necessary Errors:

In a long review at Public Books, Ryder Kessler writes that the novel “captures the hesitance of two systems, or two selves, touching along a fragile filament.”

If you want to live abroad and are trying to figure out which book to read about the topic, the glasses-maker Warby Parker has a flow chart, and Necessary Errors is one of the possible termini.

Migs Bassig has a few kind words about the novel at his blog A Man in Manila.

Dana Trismen, editor of the Brandeis Hoot, interviewed me in advance of a reading I gave on campus Wednesday, and Andrew Elmers reported on the reading for the same paper. I had a great time both there and at Harvard this week! Thanks to all involved.

Readings at Brandeis & Harvard in early April

On Wednesday, April 2, at 5pm, I’m going to be reading from Necessary Errors at Brandeis. The reading will take place in the Shapiro Admissions Presentation Room, and is co-sponsored by the Department of English and the History of Ideas Program.

The next day, Thursday, April 3, at 4:15pm, I’ll give a reading on the Harvard campus. It will take place at the CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Room S354, and it’s co-sponsored by the Davis Center for Russian & Eurasian Studies and the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures.

If you’re in the Boston or Cambridge area, please come to one or both!

I became aware of two more reviews of the book this past week. On 2 March 2014, Michiel Heyns reviewed it for South Africa’s Sunday Independent (access by subscription only). Heyns called the novel “an exhilarating read, for its fineness of observation and its generosity of characterization.” And, though I only became aware of it months after the fact, Rebecca Panovka reviewed the novel for the Harvard Book Review on 10 December 2013, writing that it was “a perfect evocation of a certain type of aimless ambition.”

Finalist for a Lambda Literary Award

I’m happy to announce that my novel Necessary Errors is a finalist in gay general fiction for the 2014 Lambda Literary Awards. I appreciate the honor.

Snow day

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Bookish; Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau; and an Italian translation

At the website Bookish, the novelist Charles Finch has listed Necessary Errors in a round-up of “Great Expatriate Stories.”

On the brand-new literary blog Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau, there’s an in-depth review of the novel that calls it “delicate and slippery.”

I’m also happy to announce that 66th and 2nd will be publishing an Italian translation of the novel, currently scheduled for 2015.

Adventures in Walking

At least four times a day, my dog and I cross on foot the intersection of Prospect Park Southwest and 11th Avenue here in Brooklyn. It’s dangerous, even though there’s a light. Prospect Park Southwest bends sharply just to the east of the intersection, along a stretch that a neighbor of ours calls Dead Man’s Curve. Our car was totaled while parked there soon after we moved in. To the west, Prospect Park Southwest is straight, and many of the cars approaching from that direction accelerate a bit wildly, giddy, perhaps, with a sense of liberation, as this is just about the geographic point where the bourgeois aura of Park Slope, and any attendant behavioral constraints, fall away. Buildings and parked cars, meanwhile, obstruct the sightlines of any vehicles approaching from the south along 11th Avenue. Fortunately, there’s a stop light. Unfortunately, quite a few drivers consider it optional.

I’m moved to write about the intersection because last week my dog and I were nearly run over while crossing it, and I read yesterday an article by the science journalist Annie Murphy Paul about near-misses. Don’t think of near-misses as lucky escapes, Paul writes; think of them as warnings. A near-miss means that next time could be a catastophe.

Our near-miss happened thus: The dog and I were crossing Prospect Park Southwest from south to north with the Walk sign in our favor. When we were about halfway across, a van barreled into the intersection at high speed and turned left across the crosswalk, missing us by an inch or two. Because it was cold, I had the hood of my coat up (a big mistake), and I wasn’t able to see him coming out of the corner of my eye, as I might otherwise have done. All I saw was a van suddenly almost kill my dog, who was spared only because he happened to be walking in heel. After a moment or two of shock, I hollered something unprintable. The driver either didn’t hear or didn’t care. In any case he didn’t stop. I didn’t have the presence of mind to notice his license plate number, but what would I have done with it? A bike messenger who saw the near-miss said to me, as he passed, “I can’t believe he did that. I saw him coming, and I was like, He’s not really going to do that, is he. But he did. He did. Man.” For the next hour or so I felt the uncanny elation that comes from being aware of luck in the matter of not being dead. The whole day, in fact, was to have a sort of optative flavor.

Turning vehicles are supposed to yield to pedestrians, whose right of way, thanks to a flaw in most intersections’ design, generally occurs at the same time as that of turning vehicles. This van had a green light, in other words, and perhaps he didn’t want to bother with details. Or perhaps he was texting. Or adjusting his playlist. Though he nearly killed me, he wasn’t the most egregiously reckless driver I’ve seen in the intersection. Just this morning, I watched a driver proceed through the intersection with an Ipad raised above his steering wheel. My guess is that he was taking a photograph of the heavy snow that lay like icing on the bare arms of the trees along the avenue. The trees under the snow were pretty, but it amazed me to see a car in motion whose driver was blocking his own sight.

Even more impressive: Last week, as I was driving toward the intersection from the west, a car behind me was tailgating angrily. How adept humans are at conveying the emotion of rage through their handling of an automobile. As we approached the intersection, the light was red. Two cars were already stopped waiting for it to change, and I slowed down to become the third in line. The car behind me, however, accelerated. He veered to the left, into the oncoming traffic lane, and sped past the three of us waiting cars, through the red light, and through the intersection. Keep in mind that he had no visibility of 11th Avenue and only a dozen yards or so of visibility of Prospect Park Southwest beyond the intersection. I wondered if I was going to see poetic justice abruptly rendered.

Can the intersection be made safer? It’s unlikely to win one of the city’s 20 allotted speeding cameras or 150 allotted red-light cameras, whose numbers the State of New York has taken it upon itself to ration, to the city’s detriment. A quick improvement would be to remove a few parking spaces near the corners of the intersection, in order to improve visibility. Even better would be to build in the sort of pedestrian islands that have recently made it safer to cross Prospect Park West. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping my hood down and my eyes peeled, whatever the weather.

Snowy owl

On Saturday afternoon, we drove with some birding friends out to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn in pursuit of the snowy owl, whose invasion of the continental United States had hit the front page of the New York Times that morning (a more ornithological report is here). Thanks to our highly developed tracking skills, we were able to hone in quickly on . . . a small cluster of parked cars, beside which were arrayed tripod-mounted cameras with lenses so large they were painted in camouflage. It was cool to see the snowy owl, which was sitting imperturbably in a field, the object of all lenses. Our friends set up a telescope, and it was also cool to discover that if you hold an Iphone up to the eyepiece of a telescope and jiggle it just right, you can take a photograph through the two devices. It looks at first as if all the phone will capture is glowing concentric blurs orbited by strange glints, but if you tilt the phone until one of the stray glints falls into the center, the glint blows up and then resolves into a perfectly focused image.

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