Monday, April 26, 2010

Peak Fundamentalism

Percent Maximum Fundamentalism & TRB Posts

A recent pilot study attempted to quantify a fundamentalism construct in Universal House of Justice (UHJ) membership over time (1963-2010). The present chart adds the peak in talk.relgion.bahai (TRB) posts in 2004, about twelve years after peak fundamentalism.

Gosh. That is one half a generation among humans; hundreds of generations in my species (house mouse). What does it all mean?

1. As previously reported, the blue chart dots show a composite variable (UHJ Member Index) used as a preliminary estimate of fundamentalism among the membership. That is, it has no necessary relation to UHJ statements, rulings or policies as such. Indeed, I concluded that the Index -- a purely conceptual variable derived from third-party data (TRB), was actually showing NSA voter sentiment changes over time. As such, the surprise was not the Index rise (1987-1993), but rather its dramatic crash (2000-2010). In short, I concluded that fundamentalism was rapidly loosing favor among NSA voters, who elect the UHJ.

2. Being an incurable optimist, I was encouraged to find something unexpected and perhaps not fully noticed and applauded by many liberal commentators on Baha'i matters -- the collapse of fundamentalism sentiment (2000-2010).

3. While the source data (TRB) is admittedly noisy, it did provide an operational definition independent of any bias on my part or that of a group of experts I might have selected to rate UHJ members, past and present. An obvious critique of the results charted is that they are totally trivial. Namely, it goes up when perceived controversial members are elected and down when they retire.

While professors often dwell on trivia in search of pearls of wisdom, please consider what might have happened in the five most recent UHJ elections (2000-2010). NSA voters could have elected equally or more fundamentalist members; but they did not.

4. In retrospect, the observed change in NSA voter sentiment makes sense. Having participated in Baha'i communities myself since 1963 in several countries, as resident or visitor, I have not seen any particular interest in, or desire for, increased authoritarian, theocratic, anti-freedom persons or actions in the Baha'i community. In fact, among Baha'is, the UHJ, for example, was a non-issue -- the highest administrative body in the Baha'i Faith and as such, its rulings would obviously be final and binding (what else?). Nothing mysterious there. Everybody knows the buck stops somewhere.

In short, if it is true that the UHJ members do vary significantly over a fundamentalism-freedom dimension, as simple observation and the TRB result count for each member both suggest, then it seems clear that those toward the fundamentalist end of the spectrum have no market, no audience, at least in the Baha'i community I've known. Mingling among Baha'is at all sorts of meetings, I do not recall overhearing "Maybe a Hollywood celebrity should be the final and binding authority in the Baha'i community." Until there are 20, 40 or 80 thousand Baha'is saying something like that, there are definitely more pressing issues.

In fact, one has to consider whether some of the theocratic "do not think; just do as I say" rhetoric itself may have been damaging, given that such issues of authority and obedience regarding the administration are near the bottom of the priority list for the average Baha'i, struggling just to be a better person vis a vis the very high standards in the Baha'i teachings, and that most likely, many decades more will pass before the underlying ideas are more widely and better understood.

Why damaging? Well, every community has its fringe persons, with iconoclastic ideas which might seem strange or even be disruptive. A heavy authoritarian hand might actually increase disunity, while a moderate "we are all in the same boat" approach might be more appropriate if an outside person doing an intervention were to use a more 'Abdu'l-Baha model.

I fondly recall a presumed pilgrim's note cited by my teacher Dr. Daniel Jordan in the first days I was investigating the Baha'i Faith at the University of Chicago, as a newly arrived freshman. A pilgrim from the U.S. was said to have complained to 'Abdu'l-Baha in Palestine that the American Baha'is were doing too much back-biting.
Ending Number 1:
'Abdu'l-Baha pounded his fist on the table, the loud bang shocking the visiting pilgrim, saying, "I told them not to back-bite; don't they know my authority?"
Ending Number 2:
''Abdu'l-Baha smiled saying softly, "I went there, I taught them, but they just don't listen", shrugging his shoulders to suggest, "What can I do?"
The real story was Ending Number 2, of course. The same day I declared -- here was a loving, patient Center of the Covenant, knowing that perfection among humans takes time to attain.

5. Concerning my pilot study, Baquia writes in a comment:
The study you have conducted contains a fatal flaw. The quantity of messages and the amount of discussion in online discussion groups (talk.religion.bahai) tends to ebb and flow so when you see an in/decrease in the mention of something, you could very well be simply measuring the volume of the discussion in the group as a whole, by proxy.
Thanks for the review. With all due respect, I beg to differ. For each past and present UHJ member, the total results count for search member's name was used and this value was a constant, an attribute of the person, over the entire period of TRB activity. Thus, when the mentions occurred would not change the computed result for each election -- the sum of the nine member values. The only thing changing, is who served when, not the dates of TRB posts.

Indeed, let us say I handed you a list of all the past and present UHJ members and you alone made a fundamentalism rating, say, 0 to 10, for each. Those numbers then are the only input into the computed sums plotted -- UHJ Member Index. It would not matter when you did this rating, because once you did, those values would be treated as constants, an attribute (according to you) of each person.

Therefore, my use of the source database (TRB) was independent of any ebb and flow of the post volume.

Quite rightly, however, your TRB volume variable may be of interest and is plotted in pink/red in the chart above. There may be a rather dramatic story to tell:
The cards are dealt and Dr. Peter Khan is elected in 1987. TRB not even born yet. Meanwhile, alarmed chatter starts in other forums, as more and more intellectuals find their way onto the internet. Next it's Douglas Martin, and so forth. Approaching the end of the century, Baha'i authorities notice the rapidly rising pink line of TRB post volume, get upset stomachs when some of the posts are read, and scramble to full alert status. Then it's code red when fundamentalism had peaked (1993-1999), but horrors, the pink TRB line keeps rising into the new century.

Somebody says, "The Baha'i presence on the internet is getting slaughtered here", and at the peak of TRB post volume in 2004, the Baha'i Internet Agency is formed (purportedly by the UHJ, although I'm still waiting to get confirmation on that) and presto, wave the magic wand, free speech by individuals and groups of Baha'is is suddenly the new watch-word.
Baquia continues:
What you've done in essence is statistical sampling. And your sample is showing a decrease. But you need to normalize for a potential decrease in the total population to rule out the probability that this trend is reflecting that instead.
My take here (show me I'm wrong) is that the populations that I used are totally constant. First is the total number of TRB posts. Second is all past and present UHJ members.

Technically, "statistical sampling" was not used. Instead, I used the total population of TRB posts matching search result with the total population of UHJ members. There was no need to sample in either population, and there was no sampling, so such could not have shown a "decrease". The observed decrease in the UHJ Member Index is due only to changes in UHJ membership over time. When an investigator can get measurements from the whole population and thus does not need to sample, all the better since sampling error is absent from the results.

In sum, the most interesting result is perhaps the fall in fundamentalism starting in 2000, about five years before TRB posts peaked. This key fact almost forces attention beyond the two groups, TRB posters and UHJ members, toward a third group -- the NSA voters.

Indeed, the Pearson product-moment correlation between the percent maximum values for Member Index and TRB post volume from 1999 to 2010 (see Appendix), is 0.44, and its square, 0.19, indicates that only 19 percent of the variance of one accounts for the other. That is, over 80 percent of the variation of the UHJ Member Index is not related to TRB post volume in those years (and this, without considering the statistical significance, if any, of the correlation above). Baquia continues:
I'm not sure if you were active or lurking on trb at the 'peak' years (1999-2002) but the chart you've produced looks to be an accurate depiction of the total volume of posts.
For a time, I participated under a handle. Contrary to "accurate depiction", we see that the rise in Member Index precedes the TRB rise by many years. If anything, the direction of cause-and-effect is TRB activity reacting to the fundamentalism surge shown, rather than the other way around. Baquia continues:
Many people left the heated debates to start their own blogs or to other venues such as more moderated and focused online groups such as Talisman or Tarikh. And many others simply moved on to other interests.
...which is a good description of the post-2004 drop in TRB post volume. Baquia continues:
One way you could work around this flaw is to show the relative mention of a UHJ member. So for example, for each mention in a month or year, divide it by the total number of posts in that year/month. In this way you are factoring out the effect of the total volume of discussion.

This would be a lot of work and even after that, we're only left with a tenuous link to 'fundamentalism'. After all, these are public figures within the Baha'i community and it is natural for them to be mentioned in discussions. The nature of the discussion need not be a condemnation of 'fundamentalism' of course. It is more akin to a popularity index, if you will.
Yes, but I am not sure you have established any "flaw" as such, beyond it was a pilot study that could have included many other internet sources to perhaps reduce noise in the data, etc.

I do not understand the value of your "relative mention" idea, since the essence of the study design already controls for that, since the only variance of any interest was within-group, that is, among the past and present UHJ members. Each one has exactly the same "relative mention" since the same total population of posts was used for each. In short, there is nothing to normalize there. The "total volume of discussion" is a constant in the pilot study, much as the "total volume of thoughts in your head" might be, if you had done the ratings (instead of TRB posters), as described above.

On the other hand, Baquia, you may be perhaps pointing to a more refined or weighted composite variable than my Member Index, which was just a simple sum of numbers. Or even different methods which yield more precise findings and/or address different research questions.

As someone who has been there posting in TRB, believe it, the individual member result count was not even remotely a "popularity" rating in my study, which is precisely why the TRB database was chosen. My report recognized that many of the mentions would be favorable, but that this would probably be a negligible noise factor. Of course, anybody can go post by post and subtract out the favorable mentions to reduce that noise.

On the other hand, if one's favorite UHJ members seem to have a higher or lower count in the pilot study than one might want to see, not to worry. The study does not and could not evaluate these members as people -- they all are part of Baha'i history. They all have toiled for the Cause of Baha'u'llah. So the study simply tried, perhaps with some success, to quantify certain trends using an objectively defined method, so that others can repeat the work, if desired, to confirm or not the findings.
Regarding author disclosure, I have personal experiences with at least the following members: David Ruhe, Peter Khan, Douglas Martin and Glenford Mitchell. All are most friendly, charming persons. Some highlights. Peter and I were in the same community for years in Ann Arbor, MI, and you know the routine -- feasts in each others places, etc. I got to know Glenford quite well when we were both serving on the National Teaching Committee (NTC) in the U.S., I being the first "youth member", though treated equally by all. Of course, that leads to Dr. Ruhe, including all the joint NSA/NTC meetings, and in particular those times we traveled together for conferences calling for one member of each (NSA and NTC), not to mention the blanket which I still have he and wife Meg gave us at my first wedding at the House of Worship. I came to know Douglas at the Davidson Baha'i school and later, at BIC as a courtesy call, while I was in New York promoting "The Dawn-Breakers" film in the 1980's.
© 2010 James J Keene
Appendix:
Year, % Max UHJ Member Index & TRB Posts

1663  12  0
1964 12 0
1965 12 0
1966 12 0
1967 12 0
1968 12 0
1969 12 0
1970 12 0
1971 12 0
1972 12 0
1973 12 0
1974 12 0
1975 12 0
1976 12 0
1977 12 0
1978 12 0
1979 12 0
1980 12 0
1981 12 0
1982 15 0
1983 15 0
1984 15 0
1985 15 0
1986 15 0
1987 59 0
1988 74 0
1989 74 0
1990 74 0
1991 74 0
1992 74 0
1993 100 0
1994 100 0
1995 100 0
1996 100 0
1997 100 0
1998 100 0
1999 100 33 ;major TRB starts here
2000 90 25
2001 90 37
2002 90 72
2003 87 93
2004 87 100
2005 65 71
2006 65 35
2007 65 33
2008 62 24
2009 62 20
2010 27 15