Friday, September 18, 2009

Conditional Love And Orthodox Judaism: A Little Mussar From A Jewish Atheist

There were a lot of conditions for love and affection and continued membership, And they were serious, and they were ludicrous. It was, "You don't wear a yarmulke you can get out. You intermarry, we sit shiva for you. You eat non-kosher and our children are not allowed to hang out with you." --Shalom Auslander

When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do as I Say’
The studies found that both positive and negative conditional parenting were harmful, but in slightly different ways. The positive kind sometimes succeeded in getting children to work harder on academic tasks, but at the cost of unhealthy feelings of “internal compulsion.” Negative conditional parenting didn’t even work in the short run; it just increased the teenagers’ negative feelings about their parents.

What these and other studies tell us, if we’re able to hear the news, is that praising children for doing something right isn’t a meaningful alternative to pulling back or punishing when they do something wrong. Both are examples of conditional parenting, and both are counterproductive.

The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who readily acknowledged that the version of negative conditional parenting known as time-out can cause “deep feelings of anxiety,” nevertheless endorsed it for that very reason. “When our words are not enough,” he said, “the threat of the withdrawal of our love and affection is the only sound method to impress on him that he had better conform to our request.”

But the data suggest that love withdrawal isn’t particularly effective at getting compliance, much less at promoting moral development. Even if we did succeed in making children obey us, though — say, by using positive reinforcement — is obedience worth the possible long-term psychological harm? Should parental love be used as a tool for controlling children?

Deeper issues also underlie a different sort of criticism. Albert Bandura, the father of the branch of psychology known as social learning theory, declared that unconditional love “would make children directionless and quite unlovable” — an assertion entirely unsupported by empirical studies. The idea that children accepted for who they are would lack direction or appeal is most informative for what it tells us about the dark view of human nature held by those who issue such warnings.

In practice, according to an impressive collection of data by Dr. Deci and others, unconditional acceptance by parents as well as teachers should be accompanied by “autonomy support”: explaining reasons for requests, maximizing opportunities for the child to participate in making decisions, being encouraging without manipulating, and actively imagining how things look from the child’s point of view.

The last of these features is important with respect to unconditional parenting itself. Most of us would protest that of course we love our children without any strings attached. But what counts is how things look from the perspective of the children — whether they feel just as loved when they mess up or fall short.

Rogers didn’t say so, but I’ll bet he would have been glad to see less demand for skillful therapists if that meant more people were growing into adulthood having already felt unconditionally accepted.

That article sent a pang through my heart, because I recognized so much of my parents' disciplinary style in the "what not to do" sections.

Just last week, I kind of casually mentioned to my mother-in-law that I'm something of a disappointment to my father (in that I'm not Orthodox.) She was, of course, horrified and insisted that it must not be true. And maybe it isn't, but this article sure explains why I would feel that way. My parents probably have always loved me unconditionally, but it felt to me that their love and affection were contingent on my behaving in certain ways... and I either could not or would not always behave in those ways.

I think that that kind of parenting goes hand-in-hand with fundamentalist religion (although it appears everywhere.) The Orthodox community itself is the same way. They are so warm and accepting as long as you Do As They Say. Be (or appear to be) a mainstream Orthodox person and you can have dozens of friends two weeks after moving into a community. But if you don't fit the mold, you don't fit the community, and they get rid of you, if only by not making you feel welcome.

Yes, Modern Orthodox communities will tolerate a blue shirt, some mixed dancing, and even eating non-kosher dairy out, but the entire community is built around the set of behaviors that is Orthodox Judaism. If a kid becomes an atheist or is openly gay or even just becomes a Reform Jew, he (generally speaking) no longer has a place in that community.

It's important to note that no harm is intended by Orthodox communities, just as no harm is intended by parents trying to teach their children to behave themselves. But harm is caused. Gay kids, atheist kids, apatheist kids, weird kids, outspoken kids, freethinking kids, boys who don't like gemara, kids who don't want to go to Israel -- they get the message that they aren't loved and don't belong. In more right-wing communities, kids who like secular books and movies, girls who don't want to be housewives or even mothers, girls who want to go to college, boys who wear blue shirts -- they get that message too.

I remember when I first told my parents that I didn't believe anymore and wasn't going to remain Orthodox, I asked them if they'd prefer me to be happy or to stay Orthodox. They refused to answer, arguing it was a false dichotomy (and probably it was.) But it gets at an important issue. There is so much focus in Orthodox families and Orthodox communities in making sure that children turn into this one kind of adult that it does a lot of damage. I genuinely did not (and do not) know how my parents would answer that question honestly, assuming they had to pick. A happy son or an Orthodox one?

And don't you liberal Orthodoxers pat yourselves on the back if you allow a little more leeway, say a blue shirt or a secular school. If you make it seem like your love is in any way contingent on your kids (or brothers or sisters or friends) remaining Orthodox or straight or marrying another Jew, you are part of the problem. Love (or the perception of love) should not be used in that way.

This is NOT to say that you can't argue for someone to marry a Jew or remain Orthodox or try to become straight (even though I'd disagree with those arguments.) It's about letting your loved ones believe that your love is contingent on their behaviors and life choices.

There are some Orthodox people who get this right, even when "tested" by gay or OTD or whatever kids. I don't want to make it sound like I think every Orthodox person is guilty of this. There are probably even some Orthodox communities who get it right, probably in very small communities where they don't have enough people who are the same to cast out those who are different.

But this is a problem that's built into the very notion of "Orthodox community." "Orthodox" should refer to an individual's beliefs or behaviors, not to a community. It's fine and natural for Orthodox people to associate with each other and to form communities, but it is not fine (although it is natural) for them to exclude non-Orthodox people from those communities. And it's not enough to welcome non-Orthodox people for meals or events with the intention of bringing them closer to Orthodoxy. If you don't value people as people regardless of their choices, then you do not love them. And I don't think even the Torah commands you to love only your Orthodox neighbors.

Oh, and perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, you might be able to make a serious dent in your OTD "problem" by not using your love as reward and punishment. There are plenty of potential OTDers who probably wouldn't care enough to leave if they weren't made to feel so unwelcome.

(HT: Abandoning Eden)

45,000 Excess Deaths Annually Linked To Lack Of Health Insurance

Harvard study:

A study published online today [Thursday] estimates nearly 45,000 annual deaths are associated with lack of health insurance. That figure is about two and a half times higher than an estimate from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) in 2002.

The new study, "Health Insurance and Mortality in U.S. Adults," appears in today's [Thursday's] online edition of the American Journal of Public Health.

The Harvard-based researchers found that uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts, up from a 25 percent excess death rate found in 1993.

Lead author Dr. Andrew Wilper, who worked at Harvard Medical School when the study was done and who now teaches at the University of Washington Medical School, said, "The uninsured have a higher risk of death when compared to the privately insured, even after taking into account socioeconomics, health behaviors and baseline health. We doctors have many new ways to prevent deaths from hypertension, diabetes and heart disease -- but only if patients can get into our offices and afford their medications."

The study, which analyzed data from national surveys carried out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), assessed death rates after taking education, income and many other factors including smoking, drinking and obesity into account. It estimated that lack of health insurance causes 44,789 excess deaths annually.

Bin Laden killed 3,000 people on 9/11. Lack of health insurance kills fifteen times that number every year.

It's easy to forget what we're fighting for with all the ranting and raving and lying going on. This isn't about soaking the rich or getting votes or growing government or turning the country into a socialist utopia; it's about saving a lot of lives and improving the quality of life for a lot more people.

Let's try to remember that.

(HT: Andrew Sullivan.)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The False Beauty of Intelligent Design

Chana posts an ode to intelligent design from Sing, You Righteous by R' Avigdor Miller:
(Mr. Goodfriend is entertaining Eliezer and his younger brother Aaron on the back porch. Watermelon is being served.)

G. Last year I visited a farm in the South and I saw watermelons growing alongside the steps of the Negro workers' cottages.

Aaron. Why did they plant them near the steps?

G. They did not. In the evenings they had held watermelon feasts on their steps, and the slippery seeds had shot in all directions just as they do here. That is the purpose of their slipperiness.

A. Do you say that they are purposefully slippery? Is that not merely due to the moisture of the melon?

G. Rub the melon water between your fingers: it is not slippery. The seeds are coated with a slippery mucus which causes them to fly out under pressure.

A. Then why are only watermelon seeds slippery, but not orange seeds?

G. The watermelon seeds are palatable, and must therefore be protected by making them elusive. The orange pips are bitter and therefore need no protection. That is the purpose of their bitterness.

Eliezer. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture says so in one of its publications on the orange.

A. You say, Sir, that the bitterness is for the intentional purpose of protecting the pips. This implies that the orange tree knows that there are eaters, and therefore intentionally makes its seeds bitter. The tree, then, also knows that the eaters dislike bitterness.

Eliezer. And it implies also that the orange and the watermelon know that the future of their species depends on the protection of the seeds.

A. The biology teachers would be outraged at such language.

E. What else could anyone say, whether he wished or not?

A. If the melon is entirely purposeful, why is its flesh colored red?

E. When your mother makes ice cream, why does she color it? The color enhances the pleasure of eating.

A. You are now implying that the watermelon knows also that the eaters have eyes, and it knows that the eaters are not colorblind.

G. And it knows that the eaters relish sweets, for it sugars the flesh of the melon. You are also forced to admit that it knows how to mix starches and acids, colors and flavors, all in exact proportion, and cooks them in the sunshine until ready to eat.

E. A master chef!

G. It is superior to the best of chefs. The chef is supplied beforehand with all the materials; whereas the plant creates a masterpiece from nothing but water, air, sunlight and soil.

E. It is also evident that it is careful to waste no materials. The red color stops at the rind.

G. Yes. A colored rind would be misleading, for the eater might be tempted and cause himself stomach cramps. Only the edible part is colored.

A. Are you crediting the watermelon with so much intelligence? Perhaps its purpose is merely to produce seeds.

G. That in itself is enormously purposeful. But the seeds do not need the meat of the melon, for each seed is provided with its own store of food within its jacket. This food in the seed-jacket is colorless and unsweetened, for the seed does not need an attractive color or luscious flavor such as the watermelon-meat possesses.

E. The melon proclaims as clearly as could be that it is intended for eaters. The seeds of the fruits and vegetables are provided with their own supply of food, and the kind of food which they need, inside the seed. Therefore the meat of the fruit clearly has no purpose other than to be eaten.

A. And the color of the orange flesh?

G. It causes the eater increased enjoyment.

A. To say that the melon wishes to protect the eater against stomach cramps, seems too imaginative.

G. Do you not see that all unripe fruits are green? Why?

A. That is their natural color.

G. Then why do apples turn red when ripe, and not before? Why do oranges turn yellow only when ripe, and grapes turn purple? In ripeness they have various colors, but when unripe all are green. Why?

E. You can say nothing else: to protect the eaters from stomachache. The green warns them.

G. The green causes the fruits to be inconspicuous among the green leaves. The unripe fruit remains unnoticeable, in addition to remaining unattractive, as long as it is unfit for eating. The ripe fruit assumes a bright color in order 1) to make it conspicuous among the green leaves and 2) to make it attractive to the eaters.

A. You attribute very much intelligence to all plants.

G. Yes. The fruit tree knows 1) of eaters 2) who have eyes 3) which distinguish colors; and 4) who possess stomachs, and 5) who have the senses of smell and taste, and 6) dislike sour food but 7) relish sweets flavored by gentle acids, and 8) whose digestive systems are equipped with complex chemical processes with which the tree is familiar. The tree knows also that 9) the eaters possess teeth and 10) that they have no wings with which to fly.

She and Ezzie think this is the best thing ever.

I'm actually embarrassed for them. It's one thing to think that God had a hand in evolution; quite another to act like you've never even heard of Darwin!

If they liked that, I've got a video that will blow their minds:

For an elegant, readable, even beautiful explanation of the "intelligence" behind evolution, I recommend Richard Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker or The Selfish Gene.

Evolution is way more beautiful and way more mind-blowing when you realize that it doesn't need some magic sky fairy to guide it.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Pop Quiz: What Percentage of Americans Oppose The War In Afghanistan?

Opposition to the war in Afghanistan is at an all-time high in a new national poll. Fifty-seven percent of Americans questioned in a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Tuesday say they oppose the U.S. war in Afghanistan, with 42 percent supporting the military mission.

57% of Americans oppose the war.

57% of Independents oppose the war.

But that's not exactly the picture you get from the media, is it?

On yesterday's Meet the Press, which was devoted in large part to "debating" the war, 100% of the panelists supported it. (The other half of the show was devoted to "debating" health care, in which 75% to 100% of the panelists opposed the public option. A majority of Americans support the public option.)

Liberal media, my ass. Not only are liberal views not represented even when a majority of Americans hold them, they're not even treated by the media as "serious" or "legitimate" views to hold. To be taken seriously by the media, you have to be a hawk and a fiscal conservative. Socially, you can be a little more liberal. As long as you favor war and limiting social spending, of course.

Yesterday, Meet the Press hosted a panel discussion to debate two primary issues: (1) foreign policy -- specifically, the war in Afghanistan, and (2) health care. The panel: Rudy Giuliani, Tom Friedman, Harold Ford, Jr., and Tom Brokaw (as Jay Rosen often notes, Meet the Press is doing a fantastic job of fulfilling its pledge to present "fresh voices" in its discussions).

With regard to Afghanistan, there is a major debate currently taking place about whether we should stay in that country. A majority of Americans now opposes the war. But there was not a single participant there who shares that view. All of them believe that it is imperative we remain, and put on their little General hats to exchange deeply Serious analyses of how we need to adjust our strategy and tactics for greater mission success. Of course, all of three of those whose views were known about Iraq -- Friedman, Ford and Giuliani -- were vehement supporters of the invasion. As always, not only does support for that war not produce shame or even impair one's credibility and Seriousness, but the opposite is true: having supported it is a prerequisite for being considered credible and Serious, which is why those are the only people -- still -- from whom we hear when it's time to convene Serious discussions of foreign policy. What an odd filtering standard for The Liberal Media to use.

On health care, the same dynamic repeated itself. The prime controversy in that debate is over the inclusion of a "public option," with large numbers of Americans supporting it. Yet once again, not a single member of the panel advocated it (though David Axelrod was interviewed before the panel and paid lip service to the public option on his way to clearly signaling it would not be part of the ultimate plan). Guiliani warned there would be no health care with a public option; Ford told his "liberal friends in Congress" that they will have to be disappointed by the outcome; Friedman insisted that Obama adopt the proposals of Mitt Romney and John McCain and ensure he has the support of centrist Republicans (Brokaw offered some mild pushback against the attempt to demonize the public option). The words "single payer" were never spoken.

What you had with the health care discussion, just as was true with the Afghanistan debate and the lead-up to the Iraq War, is one that -- by design -- completely excluded any views to the "left" of DLC Chair Harold Ford, even where such views are held by large numbers of Americans. With very rare exception, that is the spectrum of opinion typically allowed on Liberal Media shows like Meet the Press. The Liberal Media doesn't even pretend to include liberal views.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

How Did Economists Get it So Wrong?

The introduction and conclusion of a long article by Paul Krugman in yesterday's NYT:

Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field’s problems. More important was the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy. During the golden years, financial economists came to believe that markets were inherently stable — indeed, that stocks and other assets were always priced just right. There was nothing in the prevailing models suggesting the possibility of the kind of collapse that happened last year. Meanwhile, macroeconomists were divided in their views. But the main division was between those who insisted that free-market economies never go astray and those who believed that economies may stray now and then but that any major deviations from the path of prosperity could and would be corrected by the all-powerful Fed. Neither side was prepared to cope with an economy that went off the rails despite the Fed’s best efforts.

And in the wake of the crisis, the fault lines in the economics profession have yawned wider than ever. Lucas says the Obama administration’s stimulus plans are “schlock economics,” and his Chicago colleague John Cochrane says they’re based on discredited “fairy tales.” In response, Brad DeLong of the University of California, Berkeley, writes of the “intellectual collapse” of the Chicago School, and I myself have written that comments from Chicago economists are the product of a Dark Age of macroeconomics in which hard-won knowledge has been forgotten.

What happened to the economics profession? And where does it go from here?

[skip about four pages to the conclusion]

So here’s what I think economists have to do. First, they have to face up to the inconvenient reality that financial markets fall far short of perfection, that they are subject to extraordinary delusions and the madness of crowds. Second, they have to admit — and this will be very hard for the people who giggled and whispered over Keynes — that Keynesian economics remains the best framework we have for making sense of recessions and depressions. Third, they’ll have to do their best to incorporate the realities of finance into macroeconomics.

Many economists will find these changes deeply disturbing. It will be a long time, if ever, before the new, more realistic approaches to finance and macroeconomics offer the same kind of clarity, completeness and sheer beauty that characterizes the full neoclassical approach. To some economists that will be a reason to cling to neoclassicism, despite its utter failure to make sense of the greatest economic crisis in three generations. This seems, however, like a good time to recall the words of H. L. Mencken: “There is always an easy solution to every human problem — neat, plausible and wrong.”

When it comes to the all-too-human problem of recessions and depressions, economists need to abandon the neat but wrong solution of assuming that everyone is rational and markets work perfectly. The vision that emerges as the profession rethinks its foundations may not be all that clear; it certainly won’t be neat; but we can hope that it will have the virtue of being at least partly right.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Rationalizing Belief: Or, I'd Love To Play Poker With Rabbi Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student of Hirhurim, drawing from the seventh Harry Potter book, writes about belief in the face of incomplete evidence:

This raises the question of what to do when you have inconclusive evidence. Should you follow the direction of the preponderance of evidence, even if you know that you are missing significant pieces to the puzzle? Should you remain without an opinion? Or should you choose whichever outcome you want, as long as it can somehow fit in with the evidence currently available?

Of course you should follow the preponderance of the evidence! How is that even a question? Obviously I'm aware that people choose to believe what they prefer to believe, but I didn't realize people were conscious of doing it, let alone rationalizing it explicitly. Kudos to Rabbi Student for being more self-aware and open about it than most, but really, how can you live like that?

Rabbi Student then shifts from Harry Potter's fictional dilemma to a real-life one faced by educated, open-minded Orthodox people everywhere:

Another area in which this dilemma arises is that of belief in theological principles. For example, the Divine authorship of the Pentateuch. Evidence from biblical criticism and related fields indicate that the Pentateuch was written by different people. However, an honest observer will admit that the evidence is not completely conclusive, and perhaps can never be when discussing the authorship of a text thousands of years old.

If the current preponderance of evidence points to human authorship, must we accept that conclusion? Or can we choose which position to believe, since either can somehow fit within all the evidence? Or should we retain the traditional belief of Divine authorship and dismiss new findings as either incorrect or explainable?

The message of Harry Potter is that there is no reliable method. Until we have all of the information, even the preponderance of evidence might be misleading. There might be some significant mising piece of information that will entirely change the picture.


Where does that leave us? Should we believe that vampires exist because they have not been conclusively proven to not exist? What about spontaneously generating lice? At what point do our beliefs become ridiculously irrational? What we have to say is that there comes a point, which cannot be objectively determined, when the evidence becomes overwhelming. We do not need 100% confirmation. At some point we have enough pieces of the puzzle that the conclusion is clear and we cannot ignore it.

Has the issue of human authorship of the Pentateuch reached a level of overwhelming evidence? I certainly don't think so, and I have written a number of posts on that subject. The message of Harry Potter is that when there is uncertainty then within the realm of rationally viable possibilities you are free to choose which to believe based on emotion (i.e. non-rational) reasons.

Now, as XGH points out, clearly you are "free" to choose what to believe in the sense that there's no rule out there requiring one to base beliefs on evidence. But if you make a pattern out of choosing beliefs contrary to the preponderance of evidence, the law of averages says that you're going to be wrong more than you're right.

Or, to put it another way, I'd love to play poker with Gil! Even when the preponderance of evidence tells him that he has the worst hand, he might just choose to believe the opposite and bet all his money -- after all "there might be some significant missing piece of information that will entirely change the picture!"