Author Archives: jl2109

Why Don’t Religious People Know More About Religion?

Economist Robin Hanson has an “it isn’t about” list. It begins:

  • Food isn’t about Nutrition
  • Clothes aren’t about Comfort

Also on the list is:

  • Church isn’t about God

Maybe church isn’t about religious ideas either.

I was reminded of this recently when I followed a link to a Pew quiz on religious knowledge. It’s a lite version of the 32-item quiz Pew used with a national sample in 2010.  One of the findings from that survey (the full report is here) was that people who went to church regularly and who said that religion was important in their lives didn’t do much better on the quiz than did those who had a weak attachment to church and religion.

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The strongly committed averaged 17 correct answers out of the 32 questions; the uncommitted, 16.  This same pattern was repeated in the more recent 15-question quiz.

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The committed may derive many things from their church attendance and faith, but knowledge of religion isn’t one of them.

To be fair, the quiz covers many religions, and people do know more about their own religion than they do about others.  “What was Joseph Smith’s religion?” Only about half the population gets that one right, but 93% of the Mormons nailed it. Mormons also knew more about the Ten Commandments. Catholics did better than others on the transubstantiation question.  But when it came to knowing who inspired the Protestant Reformation, Protestants got outscored by Jews and atheists.

Overall, nonbelievers, Jews, and Mormons did much better than did Protestants and Catholics.

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One reason for their higher scores might be education – college graduates outscore high school or less by nearly 8 points out of 32.

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It may be that nonbelievers, Jews, and Mormons are more likely to have finished college. Unfortunately, the Pew report does not give data that controls for education.

But another reason that these groups scored higher may be their position as religious minorities. Jews and Mormons have to explain to the flock how their ideas are different from those of the majority. Atheists and agnostics too, in their questioning and even rejecting,  have probably devoted more thought to religion, or more accurately, religions. On the questions about Shiva and Nirvana, they leave even the Jews and Mormons far behind.

For Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, learning detailed information about their religion is not as crucial. Just as White people in the US rarely ask what it means to be White, Christians need not worry about their differences from the mainstream. They are the mainstream. So going to church or praying can be much more about feelings – solidarity, transcendence, peace, etc.  That variety of religious experience need not include learning the history or even the tenets of the religion itself. As Durkheim said, the central element in religion is ritual – especially the feelings a ritual generates in the group. Knowing the actual beliefs might be a nice addition, but it’s not crucial.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Watch London Cops Subdue, Not Kill, a Man Yelling and Swinging a Machete

Despite the cellphone video of two police officers killing Kajieme Powell, there is some dispute as to what happened (see this account in The Atlantic). Was Powell threatening them; did he hold the knife high; was he only three or four feet away? 

The video is all over the Internet, including the link above. I’m not going to include it here.  The officers get out of the car, immediately draw their guns, and walk towards Powell. Is this the best way to deal with a disturbed or possibly deranged individual – to confront him and then shoot him several times if he does something that might be threatening?

Watch the video, then watch London police confronting a truly deranged and dangerous man in 2011.  In St. Louis, Powell had a steak knife and it’s not clear whether he raised it or swung it at all.  The man in London has a machete and is swinging it about.


Unfortunately, the London video does not show us how the incident got started. By the time the recording begins, at least ten officers were already on the scene. They do not have guns. They have shields and truncheons. The London police tactic used more officers, and the incident took more time. But nobody died.  According to The Economist:

The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years. Nationwide, America’s police kill roughly one person a day.

The article includes this graphic:

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I’m sure that the Powell killing will elicit not just sympathy for the St. Louis police but in some quarters high praise – something to the effect that what they did was a good deed and that the victims got what they deserved. But righteous slaughter is slaughter nevertheless. A life has been taken.<

You would think that other recent videos of righteous slaughter elsewhere in the world would get us to reconsider this response to killing. But instead, these seem only to strengthen tribal Us/Them ways of thinking. If one of Us who kills one of Them, then the killing must have been necessary and even virtuous.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Ross Douthat is puzzled. He seems to sense that a liberal policy might actually help, but his high conservative principles and morality keep him from taking that step. It’s a political version of Freudian repression – the conservative superego forcing tempting ideas to remain out of awareness.

In his column, Douthat recounts several anecdotes of criminal charges brought against parents whose children were unsupervised for short periods of time.  The best-known of these criminals of late is Debra Harrell, the mother in South Carolina who let her 9-year-old daughter go to a nearby playground while she (Debra) worked at her job at McDonald’s. The details of the case make it clear that this was not a bad mom – not cruel, not negligent. The playground was the best child care she could afford.

One solution should be obvious – affordable child care.  But the U.S. is rather stingy when it comes to kids. Other countries are way ahead of us on public spending for children.

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Conservatives will argue that child care should be private not public and that local charities and churches do a better job than do state-run programs. Maybe so. The trouble is that those private programs are not accessible to everyone. If Debra Harrell had been in France or Denmark, the problem would never have arisen.

The other conservative U.S. policy that put Debra Harrell in the arms of the law is “welfare reform.”  As Douthat explains, in the U.S., thanks to changes in the welfare system much lauded by conservatives, the U.S. now has “a welfare system whose work requirements can put a single mother behind a fast-food counter while her kid is out of school.”

That’s the part that perplexes Douthat. He thinks that it’s a good thing for the government to force poor women to work, but it’s a bad thing for those women not to have the time to be good mothers. The two obvious solutions – affordable day care or support for women who stay home to take care of kids – conflict with the cherished conservative ideas: government bad, work good.

This last issue presents a distinctive challenge to conservatives like me, who believe such work requirements are essential. If we want women like Debra Harrell to take jobs instead of welfare, we have to also find a way to defend their liberty as parents, instead of expecting them to hover like helicopters and then literally arresting them if they don’t.

As he says, it’s a distinctive challenge, but only if you cling so tightly to conservative principles that you reject solutions – solutions that seem to be working quite well in other countries – just because they involve the government or allow poor parents not to work.

Conservatives love to decry “the nanny state.”  That means things like government efforts to improve kids’ health and nutrition. (Right wingers make fun of the first lady for trying to get kids to eat sensibly and get some exercise.)

A nanny is a person who is paid to look after someone else’s kids. Well-off people hire them privately (though they still prefer to call them au pairs). But for the childcare problems of low-income parents, what we need is more of a nanny state, or more accurately, state-paid nannies.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws that Corporations Allow?

We refer to Senators and Congressional representatives as “lawmakers.” We democratically elect these people so that they can write and enact laws. But every so often the curtain parts, and we get a glimpse of who’s writing the laws, though these are usually laws that don’t make headlines. There was that time during the Bush years when corporate lobbyists were sitting right next to elected representatives – mostly Republican – at a committee hearing, telling them what to say.  The GOP defenders got all huffy at those who had pointed out who was really running the legislation show.

Last week’s New York Times has an article (here) about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.  Three-quarters of the way through the story, we get this paragraph (emphasis added):

Elaine C. Kamarck, the co-chairwoman of a bipartisan coalition of businesses and organizations that support a tax overhaul, says the only way a tax bill will pass is to use any savings derived from closing corporate loopholes solely to lower the overall corporate tax rate. The companies that have joined the coalition, which include Boeing, AT&T, Verizon, Walmart and Walt Disney, have agreed to put every loophole on the table, she said, because they believe “a low enough basic tax rate is worth giving up exemptions.”

The message is clear: our elected representatives can change the law only if a handful of corporations agree. Ms. Kamarck tells us that these corporations have selflessly allowed their tax dodges to be put “on the table.” Presumably, had they not been so magnanimous,  these corporations would not allow Congress to change the law.  She also implies that if the tradeoff – fewer exemptions but lower rates — doesn’t benefit the corporations, they’ll take their loopholes off the table and stop our elected representatives from changing the law.

Nice. I think that educators are so valuable to society that their income should not be taxed. But that table Ms. Kamarck mentions – the one where you tell Congress which tax rules you’ll accept – I can’t get anywhere near it.  So I pay my taxes. In fact, last year, I paid more in taxes than did Verizon and Boeing combined.  They, and several other huge corporations, paid zero.

I am, of course, naive to think that it was really Congress that wrote the laws that allow these corporations to pay nothing, and not the corporations themselves. How else?

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

On Women’s Comfort with Topless Sunbathing

What should we make of changes in fashion? Are they the visible outward expression of new ways of thinking? Or do fashions themselves influence our sentiments and ideas? Or are fashions merely superficial and without any deeper meaning except that of being fashionable?

It’s summer, and once again magazines and newspapers are reporting on beachwear trends in France, proclaiming “the end of topless.” They said the same thing five years ago.

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As in 2009, no systematic observers were actually counting the covered and uncovered chests on the beach. Instead, we are again relying on surveys – what people say they do, or have done, or would do.  Elle cites an Ipsos survey: “In 2013, 93% of French women say that they wear a top, and 35% find it ‘unthinkable’ to uncover their chest in public.”

Let’s assume that people’s impressions and the media stories are accurate and that fewer French women are going topless. Some of stories mention health concerns, but most are hunting for grander meanings. The Elle cover suggests that the change encompasses issues like liberty, intimacy, and modesty.  Marie-Claire says,

Et en dehors de cette question sanitaire, comment expliquer le recul du monokini : nouvelle pudeur ou perte des convictions féministes du départ ?

But aside from the question of health, how to explain the retreat from the monokini: a new modesty or a loss of the original feminist convictions? [my translation, perhaps inaccurate]

The assumption here is that is that ideas influence swimwear choices.  Women these days have different attitudes, feelings, and ideologies, so they choose apparel more compatible with those ideas.  The notion certainly fits with the evidence on cultural differences, such as those between France and the U.S.

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Americans are much more likely to feel uncomfortable at a topless beach. But they are also much less likely to have been to one. (Northern Europeans – those from the Scandinavian countries and Germany – are even more likely than the French to have gone topless.) (Data are from a 2013 Harris survey done for Expedia.)

This second graph could also support the other way of thinking about the relation between fashion and ideas: exposing your body changes how you think about bodies.  If people take off their clothes, they’ll become more comfortable with nudity. That is, whatever a woman’s original motivation, once she did try going topless, she would develop ideas that made sense of the experiences, especially since the body already carries such a heavy symbolism. She would not have to invent these topless-is-OK ideas all by herself. They would be available in the conversations of others. So unless her experiences were negative, these new ideas would add to and reinforce the thoughts that led to the original behavior.

This process is much like the general scenario Howie Becker outlines for deviance.

Instead of deviant motives leading to deviant behavior, it is the other way around; the deviant behavior in time produces the deviant motivation.  Vague impulses and desires … probably most frequently a curiosity … are transformed into definite patterns of action through social interpretation of a physical experience. [Outsiders, p. 42]

With swimwear, another motive besides “vague impulses” comes into play:  fashion –  the pressure to wear something that’s within the range of what others on the beach are wearing.

Becker was writing about deviance.  But when the behavior is not illegal and not all that deviant, when you can see lots of people doing it in public, the supportive interpretations will be easy to come by.  In any case, it seems that the learned motivation stays learned.  The fin-du-topless stories,  both in 2009 and 2014, suggest that the change is one of generations rather than a change in attitudes.  Older women have largely kept their ideas about toplessness. And if it’s true that French women don’t get fat, maybe they’ve even kept their old monokinis.  It’s the younger French women who are keeping their tops on. But I would be reluctant to leap from that one fashion trend to a picture of an entire generation as more sexually conservative.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Saturday Stat: Main, Mean, and Median Street

Mean and median are two measures of “average.”  The mean is the average as we typically think of it: the sum of things divided by the total number of things.  The median, in contrast, is literally the number in the middle if we align all the quantities in order.  People often use median instead of mean because it is insensitive to extreme outliers which may skew the mean in one direction or another.

For a quick illustration of the difference, I often use the example of income. I choose a plausible average (mean) for the classroom population and review the math. “If Bill Gates walks into the room,” I say, “the average income is now in the billions. The median hasn’t moved, but the mean has gone way up.” So has the Gini coefficient.

Here’s a more realistic and global illustration – the net worth of people in the wealthier countries.  The U.S. ranks fourth in mean worth – $301,000 per person…

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…but the median is far lower – $45,000, 19th out of the twenty nations shown.  (The graph is from Credit Suisse via CNN.)

The U.S. is a wealthy nation compared with others, but  “average” Americans, in the way that term is generally understood, are poorer than their counterparts in other countries. 

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Insurance Companies and the Cost of Health Care

When my primary care physician, a wonderful doctor, told me he was retiring, he said, “I just can’t practice medicine anymore the way I want to.” It wasn’t the government or malpractice lawyers. It was the insurance companies.

This was long before Obamacare.  It was back when President W was telling us that “America has the best health care system in the world”; back when “the best” meant spending twice as much as other developed countries and getting health outcomes that were no better and by some measures worse. (That’s still true).

Many critics then blamed the insurance companies, whose administrative costs were so much higher than those of public health care, including our own Medicare. Some of that money went to employees whose job it was to increase insurers’ profits by not paying claims.  Back then we learned the word “rescission”  – finding a pretext for cancelling the coverage of people whose medical bills were too high.   Insurance company executives, summoned to Congressional hearings, stood their ground and offered some misleading statistics

None of the Congressional representatives on the committee asked the execs how much they were getting paid. Maybe they should have.

Health care in the U.S. is a $2.7 trillion dollar business, and the New York Times has an article about who’s getting the big bucks.  Not the doctors, it turns out.  And certainly not the people who have the most contact with sick people – nurses, EMTs, and those further down the chain.  Here’s the chart from the article, with an inset showing those administrative costs.

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As fine print at the top of the chart says, these are just salaries – walking-around money an exec gets for showing up.  The real money is in the options and incentives.

In a deal that is not unusual in the industry, Mark T. Bertolini, the chief executive of Aetna, earned a salary of about $977,000 in 2012 but a total compensation package of over $36 million, the bulk of it from stocks vested and options he exercised that year.

The anti-Obamacare rhetoric has railed against a “government takeover” of medicine. It is, of course, no such thing. Obama had to remove the “public option”; Republicans prevented the government from fielding a team and getting into the game. Instead, we have had an insurance company takeover of medicine. It’s not the government that’s coming between doctor and patient, it’s the insurance companies. Those dreaded “bureaucrats” aren’t working for the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. They’ve working for Aetna and Well-Point.

Even the doctors now sense that they too are merely working for The Man.

Doctors are beginning to push back: Last month, 75 doctors in northern Wisconsin [demanded] . . . health reforms . . . requiring that 95 percent of insurance premiums be used on medical care. The movement was ignited when a surgeon, Dr. Hans Rechsteiner, discovered that a brief outpatient appendectomy he had performed for a fee of $1,700 generated over $12,000 in hospital bills, including $6,500 for operating room and recovery room charges.

That $12,000 tab, for what it’s worth, is slightly under the U.S. average.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Louis C.K. on Assortative Mating

Usually, you want to match up with someone at about your level, or a little higher.  The trouble is that many people overestimate their own level.  Maybe that’s especially true of men.

One summer many years ago at the tennis courts, a guy I didn’t know  came over and asked me if I’d like to play. I hadn’t arranged a game with anyone, but I didn’t want to wind up playing some patzer.

“Are you any good?” I asked. He paused.

“Well, I’m not Jimmy Connors,” he said (I told this was many years ago), “but neither are you.”

In chess and other games, serious players have ratings. Give a roomful of possible partners, they can sort through the ratings and find a match with someone at roughly the same level.  It’s called assortative mating, though that term usually refers to the other kind of mating, not chess.  It’s the basis of the conflict in this poignant scene from “Louie.”

Vanessa is not a ten, neither is Louie.  According to principles of assortative mating, the tens will wind up with other tens, the nines with nines, and so on down the attractiveness scale. One problem in the “Louie” scene is that Louie seems to have an inflated view of his own attractiveness.  He’s aiming higher than Vanessa.  That’s typical.  So is the importance that Louie, the man, places on physical attractiveness. This excerpt begins with Louie telling Vanessa that she’s a really beautiful . . . . He can’t bring himself to say “girl”; he’s probably going to say “person.” But he’s obviously not saying what he thinks.

Or as Dan Ariely and colleagues concluded from their study of HotOrNot members:

[Men] were significantly more influenced by the consensus physical attractiveness of their potential dates than females were. [Men also] were less affected by how attractive they themselves were . . .  In making date choices, males are less influenced by their own rated attractiveness than females are.

Another dating site, OK Cupid, found a similar pattern when they looked at data about who gets messages.  They asked their customers to rate profile photos of the opposite sex on a scale of 0 to 5. They then tracked the number of messages for people at each level of attractiveness.  The graph below shows what women thought and what they did – that is, how attractive they found men, and who they sent messages to.

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Men who were rated 0 or 1 got fewer messages than their proportion in the population.  That figures. But even men who were only moderately attractive got more than their share. Generally, the fewer men at a level of attractiveness, the fewer total messages women sent. The 4s, for example, constituted only 2% of the population, and they got only 4% of all the messages.  The Vanessas on OK Cupid are not sending a lot of inquiries to guys who look like George Clooney.

But look at the men.

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Men are more generous in their estimates of beauty than are women. But they also ignore the Vanessas of the world (or at least the world of OK Cupid) and flock after the more attractive women.  Only 15% of the women were rated as a 4, but they received about 26% of the messages.  Women rated 5 received messages triple their proportion in the population.

What about those with so-so looks?  Women rated as 2s received only about 10% of the messages sent by men. But men at that same level received 25% of the messages women sent.  The women seem more realistic.

Vanessa too has no illusions about her own attractiveness. She refers to herself as “a fat girl,” and when Louie, trying to be kind, says, “You’re not fat,” she says: “You know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? [pause] ‘You’re not fat.’” But it’s only when she challenges Louie’s view of his own attractiveness that their relationship starts to change.

Y’know if you were standing over there looking at us, you know what you’d see?

What?

That we totally match. We’re actually a great couple together.

She doesn’t explain what she means by “totally match.” It could be their interests or ideas or personalities, but the imaginary stranger looking at them from over there couldn’t know about any of that. What that generalized other could see is that they are at roughly the same place on the assortative mating attractiveness scale.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.