What does it all ‘mean’?

I was listening to an interview with Charles Murray recently.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, he is the person who wrote, what became a controversial book, The Bell Curve.  Through some careful research he showed that white people had a higher IQ than black people, and had a lower IQ than Asians.  He was labeled a nazi and a racist, and many other things for this research.  Now I don’t want to get into this debate, I think that as a scholar his methodology was sound, but what his book doesn’t answer the reason for such differences.  Is it genetic?  Is it environmental?  I am sure it is more often the latter.  The more important question is, what is the value of such research?  Is it really doing any good, or does it just feed the bias of a racist, while angering others?  If you’d like to listen to the interview, I think you will find him cordial, but it’s not really the main thing I want to talk about, although what I do want to talk about is mentioned several times throughout out the interview, and that is what differences really mean.  How should perceive differences in IQ or any quality for that matter?  There are certain issues that have become very taboo in our society, and things become emotionally charged quickly when one tries to talk about them.  These includes talk about differences between people of different races, different religions, different genders, and different sexual orientation.  A discussion about any statistical differences between different populations along those lines usually doesn’t end well for the person trying to bring them up.  And it’s possible that there is little value in discussing these differences, but I thought a short post to really visualize things from a statistical perspective is important, because I think people often don’t view the statistics properly when these issues come up.  And it’s true not only for these “hot button” issues, but a lot of issues in which scientists discuss differences between populations.

For many studies, particularly in the social sciences and biological sciences you will find data is distributed.  For any two variables that you are trying to find a relationship with, you will find the outcomes range across a particular set of values.  For instance, if we were trying to determine how depression influences someone’s eating habits, even in a perfect experiment we would likely find that most people eat more to comfort themselves.  Perhaps a large majority would say take in 50% more calories than they normally would.  But a small minority would take less calories, perhaps -20%, and another small minority would take in twice as many calories.  This is called a frequency distribution.  We plot the range of outcomes versus the amount of time those outcomes occur.  There are several types of distributions.  There are skewed distributions, bimodal distributions, and then there is the normal distribution.  This is generally the most common one and the easiest to say something about statistically.  As our sample size increases, a relationship between two variables that are related to each other should get closer to a normal distribution.  I realize that I am simplifying here, but my goal is not to get deep into statistical theory, but simply to illustrate why differences between populations might be more or less meaningful.

In a normal distribution the most common occurrence (the mode of the distribution) is the mean, and it is the value you get at the middle and tallest part of the curve.  First let’s ask how useful is this to begin with?  By definition of the mean is the middle value, half of the people lie above and half of the people lie below.  So when we look at the means of two different populations we might see an overlap as illustrated here:

Despite the different averages we can see that much of the populations span the same range of values.  The source for this graph discusses the meaning of overlapping means in more detail. A more specific example is here:

This graph comes from an interesting discussion about differences between populations of men and women.  In this example we can see that the average height of women and men are different, but of course no one would say that any given man will be taller than any given woman. What this means is that if we are talking about people there is very little we can assume a priori meeting any individual member of a group.  We can only say this is how things are on average and we can decide if anything should be done about it or anything can be done about it if we desire those averages to be the same.

Averages are talked about far more than perhaps they should.  While it is a good summary of data, frequently the devil is in the details and we can say little concrete on averages alone.  Rarely do researchers themselves so narrowly focus on the statistical analysis they do, but I think much gets lost when a journalist tries to report on the findings.  The average, being the easiest to understand, is thus the easiest to report on and that’s when people start making assumptions about what the data are actually saying.  Read an actual paper and you will find all sorts of other statistics discussed.  Averages are all too common though.  We get them in school, they are reported in sports statistics, the news.  But one has to be put it in context of the entire set of data.  Let’s not define people by an average.  What is equally relevant is the variance among the population as well.

People are often easily fooled by statistics because they don’t understand them adequately.  Statistics also deals with probabilities.  Something we are terrible at from an intuitive level.  If you are interested in having a better understanding of basic statistics, I found this website to be quite helpful.   I believe that by having a better understanding of statistics we can have more meaningful reactions to the findings of data analysis, and thus have more meaningful discussions about what we can really conclude from those data.

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Finding Equilibrium

In a previous blog post I wrote about some of my questions about equality.  Why do some people actively seek it and why don’t others?  Is that they already see the world as equal as it can be?  Do they simply accept a natural order in which things are going to be unequal?  Or are they simply selfish, knowing inside that equality might remove them from a position of privilege?

Whatever the answer to that question is, a recent conversation with a friend, and articles about the inequality that exists in areas of Baltimore, got me thinking a little more about equality.  I started to think about the question:  What does equality even look like?  Is equality a state of perfection that we cannot attain?  Are we caught in idealism and not being practical?  How can equality be achieved, when we are all different?  I think those of us who fight for equality have visions for what that might look like, but have we ever actually seen it?  Does this sense of equality only lie in our hearts and we push in a direction not really thinking about where we end up?  Even though nature often tends towards balanced, it is state rarely reached if ever.  Instead we find most things oscillating about a state of equilibrium.  Many times that oscillation is damped, meaning that while we never quite reach a state of balance, each oscillation is not as wild (or in other words doesn’t take us as far from equilibrium as the preceding oscillation).  Is this perhaps what the fight for equality looks like – swinging back and forth until finally the oscillations about that state of equality or so minute that we can no longer detect the inequality anymore?  In a complex society where one can find many areas in which inequality exists, do we prioritize the most obvious ones first, until other ones seem resolved to the point that new areas of inequality see more important?  Or as a fellow blogger wrote when addressing the issues of vaccines, can we sometimes make the issue worse by continually fighting for something even when the problem doesn’t exist because of the time and energy we have invested into a cause?  A recent Daily Show piece discussed how anti-GMO groups have actually helped large corporations, like Monsanto, to gain more of a stranglehold on the food supply because they are now the only ones with the money to be able to afford all the bureaucracy it takes to get a patent on a genetically modified seed.

It occurred to me that although we might be great at pointing out inequality, how often do we have a conversation about what equality looks like, and does it exist anywhere?  Are there real examples we can use?  Are there any microcosms of the larger society we all want to live in?  It is has only been within the past 30 years or so that a lot of psychological research shifted away from just looking and ailments of the mind and started focusing on the more positive aspects of our humanity, like happiness.  While depression is terrible and it is important to help those with depression out of those states, is learning how not to be depressed that same as knowing how to be happy?  Can we always derive what a good example is, by simply only looking at bad examples?  I believe the answer to that is no.  Growing up with an alcoholic father, I learned about the kind of husband and father I didn’t want to be.  But as I had marriage troubles in my own life it occurred to me I never thought enough about what a good father and husband is supposed to be like.  It required a certain rewiring in my thinking.  When it comes to studying happiness it required asking a set of questions that haven’t been asked before.  What makes people happy?  What kind of behavior to happy people exhibit?  What kinds of societies are happier? These questions are important to ask and science has helped make a lot of progress in the area of happiness.

So while we are all pretty great at point out inequality maybe we should shift our focus to talking about what equality would look like.  Find real world examples.  Analyze how and why those societies work and how they are advantageous to what we already have.  Pointing out inequalities between men and women have value, but let’s have a conversation about what are the positive values we want a human to have, regardless of gender.  Let’s have an idea of where we are going, before we push.  It might even help us get there faster

Equality, I Spoke The Word As If A Wedding Vow

Recently I’ve been thinking about the word “equality” and what it really means. I always think that when you are thinking about word and are unsure what it means a good place to start is the dictionary.  But that didn’t help much because the major definition simply says “the state of being equal” or defines equality in terms of mathematics. I think most of who think equality is important would define it in terms of equal status, equal rights, and equal opportunities.  Such equality might be easy to legislate, but it is not easily found.

The interesting question to me is why equality is something that some people thing is important and others don’t. Part of the reason is that many simply don’t see other people as equal.  And most troubling are those who see someone as inherently unequal simply due gender or race.  It seems to me that those who fight for equality and who believe that equality is important in a society don’t see inequality as inherent, but rather a product of environment.

Equality, like freedom may be a difficult ideal to obtain, but it seems to me the true inequality in this world is between those who think we can attain it and those who think inequality is inherent for whatever reason. And so I wonder, what is the common bond between people in both those groups of people?  Since race and gender have nothing to do with how smart you are, your physical abilities, your potential to be successful, or your ability to show love and kindness, why are there people who think that race and gender automatically pre-determines such things?  Children carry no inherent sense of inequality in regards to race and gender, so where does it come from?  What trait oh of humanity leads people to adopt the idea that one person is less than another?  When does it start to develop?  Is it a desire for power? A fear that in balancing the equation that for one group of people to rise up, that we must then relinquish some power and come down?  Maybe equality isn’t something we can attain, but maybe we can at least see everybody as valuable if not equal.  To be honest, the fact that we are all equal regardless of race or gender seems so obvious to me that I find it vexing that anybody should think any other way, so I am interested in hearing thoughts from others.

Why is Barack Obama Black?

Barack Obama Jr. and mother (From http://www.slate.fr)

It is given as a fact by people and media alike that Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States.  This has always irked me a little because Barack Obama is not black; he is biracial, as his mother is unmistakably white.  It makes me wonder why race is being portrayed a certain way.  It is not as if African-Americans are claiming he belongs to their race and white people are claiming he belongs to their race, everybody refers to him as being black.

I am biracial, with my father being from India and my mother born in Canada (half Scottish and half Mennonite).  Even if I were to choose which race I identify with

Barack Obama Sr. and Jr. (From http://upload.wikimedia.org)

most closely, it wouldn’t change the fact that I am of mixed race or that my skin tone is a lovely olive shade in between my darker father and my white mother.  Obama is the same way.  He is clearly lighter than his father and darker than his mother.  So why is he still black?  Personally I would be a bit offended if people try to label my race in a way that ignored the genetic and cultural influence of both my parents.  Moreover I was struck by the fact that when it comes to celebrities like Tiger Woods or Shakira, nobody has any problems identifying them as mixed race.  So, again, why is Barack Obama black?

Now it could be that African-American’s are happy to tout him as black because they are still an oppressed race in this country and for the sake of unity as they continue their fight for equality they are looking for an African-American leader.  Someone who can fly the flag for their race and as president make great strides towards greater equality in this country.  It would be sensible, but I think it would be insulting to many African-Americans to assume they are that naïve to think that one man can make that much of a difference to an elected body that is still predominantly white males and has relatively few minorities and women (in discord with the percentages of minorities and women in the country).

Then I wondered whether or not this issue doesn’t make a larger comment about race and racism.  Many people who are biracial have experienced some lack of acceptance as a result of their mixed race (fortunately not me).  This probably not only extends to mixtures of black and white, but all races.  Now here in the U.S. few would complain about a mixture between an Indian and Chinese person, but in India (and probably China) this would be a big problem.  As prejudice towards black people still lingers in this country, I wonder if it isn’t much more comfortable to label Obama as being black than biracial.  Many white people have grown to accept that black people have just as much rights at them, but for some it becomes a whole different ball game when their white child wants to date somebody who is black, or any other race for that matter.  It strikes me as interesting that while the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional in 1954, it would be another 13 years before they ruled that banning interracial marriages was also unconstitutional.  It seems clear that people are uncomfortable with mixing.  And I know it’s not only white people, and I know it’s not just a matter of race either.  As a half Indian I am well aware how much of a problem it would also be for my dad’s side of the family (and probably also my dad) if I married a Muslim (even if they looked like any other Indian) given that my dad was born in the Sikh religion.  Indians also have trouble with mixing amongst classes.  If I were to marry an “untouchable” or low caste Indian then that would be even worse.

Finally, it’s important to ask Barack Obama how he identifies himself.  According to what I could find he filled in African-American on his census.  I imagine as someone who has darker skin and curly hair, he was likely treated as black by most people who did not know his ethnic origin and perhaps that is why he identifies himself that way.  Certainly his struggles would have been a bit similar, but of course he did have a fairly well educated and financially comfortable situation growing up.  The cynical side of me might say that he identifies himself as black instead of mixed race to gain more voters. Either way, maybe it’s best that we respect his wishes, but it still seems to me that his “white side” is essentially never mentioned.  He’s black. End of story.  As I jokingly tell my black colleague in my department, “Obama isn’t one of you, he is one of me!”  And although this is going to be very controversial, I don’t agree that Obama is the first black president, he is the first biracial president.  It could be that because he was largely raised by his mother and maternal grandparents that he acts and sounds white enough to please white voters, and looks black enough to please black voters.  There is that cynicism again.  I truly believe that being the product of two different races gives me more uniqueness and strengths in my worldview and how I perceive race.  Given our country’s history towards racial mixing, perhaps Obama’s biracial origin is something we should be celebrating more.