The Sinking Ship Of Chivalry

Tyler Cowen points out the abstract of a new paper that upends notions of “women and children first”:

Since the sinking of the Titanic, there has been a widespread belief that the social norm of “women and children first” (WCF) gives women a survival advantage over men in maritime disasters, and that captains and crew members give priority to passengers. We analyze a database of 18 maritime disasters spanning three centuries, covering the fate of over 15,000 individuals of more than 30 nationalities.

Our results provide a unique picture of maritime disasters. Women have a distinct survival disadvantage compared with men. Captains and crew survive at a significantly higher rate than passengers. We also find that: the captain has the power to enforce normative behavior; there seems to be no association between duration of a disaster and the impact of social norms; women fare no better when they constitute a small share of the ship’s complement; the length of the voyage before the disaster appears to have no impact on women’s relative survival rate; the sex gap in survival rates has declined since World War I; and women have a larger disadvantage in British shipwrecks. Taken together, our findings show that human behavior in life-and-death situations is best captured by the expression “every man for himself.”

Reading Into Reading Campaigns

Emmett Rensin and David Shor criticize public efforts – like Hillary Clinton’s Too Small to Fail campaign – that suggest reading to your kids will make them smarter. They explain why their preferred method of educational reform is simply “called ‘giving money to people'”:

Here’s a story about Norway. On August 21, 1969, massive oil reserves were discovered under Norway’s sovereign waters in the North Sea. Previously poor regions became suddenly wealthy as the petroleum boom–later bolstered by a natural gas discovery–poured new income into the region. But the wealth wasn’t spread evenly—not every Norwegian in the north could get in on the action. Suddenly there were the makings of a great natural experiment (PDF). Researchers wanted to see what the impact of sudden cash infusions–a significant environmental change–had on previously poor students, as compared with their still-impoverished peers. The influx of money bested almost every other popular solution to the education gap: students in suddenly-well-off families saw an average of 3 percent increase in absolute IQ and a 6 percent increase in college attendance. The results were as good as the best American charter schools at a fraction of the cost and logistical hassle.

Another set of circumstances conspired to demonstrate the same principle in the United States. During the course of a long longitudinal study, the calculation of the Earned Income Tax Credit–an essentially unconditional cash transfer to poor parents–changed several times, allowing researchers to plot the causal achievement impact of cash transfers on a curve of multiple benefit levels (PDF). These results were even more significant: for a mere $3,000 given annually to the parents of poor children, the data suggests a 7 percent increase in expected student test scores. That’s a relatively low number, too: $8,000 annually wouldn’t double the impact, but it would get us well clear of 10 percent, and still cost less than comparable alternatives. Other studies back up the same thesis, though they don’t quite have the same fun stories.

What Is Religious Faith?

In an interview, John Caputo – a philosopher whose work explores the connections between postmodernism and Christian theology – distinguishes it from mere “belief”:

Faith is a form of life and so it also has a specific form. I wouldn’t say that faith is more general; I would say it is deeper. It gets expressed in a specific form like liturgy. It is an exercise of the whole person: affective, bodily, performative. It is making the truth.

If we didn’t have the specific historical religious traditions, we would be much the poorer for it. Without Christianity, we wouldn’t have the memory of Jesus. We wouldn’t have the books of the New Testament. You need these concrete, historical traditions that are the bearers of ancient stories and are cut to fit to various cultures. But I don’t want to absolutize them or freeze-frame them. I don’t think of one religion being true at the expense of another in a zero-sum game. I am not saying that if you burrow deeply enough under each religious tradition, you will find they are all the same. They are quite different. They are as different as the cultures and the languages out of which they come. There is an irreducible multiplicity.

This is one of the hallmarks of postmodernity: you can’t boil everything down to one common thing. There are many ways of doing the truth. There can’t be one true religion any more than there can be one true language. The truth of religion is not the truth of a certain body of assertions. It is not about a core set of agreements. That’s not relativism, and it is not saying that there is nothing true in religion. It is saying that religious truth is not like the truth of mathematics. It is a different sort that is deeply woven together with a form of life.

When The Self Is Lost

Gracie Lofthouse investigates depersonalization disorder, which is “characterized by a pervasive and disturbing sense of unreality in both the experience of self (called ‘depersonalization’) and one’s surroundings (known as ‘derealization’)”:

Dr. Elena Bezzubova, a Russian psychoanalyst who treats people with depersonalization in California, calls it a painful absence of feeling. “A mother comes to me and says, ‘My son is in prison, I received a letter from him. I do not care, but it bothers me. Please prescribe me something to cry.’”

It might be the implications of the numbing, as opposed to the actual numbing itself, that cause the most distress. Have you ever played that game when you repeat a word over and over again until it loses all meaning? It’s called semantic satiation. Like words, can a sense of self be broken down into arbitrary, socially-constructed components?

That question may be why the phenomenon has attracted a lot of interest from philosophers.

In a sense, the experience presupposes certain notions of how the self is meant to feel. We think of a self as an essential thing—a soul or an ego that everyone has and is aware of—but scientists and philosophers have been telling us for a while now that the self isn’t quite as it seems. Psychologist Dr. Bruce Hood writes in The Self Illusion that there is no center in the brain where the self is generated. “What we experience is a powerful depiction generated by our brains for our benefit,” he writes. Brains make sense of data that would otherwise be overwhelming. “Experiences are fragmented episodes unless they are woven together in a meaningful narrative,” he writes, with the self being the story that “pulls it all together.” InThe Ego Trick, Julian Baggini writes that people are, as the 18th century philosopher David Hume wrote in A Treatise of Human Nature, “bundles of different perceptions.” “The unity [of self that] we experience, which allows us legitimately to talk of ‘I,’ is a result of the Ego Trick—the remarkable way in which a complicated bundle of mental events, made possible by the brain, creates a singular self, without there being a singular thing underlying it,” Baggini writes.

The Agony Of Christmas In Broken Homes

Heather Havrilesky offers advice to a stressed-out millennial revisiting a contentious relationship with her mother. She recommends serious self-care and being “prepared to serve the common good”:

Now, why should you be prepared to serve the common good? Because this is the realistic, adaptive, self-protective behavior of a mature adult. Instead of focusing on your own drama, you should focus on helping others. Because, look, part of you still believes that you might be able to right the wrongs of the past. The Jekyll-and-Hyde mother is tricky for this reason; her good days fool you into believing that you might be able to shake her out of her irrational attacking state. Listen to me: Your mother will never change. Going home for the holidays is not about “fixing” her or the past. It’s about tolerating the freaks you grew up with, making them dinner, giving them your unconditional love, and keeping your mouth shut. Realizing this might seem to serve them, but trust me, it serves you the most, by keeping you safer from heartbreak.

So help with the homework. Go out and buy some groceries. Do the dishes. Pour the wine. Listen. Laugh. Do the dishes again. Listen some more. Don’t expect to be in the best mood as you do these things. Do them anyway.

Meanwhile, Berit Brogaard explains what makes Christmas a hard time for divorced parents:

When sane parents separate, many judges, thankfully, divide custody equally. Each parent gets his or her fair share of custody, if at all possible. Even when it’s not possible to share the time with the children equally, judges will usually attempt to divide up the holidays evenly. The kids spend every other holiday with mom and every other holiday with dad. It certainly is in the children’s best interest to get to spend some time with each parent. Most kids, with decent moms and dads, would prefer to spend every holiday with both parents. The precious little ones secretly hope for the impossible: That their divorced or separated parents will get back together. But despite their wishes, they adjust to the situation. They have no other choice.

Nor do the parents. As we face the holidays many single parents face a very lonely time. They may be with dear family members: parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles. Yet they may nonetheless feel a profound pain in their hearts, even as they watch close relatives savor the pecan pie or scream in delight when they rip open their Christmas presents. Their own children are far away.

You’re Paying For That Well-Chosen Adjective

Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food examines the vocabulary of restaurant menus:

Mr Jurafsky ploughed through the descriptions of 650,000 dishes on 6,500 menus. Mid-range restaurants repeatedly insist that their food is “fresh”; this “overmentioning”, he explains, is a symptom of status anxiety. Cheap eateries swear their food is “real”. Expensive restaurants avoid such terms. The mere mention that the crab is real or the plums ripe is sufficient to conjure in diners’ minds the possibility that they might not be—the “maxim of relevance” in linguistic terms.

Pricey joints also use longer words. Mr Jurafksy calculated that every one-letter increase in the average length of the words describing a dish adds an extra $0.18 to the price. Phrases like “exotic Ethiopian spices” inflate prices too. Such foods would not be exotic to real Ethiopians. Places that label their food thus are not catering to native eaters who consume it every day; “that exotifying or orientalist stance is instead directed at non-native eaters,” he writes. Vaguely positive words, however, such as delicious or tasty, “linguistic filler words” used when restaurants have nothing genuinely valuable, such as caviar, to talk about, bring the price down by 9%.

“Beginning In Damnation, Bound For Deliverance”

Kathryn Schulz profiles Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir Wild (recently made into a motion picture, seen above), which recounts her experience living alone in the woods for three months. Schulz connects Strayed to a tradition of religious pilgrimage – “the Muslim walking to Mecca, the Buddhist to Bodh Gaya, the Hindu to Puri, the Catholic to Lourdes”:

Religious pilgrims walk outdoors, but their fundamental journey is inward, undertaken to improve the state of their soul. So, too, with Strayed. The subtitle of Bill Bryson’s book is Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. The subtitle of hers is From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Like Dante, then, Strayed is on a spiritual journey, beginning in damnation, bound for deliverance. That makes Wild a redemption narrative — and that, in turn, helps explain its popularity, because redemption narratives are some of the oldest, most compelling, and most ubiquitous stories we have. We enshrine nature writing in the canon — you were probably assigned Thoreau and Emerson et al. in high school — but it is redemption narratives that dominate our culture. Among other things, you can hear them in religious services all across the land and in AA meetings every day of the week.

Wild embodies this ancient story. Or, more precisely, it embodies the contemporary American version thereof, where the course is not from sin to salvation but from trauma to transformation: I was abject, dysfunctional, and emotionally shattered, but now I see. This version has more train-wreck allure than the traditional one (being a mess is generally more spectacular than merely being an unbeliever), and it is also more inclusive. Identifying with it requires no particular faith, beyond the faith that a bad life can get better.