How early were the Nordic countries secular?

Statistical data on levels of church attendance before the 1960s is fragmentary, but what there is suggests that the low levels of religious participation recorded later in the century were not so new.  Clergy returns for Denmark, even excluding the metropolis of Copenhagen, where levels of church attendance were known to be exceptionally low, recorded that only about 8 percent of Danes attended Lutheran services on “an average Sunday” in the 1930s, falling to 6 percent in the 1940s, 5 percent in the 1950s, and 4 percent in the 1960s…In Sweden in 1927 it is estimated that only 5.6 percent attended a Lutheran church on a normal Sunday; by the 1950s it was under three percent.

A Norwegian estimate is of 3.8 percent in 1938, and Finland seems to have been below 3 percent by the 1950s.  For purposes of perspective, in most other European countries the collapse of church attendance came in the 1960s.

That is all from the new and interesting Brian Stanley, Christianity in the Twentieth Century: A World History, published by Princeton University Press.

Hysteria Was Not Treated With Vibrators

You know the story about the male Victorian physicians who unwittingly produced orgasms in their female clients by treating them for “hysteria” with newly-invented, labor-saving, mechanical vibrators? It’s little more than an urban legend albeit one transmitted through academic books and articles. Hallie Lieberman and Eric Schatzberg, the authors of a shocking new paper, A Failure of Academic Quality Control: The Technology of Orgasm, don’t quite use the word fraud but they come close.

Since its publication in 1999, The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel Maines has become one of the most widely cited works on the history of sex and technology (Maines, 1999). This slim book covers a lot of ground, but Maines’ core argument is quite simple. She argues that Victorian physicians routinely treated female hysteria patients by stimulating them to orgasm using electromechanical vibrators. The vibrator was, according to Maines, a labor-saving technology that replaced the well-established medical practice of clitoral massage for hysteria. She states that physicians did not perceive either the vibrator or manual massage as sexual, because neither method involved vaginal penetration.

This argument has been repeated in dozens of scholarly works and cited with approval in many more. A few scholars have challenged various parts of the book. Yet no scholars have contested her central argument, at least not in the peer-reviewed literature. Her argument even spread to popular culture, appearing in a Broadway play, a feature-length film, several documentaries, and many mainstream books and articles. This once controversial idea has now become an accepted fact.

But there’s only one problem with Maines’ argument: we could find no evidence that physicians ever used electromechanical vibrators to induce orgasms in female patients as a medical treatment. We examined every source that Maines cites in support of her core claim. None of these sources actually do so. We also discuss other evidence from this era that contradicts key aspects of Maines’ argument. This evidence shows that vibrators were indeed used penetratively, and that manual massage of female genitals was never a routine medical treatment for hysteria.

… the 19-year success of Technology of Orgasm points to a fundamental failure of academic quality control. This failure occurred at every stage, starting with the assessment of the work at the Johns Hopkins University Press. But most glaring is the fact that not a single scholarly publication has pointed out the empirical flaws in the book’s core claims in the 19 years since its release.

Wow. Read the whole thing.

Hat tip: Chris Martin on twitter.

Why you should hesitate to give books as gifts and instead just throw them out

I wrote this as a blog post for Penguin blog about ten years ago (when I guest-blogged for them), and it has disappeared from Google.  So I thought I would serve up another, slightly different version to keep it circulating.  Here goes:

Most of you should throw books out — your used copies that is — instead of gifting them.  If you donate the otherwise-thrashed book somewhere, someone might read it.  OK, maybe that person will read one more book in life but more likely that book will substitute for that person reading some other book instead.  Or substitute for watching a wonderful movie.

So you have to ask yourself — this book — is it better on average than what an attracted reader might otherwise spend time with?  Even within any particular point of view most books simply aren’t that good, and furthermore many books end up being wrong.  These books are traps for the unwary, and furthermore gifting the book puts some sentimental value on it, thereby increasing the chance that it is read.  Gift very selectively!  And ponder the margin.

You should be most likely to give book gifts to people whose reading taste you don’t respect very much.  That said, sometimes a very bad book can be useful because it might appeal to “bad” readers and lure them away from even worse books.  Please make all the appropriate calculations.

Alternatively, if a rational friend of yours gives you a book, perhaps you should feel a little insulted.

How good is the very best next book that you haven’t read but maybe are on the verge of picking up?  So many choices in life hinge on that neglected variable.

Toss it I say!

Why did witch trials dwindle?

In 2004 Emily Oster of Brown University found a correlation between the frequency of witch trials and poor weather during the “Little Ice Age”. Old women were made scapegoats for the poor harvests that colder winters caused. A more recent paper by Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama of George Mason University argued that weak central governments, unable to enforce the rule of law, allowed witch-hunts to take place. They found the ability to raise more in taxes, a proxy for growing state power, to be correlated to a decline in witch trials in French regions.

A paper published in the August edition of the Economic Journal casts doubt on both theories. Peter Leeson and Jacob Russ, also of George Mason University, collected data for witch trials from 21 countries between 1300 and 1850, in which 43,240 people were prosecuted. They found that the weather had a statistically insignificant impact on the occurrence of witch trials. The impact of negative income shocks or governmental capacity was also very weak.

When Mr Leeson and Mr Russ compared their witch-trial data to the timing and location of over 400 battles between Christian denominations, they found a much closer link. Where there was more conflict between Catholics and Protestants (in Britain, between Anglicans and Presbyterians), witch trials were widespread; in places where one creed dominated there were fewer. The authors conclude that churches engaged in a sort of “non-price competition”, gaining converts in confessional battlegrounds by advertising their commitment to fighting evil by trying witches.

Here is the full story from The Economist.

Google criticism for me but not for thee

“I think Trump’s complaint undid a lot of good and sophisticated thought that was starting to work its way into public consciousness about these issues,” said Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who has studied Google and Facebook’s influence on society.

The idea that many of the extant media and academic criticisms of Google are not much better than Trump’s, or that Google might be wrecking us and making us stupid, but the president is the only one not allowed to criticize it…well…Or how about the notion that the public was becoming “good and sophisticated” on the issue, but somehow unable to resist the polemics of Trump?

We need a new word for these kinds of fallacies.  Any nominations?

Here is the full Farhad Manjoo piece.

Star firms are really about intangible capital

Once we re-compute the ROIC [return on invested capital] calculations to factor in estimates of intangible capital from the finance literature…we find that both the run-up by top decile of firms and the much higher mean returns in the cognitively skilled industries disappear.  Thus, the differences that we found earlier in firm differentiation between industries are likely attributable, in great part, to not accounting for intangible capital consistently.  Industries that rely heavily on complex cognitive skills are likely to have higher amounts of intellectual and organizational capital, which is not measured by ROIC prepared according to generally accepted accounting principles.

That is from Meghana Ayyagari, Asli Demirgüç-Kunt, and Vojislav Maksimovic.

The authors do not that some of the largest tech firms, such as Amazon, Facebook, and Google, are exceptions, but even for those companies the mark-ups are not especially connected to monopolizing behavior.

Japanese markets in everything

Stressed out, overworked, or just over it: Workers in Japan who want to leave their jobs — but don’t want to face the stress of quitting in person — are paying a company called Exit to tell their bosses that they won’t be back.

People hoping to never set foot in their workplace again pay Exit $450 to help them quit their full-time jobs; those who have had it with part-time work can pay around $360. And as Alex Martin reports for Japan Times, “Repeat clients get a [$90] discount.”

Here is the full NPR story, via Andrea O’Sullivan.

What I’ve been reading

1. Rob Reich, Just Giving: Why Philanthropy is Failing Democracy and How it Can Do Better.  A sustained argument that current manifestations of philanthropy are not very egalitarian or necessarily realizing democratic ideals.  My views stand “to the right” of this book, but for some of you it will serve as a very good articulation of why philanthropy might be making you nervous.

2. Edmund White, The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading.  An exquisitely written book, yet his reading narrative leaves me cold (too much an insider? not eccentric enough?).  I found the chapter on his husband and their relationship extraordinarily compelling.  A highly intelligent book, at the very least.

3. Jason Brennan, When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice.  A well-argued libertarian take on exactly what the subtitle promises.

4. Robert Skidelsky, Money and Government: The Past and Future of Economics.  The history of macro and money told through its historical development, which in my view is the right approach.  The coverage ranges from the classical economists up through the present day.  I hope this book does well.

5. Nicola Gennaioli and Andrei Shleifer, A Crisis of Beliefs: Investor Psychology and Financial Fragility.  An “as smart as you would expect” take on the hypothesis that investor over-extrapolation of recent price trends can cause financial crises, including our recent financial crisis.

Kiwi cat quotas?

A regional council in New Zealand has proposed banning all domestic cats in an attempt to protect native animals.

Environment Southland’s “pest plan” calls for all domestic cats in the region to be neutered, microchipped and registered. Then, when a cat dies, residents would not be permitted to have another.

“We’re not cat haters,” John Collins, of the Omaui Landcare Trust told Newshub. “But we’d like to see responsible pet ownership and this really isn’t the place for cats.”

Ali Meade, the council’s biosecurity operations manager, said that if the move was approved the improvement for the environment and bird life would be vast…

Kapiti Island’s Kotuku Parks subdivision has a no-cat rule and Auckland council is also looking at a plan to euthanise any cat caught in an “ecologically significant site” without a microchip.

Here is the full story, via Ian Bremmer.