Stats from Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal reviewing Paul Hollander’s From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez: Intellectuals and a Century of Political Hero Worship said (a long but necessary quotation; the emphasis in the third paragraph is mine):

Imprisoned serial killers of women are often the object of marriage proposals from women who know nothing of them except their criminal record. This curious phenomenon indicates the depths to which self-deception can sink in determining human action. The women making such offers presumably believe that an essential core of goodness subsists in the killers and that they are uniquely the ones to bring it to the surface. They thereby also distinguish themselves from other women, whose attitude to serial killers is more conventional and unthinkingly condemnatory. They thus see further and deeper, and feel more strongly, than their conventional sisters. By contrast, they show no particular interest in petty, or pettier, criminals.

Something similar can be noted in the attitude of at least some intellectuals toward dictators, especially if those dictators claim to be in pursuit of a utopian vision. Paul Hollander, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has long had an interest in political deception and self-deception—not surprising in someone with first-hand experience of both the Nazis and the Communists in his native Hungary. In 1981, he published his classic study of Western intellectuals who traveled, mainly on severely guided tours, to Communist countries, principally Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, and Castro;s Cuba, and returned with glowing accounts of the new (and better) worlds under construction there. The contrast between their accounts and reality would have been funny had reality itself not been so terrible.

In From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez, Hollander turns his attention to intellectuals’ views of a wider range of dictators and authoritarian leaders. His study makes no pretension to scientific, or rather pseudoscientific, quantification, for example by first defining random groups of dictators and intellectuals and then administering structured questionnaires to the intellectuals about their attitude to the dictators. This kind of precision is often mistaken for rigor, but measurement is not meaning, and humans inhabit a world of meaning. Hollander’s study is therefore qualitative: none the worse, and a lot more interesting, for that. Even if only 10 percent of Western intellectuals, however defined, were apologists for, or admirers and supporters of dictators—sometimes serially, so that when one dictator finally dies or disappoints, another is adopted as a political hero—the phenomenon would still be significant and important. The list of influential intellectuals who have given their blessing to the most obviously terrible regimes is impressive: H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Romain Rolland, Jean-Paul Sartre (a serial offender), Norman Mailer, C. Wright Mills, Michel Foucault, and scores of others.

Pseudoscientific quantification. Amen and amen.

Two problems. Statistics, which is to say classical statistical modelinig, is now everywhere accepted as replacement for reality. We can no longer just say “Here is what happened.” No, we have to say what happened might not of happened because what happened wasn’t consonant with some ad hoc model. That’s called hypothesis testing, and is the first leg of pseudo-quantification.

Second, putting numbers where numbers don’t belong. I recently wrote this to a client about analyzing a set of survey questions:

Remember: do not over interpret. Most times correlations on surveys are only because the questions are near re-wordings of each other. Q1 = “Do you like corn?” Q2 = “Do you eat a lot of corn?” would have high correlation. But if you called Q1 “Maize Appreciation” and called Q2 “Oleic acid ingestion” (because corn oil has that substance), then you’d be foolish to write a paper which claims, “Oleic acid linked to increased maize appreciation.”

But it happens ALL the time.

It does. All the time.


  1. Doug

    we have to say what happened might not have happened


    …chuckling my way through Uncertainty

  2. brian (bulaoren)

    It’s been some time since I’ve read it,but I seem to recall that P.J. O’Rourke, in his book “Holidays in Hell”, describes a pack of Birkenstock clad American tourists, in Nicaragua, just gushing about the blessings of the Sandinidtas. Their kids are probably, now, raving about the Venezuelan miracle.

  3. Ray

    It does indeed happen all the time. Do you recall the famous EPA study on second hand smoke where they claimed that exposure to second hand smoke caused 3000 cases of lung cancer a year? Well, they didn’t measure any exposure, people filled out a questionnaire on their exposure. The EPA believes you can determine causality by a questionnaire.

  4. Ken

    Why women like “bad boys” and why some women find serial killers in prison attractive have some of the same roots, perceived status being among them.

    But whatever’s going on there has little to do with why so many intellectual elites become enamored with dictators & the like.

    Milton Friedman observed after the demise of the Soviet Union that it was then clear to everybody that communism was a failure, and so is much of socialism … and the intellectuals decided that that’s what we need more of. There’s a host of reasons for such a nonsensical conclusion from proof-by-actual-practice…mental illness of particular types being among them (e.g. see But it should surprise nobody that a Leftist intellectual would be enamored with a Leftist dictator/tyrant, and with that be inclined to only see the good things (or things they believe are good) in that dictator’s society (something along the lines of Kardashian remarks about Cuba).

    Thomas Sowell has written much about this sort of thing, and his interviews on youtube are immediately accessible.

    “Dr. Sanity” (a play on the blogger’s name) is a psychiatrist that’s blogged for years, up until about when Obama got reelected to his 2nd term at which point she may have given up on society (she doesn’t really say why she stopped)…but her blog is still there and very informative:

    Dr. Sanity touches on the Left’s, and increasingly society’s, propensity to interpret one’s feelings as indicative of reality, which is nonsense & worse. Perusing her site, one can readily find those commentaries; these often include mention of “reality testing” — how one compares observations and tentative conclusions against the real world; and how people with delusions–and much of the LEFT–does not engage in reality testing.

    Briggs makes a similar observation from a different vantage point and on a narrow topic:

    “Statistics, which is to say classical statistical modeling, is now everywhere accepted as replacement for reality. We can no longer just say “Here is what happened.” No, we have to say what happened might not of happened because what happened wasn’t consonant with some ad hoc model. That’s called hypothesis testing, and is the first leg of pseudo-quantification.”

    Briggs treats the ‘pseudo-quantification’ as an issue with the use of the tool, statistics, which is true enough insofar as that goes. But the real underlying core issue is that many people that do that do so to preserve a particular belief, regardless of what reality is telling them.

  5. Joy

    It doesn’t do to listen all the time to what the media feeds you. Even bloggers can get things completely wrong and be infected and affected by mainstream media as they oppose every claimed new idea or wave of potential harm to civilisation. Every act of madness each a sign of things to come. Yet when you look at what people are actually doing, the producers, the providers, the services, the farmers, miners, fishermen and foresters, they all continue.
    The engineers, tea ladies and cleaners, the beekeepers and the admin clerks.

    These people who live in the realms of the normal and the non bizarre are the ones who hold everything together. Every ordinary and extraordinary person.

    When mad ideas or papers are put out claiming new ‘clinical studies’ treatments or modalities, my colleagues and I simply know BS when they see it. I don’t mean to be rude but the statistics are secondary. It is important to understand why the papers are given importance or significance when they are so clearly off the mark. In my lowly position as a junior, there were always studies showing a given thing worked or it had no effect at all! Each staff member doing whatever they thought best because there was so much controversy. When the patient rubbed his arm thanking me for the ultrasound I’d applied to his elbow saying, “it feels much better after you do that” and I realised the machine wasn’t on *the timer used to be clockwork!, I vowed from then on that I wouldn’t use electrotherapy any more unless I had to. There are effects of the machines but what they are and how they should be used and at what power and depth, time and the rest made it clear that I could spend the time more fruitfully with the patient. These machines are still sold with flashier housing, digital displays in keeping with the latest fashion.

    So people who think the world is doomed and that sanity does not prevail are also fooling themselves. The reasons for this may be varied having to do with a reflection of internal feelings or a sense of disempowerment. A fear of impending doom is a classic sign of clinical depression. Which of course the media will feed you all day long if you’re prepared to suck up what they tell you. Don’t believe all the lies.

    Half a dozen crazy stories or even a hundred mad published papers or spectacles of lunacy don’t make necessarily for the true reflection of reality. The Brexit vote, the Trump vote, are evidence of how so much effort to convince people one way does not wash and sanity prevails.

    There are threats to not civilisation but civil norms and behaviours.
    There are threats posed from religious extremism.
    The most toxic force is media that is mainstream and the best defence is not to be affected by it but to recognise where your boundaries are and what you are not prepared to compromise. To retain all the sense of all things positive that media want to take away in their aim to give you bad news all the time.

    Just because someone’s made to bake a cake doesn’t mean you have to when your moment comes!
    Just because someone’s going to call you anti something or be outraged or upset doesn’t mean a need o bring it on, or to dismantle your own bases.

    It’s not up to the lawyers or the media to enforce how you behave or control how you feel. That is a choice each person has and lives out the consequences of their choices.

    Don’t be affected by media, do the other thing.

  6. Ye Olde Statistician

    ….raving about the Venezuelan miracle.

    Too late.

    what might have been

    An early example in this country is the way in the anti-war Hartford Convention was reported on by the Democratic-Republican press. Although there was not a whisper of secession in the resolutions of the convention, the reports all emphasized what the convention might have done rather than what it did do. Since news of the Battle of New Orleans and of the Treaty of Ghent reached Washington at the same time as the results of the convention, the Federalist party was pretty much done in by all the might-have-beens.

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