Yes, the Armenian genocide was just that, says Ronald Suny’s new book

Suny jacketApril 24th marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the Armenian genocide, the first genocide of the 20th century, though lesser-known, and more contested than other crimes against humanity that followed. Ronald Suny’s “They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else”: A History of the Armenian Genocide claims that the massacres did indeed constitute genocide, and chronicles the human catastrophe through eyewitness accounts and archival documents. The end result is a deeply researched narrative history of how and why the atrocities were committed. The Sunday Times writes, “Suny is admirably dispassionate in explaining the particular circumstances that led the Ottoman government to embark on a policy of mass extermination…”

Check out this video where Suny, Charles Tilly Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, gives an overview of the genocide’s history, Turkey’s denial, and his own Armenian family’s experience:

Q&A with Linda Fowler, author of Watchdogs on the Hill

Fowler jacket

Linda Fowler is the author of the new release, Watchdogs on the Hill: The Decline of Congressional Oversight of U.S. Foreign Relations. Recently she answered some questions about the book’s contribution, her writing process, and why domestic influences in international affairs is such an important and overlooked topic.

What inspired you to get into your field?

LF: I worked on Capitol Hill right after graduating from college at a time when Congress was in disarray.  The country was tearing itself apart over the Vietnam War, and lawmakers appeared helpless to deal with the upheaval.  Octogenarians dominated the leadership in both chambers, creating opportunities for President Nixon to push the bounds of the Constitution with seeming impunity.  Once I started graduate school I wanted to better understand how the world’s most powerful legislature had ended up in such a sorry state.  I was unimaginably fortunate that one of the nation’s most distinguished congressional scholars became my teacher and mentor.  Richard Fenno taught me to see the democratic possibilities in Congress, to take a longer view about its imperfections, and to focus on close observation of the people who shape it through their daily actions.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing this book? 

LF: I learned that Congress had done a better job overseeing U.S. foreign policy since the start of the Cold War than most political observers acknowledged, but that since the mid-1990s, the institution has performed poorly in light of historical norms.  At first glance, this pattern seemed paradoxical:  why would lawmakers have been more effective monitoring the executive during a time when fears of nuclear war generated enormous pressures to defer to the White House regarding national security?  The answer eluded me until I began to focus on changes inside the Senate that devalued committee work.  When legislative craft and expertise mattered less to individual member’s success, they spent less time on committee hearings and thus diminished their capacity for oversight of the president.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

LF: The book demonstrates that the seemingly arcane business conducted by legislative committees matters a great deal in how well Congress fulfills its constitutional responsibilities in foreign affairs.  In an era in which commentators focus on the personality of the president and his conflicts with critics, the findings of the remind us why the framers put their faith in institutions, not individuals.  The unique research design of the study combines in-depth analysis of the content of committee hearings; lengthy time series from 1947-2008; investigation of both public and secret sessions; and detailed case studies.  Together, the different facets of the project enabled me to clearly identify trends and the reasons behind them, while grounding the analysis in real-world events.

What was the best piece of advice you ever received?

LF: Early in my career, when I was struggling with my first book, someone told me to stop fussing over the introduction and go back to it once I had the individual pieces of the story.   It is advice I have followed ever since.

What was the biggest challenge involved with bringing this book to life? 

LF: I found it most challenging to create a coherent narrative that did justice to the complexity of the topic, the wide variety of historical data, and the use of both statistical and qualitative tools of analysis.

Why did you write this book? 

LF: In 2004, I had just finished a long stint in an administrative position at Dartmouth and was looking to reinvent myself as a scholar by undertaking a new project.  Several articles in the news that spring caught my attention because they quoted members of the House of Representatives publicly scolding two of the Senate’s most distinguished members, Foreign Relation’s chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Armed Services chairman John Warner (R-VA), for scheduling oversight hearings of President Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq. In the past, such pointed challenges would have been unthinkable, given the Senate’s prestige in foreign affairs.  I wanted to discover whether the Senate’s prime national security watchdogs had lost influence and, if so, what reasons lay behind the change.

Who do you see as the audience for this book? 

LF: Scholars have paid comparatively little attention to the subject of Congress and foreign policy: congressional experts focus primarily on lawmaking, while foreign policy specialists tend to overlook domestic influences in international affairs.  My objective was to redirect the attention of both camps by showing that oversight was an integral part of the legislative process and key to the rule of law and democratic accountability in war and peace.  Despite the scholarly focus, I wanted to make the book interesting to students, journalists, and people generally interested in American politics. So, I worked hard to make it accessible by using case studies to illustrate the main arguments, avoiding jargon, and burying the technical material in appendices.

How did you come up with the title or jacket? 

LF: A major theme of the book is that Congress needs to do better in overseeing U.S. foreign affairs, so I wanted a cover that conveyed both gravity and urgency.  The bold lettering of the title, the yellow color of the subtitle and the photograph of the famous hearings in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by chairman William Fulbright (D-AR), during the Vietnam War convey those messages.

#NewBooks

Books released during the week of April 13, 2015

Among this week’s new releases is a big one for classics buffs, Josiah Ober’s The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, one of Flavorwire’s 10 must-read academic books for 2015. You can read Chapter 1 here. Also out is Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs by Lauren A. Rivera, which goes behind the closed doors of top-tier investment banks, consulting firms, and law firms to reveal the truth about who really has a chance at scoring the nation’s highest-paying entry level jobs. If you think, like many Americans, that working hard is the path to upward mobility, guess again. As Mitchell Stevens, author of Creating a Class writes, “Rivera shows how educational stratification in the United States is particularly pronounced and caste-like at the gateway to elite professions, and how the boundary between elite colleges and the elite firms that recruit from them is so fuzzy as to be only ceremonial.” Read Chapter 1 here.

New in Hardcover

Modern Observational Physical Oceanography Pedigree
The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece Teaching Plato in Palestine

New in Paperback

The Great Mother

Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson

Today marks the birthday of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the third U.S. president. Princeton University Press has been publishing The Papers of Thomas Jefferson since 1950.  To celebrate the birthday of this talented writer and politician who once said, “I cannot live without books”, we have compiled a political science book list.

The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It
Jason Weeden & Robert Kurzban

The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind digs into how self-interest divides the public on hot-button issues.Weeden and Robert Kurzban explain to readers how people form political positions.”The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind is provocative and often persuasive…Weeden and Kurzban remind us that self-interest is a complicated concept.” –Glenn C. Altschuler, Huffington Post

Read Chapter 1

American Insecurity American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction
Adam Seth Levine

Adam Levine analyzes the reasoning behind how increasing threat to financial well-being leads to political inaction. He explains when people need money, those who care about the issues but are not personally affected get involved.”Levine provides evidence that financially anxious people respond to their stress not by grouping together for action but by becoming less generous with their checkbooks and personal time.” — Pacific Standard

Read Chapter 1

The Loneliness of the Black Republican The Loneliness of the Black Republican: Pragmatic Politics and the Pursuit of Power
Leah Wright Rigueur

The Loneliness of the Black Republican looks at the ideas of black Republicans from the era of the New Deal to Ronald Reagan’s presidential ascent in 1980. The book serves to provide an understanding of the interaction between African Americans and the Republican Party.”The Loneliness of the Black Republican is meticulous, well-crafted, and consistently astute about the fractious recent history of the Grand Old Party.” — Artur Davis, Weekly Standard

Read the Introduction

The Birth of Politics The Birth of Politics: Eight Greek and Roman Political Ideas and Why They Matter
Melissa Lane

Melissa Lane introduces the reader to the foundations of Western political thought, from the Greeks, who invented democracy, to the Romans, who created a republic and then transformed it into an empire. The book brings to light that the birth of politics was a story as much of individuals as ideas.”The political ideas of the ancients still endure-and still propel us into debate and even more vigorous conflict…[T]he author successfully illuminates the political ideas that still perplex and divide us.” –Kirkus Reviews

Read the Introduction

k10373[1] The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 41: 11 July to 15 November 1803
Thomas Jefferson
Edited by Barbara B. Oberg

This volume of Thomas Jefferson’s papers is about the Louisiana Purchase.

Browse Princeton’s series of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson

Read Chapter 1

The Shape of the New The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World
Scott L. Montgomery & Daniel Chirot

The Shape of the New looks at Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Darwin, and Karl Marx as heirs of the Enlightenment. Montgomery & Chirot note that it is impossible to understand the political conflicts of our own time without digging into the history of our country.”The Shape of the New is an ambitious book and a joy to read. The scholarship is brilliant. In contextualizing the great ideas of modern history, Montgomery and Chrot provide a holistic framework with which to understand the process of social change and ideological conflict.” — Paul Froese, coauthor of America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God-and What That Says about Us

Read the Introduction

 Thinking about the Presidency Thinking About the Presidency: The Primacy of Power
William G. Howell
With David Milton Brent
With a new preface by the author

William Howell examines the key aspects of executive power-political and constitutional origins, philosophical underpinnings, manifestations in contemporary political life, implications for political reform, and looming influences over the standards to which we hold those individuals elected to America’s highest office. In a new preface, Howell reflects on presidential power during the presidency of Barack Obama.”As one who served in the White House, I know something about the demands and dimensions of the modern presidency. In Thinking about the Presidency, William Howell contributes new and valuable insights into how the role has evolved, and what it means for our country.” –David Axelrod, former senior adviser to President Barack Obama

Read Chapter 1

Christopher Bail on anti-Muslim sentiment

In this clip from the documentary aftertheshooting.com, sociologist and author Christopher Bail discusses whether the sea change in American public opinion about Islam over the past few years may have contributed to the recent murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. His recent book, Terrified, employs computer analytics techniques to show how anti-Muslim organizations have gained visibility in the public sphere. In this clip, Bail speaks with a close friend of one of the victims. You can watch the entire documentary here.

Last month, Bail spoke with Paul Rosenberg at Salon about his innovative new methodology for studying how fear is fostered in the broader cultural landscape. He was interviewed about the aftermath of the Chapel Hill shootings in the Guardian earlier this year.

Celebrate Passover with “Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts”

Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illustrated Manuscripts edited by Marc Michael Epstein, the Mattie M. Paschall (1899) and Norman Davis Chair of Religion and Visual Culture at Vassar College, provides the first full survey of Jewish illuminated manuscripts—from hand illustrated versions of the Bible, to beloved Jewish texts, to marriage documents—ranging from their origins in the Middle Ages to the present day. The illustrations are magnificent. As Passover is occurring now through Saturday, Marc Epstein provided us background on a handful of particularly arresting images. More information on Passover can be found here, and you can read chapter one here.

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Miriam and the daughters of Israel singing at the shore of the Red Sea. Haggadah. ("The Golden Haggadah"). Spain, Barcelona, c. 1320. London, British Library, MS Add. 27210, fol. 15r.

Seder scene. Haggadah (The Brother Haggadah). Catalonia, third quarter of the 14th century. London, British Library, MS Add. Or. 1404, fol. 8v.

Family and Moorish servant at the Seder table. The first significant treatment medieval Jewish book arts focused on this manuscript, which as still to yield up many of its mysteries. Haggadah. (The Sarejevo Haggadah). Spain, Catalonia, c. 1350. Bosnia and Hercegovnia, Sarajevo, Zemaljski Museum, ms 1, fol. 31v. CLEARED FOR USE.

Moses and Aaron before Pharaoh. Spatial and figural renderings of the sort labeled by some scholars as "primitive." Haggadah (The Hispano-Moresque Haggadah). Spain, Castile, ca. 1300. London, British Library, MS Or. 2737, fol. 74v.

Death of the Egyptian firstborn and the Exodus. Haggadah (The Golden Haggadah). Spain, Barcelona, ca. 1320. London, British Library, MS Add. 27210, fol. 14v, c and d.

"We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt." The lower margin and central illustration depicts the slaving Israelites, while at top, a hare is served a drink by a dog, perhaps articulating the wish that "one day the Egyptian dogs will serve us." Haggadah. ("The Barcelona Haggadah"). Spain, Barcelona, c. 1340. London, British Library, MS add. 14761, fol. 30v.

Israelites building store-cities for Pharaoh. Haggadah illustrated by Joseph Bar David of Leipnick, Moravia. Germany, Altona, 1740. London, British Library, MS Sloane 3173, fol. 11v.

Barbara Wolff. "The gods." The ancient Egyptian religion centered on the idea of birth, death, and rebirth in an afterlife. Just as the people daily life depended on the annual flooding and receding of the waters of the Nile, the Egyptian pantheon of many gods guided and protected all aspects of nature and human existence. From a relatively early time, haggadot have included archaeological details, with lesser or (as here) greater degrees of accuracy. There is a certain irony, it must be admitted, in depicting the very gods that are described as being "judged" and obviated by God in Exodus and in the text of the haggadah, as if perpetuating the memory of that which we are enjoined to forget. Daniel and Joanna S. Rose Haggadah, 2013, 19.

Barbara Wolff. "In Remembrance" On the night of "Broken Glass" (Kristallnacht 9-10 November 1938), over a thousand synagogues were looted and burned in Germany, Austria, and Poland. Jewish shops were smashed, many Jews were killed, and over thirty thousand taken to concentration camps. It marked the beginning of the Holocaust in which over seven million Jews perished. Barbara Wolff's illumination calls on us to remember this dark chapter of Jewish history by incorporating images of several of the synagogues that were attacked. The traditional text, "Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know you," is supplemented with a text calling upon God to pour out "love upon the nations that know You." This prayer was allegedly discovered in a beautiful haggadah manuscript on parchment dated 1521, which had been lost during the Holocaust, but this story seems, unforutnately to have been a fabrication, the prayer having been composed around 1928 by Rabbi Bloch (1881-c. 1970). Still, the sentiment is a beautiful one, and Block's prayer is worth translating: "Pour out your love on the nations that know You and on the kingdoms that call Your name. For the good which they do for the seed of Jacob, and [the manner in which] they shield Your people Israel from their enemies. May they merit to see the good of Your chosen, and to rejoice in the joy of Your nation. Daniel and Joanna S. Rose Haggadah, 2013, 38.

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Michael Chwe explains common knowledge, and why it matters to Mark Zuckerberg

Michael Chwe for UCOMM - 130321Michael Chwe, whose book, Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge has, in his words, “made its way out of the backwaters of course syllabi” to catch the attention of Mark Zuckerberg, had a terrific piece on the Monkey Cage blog of the Washington Post explaining exactly what common knowledge is, and why it’s so important. According to Chwe, common knowledge is generated by large scale social media platforms like Facebook, and this matters because of the many ways it can be leveraged, among them, stopping violence against women, and helping to foster collective political action.

From his piece on the Washington Post:

When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg chose my book “Rational Ritual” last week for his “A Year of Books” book club, I was surprised. “Rational Ritual” came out in 2001, and has somehow slowly made its way out of the backwaters of course syllabi into the elevated spheres of technology companies. This is gratifying to me, because even though it is a scholarly book published by a university press, “Rational Ritual” is essentially a popularization.

“Rational Ritual” tries to popularize the concept of “common knowledge” as defined by the philosopher David Lewis and the sociologist Morris Friedell in 1969. A fact or event is common knowledge among a group of people if everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows it, everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows it, and so on.

When I was a graduate student in economics in the late 1980s, most people considered common knowledge as an idea of only theoretical interest. People who thought about collective action (and its flip side, political repression) were mostly interested in the problem of free riding, rather than how people communicate. But social change isn’t just about tackling incentives to free ride – it’s also a problem of coordination.

Read the rest here.

Recently, Michael Chwe, a master of interdisciplinary applications for otherwise “rarified mathematical theories” has been particularly active in exploring how game theory can help curb sexual violence. Check out his piece on the topic on the PBS Newshour blog here. His recent Q&A with Facebook Books is up here.

Celebrate National Poetry Month with Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop

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Author photo by Phoebe

Author photo by Phoebe Ling

In the first entry in this month’s National Poetry Month (#npm15) blog series, we are proud to feature Colm Tóibín’s On Elizabeth Bishop, the latest title in the Writers on Writers series. Irish novelist, critic, and playwright Tóibín is both a fan of and known as a master of subtle language (as evidenced by his selection of Henry James’s The Golden Bowl as current host of The Wall Street Journal Book Club), so it is apt that he considers the famously enigmatic American poet Bishop among one of his lasting literary influences.

Tóibín discovered Bishop in his teens and brought her Selected Poems in his suitcase to Barcelona (the setting of his first novels The South and Homage to Barcelona). He offers a personal and incisive introduction to Bishop’s life and work. Spanning her poetry, biography, letters, and prose works, Tóibín creates a beautiful and complex picture of Bishop while also revealing how her work has shaped his sensibility as a writer and how her experiences of loss and exile resonate with his own relationships to place, memory, and language.

Tampa Bay TiToibin_OnElizabethBishopmes book editor Colette Bancroft recently selected On Elizabeth Bishop as one of her notable prose books on poetry. Kirkus Reviews writes that Tóibín’s book is “[a]n admiring critical portrait of a great American poet and a master of subtlety….An inspiring appreciation from one writer to another.” A Starred Review in Publishers Weekly reads, “Novelist Tóibín gives an intimate and engaging look at Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and its influence on his own work. . . . Whether one is familiar with Bishop’s life and work or is looking to Tóibín to learn more, this book will appeal to many readers.” At the Arts Fuse, Lloyd Schwartz calls it “a particularly welcome addition to the Princeton University Press Writers on Writers series. . . . [F]ew critics have dealt more revealingly than Tóibin with Bishop’s habitual illusion of ‘spontaneous’ self-correction, her process of thinking aloud on the page.” Across the pond, poet Eavan Boland writes in the Irish Times:

[C]ritical method at its best….Unorthodox, original and deeply effective….The close mesh between Tóibín’s growth as a writer and Bishop’s journey as a poet, the eloquent mirroring of place and displacement, and above all the openness to a poet’s language, a poet’s truth put this among the best books on poetry I have read in years. I have no doubt it will become an essential text on her work.

Read the first chapter of On Elizabeth Bishop on the PUP site. You can also read eleven of Bishop’s poems, including “One Art” and “The Fish,” at the Academy of American Poets site.

Don’t forget that this year’s Poem in Your Pocket Day is coming up at the end of the month (April 30; #pocketpoem). Which of Bishop’s poems would you want to carry around in your pocket to share with friends and family?

Madness in Civilization

Madness in Civilization is a stunningly illustrated new cultural history of mental disturbance from antiquity to the present time.  Written by Andrew Scull, professor of sociology at University of California, San Diego and preeminent historian of psychiatry, the book’s mesmerizing subject matter ranges from exorcisms to Victorian asylums, from pharmacology to the introduction of psychiatry into popular culture. The Telegraph called it “ambitious and gruesome”, and the book has received wonderful write-ups in The Literary Review and The Financial Times. Scull has been blogging for Psychology Today as well, where he shares insights on his fascinating and frightening work. Check out chapter 1 here, and a slide show of some of the book’s most compelling images:

Types of Insanity
The Tranquilizer, 1811
Maniac in a strait-jacket, in a French asylum.
Battle Creek Sanitarium
Battle Creek Sanitarium
The first stage of General Faradization
The second stage of General Faradization
The third stage of General Faradization
Attitudes passionelles: extase (1878)
Advert for the psychiatric drug Thorazine
Depression Advertisement
Murder of Thomas Becket
Franz Joseph Gall examining the head of a pretty young girl
Hieronymus Bosch's The Cure of the Folly
Nebuchadnezzar as a wild animal
No Sex Please! (We're on antidepressants)

'Types of Insanity,' the frontispiece to John Charles Bucknill and Daniel Hack Tucke's A Manual of Psychological Medicine (1858), one of the first widely used textbooks on the diagnosis and treatment of insanity. Wellcome Library, London.

The Tranquilizer, 1811. Its inventor Benjamin Rush boasted that: "Its effects have been truly delightful to me." His patients' reactions are not recorded. Courtesy of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Maryland

The French alienist J.-E.D. Equirol included many drawings of insane patients in the throes of their madness, such as this one, in his treatise Des Maladies mentales, published in 1938. Wellcome Library, London.

Photography at the Battle Creek Sanitarium, one of many therapies on offer there. 271

A postcard of the Battle Creek Sanitarium, for affluent and nervous patients. By 1933 it had been forced into receivership, a causality of the Great Depression. The Tichnor Brothers Collection, Boston Public Library.

Treatment with an electrical vibrator (1900); a nurse applies faradic current to a female patient. Wellcome Library, London.

Treatment with an electrical vibrator (1900); a nurse applies faradic current to a female patient. Wellcome Library, London.

Treatment with an electrical vibrator (1900); a nurse applies faradic current to a female patient. Wellcome Library, London.

The erotic overtones of Charcot’s pictures of his hysterical patients at the Salpêtrière are nowhere more obvious than here. Harvey Cushing/John Jay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University, New Haven.

An early advertisement for the virtues of Thorazine, touting its value in curbing the agitated husband's inclination to beat his wife. Wellcome Library, London.

Depressed? We have the solution! An advertisement for 'mother's little helper' - a pill for the housewife trapped in a prison of domesticity. Harvey Cushing/John Jay Whitney Medical Library, Yale University, New Haven.

A vivid portrayal of the murder of Thomas Becket, from a mid-thirteenth century codex. The saint's blood was thought to cure insanity, blindness, leprosy, and deafness, not to mention a host of other aliments. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.

Franz Joseph Gall examines the head of an attractive young woman, while three gentlemen wait their turns to have their own characters read, in a satirical image published in 1825. Wellcome Library, London.

Hieronymus Bosch’s The Cure of the Folly: The Extraction of the Stone of Madness (c. 1494). A doctor, possibly a quack, uses a scalpel to remove the supposed cause of madness from the head of the patient. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Nebuchadnezzar as a wild animal, his hair grown long and his nails like claws. This striking image of the biblical story of the Babylonian king’s madness is a detail from a manuscript painted by an unknown artist in Regensburg, Germany. Paul J. Getty Museum, Los Angeles (Ms. 33, fol. 215v)

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Math Drives Careers: Author Ignacio Palacios-Huerta

Logical thinking, analytical skills, and the ability to recognize patterns are crucial in an array of fields that overlap with mathematics, including economics. But what does math (or economics, for that matter) have to do with the world’s most popular sport? Economist Ignacio Palacios-Huerta’s recent book, Beautiful Game Theory: How Soccer Can Help Economics  made a splash during the last World Cup, showing how universal economic principles can be understood through soccer. Read on for his thoughts on why the language of modern economics, including behavioral economics, is mathematics.

The Role of Mathematics in my Life as an Economist

To describe the role of mathematics in my life as an economist, I first need to explain what, to me, Economics is all about. So let me take you to one of my favorite books, A Treatise of Human Nature, written almost 300 years ago by David Hume.

Beautiful Game TheoryIn the introduction Hume writes, “‘Tis evident that all the sciences have a relation, more or less, to human nature … Even Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, and Natural Religion, are in some measure dependent on the science of Man, [which is] the only solid foundation for the other sciences”. By the science of man Hume means the understanding of all facets of human nature, including preferences, senses, passions, imagination, morality, justice, and society. This science applies wherever men are making decisions, be it running public institutions or countries, as employees in firms, or as individuals investing in education, taking risks in financial markets, or making family decisions. This science of man is thus what one may initially be tempted to call Economics for, as George Bernard Shaw puts it in my favorite definition, “Economy is the art of making the most of life”.

But of course this definition is incomplete because other social sciences (e.g., sociology, history, psychology, political science) are also concerned with human behavior. So what makes Economics “different”? Here is the difference: the difference is not the subject matter but the approach. The approach is totally different, and a very mathematical one. As such, mathematics plays a critical role in the life of any economist.

Let me elaborate. Continuing with Hume, it turns out that he also anticipated our methodological approach in modern Economics: observation and logical arguments. Which can be translated as: data and data analysis (what we call econometrics), and mathematics, for mathematics is, after all, the language of logic. So in Economics, as in physics, we write down our ideas and theories in mathematical terms to make logical arguments, and then we use more math (statistical, econometrics, etc) to check whether the data appear to be consistent with the theoretical arguments. If they are, the evidence can be said to support the theory; if they aren’t, the theory needs to be refined or discarded. Yes, lots of math and related techniques provide what is our distinct “economics approach to human behavior.” It is not the subject matter but the approach that is different, and it heavily relies on mathematics.

To economists and other social scientists, mathematics has many methodological virtues: it can lend precision to theories, can uncover inconsistencies, can generate hypothesis, can enable concision and promote intelligibility, and can sort out complex interactions, while statistical and econometric analysis can organize and carefully interpret voluminous data.

None of this is obvious when you begin studying Economics (“Why should I take all this math, statistics and econometrics? Why all this pain?”). But I think most of us soon learn to appreciate that the language of modern economics is mathematics, and that it is rightly so. And this is not math for the sake of math (as in pure mathematics), but math with a purpose: modeling human behavior.

Let me conclude by saying that since the economic approach is applicable to all human behavior, any type of data about human activity can be useful to evaluate economic theories. This includes, why not, sports data, which in many ways can be just perfect for testing economic theories: the data are abundant, the goals of the participants are clear, the outcomes are easy to observe, the stakes are high, and the subjects are professionals with experience. If a theory is “correct”, sport is a good setting to check it.

So just as data involving falling stones and apples were useful to Galileo Galilei and  Isaac Newton to test for the first time theories that were important in physics, data from sports can be useful in Economics to do exactly the same. As such in some of my contributions to Economics I have used math to develop theoretical models, and further mathematical tools applied to this type of data to test them.

Mark Zuckerberg chooses Michael Chwe’s RATIONAL RITUAL for Facebook Books!

Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge by Michael Chwe has been selected by none other than Mark Zuckerberg as the latest pick in his “Year of Books.” Analyzing rituals across histories and cultures, Rational Ritual shows how a single and simple concept, common knowledge, holds the key to the coordination of any number of actions, from those used in advertising to those used to fuel revolutions.

From Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post:

The book is about the concept of “common knowledge” and how people process the world not only based on what we personally know, but what we know other people know and our shared knowledge as well.

This is an important idea for designing social media, as we often face tradeoffs between creating personalized experiences for each individual and crafting universal experiences for everyone. I’m looking forward to exploring this further.

Zuckerberg isn’t the first to take note of Michael Chwe’s talent for making unusual and intriguing connections. As Virginia Postrel wrote in the New York Times, “[His] work, like his own academic career, bridges several social sciences.” Not long ago his book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist created a stir on social media, triggering debates and garnering a hugely popular feature by Jennifer Schuessler.

A Q&A with Chwe will be coming out on Facebook Books in the coming weeks. In the meantime, head over to Facebook to comment on Rational Ritual, or follow the discussion.  Congratulations, Michael Chwe!

Zimmerman talks sex education at the American Enterprise Institute

Zimmerman jacket

Too Hot to Handle by Jonathan Zimmerman

Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education is shaping up to be one hot book for spring. A long format conversation with author Jonathan Zimmerman recently appeared in Globe and Mail, and he was interviewed (live and available to stream) for WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show. Zimmerman published “Can Sex Ed be Universal?” in Foreign Affairs, the book was excerpted on PopMatters.com, and was the subject of a feature on Vox.com as well.

This past Thursday, the American Enterprise Institute hosted a conversation with Zimmerman. Taking a look at the differences in sex education between countries and throughout history, he explains how, as countries become more democratic, sex education has become more contentious.

Check out Zimmerman’s American Enterprise Institute talk here.