Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bigotry, Omitted Variable Bias, and Bill Maher

Bill...can we have a word?
I've been entertained by the comedian (he's not a journalist, people, he just follows some mainstream media news and talks about it with some celebrities, fake experts, and [occasionally] actual experts) Bill Maher for many years. I appreciate his show, enjoy that he uses his name and stage to bring about discourse on politics, and often find myself agreeing with what he says. However, on one specific topic, Maher makes me very angry...and, as Mr. McGee learned many years ago, don't make me angry; you wouldn't like me when I'm angry. You see, when it comes to discussions about Muslims and/or Arabs, Bill Maher is a bigot, or at the very least, bigot-ish. He's bigot-ish because he uses a level of analysis that would make most high schoolers uncomfortable. He uses this preposterous thinking to come to some really dangerous, reductionist conclusions that smell of the worst kind of Orientalism. And the audience ("liberals" who seemingly don't get it and enjoy cheering on their hero) goes along with the sham. Except it's not just a sham. It's quite dangerous. See the impact of Islamophobia on Muslims in America today? See the overt venomous racist discourse we see and hear so often right now? Well...Bill Maher is part of the problem. And somebody needs to call him on it and knock his discourse straight out. Enter (stage left): me and my foot to break off in Maher's ass.

This past week, he did it yet again. Maher, talking about the unfortunate Lara Logan sexual assault, decided to, like he often does, equate the behavior of a few people with some cultural problem with Muslims. This bugs the hell out of me for a few reasons. So, I do social science. I spend my time thinking about correlation and causation - lots of things in the world are correlated, but I want to figure out causality. So...when people use correlation to imply causation without any real thought, I get mad. When they do it to advance bigoted views, I get really mad. When they have almost universal audience approval/cheering when they do it, I go green. (Yes, multiple Incredible Hulk references in this post). Smash! Crush!

These "discussions" (that never seem to have any Muslims) are painful.
So, Tavis Smiley tried to talk Bill down. Granted, he was ineffective and didn't lay out the best argument (in fact, it was pretty terrible), but he tried. Bill was not to be stopped, though. He laid out his usual Muslims are backwards argument, and used this horrible incident to solidify this fact. Now, if you replaced the word Muslim with basically any other minority, you'd get called out for this kind of talk. I've talked about before, it's totally cool to go after Muslims in America today with hate speech.

Maher constantly uses correlation to assume causation. He does so in a casual manner that drives me and others nuts. Here's the problem. Omitted variable bias. The political scientists and economists in the house are nodding their heads right now. The rest of you (unless you've taken a few statistics classes) probably don't know what I'm talking about. probably know the concept, actually. Let me explain. See, when you try to describe what causes something (let's call it "Y"), you want to find the things that cause it (explanatory variables, "X"). However, in order to really know that X is causing Y, we have to control for a lot of things. If we don't, we might get a faulty relationship. If a variable we omit from the equation is actually quite important for "Y" to occur, and it is also tightly correlated to "X", that would cause a serious bias problem...we might say that X explains Y, when in reality, it is Z (the omitted variable) doing all the work and X doesn't actually matter at all once we account for Z. For instance, we might see a correlation between race and crime, but that could go away once we account for poverty. It would be dangerous to make the race claim in that case. But...that's what Maher constantly does with Muslims.

So, on this show, he said that because a few Muslims assaulted Lara Logan (again, totally horrible incident - btw, while what happened to Logan terrible, how about some coverage of the Egyptian journalist who was killed, or the hundreds of protesters who died, at the hands of Mubarak's goon squad? Anything? Anything? Or does the Logan story deserve prominence over many more important and graver stories because she's a white woman from the West? Capehart seems to think this is a reason to turn on Al Jazeera, since they didn't really cover it - thanks, Jason, for ignoring the bigger picture in a gigantic way), that tells us something about the backwards nature of Muslim men, and how that made him wary of the Egyptian revolution and question whether they're ready for democracy. One bad incident. So...small sample size is already a huge problem. Maher then points out all the gender inequality issues in the Middle Eastern countries. He telegraphs this pretty clearly - there is a problem with Muslim men...and Islam is the problem.

Now, he's right that there is a correlation problem. No doubt about that. But...Maher takes variables out of the equation that clearly play a dominant role in the correlation. system? You know...who controls the stuff people learn in school? The state. Who runs those states? Backwards, tyrannical, despotic dictators...who we keep in power. You know how you stay in power? You divide the opposition. Besides using Islamist groups as their boogeymen (something the U.S. does pretty well, too), you know what else helps? Don't let men and women unite to oppose you. You know how you do that? Your teach them poorly when they're young and set up a ridiculous gender bias in your society. It also may not be so strategic...some of these rulers are probably just flat-out sexist (and into repression and torture and a bunch of other things that are pretty terrible) in the worst way possible. Yet...we keep them in power so they can push their views on their country? Huh? Anyway...back to the don't really see Islam as a variable at all anymore. Instead, I see dictators being dictators and doing shady stuff, which they can because they are backed by us. Right. Kind of an important omitted variable.

You know what else impacts people's beliefs? The marketplace of ideas. Civil society. You know, things the authoritarian rulers in most Muslim countries (backed by the West) control pretty tightly. You know what the people attacking Logan were yelling? That she was a foreign spy, an Israeli spy. You know where they probably heard that from? Egyptian state TV, which was warning Egyptians about the role of foreign spies posing as journalists causing trouble. They were spies from the U.S., Israel, Hamas, about one hell of a mix! So...yeah, stupid, you think...that's so obviously not true. But...if that's your main source of information, it's not surprising you start repeating nonsense. Reminds me of the American public during the march to the Iraq war...and afterwards. So...again, is Islam explaining why they attacked Logan? Or might it be they kept hearing these lies about foreign spies over and over again? Omitted variable. Also...I'm just saying...if the Israeli spy thing is correct, isn't it entirely possible that Logan was assaulted by pro-Mubarak people who gathered in Tahrir Square? Because, as I pointed out, that was their angle re: foreign journalists - the protesters protected the journalists, which is why you saw many of them get pretty angry about the Mubarak regime and supportive of the revolution, best seen by Anderson Cooper's passionate support of the protesters and harsh language for Mubarak. David Ignatius at the Washington Post at least raised this point...nobody else really has. If that's true, the efforts to portray this assault as yet another reason to distrust Muslims, especially those leading the Egyptian revolution (Bill Maher is one of many, particularly on the right, propagating this view) is entirely fallacious. Btw, the scary Islamists (in this case, the Muslim Brotherhood) aren't the ones leading the revolution. Not saying they're good guys or anything...but they're not the main force. Granted, they'll probably be the dominant party for a while in a post-Mubarak Egypt...but that has a lot to do with their long-standing institutions in the country. Also...the research all suggests they won't be a problem so long as the institutional framework is solid. That may not be the case, at which point there could be problems...but its not Islam, but rather institutions, that will be the key factor.

Maher makes the dangerous conflation nearly every time he discusses Muslims. Any problematic small group behavior is suddenly emblematic of a massive group. This is nuts. Anytime you call neo-con Ayaan Hirsi Ali an expert on Islam (what exactly is she an expert on? Seriously...I get it, unfortunate stuff happened to her, but that doesn't magically transform her into a scholarly source on all things Islam, and her pathetic  analysis should have encouraged people to stop treating her as such a long time ago), you're probably not working hard enough...or at all. He relies on correlation while crucially ignoring key variables that are probably causing the relationship to happen. Again, the correlation is frequently bad, anyway (Muslim violence against women, Muslim preponderance for suicide terrorism, etc.), but is it causal? It seems to not be - education systems run by American-backed not-remotely-liberal dictators, socio-economic status, occupation, lack of political voice, etc., are all crucial variables that need to be accounted for. My guess is they would negate any "Muslim" effect entirely. This has happened in much of the academic research...the "Muslim" variables tend to not matter when you control for oil, economics, etc. This means the correlation is not good, of course, but the cause is something other than Islam. Yet...Maher, by not being interested in causality, does what the Islamophobes do - attach religion and culture to the problem at hand and use that faulty relationship as a reason to go after Muslims for their Muslim-ness (okay, I'm not even sure what that means). As far as causality goes, it's wrong. As far as bigotry goes, it exemplifies that. And yet, people clap and cheer.

Maybe, one day, Maher will accidentally have a guest on his show that actually knows how to talk about his bigotry issue (he likes his Muslims either ignorant/fake scholars/not actually Muslims [Ali] or not overly confrontational [Fareed Zakaria]). Maybe that guest will take him to town for his nonsense. And maybe he'll pay attention and try to actually learn something from it and stop making the same mistake: his assertions about Muslims are simply wrong from a causal inference standpoint (which, by itself, should make him want to stop uttering them), and they exemplify some of the ugliest parts of American thought these days. But since I doubt that day will happen, the least people can do is email/call his show or HBO and raise some noise about this, work with organizations to counter Islamophobia, or maybe even get Muslim organizations to call out Maher on his bigotry in a very public way. All could help. Maybe he'll even see the issue, and realize he's on the same side as some of the people he despises the most in the world.


waltersobchak2 said...

I think that another lesson that social science practice has to teach us is that we should usually be wary of these sorts of culturalist/essentialist explanations. Experience working with data shows that cultural factors usually account for little of the observed variance in outcomes once structural/institutional factors are included.

And not only are these sorts of explanations (1) terrible social science and (2) grist for the ever-busy mills of bigotry, but they're also (3) incredibly useless. If we accept the premise that the attack on Lara Logan was somehow "caused" by Islam, what are we proposing as a solution? That western women simply be kept out of Muslim countries for their own safety? (Nevermind Egyptian women's safety). That we follow Ann Coulter's advice on Arabs? (Nevermind the genocide).

Imagine instead, that we follow the premise (supported by ample social science research), that the best way to improve women's standing (and safety) in any society are to increase educational and professional opportunities for women and girls. This is not only much more likely to be true, but also suggests plausible policy interventions.

Imagine that. Social science serving public policy ends. Ugh. Can't believe I just said that. Excuse me, I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.

farrahflave said...

Wow. Maher is a chauvinist bigot but I think I already knew that ~ it's just no longer funny! Travis definitely put Maher on the spot and proved Maher wrong especially when referencing Malcom X on "progress." What was that audience member yelling?!?

brown hornet said...

thanks for the thoughts. waltersobchak2 (is this a lebowski reference?), you're definitely not wrong. culturalist stories are so common in the mainstream media and general discourse, yet they basically all fall to pieces when we actually include crucial factors that are constantly left out. islamophobia is only the most recent example. anyway, it's nice to see a fellow social scientist (i assume you are one) or at least someone interested in causality really care about this common problem.
farrahflave, tavis actually did a pretty terrible job in doing a good deed - standing up to maher's bigotry. at the very least, i hope this post (along with the work of countless others who care about getting causal inference correct) gives folks some material when they encounter this kind of bigotry. you don't even need to go to can simply use a scientific approach to show how ridiculous this kind of bigotry is.