Sunday, December 19, 2010

The pseudoscience of libertarian morality.

Ronald Bailey, in The Science of Libertarian Morality (an article in Reason) directs us to:

Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology by Ravi Iyer et al. Which, by the way, bases one of its "predictions" on the title of Reason. And thus the echo chamber is closed.

The fundamental fallacy of this paper purporting to discuss "psychological roots" that surveys DEVELOPED attitudes is that they do not consider the indoctrination process. Libertarians differ strongly from liberals and conservatives in that they are heavily indoctrinated at early ages. Ask a 25 year old how many liberal, conservative, or libertarian books they've read. Most liberal and conservative 25 year olds will say very few if any, but we know that the libertarians will reel off a list starting with Ayn Rand, the Friedman's, etc. You might just as well ask where Catholic ideas about God come from compared to atheists: it's the indoctrination, stupid.

If they truly wanted to study "psychological roots", they should start with 16 year olds (most of whom have no idea of libertarianism) and observe how they change with time.

They make the ridiculous "prediction" that "Libertarians will value liberty more strongly and consistently than liberals or conservatives, at the expense of other moral concerns." That's about as serious as predicting that "Zombies will value eating brains more strongly and consistently than humans, at the expense of other moral concerns." They cite the writings of Ayn Rand as a source for this prediction: I must then cite Dawn Of the Dead, I suppose.

Another huge problem is that they have really drunk the Kool-Aid of adopting libertarian terminology and propaganda claims throughout their paper.

Take, for example, "It is clear, then, that libertarians cannot be readily classified on the standard left-right dimension." No, that is not at all clear as anybody familiar with Lakoff 2002 would know. Lakoff clearly places libertarians in the conservative (right) end of the scale. They cite Lakoff 2002 just a few paragraphs earlier, but haven't the wits or honesty to admit that some real academics disagree. Nor is it clear that there is a single definition of "the standard left-right dimension."

The methodology is also highly susceptible to spoofing: they've used an internet survey site open to anybody. As anyone from Pharyngula would know, it is easy to send droves of readers with similar points of view over to any poll. And it took me about two minutes to find the first example of libertarians being steered over to it: "If you’re interested in answering that question, and consider yourself libertarian, register at and take the Moral Foundations Questionnaire."

What we have here is an attitude survey of libertarians which is larded by repetition of standard libertarian talking points with no academic credibility. These talking points are the product of decades-long public relations campaigns, which (among other things) rely on incessant repetition of propaganda. Funding of this "study" by an investment banker strongly suggests to me that this is just another excuse to repeat propaganda yet again.

I will be very interested to see where this "study" gets published.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Does School Choice "Work"?

Does School Choice "Work"

Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute gives a surprisingly lukewarm answer of "barely, and much less than had been promised." After more than 20 years of efforts, you'd think we'd see some clear results, but they are really equivocal.

And it's precisely what opponents predicted based on the fact that very few schools are in any way significantly different than public schools. They tend to draw from the same pool of teachers, texts, administrators, and students. They tend to teach to the same requirements.

My personal opinion (as a public school teacher) is that almost all of the low-hanging fruit for school improvement has long since been picked. Class sizes have been reduced. Early learning opportunities for preschoolers have been greatly increased by educational television, good day care and more preschool. Disabilities are tested for and recognized much earlier, before much harm is done. Many of the social issues such as equal access, integration, language barriers, cultural insensitivity, and access for the handicapped have been dealt with. These are huge improvements since the 70s.

And all these have been done by public schools, without bashing teachers or public schools, and with the enthusiastic support of teachers.

They have been unsuccessfully blocked by conservatives who (a) want to maintain patterns of class and racial discrimination (b) don't want to spend the money or (c) want public institutions to fail so that their religious alternatives look good. These are many of the same people who are agitating for school choice and a host of other attacks on traditional public schooling.

Enormous pressure is put on administrators and school boards to keep improving public schools, but you can only get so much blood from a stone no matter how hard you squeeze.

The remaining big, relatively easy improvement in education will come from parents creating better family environments that encourage learning. Train parents to inspire their children to be well educated, and to perform the needed supervision to keep students on track in their studies. There is huge room for parental improvement, and we should vigorously explore public and private options for providing training and inspiration for parents.

It would also help if there is a promising economy that can provide jobs for all the educated: our 10% unemployment rate does not inspire scholarship. Imagine if we promised employment opportunities to anybody with a HS diploma as a form of social insurance, with government counter-cyclicly providing useful low-wage jobs when the private sector does not (such as in a recession.) That would be a HUGE incentive to graduate.