August 31, 2007

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, August 2007

Bob Altemeyer, The Authoritarians
Summary of Altemeyer's research on right-wing authoritarianism, with application to current events. (A more academic version, omitting some recent results, is his 1996 The Authoritarian Specter.)
For Altemeyer, "right-wing authoritarianism" is a particular personality construct, characterized by "a high degree of submission to the established, legitimate authorities in their society", "high levels of aggression in the name of their authorities" and "a high level of conventionalism". He measures it by means of a particular personality test, which is a remote (a very remote, much-improved) descendant of one used by Adorno et al. in their clasic, flawed book on The Authoritarian Personality. High RWA scorers profess attitudes, and make statements, which I can only call frighteningly twisted and bigoted; taken at their word, they really would find tyranny only too congenial, provided that boot wasn't grinding into their faces. (Unsurprisingly, in the late Soviet period, Russians with high RWA scores were deeply committed to the Party.) Perhaps just as importantly, they really are worse than other people at thinking straight about the things which touch on their values. (See especially Chapter 3 for the experimental evidence on that point.) Altogether, the fact that a non-trivial fraction of the North American population is willing to say, in so many words, that it'd be happy to collaborate in persecution and oppression is one of the most unsettling things I've read in a long time. The most comforting finding is that right-wing authoritarianism does change over time, and higher education, in particular, lowers it significantly, substantially and durably; not so much because of propaganda by teachers, but because it exposes people to different ways of thinking and acting, and visible (sometimes, palpable) evidence that those are not all bad.
Which said, I confess to slightly mixed feelings about the research. It is, unquestionably, fascinating and disturbing to see what people are willing to put down on personality tests, and scores on Altemeyer's RWA score are indeed quite powerful predictors, as such things go, of other sorts of reported attitudes and values, etc. As personality tests go, it's pretty good. But these are all self-reports, i.e., self-presentations, and there is much less evidence (though not none) that knowing somebody's RWA score will help you predict their behavior (in non-test situations). The best of those, to my mind, are the (old! pre-institutional-review-board! hardly worth censuring!) results that high RWA-scorers show more obedience to authority in Milgram-style experiments. I would feel much more confident that Altemeyer's RWA scale measures something about how people act (when they are not presenting themselves to social psychologists) if there were more results like these. (I cannot think of any way of gathering such evidence, however, especially not in these days.) I shouldn't make it sound like Altemeyer ignores or downplays this — he does issue all the appropriate caveats about the "fundamental attribution error", etc. — On the other hand, I have to say that anyone who finds right-wing authoritarianism a desirable self-presentation is already pretty twisted.
An important role is played in Altemeyer's larger argument by the interaction between people who score high on right-wing authoritarianism (and so want to tend to follow the Powers That Be) and those who score high on a measure of "social dominance orientation". The stuff you have to agree to (or disagree with) to get a high SDO score is even creepier than what's on the RWA test; you have to be willing to present yourself, even if only on a psych test, as a ruthless power-hungry bastard. (The fact that I got a higher SDO score than RWA score will not surprise those who have informed me that my conscience is a vestigial organ at best.) But the evidence that this predicts non-test behavior is if anything weaker than for the RWA scale.
(To descend into quibbles about his asides and footnotes: (1) Like many psychologists, Altemeyer is naive in believing that correlations between twins indicate a strong genetic component to mental traits. (2) He should have cut the long footnote about Lakoff's speculations.)
Elizabeth A. Lynn, Dragon's Winter
Very nicely written and spare venture into high fantasy. The last chapter felt, however, like the first chapter of another book.
Andrea Camilleri, The Voice of the Violin and Rounding the Mark
I may have to reconsider my habit of reading Camilleri's books on airplanes; they go by too fast, making it annoying to get others out of my luggage.
Rounding the Mark has a bit more of an obvious social-problem message than usual, I'd say (human trafficing and government-sanctioned police brutality: bad), and is full of intimations of mortality, down to a favorite restaurant closing. (Previous installments in the series: 1, 2, 3, 4.)
I. J. Parker, The Dragon Scroll and Rashomon Gate
First and second novels, in the narrative order (but published third and first, respectively), in Parker's series of Judge Dee tributes set in late Heian-era Japan, starring impovrished nobleman Sugawara Akitada. (See here and here for notes on others.) In the first, Sugawara deals with his first major assignment, auditing the tax collection of a provincial governor and tangling with monks on their way to becoming naginata-wielding sohei; it's no spoiler to say that he succeeds, despite the intentions of his superiors, and begins his penchant for informal associations with insuitable members of the lower orders. In the second, he solves a complicated case of blackmail and murder at the imperial university, while pursuing an emotionally tangled courtship. In both books, Sugawara's Confucian disdain for Buddhist piety (inspired by Dee) is put to good use. Like the rest of the series, these books are both good mysteries and well-constructed historical fiction. I think someone who didn't know anything about Japan's weird Heian-era experiment with officially pretending to be a copy of Tang China would actually end up learning a lot about how it foundered from the series. Akitada, as the main viewpoint character, is somewhat non-conformist, in directions which make him more acceptable and sympathetic to modern readers, but not so much so that he's a modern in fancy costume. This is a tough act to pull off, when writing about a society whose entire structure was a giant human rights offense (i.e., any pre-modern society).
My only regret with vacuuming these books up is that now I've finished the series to date, and have to wait for Parker to publish more.
Mark S. Handcock and Martina Morris, Relative Distribution Methods in the Social Sciences
Review: Beyond Mean and Deviance.
Annie Murphy Paul, The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves
Review: How the real self became a business.
Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and Laura Depuy, The Authority 1: Relentless
I'm late to this party, since this is already being taught in political science classes. Takes one of the obvious questions of the superhero genre — don't those incredible powers impose an obligation to try to make the world really better? — with Ellis's characteristic impatience. Not profound by any means, but enjoyable.
William Poundstone, Fortune's Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System that Beat the Casinos and Wall Street
The story of Kelly gambling, which must surely count as the most tempting application of information theory ever. This is related in the usual effective and enjoyable Poundstone style, by means of many small sections, alternately developing arguments, sketching the lives of participants (here, mostly Claude Shannon and Ed Thorp), explaining debates, and pursuing interesting historical asides. It's a little kaleidoscopic, but in the end it knits together very effectively. (The applications to biological evolution are not discussed.) Not up there with his best books (The Recursive Universe, Prisoner's Dilemma and Labyrinths of Reason), but it's unfair to hold that against this.
Yojimbo and Sanjuro
Now that is how you make a movie: especially a movie about strategy, intelligence, violence, manipulation, power, and being simultaneously sickened by others' stupidity and weakness, and wanting to protect them from it. I think I was twelve or thirteen when my father first took me to see these (along with The Hidden Fortress and The Seven Samurai), at the old Biograph Theater in Georgetown, whereupon I imprinted immediately. Fortunately, they improve as I age.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Enigmas of Chance; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; The Running-Dogs of Reaction; The Dismal Science

Posted at August 31, 2007 23:59 | permanent link

Three-Toed Sloth