Previous month:
May 2012
Next month:
July 2012

Making Science a Little Too Sexy

The European Commission has decided to spend money to try to get more girls interested in science careers (why?) and came up with this rather silly ad:

The ad has gotten lambasted from many quarters, and I'll join in. First, the supposed 'under-representation' of women in hard science doesn't strike me as a pressing problem. The evidence for some ingrained gender differences and lifestyle factors in gender preferences for STEM careers is now so solid that only the hardest-core blank slaters dispute it. There's almost certainly a marginal extra underrepresentation caused by discrimination or amorphous 'cultural factors', but I wonder how significant it is. And in any event, women who are interested in STEM careers -- like men -- are not anticipating a sex-drenched, pulsatingly romantic workplace. They are more likely to be introverted problem-solvers who appreciate intellectual rigor -- precisely the sort of people who have probably never watched a music video with interest in their lives.

And one more thing: when I tried to watch it in my Google Reader RSS feed, I got the following error message:

Science Its

This is probably just some re-poster, but wouldn't it be delightful if the European Commission's official YouTube account were disabled for copyright violations?


The Superiority of German Justice to U.S. Justice

In the Atlantic, comparative-law prof James Maxeiner argues that German civil justice is superior to its American counterpart (h/t Ed Philp):

Comparing how American process works to its German counterpart highlights five ways in which our own system is defective:

    1. In Germany, parties must tell judges about their claims at the outset. In their complaints, German plaintiffs are required to state facts that support their claims. They must identify evidence upon which they plan to rely; defendants, in turn, must substantiate denials with facts where possible. In the United States, by contrast, plaintiffs reveal few facts and identify little evidence in their complaints. Before 1938, they had to at least state facts.

    2. German judges "live" with cases from the start. Judges, not defendants, are the first people to read plaintiffs' complaints. Upon filing, judges review complaints to make sure that they meet procedural requirements and determine whether the facts alleged, if proven, would support judgments. Only after judges have reviewed complaints are they served to defendants -- baseless complaints ordinarily don't get this far.

    In the United States, on the other hand, judges do not review complaints before service or often at any time. After service, on defendants' request, they may review specific aspects, but this post-service review, in comparison to its German counterpart, is protracted and expensive. A requirement (embodied in two recent Supreme Court decisions, Twombly and Iqbal) that there be a finding that asserted claims are legally "plausible" was met with vociferous criticism.

    3. In Germany, judges and parties cooperate to frame issues. When German judges authorize complaints for service, they generally direct parties to go into conference together. In these conferences, judges confer with both sides -- not just with both sides' lawyers but with the actual litigants themselves. In discussions with the parties, they frame the issues that they will need to decide to judge cases. They clarify what plaintiffs seek, they identify which legal rules might apply, and they establish which facts are material and in dispute. Parties are under a statutory duty of cooperation to answer judges fully and to substantiate claims with offers of evidence where appropriate.

    In the United States, judges often do not hold early pretrial conferences, and when they do, these conferences are typically used to set deadlines rather than frame issues. Rarely do they require the litigants to be present. Parties are under no duty of cooperation (although the Federal Rules Committee is currently considering one).

    4. German judges take evidence only on disputed issues of material fact. Judges do not waste time with evidence that they do not need for their decisions -- i.e., evidence that does not contribute to resolving a disputed material issue. For issues that are material and in dispute, parties may ask the court to take evidence. Judges rule on these requests in written orders, in which they determine specific issues on which evidence may be taken from particular witnesses. They take evidence only in court. Judges are subject to a statutory duty of clarification which requires that they not decide material issues adversely without making parties aware that they need to offer evidence or otherwise contest the particular point.

    In the United States, in contrast, the parties themselves get to determine what evidence to seek. Without court order and outside of court, they may force their opponents to divulge any evidence that they deem "relevant" to a claim or defense. They are not limited to taking evidence regarding matters that are material and in dispute, leading to hugely expensive and time-consuming evidence-gathering free-for-alls.

    5. German judges explain their decisions. German trial judges are required to explain their decisions fully -- i.e., to state the undisputed parts of the case, to set out the parties' conflicting arguments, and to explain their reasons for resolving those disputed issues as they did. In the United States, judges do justify their decisions in bench trials, but such trials are comparatively rare; juries, do not justify their decisions at all; jury verdicts leave parties in the dark.

The virtues of German civil justice are clear. In the German system, judges are narrowing issues in dispute from the beginning. By the time they are ready to decide the case, the parties know upon which disputed facts the decision will turn. With each step forward, the decision of the case becomes increasingly predictable. Parties may read the handwriting on the wall and settle the case, not because the costs of going forward are too high but to avoid the litigation risk of an adverse decision. Throughout the process, an engaged and empowered judiciary ensures a speedy, reasoned, and equitable resolution.

I've spent a good deal of time thinking about this, and have come to conclusions similar to Maxeiner's. The German system, by downplaying the role of lawyers, narrowing issues, and actively searching for consensus, resolves disputes more efficiently than American civil justice. Further, its seems to reach judgments which are just as sound, if not more so, so all that procedural streamlining is not coming at a cost in terms of substantive justice. Maxeiner is especially right to conclude that forcing trial judges to explain their decisions in writing -- which is common in the federal system but not in many state systems -- is necessary. The fact that first-instance judges can simply decide important issues without explaining their reasoning gives laziness and bias plenty of room to hide, and mediocre judges use it liberally.

I do have a few caveats, though:

  1. Many of the procedural trappings of American justice are driven -- whether directly or indirectly -- by the possibility that a jury might decide key issues. If you are going to put much more power in the hands of judges to guide and resolve disputes, you will need to put much more effort into picking good judges. In half of American states, judges are elected, often in partisan political elections. As long as American continues this foolish and outdated policy, I don't want to give the judges who are chosen by it more power. German judges, by contrast, start their careers in their  late 20s as highly independent, near-unfirable civil servants.
  2. Maxeiner considers the lack of wide-ranging, independent powers of discovery in German trials a feature, not a bug. I personally am not so sure. The American civil discovery process, which doesn't exist in Germany, can be a massively powerful investigative tool. True, German judges can order their own court-mandated evidence-gathering, but if they don't agree that a certain topic is worth investigating further, there's no recourse for the parties. Giving lawyers free rein to question witnesses under oath and comb through a companies' files may endanger privacy, but it also fosters transparency and accountability, two areas in which German justice often falls short. Americans know much more about the wrongdoing of American corporations than Germans know about the wrongdoing of their corporate giants, and one main reason for this is lawsuits that drag dirt into the open.
  3. The financial and social context is worth keeping in mind. The sums involved in American litigation are much larger than those in dispute in German courts. German lawyers get paid a modest amount of money (50% of German lawyers make less (g) than € 35,000 per year, and the average salary is € 50,000 Euro) whether they win or lose, whereas in America, a lawyer on a contingent-fee case may lose thousands of dollars if he loses the lawsuit. Plus, an uninsured person who is injured in an accident may have tens of thousands of dollars in medical expenses that he or she cannot pay -- thus providing a strong incentive to file claims and try to win them. Because the financial stakes for parties and lawyers in America are often higher than in Germany, you may have a real problem with reforms that deprive those lawyers and parties of a chance to directly participate in and guide the process.

Poem of the Day: 'Caryatid' by Gottfried Benn

Translated from the German by Michael Hofman, from Poetry magazine:

Renege on the rock! Smash
the oppressor cave! Sashay
out onto the floor! Scorn the cornices—
see, from the beard of drunk Silenus
from the unique uproar of his blood
the wine dribble into his genitals!

Spit on the obsession with pillars:
ancient rheumatic hands quake toward
gray skies. Bring down the temple
by the yearning of your knees
twitching with dance.

Spill, spread, unpetal, bleed
your soft flowers through great wounds.
Dove-hauled Venus girds her loins
with roses—
see the summer’s last puff of blue
drift on seas of asters to distant
pine-brown coasts; see
this final hour of our mendacious
southern happiness  
held aloft.
Hofmann's translator's notes are also worth a read.

Israel's Image Problem in Germany

Having just returned from Israel, I decided to see what the Germans thought about the place. Conveniently enough, the German weekly stern just conducted a poll (g). The results:

  • 70% of Germans think Israel 'pursues its own interests without consideration for other peoples' (11 points higher than in 2009).
  • 59% describe the country as 'aggressive' (+10 since 2009)
  • 58% find the country 'foreign' or 'alien' (fremd), 36% see it sympathetically
  • 21% believe the country 'respects human rights' (down from 30% in 2009)
  • 13% don't think it has a right to exist
  • 60% believe Germany no longer has a special responsibility to Israel; only 33% believe it does
  • 65% believe Germany should recognize the state of Palestine, 18% reject the idea.

That's a somewhat bleaker picture than I would have predicted. I don't see these negative perceptions of Israel as a 'problem'. People are going to think what they're going to think. Nor do I think they represent anti-Semitism, although that may explain some of the 13% who deny Israel's right to exist (some of these people may simply reject states based on ethnic/religious identity, but if that were true they'd need to start at home, since Germany offers automatic citizenship to many ethnic Germans (g) all across the world).

As with the massive unpopularity of America a few years back, a lot of this is driven by controversial policies and the press coverage they get. People thought America was aggressive and dangerous to world peace in the mid-2000s because it was. It had invaded and occupied 2 countries, and sinister fanatics such as Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton (really, is there any other way to describe them?) seemed to be just warming up. The news coverage out of Israel lately shows a government that is expanding settlements, constantly threatening to attack Iran, teaming up with terror groups to conduct car-bomb assassinations of Iranian engineers (imagine if that were happening in Germany!), has launched two wars in the past 6 years, and has as its foreign minister the remarkably repugnant Avigdor Lieberman.

Presumably the current Israeli administration believes these policies are necessary to protect the national interest, but they should prepare their citizens to live with the backlash. Like the United States, or any other country for that matter, Israel has no 'right' to be popular and admired regardless of what it does. Or in other words, no Israel, you can't have a pony, because in the real world, nobody gets a pony.


Germany's Boring, Chemically-Processed Beers Fail Worldwide

The ZDF sent a reporter to take a chainsaw to the rapidly-crumbling mythology of Germany's excellent, pure beers (h/t HM). The resulting 30-minute special is here (g). Sorry, I couldn't find an embed link. The executive summary:

  • German beers regularly fail on the international tasting circuit because they're bland and uniform, reflecting a lack of innovation in the German beer market. American beers routinely win highest honors because they're more diverse and high-quality.
  • The German beer industry has become hugely concentrated owing to massive mergers which have shut down many smaller breweries.
  • The biggest German beer brands all taste alike and have no character.
  • The much-hyped German beer purity law (Reinheitsgebot) is actually full of loopholes that permit all sorts of shortcuts and chemical additives like the BASF-produced PVPP (which, to be fair, is only used in processing and doesn't stay in the beer).
  • Germans' primitive beer palates are, in part, caused by the woefully limited range of beers available at mainstream commercial outlets. Most of the really interesting micro-brewed German beers are destined for export to more adventurous consumer markets -- primarily in the US.

A sobering picture, so to speak, but not one that will be unfamiliar to readers of this blog. The report saves the best for last, in which during the 2012 Beer awards, the blind taste testers award top honors in traditionally German beer categories such as Alt, Kölsch, Hefe-Weizen and Pilsner to breweries from Arizona, Texas, Australia, and Iceland, respectively.

Yet there's a happy postscript: Germans are beginning to emerge from their dogmatic Reinheits-slumber and awaken to the glorious worldwide diversity of beer, thanks to stores like Bier-Beer (g) which stocks over 300 foreign beer brands...


Cold Winters, Smart People

When people ask me (sometimes suspiciously, often incredulously) why I enjoy living in Germany, I tell them one of the reasons is that people here are just a little bit smarter than most other places I've lived.

This, as you might imagine, does little to allay the suspicion.Yet that's what I see every day: the bell curve just seems to be a bit farther to the right here in Northern Europe. There are many clues: the level of debate in televisions and radio talk shows is noticeably more sophisticated than in the U.S., where the average member of Congress now speaks with the vocabulary and grammatical sophistication of a 15-year-old, which is understandable, since they're trying to communicate with average Americans, whose English abilities are even worse than this. Northern European societies have also engaged in forms of sophisticated collective action -- mainly the creation of welfare states -- requiring judicious balancing of interests, sacrifice of present gain for future security, and a great deal of long-term thinking. Germans also behave quite sensibly -- they have all sorts of insurance, and live within their means. The more primitive kinds of religion (involving heavy superstition, unquestioning deference to authority, yet very little commitment to actual changes in daily conduct) are either unknown here or dying out. In the U.S., by contrast:

But, you ask, are these just idle musings, or are they backed by Science? Before you can ask whether certain areas of the world are cognitively blessed, you have to factor out a million potentially confounding factors, including level of development, composition of the population, etc. So this recent study (pdf) looked at haplogroups, genetic categories differentiating human populations which go back thousands of years and are considered particularly reliable indicators. The authors reviewed various theories of cognitive ability, including the so-called 'cold winters' theory, which posits that population groups which moved early into areas of the earth with long, cold winters developed higher cognitive abilities owing to the need to think ahead and plan for the future. There are other theories, but the authors sum them up as follows:

All these theories could be summarized under the general assumption that environmental challenges, both natural and social, which could be mastered by intelligence, will increase genotypic intelligence in the long run because phenotypically more intelligent members of the population historically had more surviving offspring. The requirements for this are that intelligence is at least modestly heritable, that there has been sufficient time in terms of generations for the frequencies of intelligence genes to have changed, and that increases in intelligence are non-prohibitive in terms of limitations imposed by brain metabolism, infant cranial size, and susceptibility to physical and mental diseases.

So the authors selected out a series of haplogroups that would be predicted to be associated with higher cognitive ability and tried to determine a correlation between countries in which those haplogroups were well-represented and intelligence. Here's the result:

Haplogroups and Intelligence

So, societies in which more people came from Haplogroup A tended to be smarter. Germany is located somewhere in that cloud in the top center. It's not all genes, of course, the authors note that national IQ is heavily confounded with a country's level of development, meaning that a country's HDI ranking is still the best predictor of cognitive ability. Adequate nutrition, a functioning educational system, and a reasonably stable political order are hugely important. (We'll leave the obvious chicken-and-egg question to one side). But haplogroups, the authors conclude, 'also appear to be significant predictors of cognitive ability.' So, it turns out that cold winters may help explain why Northern European societies are so doggone stable and enlightened.