Can Religion Reduce Suicide?

I was quite interested to read the scientific article “Association Between Religious Service Attendance and Lower Suicide Rates Among US Women,” by Tyler J. VanderWeele, Shanshan Li, Alexander C. Tsai and Ichiro Kawachi. I was wondering by what magic they were hoping to get the causal effect of religious attendance on suicide from the non-experimental data in the Nurse’s Health Study. (I wrote about dietary evidence in the Nurse’s Health Study and the statistical issues in interpreting that evidence in “Hints for Healthy Eating from the Nurse's Health Study.”)

It would have been interesting to see the regression coefficient for a change in religious attendance. Unfortunately, it seems they didn’t look at that, but rather “controlled” for past religious attendance. “Controlling” for a variable by including it in a regression isn’t really controlling for what that variable is intended to measure or is proxying for when that variable is measured with error relative to what it is proxying for. It is only partially controlling. Whether or not one is “controlling” for variables can only be verified when one explicitly thinks through measurement error issues. And “controlling” for variables is seldom achieved without thinking through measurement error issues. (The advantage of using the first difference of religious attendance as a right-hand-side variable is that the first difference of religious attendance should measure the true change in whatever religious attendance is intended as a proxy, plus error. The error should bias the coefficient toward zero, but is less likely to change the sign and statistical significance of the sign of the coefficient.)

But the biggest issue with the paper lies in a different direction. They recognize the issue and try to parry it in these passages:

For an unmeasured confounder to explain the HR estimate of 0.16 (95% CI, 0.06-0.46), the unmeasured confounder would have to both increase the likelihood of religious service attendance and decrease the likelihood of suicide by 12-fold above and beyond the measured confounders; weaker confounding would not suffice. To bring the estimate’s upper confidence limit of 0.46 above 1.0, the unmeasured confounder would still have to both increase the likelihood of religious service attendance and decrease the likelihood of suicide by 3.7-fold above and beyond the measured confounders.

Our study made use of observational data. Although we adjusted for major confounders regarding the association between religious service attendance and suicide, the results may still be subject to unmeasured confounding by personality, impulsivity, feelings of hopelessness, or other cognitive factors. However, in sensitivity analysis, for an unmeasured confounder to explain the effect of religious service attendance on suicide, it would have to both increase the likelihood of religious service attendance and decrease the likelihood of suicide by greater than 10-fold above and beyond the measured covariates. Such substantial confounding by unmeasured factors seems unlikely, given adjustment for an extensive set of covariates and the known risk factor associations for suicide.

Unlike the authors, it is not hard for me to think of a very powerful potential confounder. Having one’s life be a mess could easily both reduce religious attendance powerfully and powerfully increase the probability of suicide. That is a story in which there wouldn’t have to be any causal effect of religious attendance on suicide at all.

Note that one’s life being a mess could both lead to more suicide and reduce any kind of social engagement and community support. So this is a problem not just for showing that religiosity can reduce suicide—which it might through social support and community—but for showing that any other kind of social support and community reduces suicide.

Even if something religious is causally reducing suicide, it definitely doesn’t have to be religious attendance. Anything correlated with religious attendance could also yield the evidence they point to. To see this point, suppose someone very much wanted to attend church, but was geographically too far away to make it feasible. One could easily imagine that if there are religious forces that reduce suicide, many of them might still be operative. Indeed, the authors recognize that it might be a matter of religious belief that both helps lead to religious attendance and reduces suicide:

Although religious service attendance has commonly been used in previous published studies and tends to be the strongest religious predictor of health, religiosity is multidimensional, and different aspects of religion and spirituality may therefore be differently associated with suicide. Data on religious service attendance were collected through a self-reported questionnaire and, moreover, may be subject to measurement error and possible overreporting, although the relative ordering of frequency might still be preserved. Further research could examine other religious practices, mindfulness practices, other aspects of spirituality and religiosity, other race/ethnic and demographic groups, and other forms of social participation.

In the whole paper, the most persuasive evidence about the effect of religiosity on suicide is that religious attendance seemed to have a bigger proportional effect on Catholics than on Protestants. The best I can come up with as confounders for this results are

  1. Relative to Protestant teaching, Catholic teaching doesn’t stop people from committing suicide, but makes people underreport suicide more if they are a believing and attending Catholic. And those who provide or withhold crucial evidence on cause of death often have similar religious beliefs and attendance to the one who died. This could in principle be addressed by looking at differences between the attendance of the one who died versus the attendance of the ones who provided or withheld crucial evidence about the cause of death.

  2. Relative to Protestant teaching, Catholic teaching makes people especially unwilling to attend when their lives are in a mess.

Despite these possible stories (which may or may not be true and may or may not have any oomph to them), the fact that the differential content of Catholicism vs. Protestantism seems to matter is the strongest evidence they have that there is causality running from religiosity to reduced suicide.

I would love to see a paper that tried to get identification to test the effect of church attendance on suicide in the typical way economists try to get identification. For example, do people who live further from the nearest church commit suicide more often? That might be a doable research project. And one could do some good placebo tests by running regressions with closeness to community centers, or stores or bars as well as the regressions on closeness to a church.

For another post at the intersection of religion and statistics, don’t miss “Who Leaves Mormonism?

Why a Positive Aggregate Demand Shock Should Make the Stock Market Go Down If the Fed is Doing Its Job Right

Spencer Jakab’s July 5, 2019 Wall Street Journal shown above, “Investors Are Trapped in Bizarro World,” puzzles over why the stock market went down after a better-than-expected job report. Let me propose a simple explanation: a Fed that is beginning to do a part of its job better.

Here is the argument:

The Effect of a Positive Demand Shock on the Stock Market If the Fed is Doing Its Job Right

  1. To a reasonable approximation, optimal monetary policy is pretty close to keeping output (GDP) at its natural level. This is what I mean by “the Fed doing its job right”—not perfectly according to every nuance in the optimal monetary policy literature, but simply keeping the output gap between actual output and natural output zero to the limit of its ability. Note that if the Fed is doing this, it is not itself a big source of demand shocks because it is being appropriately reactive to events.

  2. Define a positive demand shock as anything that leaves the natural level of output the same, but raises the level of the real interest rate necessary to keep the actual level of output at that natural level. Fiscal policy shocks are one possible candidate. But “animal spirits” may be another. In context, I am assuming that a surprisingly good jobs report is often a sign of one of these positive aggregate demand shocks.

  3. Assume that higher output (GDP) has a positive effect on the stream of real future dividends a firm will pay out, while a higher real interest rate has a negative effect on the present value of any given stream of real dividends.

  4. If the Fed is doing its job well, a positive demand shock shouldn’t change actual output much because the job is to match actual output to natural output and by the definition of a demand shock, natural output hasn’t changed. But then by the other part of the definition of a positive demand shock, the real interest rate should go up. In the usual notation, Y same, r up. Note that “r up” may mean that the Fed won’t cut rates as quickly as people had thought. “r up” is all relative to prior expectations.

  5. Y same, so there is no affect on stock prices from that source. But r up tends to make stock prices go down. That’s the end of the argument.

The Effect of a Positive Technology Shock on the Stock Market If the Fed is Doing Its Job Right

Let’s contrast the effect of a demand shock if the Fed is doing its job right to the effect of a technology if the Fed is doing its job right. My argument for a technology shock takes a different angle, and is somewhat simpler.

  1. Keeping the output gap zero as the Fed should be doing, means that the economy is close to doing what a real business cycle model would do.

  2. In what is called the “Divine Coincidence,” keeping the output gap zero also (at least approximately) keeps the rate of inflation steady.

  3. Typically, real business cycle models predict that investment should go up in response to a positive technology shock. (I have been interested in my research in showing that this is quite general.) If investment is going up, then the value of a firm’s preexisting capital should also go up. Even in fairly general models, the value of firms should on average go up if investment in the economy has increased.

  4. Typically, the real interest rate goes up in real business cycle models in response to a positive technology shock. (I have been interested in my research in showing that this is quite general.) This increase in the real interest rate, coupled with inflation unchanged, means the value of a firm’s debt will go down.

  5. The value of the firm going up and the value of its debt going down together imply that stock prices should go up.


I don’t want to be mistaken for saying that the Fed is doing its job right. Indeed, I have a long wishlist for how the Fed should improve its conduct of monetary policy. See my post “Next Generation Monetary Policy.” But it is a sign of progress if the stock market has begun to react in both of the ways described above.

The Better Side of Conventional Wisdom about Diet and Health

My interest in diet and health makes me curious enough to perservere through overly lengthy informercials giving various diet and health claims. A few days ago, I watched this infomercial for the Trim Down Club. Let me give you a report of what I heard, to save you the time. Although there are a lot of important things about diet and health that the informercial didn’t say, I agreed with everything it did say, with one exception. The exception is that the infomercial gave the usual flawed advice to spread one’s eating out over time. It is possible this is good advice when someone is eating foods that have a big insulin kick (see “Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid”) so that an especially big meal of those kinds of foods would have a very large insulin kick, but even then the accumulating evidence on the virtues of periodic fasting (often called “intermittent fasting” or IF) calls that advice into question. (A Plea: I would love to know what research article or articles people cite to claim that eating lots of small meals throughout the day is better than a few big meals. I would be eager to write a post on such an article.)

Here are the areas of agreement:

  • Sugar is bad. Orange juice is a good example of a high-sugar food people falsely think is innocent

  • Transfats are bad. Old-style margarine is a good example of a food high in transfats. However, they neglected to mention that there is a partial ban on transfats in many countries. (See the Wikipedia article “Trans Fat.”)

  • Many highly processed foods that pretend to be good are actually bad. Typical types of “whole-wheat bread” are a good example. (See “The Problem with Processed Food.”)

  • Nonsugar sweeteners are problematic. (See “Which Nonsugar Sweeteners are OK? An Insulin-Index Perspective.”)

  • Processed soy products are bad.

  • Processed meat is suspect.

  • Stress can make one feel hungrier.

  • Drinking green tea can make you feel less hungry and may have other benefits.

  • Combining high-insulin-index foods with high-insulin-index foods can reduce the size of the insulin kick and therefore the hunger rebound effect you are likely to face. (In here is an assumption that the total quantity of the high-insulin-index food you eat is likely to go down somewhat when you are also eating a low-insulin-index food. But that may be true for extremely high-insulin-index foods: see “Does Sugar Make Dietary Fat Less OK?”)

Surprisingly, despite the discussion of a lectin-free diet further down on the Trim Down Club webpage flagged above in its current incarnation, the informercial made no direct mentions of lectins (unless I missed it as the infomercial droned on and on). If you are interested in lectin-free diets, see my post “What Steven Gundry's Book 'The Plant Paradox' Adds to the Principles of a Low-Insulin-Index Diet.”

The reason I titled this post “The Better Side of Conventional Wisdom on Diet and Health” is that the infomercial emphasized that the Trim Down Club employed many licensed or certified dietitians. The advice given seems close enough to conventional wisdom, that I can easily believe that a substantial fraction of licensed and certified dietitians would be willing to sign on to this advice. The advice I give in my diet and health posts goes further beyond conventional wisdom. I strive to give reasons for the advice I give that I hope at least give you a way to evaluate my advice.

For annotated links to other posts on diet and health, see “Miles Kimball on Diet and Health: A Reader's Guide.”

John Locke: Bad Rulers May Be Removed

One of the longest sections in John Locke’s 2d Treatise on Government: Of Civil Government, is section 222, in the final chapter: XIX, “Of the Dissolution of Government.” In reading this, I sense his righteous anger at bad rulers. In the title of this post, it was hard to be as emphatic as he is. “Bad Rulers May Be Removed. Period.” might say it better.

I consider this sentiment to be something deeply ingrained into the human heart by evolution. Our cousins the chimpanzees feel it too, as you can see by following the link to the video shown above. I am in full agreement with John Locke in what he says in Section 222—not only with the substance of what he says, but also with the passion with which he says it:

§. 222. The reason why men enter into society, is the preservation of their property; and the end why they chuse and authorize a legislative, is, that there may be laws made, and rules set, as guards and fences to the properties of all the members of the society, to limit the power, and moderate the dominion of every part and member of the society: for since it can never be supposed to be the will of the society, that the legislative should have a power to destroy that which every one designs to secure, by entering into society, and for which the people submitted themselves to legislators of their own making; whenever the legislators endeavour to take away, and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any farther obedience, and are left to the common refuge, which God hath provided for all men, against force and violence. Whensoever therefore the legislative shall transgress this fundamental rule of society; and either by ambition, fear, folly or corruption, endeavour to grasp themselves, or put into the hands of any other, an absolute power over the lives, liberties, and estates of the people; by this breach of trust they forfeit the power the people had put into their hands for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative, (such as they shall think fit) provide for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society. What I have said here, concerning the legislative in general, holds true also concerning the supreme executor, who having a double trust put in him, both to have a part in the legislative, and the supreme execution of the law, acts against both, when he goes about to set up his own arbitrary will as the law of the society. He acts also contrary to his trust, when he either employs the force, treasure, and offices of the society, to corrupt the representatives, and gain them to his purposes; or openly pre-engages the electors, and prescribes to their choice, such, whom he has by solicitations, threats, promises, or otherwise, won to his designs; and employs them to bring in such, who have promised beforehand what to vote, and what to enact. Thus to regulate candidates and electors, and new-model the ways of election, what is it but to cut up the government by the roots, and poison the very fountain of public security? for the people having reserved to themselves the choice of their representatives, as the fence to their properties, could do it for no other end, but that they might always be freely chosen, and so chosen, freely act, and advise, as the necessity of the commonwealth, and the public good should upon examination, and mature debate, be judged to require. This, those who give their votes before they hear the debate, and have weighed the reasons on all sides, are not capable of doing. To prepare such an assembly as this, and endeavour to set up the declared abettors of his own will, for the true representatives of the people, and the law-makers of the society, is certainly as great a breach of trust, and as perfect a declaration of a design to subvert the government, as is possible to be met with. To which, if one shall add rewards and punishments visibly employed to the same end, and all the arts of perverted law made use of to take off and destroy all that stand in the way of such a design, and will not comply and consent to betray the liberties of their country, it will be past doubt what is doing. What power they ought to have in the society, who thus employ it contrary to the trust went along with it in its first institution, is easy to determine; and one cannot but see, that he, who has once attempted any such thing as this, cannot any longer be trusted.

I should say that the principle that bad rulers can be removed is, I believe, satisfied relatively well by our periodic elections in the US: our elections have the power to sweep out the bulk of our rulers within a period of six years.

For links to other John Locke posts, see these John Locke aggregator posts: 

2019 First Half's Most Popular Posts

The "Key Posts" link at the top of my blog lists all important posts through the end of 2016. Along with "2017's Most Popular Posts" and “2018's Most Popular Posts,” this is intended as a complement to that list. (Also, my most popular storified Twitter discussions are here, and you can see other recent posts by clicking on the Archive link at the top of my blog.) Continuing this tradition, I give links to the most popular posts from the first half of 2019 below into four groups: popular new posts in in the first half of 2019 on diet and health, popular new posts in the first half of 2019, on other topics, and popular older posts in those two categories. I will put in the half-year pageviews for each post when someone went specifically to that post.

I am pleased to be able to report over a quarter million Google Analytics pageviews in the first half of 2019. Of the 252,048 pageviews reported, 19,684 were pageviews for my blog homepage. 

New Posts in 2018 on Diet and Health

  1. Kevin D. Hall and Juen Guo: Why it is so Hard to Lose Weight and so Hard to Keep it Off 1,562

  2. Evidence that High Insulin Levels Lead to Weight Gain 980

  3. 3 Achievable Resolutions for Weight Loss 832

  4. David Ludwig: It Takes Time to Adapt to a Lowcarb, Highfat Diet 690

  5. Lisa Drayer: Is Fasting the Fountain of Youth? 558

New Posts in 2018 on Other Topics

  1. In Honor of Alan Krueger 8,308

  2. The Costs of Inflation 2,182

  3. John Locke: How to Recognize a Tyrant 995

  4. Who Leaves Mormonism? 940

  5. Supply and Demand for the Monetary Base: How the Fed Currently Determines Interest Rates 677

  6. John Locke's Argument for Limited Government 605

  7. Ruchir Agarwal and Miles Kimball—Enabling Deep Negative Rates to Fight Recessions: A Guide 578

Older Posts with Continuing Popularity on Diet and Health

  1. Forget Calorie Counting; It's the Insulin Index, Stupid  25,698

  2. How Fasting Can Starve Cancer Cells, While Leaving Normal Cells Unharmed  16,614

  3. Why a Low-Insulin-Index Diet Isn't Exactly a 'Lowcarb' Diet  5,846

  4. Whole Milk Is Healthy; Skim Milk Less So  4,509

  5. The Case Against Sugar: Stephan Guyenet vs. Gary Taubes  4,400

  6. Using the Glycemic Index as a Supplement to the Insulin Index  3,567

  7. Obesity Is Always and Everywhere an Insulin Phenomenon  2,433

  8. Which Nonsugar Sweeteners are OK? An Insulin-Index Perspective 2,293

  9. Stop Counting Calories; It's the Clock that Counts  2,285

  10. Intense Dark Chocolate: A Review  1,425

  11. What Steven Gundry's Book 'The Plant Paradox' Adds to the Principles of a Low-Insulin-Index Diet 1,285

  12. Five Books That Have Changed My Life  1,113

  13. The Keto Food Pyramid  994

  14. Jason Fung's Single Best Weight Loss Tip: Don't Eat All the Time 926

  15. Why You Should Worry about Cancer Promotion by Diet as Much as You Worry about Cancer Initiation by Carcinogens 862

  16. Meat Is Amazingly Nutritious—But Is It Amazingly Nutritious for Cancer Cells, Too?  820

  17. Vindicating Gary Taubes: A Smackdown of Seth Yoder 691

  18. Our Delusions about 'Healthy' Snacks—Nuts to That! 652

  19. 4 Propositions on Weight Loss 605

  20. My Giant Salad 560

  21. This post is under construction. Below here the numbers are not accurate yet in this category.

  22. Jason Fung: Dietary Fat is Innocent of the Charges Leveled Against It  868

  23. Salt Is Not the Nutritional Evil It Is Made Out to Be  464

  24. Sugar as a Slow Poison  383

  25. Is Milk OK?  1374

Older Posts with Continuing Popularity on Other Topics (This post is under construction: the numbers below are not accurate yet, but these are predicted to be among the more popular posts)

  1. The Social Contract According to John Locke  11,040

  2. The 7 Principles of Unitarian Universalism 8,610

  3. John Stuart Mill's Brief for Freedom of Speech  2,612

  4. John Locke: Freedom is Life; Slavery Can Be Justified Only as a Reprieve from Deserved Death  2263

  5. William Graham Sumner, Social Darwinist  1,593

  6. There's One Key Difference Between Kids Who Excel at Math and Those Who Don't  (with Noah Smith) 1,317

  7. On John Locke's Labor Theory of Property 1,309

  8. Monetary vs. Fiscal Policy: Expansionary Monetary Policy Does Not Raise the Budget Deficit 1,264

  9. John Locke on Punishment 1,256

  10. The Shards of My Heart 1,209

  11. William Strauss and Neil Howe's American Prophecy in 'The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny' 1,176

  12. Key Posts 1,120

  13. Five Books That Have Changed My Life  1,113

  14. The Medium-Run Natural Interest Rate and the Short-Run Natural Interest Rate 1,058

  15. John Locke: The Purpose of Law Is Freedom 1,036

  16. The Logarithmic Harmony of Percent Changes and Growth Rates  986

  17. John Locke's Argument for Majority Rule 945

  18. John Locke's State of Nature and State of War 864

  19. On the Achilles Heel of John Locke's Second Treatise: Slavery and Land Ownership 864

  20. The Message of Mormonism for Atheists Who Want to Stay Atheists 855

  21. Liberty and the Golden Rule 854

  22. John Stuart Mill on Freedom from Religion 787

  23. There Is No Such Thing as Decreasing Returns to Scale  761

  24. On Teaching and Learning Macroeconomics  727

  25. Why I Write 668

  26. How and Why to Eliminate the Zero Lower Bound: A Reader’s Guide  655

  27. John Stuart Mill’s Vigorous Advocacy of Education Vouchers 648

  28. Why Taxes are Bad 612

  29. Government Purchases vs. Government Spending 600

  30. How to Turn Every Child into a 'Math Person' 593

  31. Returns to Scale and Imperfect Competition in Market Equilibrium 583

  32. Economics Needs to Tackle All of the Big Questions in the Social Sciences 581

  33. John Locke on Legitimate Political Power 568

  34. This post is under construction. Below here the numbers are not accurate yet in this category.

  35. Economist Twitter Stars 4978

  36. 2018 First Half's Most Popular Posts 2587

  37. Must All Economics Papers Be Doorstoppers? 1059

  38. Gabriela D'Souza on Failure in Learning Math  988

  39. Marriage—Not for the Faint of Heart 930

  40. Joshua Foer on Deliberate Practice  1783

How Mormon Scripture Declares the US Constitution to be the Work of God

There are many interesting features of Mormonism as a result of its having writings or “scripture” considered the “word of God” produced by Joseph Smith (the preeminent founder of Mormonism) in the first half of the 19th century in America. One is that Mormon beliefs are 100% consistent with all of the scientific principles generally known by 1844 when Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob. (And indeed, it is my belief that if Joseph Smith had not been murdered, and had lived to see the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, Joseph would have incorporated evolution much more fully into Mormonism.)

Another interesting feature of Mormonism due to its origin in the first half of the 19th century in America is that the word of God according to Mormonism declares that the Constitution of the United States had a divine origin. The key passage is Doctrine and Covenants 101:77-80, in which Joseph Smith reports God saying this:

77 According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles;

78 That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.

79 Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.

80 And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.

In addition to this that Joseph Smith reported as being directly the word of God, Joseph Smith said, according to the journal of James Burgess (and similar things according to others):

… the time would come when the constitution and government would hang by a brittle thread and would be ready to fall into other hands but this people the latter-day saints will step forth and save it.

This is an idea that could easily be an important inspiration and motivation for many Mormon politicians; ideas that get into one’s head at an early age can be very powerful emotionally. I know this idea had an effect on me when I was a young Mormon.

Although not all the effects of this Mormon belief that the Constitution is divinely ordained and that the Constitution needs to be tended and defended are benign, on the whole I think it is quite helpful that a subgroup of the American population take the US Constitution so seriously.

Don't miss these posts on Mormonism:

Also see the links in "Hal Boyd: The Ignorance of Mocking Mormonism."

Don’t miss these Unitarian-Universalist sermons by Miles:

By self-identification, I left Mormonism for Unitarian Universalism in 2000, at the age of 40. I have had the good fortune to be a lay preacher in Unitarian Universalism. I have posted many of my Unitarian-Universalist sermons on this blog.

Don’t miss these guest posts on Mormonism by my brother Chris Kimball:

In addition, Chris is my coauthor for

One Nation

The beginning of the 2020 US presidential campaign is a reminder of the divisions within the United States. Understanding those with different views is not only the road to healing those divisions, but also, for either side, the road to winning in the general election sixteen months from now. Most of you and I already have a reasonably good understanding of the “Progressive” viewpoint that is now so influential in the Democratic Party. Therefore, let’s try to dig into the views of those who are enthusiastic Trump supporters as well as those who might reluctantly vote for Donald Trump because they are uncomfortable with the Democratic Party alternative.  

Peggy Noonan, in her most recent op-ed “The 2020 Democrats Lack Hindsight,” emphasizes “identity” issues as important to those who enthusiastically support Donald or might vote for him because of discomfort with the alternative. She quotes a middle-aged Kansan man, who said:

Every day, Americans are told of the endless ways they are falling short. If we don’t show the ‘proper’ level of understanding according to a talking head, then we are surely racist. If we don’t embrace every sanitized PC talking point, then we must be heartless. If we have the audacity to speak our mind, then we are most definitely a bigot. …

We are jabbed like a boxer with no gloves on to defend us. And we are fed up. We are tired of being told we aren’t good enough. … in Donald Trump, voters found a massive sledgehammer that pulverizes the ridiculous notion that Americans aren’t good enough.

The previous week, in “My Sister, My Uncle and Trump,” Peggy quoted her sister and uncle and characterized these two early Donald supporters this way:

They were patriots; they loved America. They weren’t radical; they’d voted for Republicans and Democrats. They had no grudge against any group or class. They knew that on America’s list of allowable bigotries they themselves—middle Americans, Christians who believed in the old constitutional rights—were the only ones you were allowed to look down on. It’s no fun looking down on yourself, so looking down wasn’t their habit.

A good resolution of cultural issues and racial, ethnic and gender disparities could help heal the divisions in America. (Here, I will leave aside the fraught issue of abortion. For my views on abortion, see “Safe, Legal, Rare and Early.”) Let me give my opinion on a way forward.  

First, for racial, ethnic and gender disparities, as in the area of climate change, a crucial rule to make a civil discussion possible is that recognition of a serious problem should not be construed as agreeing that the remedy urged by those highlighting the problem is the right remedy. People need to have confidence that their views about a remedy will be respected enough that they are not giving away the game by acknowledging the reality of a problem. Admitting a problem exists should not be construed as agreeing to be railroaded into a particular remedy.

As Peggy Noonan points out, people hate being called racist or sexist or otherwise being told they are deplorables. It is good to look for alternative explanations for people’s attitudes before jumping to accusing people of invidious racism or sexism. Here I use the phrase “invidious racism or sexism” to mean seriously blameworthy racism or sexism as opposed to the even more troublesome racist and sexist attitudes that are like the air we breathe and hence not particularly blameworthy in an individual. Non-invidious pervasive racism or sexism is one of the most important alternatives to positing invidious racism or sexism.

Second, racism and sexism can often be supported by systemic structures plus routine self-interest and self-aggrandizement. For example, in economics departments, professors have a strong interest in building up their own fields and their own styles of economics. To the extent their numbers tilt male right now, and male economics professors have, on average, different field and style preferences, their desires to build up their own fields and styles of economics will handicap female job candidates, even if they don’t have any prejudice at all against women who happen to be doing the field and style of economics they are looking for.    

Turning to invidious racism and sexism, it is important to realize that some comes from personal grievances that might not have happened in a better society. For example, children often live in fear of being bullied. Two types of bullying and nasty teasing can lead to invidious racism, sexism and other bad attitudes. First, if the bully happens to be of a different race, the hatred of that bully might be overgeneralized into a hatred of a race. Second, bullies often taunt other children by saying they are a member of disfavored group. When I was a boy, bullies often taunted other boys by saying they were a “fag,” which powerfully got across the idea that to be a homosexual was bad. Both of these mechanisms for creating invidious racism, sexism and other bad attitudes can be forestalled by reducing the amount of bullying that children face from one another. (See my post “Against Bullying.”)

Another reduceable source of invidious racism is the centrality to our current society of prizes—such as admission to elite colleges or professional schools or prestigious jobs—that have an excessive amount of surplus. If elite colleges and professional schools each expanded the number of students admitted, it would reduce the stress on those trying to get admitted and reduce the likelihood that that stress would lead to resentment of affirmative action—and might even reduce the sense that affirmative action was needed, because admission wasn’t quite such a big prize.

When particular jobs have a huge amount of surplus for those who get them, it would be helpful for us to reduce the gap in prestige, pay and perks between them and the next job down on the ladder. The top nurses on the totem pole should be at about as high on the ladder as the least of even experienced doctors. The most talented non-tenure-track lecturers should have at least as much prestige as struggling professors. And the most skilled paralegals should be nearly the equal in prestige to mediocre members of the bar.

Eliminating the kinds of gaps beloved of those doing regression discontinuity analyses—in this case between those barely admitted and barely rejected, or between those barely hired and those barely turned away—should reduce any resentment due to affirmative action, but will still leave the kind of racial/ethnic animosities common against Jews and Asian Americans. There is no single solution to all forms of racism or ethnic or religious hatred.

Finally, there are likely to be many interventions that can be made with schoolchildren that can reduce racism, sexism and other bad attitudes. The key thing is to have these programs evaluated in randomized trials. Just because someone believes something will help doesn’t make it so. (For older age groups, some evidence has come in suggesting that sensitivity training of the common types is not very effective.) There is no shortage of ideas to be tested. In “Nationalists vs. Cosmopolitans: Social Scientists Need to Learn from Their Brexit Blunder” I write:

As a Cosmopolitan, what I most want to know from social science is what interventions can help make people more accepting of foreigners. Somewhat controversially, it is now common in the US for elementary school teachers to make efforts to instill pro-environmental attitudes in schoolchildren. Whether or not those efforts make a difference to children’s attitudes, are there interventions or lessons that can make schoolchildren and the adults they grow up to be likely to feel more positive about the foreign-born in their midst? For example, having had a very good experience learning foreign languages on my commute by listening to Pimsleur CDs in my car, I wonder whether dramatically more effective Spanish language instruction for school children following those principles of audio- and recall-based learning with repetition at carefully graded intervals might make a difference in attitudes toward Hispanic culture and toward Hispanics themselves in the US.

Although it is the province of social scientists to test interventions intended to improve attitudes toward the foreign-born, many of the best interventions will be created by writers, artists, script-writers, directors, and others in the humanities. There are also many other marginalized groups in society, but the strength of anti-foreigner attitudes suggests the need for imaginative entertainment and cultural events to help people identify with human beings who were born in other countries.

My bottom line is that when we think of racism and sexism and other bad attitudes, we should consider root causes that are not entirely within the individual and not leap too quickly to castigating individuals. And we should cast the net wide for root causes and plausibly helpful interventions, and test hypotheses rigorously. Some proposed remedies for racism, sexism and other bad attitudes may do more harm than good. It does not make one a racist, sexist or bad person to say that we should ask for evidence about the effects of various remedies. (And we should gather evidence for the effects of remedies recommended by those on the right as well as by those on the left. For example, effective crime control measures that make people feel safer might reduce racism, or certain kinds of easy cultural training that immigrants are happy to receive might make them seem less threatening to the native-born.)

In the last few years I have become aware of the serious possibility that for a long time we were successful at driving racism and sexism underground by silencing people with such attitudes, without fully convincing people to relinquish such attitudes. Silencing people with such attitudes may reduce the chance of transmitting those attitudes to the rising generation, but it also causes the resentment people almost always feel when they can’t say their piece. If, as a society, we had not succumbed to the temptation o trying to silence people, we might—after great effort—now be further along the road to persuasion. Letting people say their piece often seems threatening when we disagree strongly (and perhaps especially when we disagree strongly for good and sound reasons), but I believe letting people say their piece and then responding with our views is the wiser course.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid reading anyone out of the human race—not even those who would read others out of the human race. Given our evolutionary heritage, taking an “Us and Them” approach is extremely contagious. Let’s not play with that kind of fire. In a cultural war like the one we are in now, I believe it is the side that can best rise above the us-versus-them temptation that will prevail.

Related posts and links, beginning with those flagged above: