Thursday, December 17, 2009

Is Protestantism of New Testament or of German origin?

Time for some sociology! I taught sociology for 12 years at a major Australian university so maybe I can claim to have some idea what it is all about. Sociology is actually a lot like climatology. You have to try to find a common thread in a whole lot of crazy data and the thread you think you have found may in the end not be there at all. But some of us like to make the effort anyway. At least we don't try to hide our data in sociology.

Max Weber's essay The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism is considered a classic in sociology and is usually cited with much reverence. When I was teaching in a sociology school myself, it always rather surprised me that my mainly Marxist colleagues seemed to think highly of it. I never quite saw how believers in economic determinism could accept Weber's spiritual determinism. But accept it they did.

I myself was never convinced. Weber makes a good case but I always doubted that competition for signs of election was enough to explain a capitalist orientation. I think Weber was fooled by the rationalizations that Calvinists put up rather than getting to their real motives.

The broader case that Protestantism in general was the spark that created the modern world did however seem to have something going for it. Many of the innovations and inventions that ushered in the industrial age originated from two communities with large Protestant populations: England and the German lands -- from Gutenberg's printing press to Watt's steam engine.

So it was with some interest that I read a report of some recent research which appears to show with considerable rigour that Protesant cities and Catholic cities of the early modern era in fact did equally well and were equally capitalist. I like the article so much that I have reposted it on my Paralipomena blog. The article is certainly strong support for my doubts about the Weber thesis. But does it also throw into a cocked hat the idea that Protestantism in general was beneficial?

Yes and No. It must be noted that the research concerned GERMAN cities only. It is not a comparison of Northern and Southern Europe, for instance. So it is not too disturbing to the theory overall. But the fact that Germans did equally well regardless of religion does strongly reinforce a theory that I put forward some years ago: That it was the Germanness of Protestantism that gave it its power, not its New Testament loyalties.

I am going to get myself into all sorts of strife here but Protestantism is a long way from the New Testament. I have explored the evidence for that at great length on my Scripture blog so let me just summarize that Luther, Calvin and Co. did not throw off much of Catholic theology. Absurdities of pagan origin such as the Holy Trinity mumbo jumbo (which is mentioned NOWHERE in the Bible) and the pretence that Winter solstice celebrations were somehow related to the (unknown) birthday of Christ were retained tout court. The real innovation was political rather than theological: Rejection of the authority of the Pope.

Perhaps the most vivid proof of what Protestantism is NOT lies in the fact that they still set aside the pagan Day of the Sun as their holy day, which runs contrary to every word on the subject in the Bible. Reverence for the sun was virtually universal in pagan religions and the Children of Israel deliberately set themselves aside from all that by making their holy day the day BEFORE the Day of the Sun. Had Protestantism really been a "back to the Bible" movement, they would have reverted to the Jewish Sabbath practice. Sabbath observance is after all a major aspect of Bible teachings. Jesus and the early Christians observed it, though not in a legalistic way. My copy of Strong's Exhaustive Concordance records over 50 references to the Sabbath in the New Testament. But instead of listening to the Bible the Protestants just used it as a fiddle upon which to play their preferred tunes.

So if theology was not the motor for Protestant innovations, what was? I have argued that Protestantism was a set of attiudes that came naturally to people of German stock, which includes the English, of course. Protestantism is an expression of Germanness rather than of the New Testament. But since the Germanness is basic, it is no surprise that German cities performed equally well regardless of their theology. The theology was not the driving force. It was, if you like, an epiphenomenon. All of which fits in well with the new research findings that I have mentioned above. It does however get me into deep do-do with any Leftist -- because Leftists these days refuse to believe in group differences -- no matter how much evidence you rub their noses in. American blacks as a group are just the same as whites as a group, only browner, don't you know?

So any Leftist reading this (if any) should get ready with the shrieks of "racism" now because what I am saying in summary is that the modern world was largely created by people of German origin and that their Protestant beliefs were a product and not a cause of what they were and became. I might note in passing that direct German ancestry is generally reckoned to be more common in the U.S. population than is English ancestry -- though the English themselves came from Germany 1500 years ago (the Anglo-Saxons).

My brief comments above do of course leave out a lot -- for instance the "counter-reformation" which in German lands did to an extent "Protestantize" Catholicism. But I think I have written enough for now. My earlier observations about Germanness are extensive, however, and can be found here or here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Is the Brain Like a Muscle, Really?

I thought I would reproduce the Newsweak column below as proof that Leftists never learn anything. Results such as they describe have been known for years. What nobody has been able to show is that the beneficial effects of special training are lasting. Educationally "enriched" kids are just as dumb when they get to adulthood as are control groups -- mainly because environmental handicaps tend to fade in importance as we get older. I noted recently some very powerful genetic research which showed exactly that: Environmental influences do matter somewhat in childhood but that fades out so that in adulthood it is your genetics that dictate your abilities.

Probably what the findings below show is that if you train kids in doing the sort of tasks that you encounter in IQ tests, they will get better at doing IQ tests for as long as they remember the training.

There is a slightly expanded account of the research concerned here but I can find no trace of it being published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. That leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It is, for instance, normal for there to be a "learning effect" in IQ testing. If you give the same test to the same people two weeks apart, they will do significantly better the second time around. That alone could explain the results below. The proper academic way to circumvent that problem is to use a "parallel form" of the test on the second time around. Most tests do have such forms available. Did the researchers below do that? Who knows? Other Problems: Was the study double-blind? Again, who knows? So I think that the bright-eyed enthusiasm shown below is mainly a product of uncritical and uninformed thinking.

For a sidelight on the issue, I reproduce a recent email from a reader underneath the article below. Some people don't need "enriched" education. In fact they do very well with very little. You will never guess who. In the end genetics rule the roost. Education can increase your knowledge and give you some skills but it cannot increase your ability to learn and figure things out
Back in 2007, Ashley and I reported on the science of praise for New York magazine, highlighting in particular the body of work by Dr. Carol Dweck. Dweck had done studies for over a decade – and we covered them all – including a brand new semester-long intervention that had been conducted with Lisa Blackwell at Life Sciences Secondary School in East Harlem.

Life Sciences is a health-science magnet school with high aspirations but 700 students whose main attributes are being predominantly minority and low achieving. The scholars split the kids into two groups for an eight-session workshop. The control group was taught study skills, and the others got study skills and a special module on how intelligence is not innate. These students took turns reading aloud an essay on how the brain grows new neurons when challenged. They saw slides of the brain and acted out skits. After the module was concluded, Blackwell tracked her students’ grades to see if it had any effect.

It didn’t take long. The students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.

The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.

Ever since that New York magazine story was published, it’s been common now to tell kids the brain is like a muscle, and intelligence is malleable. The catch was that the students at Life Sciences were reading a four-page middle-reader version of neuroscience-lite that was somewhat edited to enhance, or sell, the idea that IQ isn’t fixed.

So it’s been a legitimate ongoing question whether we’re really now telling kids the truth, when we tell the brain is a muscle. Just how malleable is IQ, really? Are we misleading them at all, when we suggest their IQ is something they can control?

As Ashley and I wrote in NurtureShock, children’s IQs do change a lot as they develop. More than half of children will see significant swings in their IQ – not just once, but three times. And the swings are not minor. Two-thirds of children’s IQ scores improve, or drop, more than 15 points. One-third of kids’ scores jump more than 30 points. So there’s clearly a lot of instability going on.

But does that give us license to suggest to kids their brains can really be altered, quickly? Are we lying to them if we ignore there’s some element of genetic predestination?

Well, that’s why yesterday’s column here was, we believe, so important. Drs. Silvia Bunge and Allyson Mackey set up a special afterschool program at a low-performing elementary school in Oakland. For eight weeks, twice a week, kids came into one of two rooms to play board games, video games, and card games. These are games available at most retailers, but they’d been chosen by Bunge and Mackey because they demanded very specific cognitive skills. One set of games – in one room – challenged the kids’ reasoning ability. The other set of games – in the other room – challenged those kids’ processing speed.

Before and after the training, the scholars measured relevant components of the children’s IQs. The scholars expected some modest improvement. But the results were staggering – the group that trained for reasoning ability saw their non-verbal intelligence scores leap 32%. The group that trained for processing speed saw their brain speed scores jump 27%. In just eight weeks – 20 hours total of training – the games had a drastic impact on the kids’ IQ.

Now, Mackey does warn that kids who already come from enriched home environments might already have these games, or something similar, and in many ways they might have already trained their brains. So while Mackey suspects all kids could benefit from the game training, not all kids would benefit so much, so quickly.

Nevertheless, it’s striking evidence that indeed, the brain is like a muscle. While every individual probably has upper limits to what we might be capable of, brain training – like weight training, or fitness training – can lift us towards those limits.


An email from a reader with some relevance: "My wife is picking up our 10 year old adopted Chinese child at this moment. The little girl speaks 3 dialects, knows well over 1000 Hanzi characters, is able to read (not yet speak) quite a bit of English, and is off the charts in technological aptitude. And this from a girl who hasn't been exposed to 1/5 of what kids from even our lowest, social welfare classes receive. Tell me there's not something biological going on. As well as more courage and determination that what is generally inculcated in our society - at that age, anyway."

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Tony Judt and the confusion of the modern Left

It is with a little sadness that I write this. I am going to comment on a recent essay by Tony Judt. Even though he is an anti-Israel Jew, he is a brilliant mind and a most knowledgeable historian. He is now however suffering from a severe physical disability and the essay I wish to comment on could well be his last substantial work. So, with respect:

The essay boils down to two things: A rejection of "economism" and a dreamy glorification of 20th century democratic Leftism. And he ends up saying that Leftists should be conservatives. A more confused, though lucid, set of ideas would be hard to imagine.

For a start, his central dilemma is one that is ever-present on the contemporary Left: He argues for moral values while also believing that there is no such thing as right and wrong. If self-contradiction is a mark of insanity, the modern Left is terminally deranged.

It is purely in the name of some unspecified moral order that Judt rejects "economism". And what he condemns as "economism" boils down to being concerned about your financial state of affairs. It is wrong, apparently, to be concerned about how much money you have in your pocket. It is no doubt an outcome of Judt's own privileged life that he literally seems unable to understand why people would have such concerns.

It was one of my correspondents who alerted me to Judt's essay and the comment he sent with the link was simply: "A moron". One can understand that judgement. Let me be a little more professional about the matter, however, and say that Judt's moral ideas are seriously underdeveloped and that a full elaboration of his moral beliefs and reasoning would be needed for anyone to draw any reasonable conclusions from his essay.

He goes on to glorify government-provided services generally but once again seems not to be living in the real world. Who has not experienced the horrors of dealing with large bureaucracies and who does not find small businesses easier to deal with? He seems unaware that you get much better treatment as a valued customer than you do if you are a mere number to some bureaucrat. You are virtually powerless against a bureaucracy but you have some weight as a person who can take his business elsewhere.

Judt's primary example of a service that should be government provided is the railways. He thinks that they are "an essential public service". That people in some places get along quite well without them and that the vast majority of Americans hardly use them at all appears to have had no impact on his thinking. His argument seems to boil down to saying that railways run purely for profit would not serve isolated regions or the poor very well. He is probably right about that but does it follow that a government-run railway is the answer? If we are going to subsidize anything, why not subsidize small buses to run on the route concerned? That would undoubtedly be a lot easier on the taxpayer's pocket.

So his final plea that we remember the past glories of socialism is as deranged as his moral ideas. Leftists should hope that people do NOT remember how awful past government services have been. What Judt wants us to "remember" is a dreamy ideal that never existed. His closing assertion that "The left, to be quite blunt about it, has something to conserve" is undoubtedly a common Leftist belief but it is just another example of his moral incoherence and blindness to the actual past.

In an effort to do justice to the man, however, I will happily concede his point that privatizations of government services have not always worked well. And since he seems to have railways on the brain, let me mention the privatization of British Rail. I remember the shabbiness, erratic services and awful sandwiches of British Rail well so am perhaps in some position to comment. Who could believe train drivers who drove off while people were still trying to board? I do because I saw it. I was one of the passengers concerned.

There is no doubt that rail services in Britain today are often very poor but that is a consequence of their very PARTIAL privatization. The infinitely better rail services of the Victorian era were provided by companies that OWNED not only the trains but the tracks they ran on. In Britain today, however, the private rail companies own very little. They bid for the privilege of providing a service and get a government-controlled monopoly in return. So, once they have obtained their monopoly, it makes sense for them to screw passengers for all they can. Roadspace and parking are severely limited in Britain so passengers usually have no real option of other forms of transport.

In the Victorian era, by contrast, railways DID compete (and also co-operated when that was useful). There was more than one set of tracks running North and if you wanted to get from (say) London to somewhere in Scotland, there were competing ways of doing so. So it seems reasonable that a recreation of the completely private Victorian ownership structure would give results comparable to the Victorian experience. But modern Britain is too socialist for that to be contemplated.

And as for government-sponsored or government-run train services in Australia these days, don't get me started. The Melbourne services are run on British lines and just ask any Melbourne commuter how that works out.

There many more points in Judt's essay that I could contend with but the eloquence of the essay hides such a poverty of ideas that I cannot justify spending more time on it.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Leftist psychologists prove that a conservative is someone who has been mugged by reality

It was of course Irving Kristol who first said that a neoconservative is someone who has been mugged by reality and it was some NYC police chief decades back who said that "A conservative is a liberal who got mugged last night"

So it comes as no surprise that two psychologists have just done some research which showed that people warmed to GWB and military spending after 9/11. The 9/11 events were a rather large lump of reality. And both GWB and military spending offered some prospect of coping with it.

The psychologists concerned explained their results by some babble about "motivated social cognition" but I think Irving Kristol's formulation is a lot simpler and clearer. I have in any case dealt with the "motivated social cognition" nonsense in psychology some time back.

The article is "Conservative Shift among Liberals and Conservatives Following 9/11/01" by Paul R. Nail & Ian McGregor. The journal abstract is below:
Political orientation and political attitudes were measured in two independent adult samples. One sample was taken several months before the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01; the other, shortly after. Liberal and conservative participants alike reported more conservative attitudes following 9/11/01 than before. This conservative shift was strongest on two items with the greatest relevance to 9/11/01: George W. Bush and Increasing Military Spending. Marginally significant conservative shifts were observed on two other items (Conservatives, Socialized Medicine), and the direction of change on eight of eight items was in a conservative direction. These results provide support for the motivated social cognition model of conservatism (Jost et al., 2003) over predictions derived from terror management theory (e.g., Greenberg et al., 1992).