As recently as 1995 a majority of Americans disapproved of interracial marriage

I saw the chart above in an excellent article by  on the parallels between the civil rights and gay rights movements. It shows the results of Gallup’s polling on interracial marriage dating back to 1959.

It took me aback for a number of reasons:

  1. I’d have guessed the pattern would be that support would start at a low base and then rise but 4% is a very low base indeed!
  2. These results are not from a poll of white Americans but America as a whole. I don’t know what if any steps Gallup took to produce balanced samples. However, it seems possible that in 1959 even fewer than 4% of white Americans supported interracial marriages.
  3. It therefore follows that the majority of the people who supported the civil rights movement were by
  4. Approval of interracial marriages only became the majority position within the last twenty.
  5. They caused me to look up the equivalent British figures. They don’t go back as far but for the period they do exist are only moderately better than the American ones.

Update: just noticed the title of this post is inaccurate. It would be more accurate to have said ‘…did not approve…’ than ‘disapprove’.

No you are not a visual/auditory/kinesthetic learner!

Warning: may contain junk science

96% of teachers believe we have a preferred learning style but the evidence suggests it’s probably a myth.

Am I a Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic learner? I have done tests to determine this question at least half a dozen times. I did them at school, I did one when I went on a course on how to train people to be better political campaigners and I not only did one myself but gave them to students while learning to be a teacher.

The existence of different learning styles seems largely to be taken as given by teachers. Writing in wired magazine, Christian Jarrett noted an international study that found that 96% of teachers agreed pupils have distinct learning styles. This is unfortunate because as he goes onto note it’s not altogether clear they do:

Is there any evidence to support the learning styles concept?
Yes there is a little, but experts on the topic like Harold Pashler and Doug Rohrer point out that most of this evidence is weak. Convincing evidence for learning styles would show that people of one preferred learning style learned better when taught material in their favored way, whereas a different group with a different preference learned the same material better when taught in their favored fashion. Yet surprisingly few studies of this format have produced supporting evidence for learning styles; far more evidence (such as this study) runs counter to the myth. What often happens is that both groups perform better when taught by one particular style. This makes sense because although each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Are there any other problems with the myth?
Oh yes! Another major problem is that there are so many different possible ways to describe people’s preferred learning styles. Indeed, a review published in 2004 identified over 71 different styles mooted in the literature. As Paul Kirschner and Jeroen Merrienboer explained in their recent article on “urban legends” in education, if we view each learning style as dichotomous (e.g. visual vs. verbal) that means there are 2 to the power of 71 combinations of identified learning styles – more than the number of people alive on earth! What’s more, even if we accept a particular scheme for measuring learning styles, evidence shows that learning style questionnaires are unreliable and people’s self-reported preferences are poorly correlated with their actual performance. In other words, a person might think they learn better, say, visually rather than verbally, but their performance says otherwise! The fact is, the more accurate predictor for how well a person will fare in a math learning task, is most likely not the degree of match between their preferred learning style and the teaching style, but their past performance on math tests.

In an interview for the BBC Dr Paul Howard-Jones of Bristol University, a specialist in neuroscience and education, suggested that teachers are uniquely vulnerable to ‘neuromyths’. He suggest that because they are responsible for reshaping the brain on a daily basis yet they generally have neither the ability to access nor the time to interpret the peer reviewed scientific papers that best explain this process. That makes them easy prey for an industry peddling what sound like common sense notions about psychology that have no empirical underpinning.

Dr Howard-Jones also suggests that far from there being a visual/auditory/kinesthetic divide, it’s actually the case that we absorb information better if it’s presented to us in ways that engage multiple senses rather than leaning on our preferred one.

The best things I’ve read lately (08/03/2015)

Spock, Vietnam’s censors and vaccines

Following the tragic passing of Leonard Nimoy, Matthew Yglesias pays tribute to his iconic character:

Spock was not only a hero. He was a particular kind of hero. Someone the wrong kind of people would call a villain. I am always struck, as a longtime Star Trek fan, by the fact that many media figures seem to think it’s a dis on President Obama to compare him to Spock.

The ease with which some deride Spock makes him truly unusual for a television character. Spock is someone who some of us can eminently identify with, but also someone who others find so alien that they are compelled to castigate him. That, in turn, makes him a dozen times more relatable than a more conventional and universally admired hero.

Spock’s intelligence, bravery, courage, and good judgment don’t win him the universal admiration of his crewmates or of the world. But he did earn their respect, and over time he accomplished most of what he set out to do, from saving their ship, the Enterprise, to brokering peace with the Klingons, to aiding Romulan dissidents.

He was an archetype that was compelling enough to power not just five Star Trek shows, but countless characters in subsequent decades’ shows: from Rupert Giles in Buffy to Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Sherlock Holmes to Temperance Brennan in Bones to House’s Dr. House.

Over time, that turned Spock into something of a cliché. But he was an original in the 1960s, and Leonard Nimoy’s skill in defining the character helped define an entire genre of characters for generations to come.

A few years ago Thomas A. Bass wrote a biography of Pham Xuan An: a Vietnamese spy who while working undercover as a reporters for Reuters became one of the resistance’s most effective agents. Bass recounts what he had to cut in order to get the book published in Vietnam:

What did the censors cut from my book? Pham Xuan An is not allowed to “love” the United States or the time he spent studying journalism in California. He is allowed only to “understand” the United States. Removed were the names of exiled Vietnamese and their comments. Also removed was any criticism of China or mention of bribery, corruption or malfeasance on the part of public officials. Even Vo Nguyen Giap, the great general who led Vietnam to victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, was cut from the narrative, having fallen from favor before his death in 2013.

Known events were excised from Vietnamese history: the Gold Campaign of 1946, when Ho Chi Minh paid a large bribe to the Chinese to get them to retreat from north Vietnam; the failed land reform campaigns of the 1950s; the exodus of the “boat people” after 1975; the 1978 war in Cambodia; the 1979 border war against China. The nam tien, the historic southward march of the Viets, in which they worked their way down the Annamite Cordillera, occupying territory formerly held by Montagnards, Chams, Khmers and other “minority peoples,” was cut. An’s last wishes, that he be cremated and his ashes scattered in the Dong Nai River, disappeared. They were replaced by a scene describing his state funeral, with the eulogy delivered by the head of military intelligence.

There is also a long list of “errors” in the Hanoi translation, words that my Vietnamese editors have either genuinely or purposefully misunderstood, such as “ghost writer,” “betrayal,” “bribery,” “treachery,” “terrorism,” “torture,” “front organizations,” “ethnic minorities” and “reeducation camps.” The French are not allowed to have taught the Vietnamese anything. Nor are the Americans. Vietnam has never produced refugees; it only generates settlers. References to communism as a “failed god” were cut. An’s description of himself as having an American brain grafted onto a Vietnamese body was cut. In fact, all of his jokes were cut, not to mention his analysis of how the communists replaced Ngo Dinh Diem’s police state with a police state of their own. By the end of my book, entire pages of notes and sources had disappeared.

In fact, the most insidious changes occur at the level of language. An was born outside Saigon. He was a southerner. But the language of the south and other cultural terms were pruned from the text, replaced by the language of the northerners who overran Saigon in 1975. Censorship involves political control and the assertion of power, but in this case it also involves control of memory, history and language.

And my video of the week is Jimmy Kimmel taking on anti-vaccine:

Why twitter is irrelevant to bloggers

Twitter produces a huge flurry of activities yet is strangely isolated from the rest of the internet.


A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how social media has changed blogging. Essentially blogs no longer gets views primarily because of links from other blogs. Instead traffic now comes in large part through views on social media.

But not all social media is equal. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently wrote about the failure of his attempts to generate interests in his articles for the magazine using twitter:

Every good media organization knows that the road to traffic leads through Facebook rather than Twitter. Even so, I thought the sharing economy of the Internet shared a bit more than this.

A tweet with 10,000 interactions is an exception, and I was interested in the rule. So I went to Twitter’s user analytics page to download the data on my 100 most popular tweets of the last year. If I could prove to my bosses (and to myself) that Twitter could, even occasionally, deliver meaningful audiences, it might validate my infatuation. Alas, my most popular tweets averaged a click-through rate of about 1.7 percent, still quite near the rate of conversions on flash-media East Asian display ads. Without revealing numbers that will get me in trouble with my bosses, I concluded that my prodigious use of Twitter in the last 30 days has cumulatively driven less traffic to than one of my below-average stories.


It’s fair to come away from these metrics thinking that Twitter is worthless. But that’s an unsophisticated conclusion. The more sophisticated takeaway is that Twitter is worthless for the limited purpose of driving traffic to your website, because Twitter is not a portal for outbound links, but rather a homepage for self-contained pictures and observations. (The irony is that the more journalists consider Twitter a portal, the better Twitter becomes as a home for other people to stay, including other journalists.)

With this in mind I went and looked at the stats page for this blog. A grand total of 0.43% of all its views were referred by twitter. I get a relatively larger amount from Facebook. However, much to surprise, it transpires that the biggest source of views here are not social media at all but search engines. A fact I have no idea what to make of.

The democracy that fought with the Nazis

We tend to think of the Second World War as a battle between good and evil. For Finland (and even for Finnish Jews) things weren’t that simple.

A meeting between Hitler and the Finnish PM Risto Ryti


I wrote a post a few weeks ago about Simo Häyhä AKA ‘the White Death’, a Finnish sniper who killed more than 500 Soviet soldiers during the Winter War. As this was a topic people seemed keen to read about I thought I would look a bit more at the history surrounding his career.

The Winter War

Häyhä’s war seems pretty straightforwardly just. The Nazi-Soviet pact placed Finland within the Soviet sphere, and in 1939 Stalin sent the Red Army to try and conquer the Nordic country. This lead to what was known as the Winter War. It was not the Red Army’s finest hour. Its officer class had been decimated by Stalin’s purges and the invasion force was mainly composed of troops from subtropical parts of the Ukraine. It was thus horridly unprepared for fighting in the Arctic winter. As a result tiny Finland held off the massive Soviet Union for months and inflicted huge losses on them. Häyhä was thus part of the army of a small democratic nation trying to avoid being swallowed by a totalitarian state that had killed more people than any other in history.

It was thus natural that democratic nations would look to come to Finland’s aid. Britain and France planned to send their own troops to help the Finns. However, Finland and Sweden did not want those soldiers passing through territory, lest this provoke Soviet or German retaliation. With no way to get the troops there the plan was shelved before finally abandoned when in March 1941 the Finns and Soviets made a peace treaty.

For all the Red Army’s travails in Finland, its formidable manpower allowed it to wear the Finns down and force them to relinquish territory to the USSR.

Nonetheless, before the Second World War was over the British military would see action in Finland. But it would not be there not to defend but to attack Finland.

The Continuation War

In 1941, the Finns got their revenge. Hitler had resolved to attack the USSR and the Germans wanted Finnish assistance. Still stung by their defeat and suspicious of the Soviet’s future intentions, the Finns agreed not only that their troops would participate in Operation Barbarossa but that German units could be based in the country.

These attacks, like the rest of German invasion, were initially highly successful. Finland recaptured its lost territory and indeed even went beyond its old borders. The Finnish Army formed part of the forces encircling Leningrad.

“Leningrad Siege May 1942 – January 1943” by Memnon335bc – Own work by uploader, simplified work based on map 28 from the M. M. Minasjan/ M. L. Altgowsen (u.a.): Die Geschichte des Großen Vaterländischen Krieges der Sowjetunion, Bd.2, Deutscher Militärverlag, Berlin (Ost) 1965. (Kartenband). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


This lead to Britain declaring war on Finland and launching airstrikes on the Finnish navy. Which is one of the clearest refutations there is of the notion that became inexplicably popular in the 1990s and 2000s that ‘no two democracies have ever gone to war’.

This would not, however, be the strangest alignment to emerge out of what became known as ‘the Continuation War’. There were about 300 Jewish soldiers in the Finnish armed forces. So with Finland’s entry into the war these men found themselves fighting alongside the soldiers of the most Anti-Semitic state ever to exist.

While this fact seems to have been pretty uncomfortable for all involved, Finnish help was sufficiently important to the Nazis that they were prepared to overlook this obvious contradiction. If a German soldier encountered a Finn of a higher rank then they were expected to salute them even if they were Jewish. Indeed, one of the 300 actually won an Iron Cross almost certainly the only Jew to receive that award during World War II.

However, the momentum on the eastern front eventually shifted against the Axis. As a result, Finland found itself on the defensive. By this stage the Finns desperately needed weapons to defend themselves against the Soviet advances into their territory. The Finnish president Risto Ryti offered Hitler a personal guarantee that if Germany resupplied his country, they would not seek peace with the Soviets. After the weapons were delivered, he resigned and his successor negotiated an armistice.


This wasn’t to be the end of Finland’s conflict. The terms of the peace with Soviet Union required the Finns to eject the remaining German forces from their country. This became known by probably the most charming name of any conflict ever: the Lapland War.

Even once they had been taken care of that, there was still to be unpleasantness. The Soviets demanded that Ryti and nine other senior members of the government and military be prosecuted for having caused the war. These prosecutions were of such dubious legality that a constitutional amendment was required to bring them. Nonetheless, the still popular Ryti spent a decade in prison and during this time his health failed.

The dubious legality of this aside the question remains of the moral culpability of Ryti, his government and indeed the Finnish nation.

Apparently Finns emphatically state that they were not allies with Germany but ‘co-belligerents’. The implication is that they fought not for Germany but against their mutual enemy the Soviets.

It is also true that when Himmler asked the Finnish PM about the country’s Jewish community, he was told “Finland has no Jewish problem”.

It also managed to preserve its independence (though not its territorial integrity) and in so doing was able to avoid succumbing to communist rule like its Baltic neighbours did. That allowed it to become the prosperous, peaceful social democracy we know today.

That, however, came at a price. Finland’s actions probably allowed German forces to reach further into the USSR than they would otherwise have been and then to hold out against defeat for longer. As the Eastern Front saw the most brutal fighting and was home to the gas chambers this is likely to have resulted in a substantial body count.

We are used to thinking of the morality of WWII as fairly black and white. Finland’s experience shows that it was not. Finland had nothing but wretched choices open to it. This is worth bearing in mind when one hears commentators prognosticating about the complexity of the current global system or the loss of the simple binaries of past ages. The world has always been complicated and in every age people are confronted with lousy choices. It is only obvious in hindsight that Britain should carry have carried on fighting after the fall of France. And even with hindsight it is difficult to judge Finland’s choices.