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Who's Winning the Culture War? What the Numbers Suggest
I hear quite often enough that my values (liberal if not worse, feminist, tolerant of same-sex marriage) are responsible for American marriage decay.
This baffles me anecdotally, as I canvass my small corner of the universe. I’m 45 and I’ve been married 14 years. I’ve never been divorced. I haven’t been a single mother, a “welfare queen” or taken a thing from “The Government.” I never went to a swing party, or swung, or swanged, or got wife-swapped or raved or moshed or orgied, or woke up and had no clue what bed or city I was in. All these bogeymen of the liberal lifestyle have eluded me.
My husband and I are nothing if not persistent, and hard workers, even at moments when one or both of us would prefer to cut and run to Tahiti. We raise our child, pay taxes (and how), obey speed limits (okay, more or less), and work our butts off.
And we’re not exceptional. That’s key. We’re like our feminist-ish, liberal-ish, professional and creative class peers. A few of them are divorced. Not that many, though, and they’re not judged harshly for it.
Me and my “elk,” as an undergraduate once memorably misspoke, seem to be succeeding in marriage. We might not always be ecstatic—read my book, coming out in paperback soon—but we try to solve problems.
The numbers back up my anecdotal view. Now that the dust’s settled on the social tumult of the early 1970s, an unprecedented divorce and marriage gap has developed. The professional and affluent classes get married and stay married more successfully than lower income, working-class and poor Americans, who are falling away from the institution. Several researchers and commentators have described this, worriedly.
Additionally, iconic liberal states have lower divorce rates than iconic Bible Belt states. Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate in the country, along with deep blue Washington, DC, New York, Maryland, as well as New Jersey and the blue-ish Illinois, also in the lower 10, along with swing states such as Pennsylvania. The 10 states with the highest rates include Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Idaho, Wyoming, and Nevada (home of the quickie divorce), as well as swing state Florida, mixed state West Virginia, and one liberal state—Maine.
We’re told that tolerance for same-sex marriage undermines marriage. Yet 60% of the 10 states with the lowest 2009 divorce rates have approved same-sex marriage or civil unions. Conversely, 90% of the 10 states with the highest divorce rates—all but Maine--explicitly ban same-sex marriage, and/or define marriage explicitly as “between a man and a woman.”
On the surface, it looks like bad news for social conservatives. Liberal enclaves seem to be winning the culture war.
But is that really the case? Is there a relationship between being a liberal values state and a lower divorce rate, and vice versa?
Let’s explore this. I’m not an expert. I don’t do quantitative research. But my dear husband does have Matlab, and the wherewithal to do some basic regressions.
First I took available (four states didn’t report) state divorce rates for 2009.
Then I gathered some indicators of values from roughly the same time. My first indicator is the percentage in each state that voted for Obama in 2008, a measure of how “blue”/liberal the state is.
My second indicator is from the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Survey (2007). I use “there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion,” as a measure of fundamentalism.
Another Pew question, “religion is very important in my life” is used as a (third) indicator of religiosity (but not necessarily fundamentalism).
A final indicator—each state’s laws on same sex marriage, four levels ranging from “approves same-sex marriage” to “bans same-sex marriage”—measures its friendliness to same-sex marriage.
Here’s what I found: The strongest relationship (correlation 0.49 with a p-value 0.08) is between low divorce rates and the liberalism of the state, according to 2008 election results. The more liberal the state, the more likely it is to have a lower divorce rate.
I found a relationship (correlation 0.49 with a p-value 0.07) between same-sex marriage approval and lower divorce rates. However, this variable is almost binary, and might benefit from a better method of testing.
Another relationship (correlation 0.25 with a p-value 0.33) is between high divorce rates and fundamentalist views. The more fundamentalist the state, the more likely it has a higher divorce rate.
I found no relationship between divorce rates and “religion is very important in my life.” This indicator doesn’t relate to a state’s divorce rate one way or another.
Of course, a “correlation” doesn’t prove a “causal” relationship. Some elements appear together frequently, but aren’t related in the sense that one variable affects the other in statistically significant ways. They’re spurious correlations.
So we can’t jump to the conclusion that states fail at marriage partly because of their conservative family values, their non-liberal attitudes, and their intolerance to same-sex marriage. It’s tempting to do just that—since this is essentially what politicians have said about liberals for some time now.
I’m not a social scientist, so I can’t design, or envision, the research that might determine if there are, indeed, deeper relationships between values and divorce rates. I mean a more rigorous quantitative investigation, as opposed to many existing—and valuable—qualitative works, or those based on literature review.
I’m not sure that such research would be possible within statistical parameters. Some of the more advanced techniques might be able to tease out the influence of community-level variables, such as values, on individual behaviors, such as divorce (Hierarchical Linear Modeling, perhaps?).
But, what I wish that I could learn from future research, based on these preliminary numbers, is: What do values have to do with marriage outcomes within communities?
It’s an important question, because a formative political rhetoric for decades—and the whole premise of the culture war—has posited that liberal values have weakened marriage.
This political rhetoric assumes two things, both of which our regressions call into question: First, it assumes that values are relevant to marital outcomes. Second, it assumes that conservative family values support marriage, while liberal values don’t.
A null hypothesis would be that there is nothing--no meaningful relationship between values and divorce rates. And that constitutes bad news for the cultural warrior because it calls into question why they’re waging a culture war to defend marriage, when values aren’t the strongest drivers of divorce (perhaps income, poverty, and education are stronger drivers).
In contrast, the hypothesis would be that values do matter in divorce rates, in some measurable although not exclusive way. But, if that hypothesis were supported by future research, then it also would constitute bad news for social conservatives because state-by-state data suggest that liberal values are more marriage-supportive.
Sounds like heads I win, tails you lose. But I await an enterprising Ph.D. student to find out.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.