Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The more complex the social system the more limited should be the prediction

From Quotation of the Day… by Don Boudreax.

Quoting F.A. Hayek:
There seems to me to be still much truth in the view that as we move from the comparatively simple phenomena of inanimate nature to the increasingly complex ones of life and society, we may have to become more modest in our aims and be content with results which are more limited in their predictive content than is the case in the physical sciences.

It is a good rule in life never to apologize.

A sound principle. From The Man Upstairs (1914) by P.G. Wodehouse.
It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.

Washe the Temples of your Heade often with Rose-Water

H/T Anne Althouse.

How to Improve Your Brain, 1596 by Elizabeth Archibald.

Here is the list of things good for the brain.
A Rule to knowe what thinges are good and holosome for the Braine.
To eate Sage, but not overmuch,
To drinke Wine measurablie,
To keepe the Head warme,
To washe your Hands often,
To heare litle noise of Musicke or Singers,
To eate Mustarde & Pepper,
To smell the sauour of Red-roses,
& to washe the Temples of your Heade often with Rose-Water.
Regrettably, cheese is on the list of things bad for the brain. How then to explain the high IQs of Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands?

And what's the business with the roses?

Monday, June 29, 2015

One more institution placing its trusted position in peril

In a book review of Climate Change: The Facts 2014, Matt Ridely in The Climate Wars’ Damage to Science provides a reasonably extensive listing of the frauds and scandals related to climate change research. Quite properly, his contention is not that climate change is not happening. Rather, the issue is that fraud and self-serving advocacy has so permeated the research arena in this area, that there is an enormous miasma of false information which makes rational and empirical decision-making virtually impossible.

As lengthy as his list is, it is not complete. Still, this too will pass away. Paul Ehrlich has been consistently wrong about population consequences for more than fifty years. There are still totalitarian exterminationists who subscribe to his beliefs but for all that, his arguments no longer hold sway.

Ridley does point out one consequence to this decades long climate change folderol, the democratization of science. When so many of the "scientists" are self-interested advocates, scientists from peripheral fields have come to the rescue as well as non-scientists with sharp minds and polymath interests.
There is, however, one good thing that has happened to science as a result of the climate debate: the democratisation of science by sceptic bloggers. It is no accident that sceptic sites keep winning the “Bloggies” awards. There is nothing quite like them for massive traffic, rich debate and genuinely open peer review. Following Steven McIntyre on tree rings, Anthony Watts or Paul Homewood on temperature records, Judith Curry on uncertainty, Willis Eschenbach on clouds or ice cores, or Andrew Montford on media coverage has been one of the delights of recent years for those interested in science. Papers that had passed formal peer review and been published in journals have nonetheless been torn apart in minutes on the blogs. There was the time Steven McIntyre found that an Antarctic temperature trend arose “entirely from the impact of splicing the two data sets together”. Or when Willis Eschenbach showed a published chart had “cut the modern end of the ice core carbon dioxide record short, right at the time when carbon dioxide started to rise again” about 8000 years ago, thus omitting the startling but inconvenient fact that carbon dioxide levels rose while temperatures fell over the following millennia.

Scientists don’t like this lèse majesté, of course. But it’s the citizen science that the internet has long promised. This is what eavesdropping on science should be like—following the twists and turns of each story, the ripostes and counter-ripostes, making up your own mind based on the evidence. And that is precisely what the non-sceptical side just does not get. Its bloggers are almost universally wearily condescending. They are behaving like sixteenth-century priests who do not think the Bible should be translated into English.
Ironically, this is somewhat akin to the early days of science in the 17th-19th centuries when amateur scientists, explorers and travellers were responsible for a goodly portion of the acquisition of new scientific knowledge. The specialization and professionalization of science may end up being a relatively brief interlude, with climate change being the catalyst for the movement of the informed public back in to science fields on almost equal footing with the professionals.

In forecasting, groups of informed people usually perform much better than groups of experts. The experts overweight information with which they are familiar (overweighting by discounting uncertainties) and underweighting contextual information. Groups of informed people do a much better job of weighting all factors appropriately and therefore come up with better (more accurate) forecasts. The climate change contretemp may end up demonstrating this phenomenon once again. Hopefully to the detriment of the specific advocates such as Michael Mann rather than to the detriment of the reputation of science as a whole. It is this latter possibility which has Ridley concerned.

Viva science and let's hope that this actually is a catalyst to a wider engagement with science rather than a public withdrawal from it (as yet one more institution not to be trusted).

Cognitive Pollution - Economics Edition

From Mythbusters by Don Boudreaux. Boudreaux provides a list of commonly held popular beliefs which he asserts have been roundly disproved. He acknowledges that, however solidly the stake has been driven through the heart of the belief, it usually rises again.
But as a myth-busting tool, economics is unsurpassed. Perhaps no other science or system of thought has ever busted as many myths as has economics. Yet also: perhaps no other myth-busting enterprise fails as consistently as does economics at convincing large number of people that the myths it busts are in fact busted myths. Acceptance of these myths is constantly reinforced by a combination of (1) innocent economic ignorance (fed, in part, by the above-mentioned great complexity of modern society), (2) not-so-innocent powerful political forces, and (3) a regrettable failure among economists, especially over the past half-century, to engage the public using plain language.
Here is his list of economic myths that he believes have been thoroughly disproved but which remain in circulation. In other words, cognitive pollution.
– the myth that the amount of wealth in the world is fixed (and, hence, that Jones’s gains from trade must have come at the expense of Smith or some Smiths);

– the myth that a higher population of human beings means lower average living standards for human beings;

– the myth that poverty (rather than wealth) has causes;

– the myth that Jones’s successful pursuit of self-interest necessarily harms – or, at the very least, does nothing to help – Smith or some Smiths;

– the myth that mutually consensual trade that occurs across political borders differs in some essential way from mutually consensual trade that occurs within political borders;

– the myth that international trade is a “competition” among nations;

– the myth that prices are arbitrary obstacles established by sellers, and which can be forcibly lowered in order to benefit buyers at the expense only of sellers; (put differently, the myth that a government policy of forcing the prices of goods and services down makes goods and services more accessible and less costly for buyers);

– the myth that wages are arbitrary stipends granted by employers to workers, and which can be forcibly raised in order to benefit sellers of labor (workers) either at no one’s expense or at the expense only of those who purchase labor either directly or indirectly;

– the myth that profits are an unjust and socially pointless (or even harmful) theft of property or value by entrepreneurs and business owners from workers, other suppliers, and consumers;

– the myth that the only, or even the main, costs that people endure in a modern economy are costs expressed in money prices;

– the myth that sustained inflations are caused by rising prices or by higher costs;

– the myth that money is wealth and that wealth is money;

– the myth that there are only a fixed number of jobs for humans to profitably perform;

– the myth that government officials generally have, relative to actors in private-property markets, superior incentives and knowledge to act to promote widespread economic prosperity;

– the myth that raising tax rates necessarily increases government revenues (and, likewise, that lowering tax rates necessarily decreases government revenues);

– the myth that violations of the rights of private-property owners harm only, or even just mostly, those people whose private-property rights are violated;

– the myth that workable, productive, and sustainable complex social orders must be the result of human design (or that human design can improve the workability, productivity, and sustainability of complex social orders).
I think it is interesting that there are many people who would actually agree with particular items on this list but then act in an opposite fashion.

Take, for example, the belief in the myth that we can design workable, productive, and sustainable complex social orders. I think most people would acknowledge that this is indeed a myth, that the world is too complex for us to effectively "design" an intervention with reliably predictable results. But as soon as something bad happens, those same people will whip around and design some pinpoint policy intervention to implement in order to prevent this bad thing from ever happening again. In other words, they act as if they believe that they can indeed design a workable, productive, and sustainable complex social order.

Elementary, my dear Watson!

You read, you read and you read and you think you know something and then you get surprised. I have read and enjoyed both A.C. Doyle (Sherlock Holmes in particular) and P.G. Wodehouse all of my adult life. I knew that the stock phrase "Elementary, My Dear Watson!" was, like "Play it again, Sam", a line never present in the original text.

But I did not know that Wodehouse was the progenitor of that line. From Sherlock Holmes: examining the evidence – in charts:
"Elementary, my dear Watson!" was never said by Sherlock Holmes in any of the stories. The line was first used by PG Wodehouse in an affectionate parody.
The original reformulation is from Psmith, Journalist by P.G. Wodehouse.

I am too bewildered by your premodern challenges

From Goodnight, California by Victor Davis Hanson. An extended lament about government's capacity to focus on the absurd, trivial and ideological as opposed to seeking to address real problems being suffered by real citizens.

The governance philosophy of the political elite which extends beyond California:
I am too bewildered by your premodern challenges, so I will take psychological refuge in my postmodern fantasies.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Sea Dirge

H/T Lapham's Quarterly

A Sea Dirge
by Lewis Carroll

There are certain things—as a spider, a ghost,
The income tax, gout, an umbrella for three—
That I hate, but the thing that I hate the most
Is a thing they call the sea.

Pour some saltwater over the floor—
Ugly I’m sure you’ll allow it to be:
Suppose it extended a mile or more,
That’s very like the sea.

Beat a dog till he howls outright—
Cruel, but all very well for a spree:
Suppose that he did so day and night,
That would be like the sea.

I had a vision of nursery maids;
Tens of thousands passed by me—
All leading children with wooden spades,
And this was by the sea.

Who invented those spades of wood?
Who was it cut them out of the tree?
None, I think, but an idiot could—
Or one that loved the sea.

It is pleasant and dreamy, no doubt, to float
With “thoughts as boundless, and souls as free”:
But, suppose you are very unwell in the boat,
How do you like the sea?

There is an insect that people avoid
(Whence is derived the verb “to flee”).
Where have you been by it most annoyed?
In lodgings by the sea.

If you like your coffee with sand for dregs,
A decided hint of salt in your tea,
And a fishy taste in the very eggs—
By all means choose the sea.

And if, with these dainties to drink and eat,
You prefer not a vestige of grass or tree,
And a chronic state of wet in your feet,
Then—I recommend the sea.

For I have friends who dwell by the coast—
Pleasant friends they are to me!
It is when I am with them I wonder most
That anyone likes the sea.

They take me a walk: though tired and stiff,
To climb the heights I madly agree;
And, after a tumble or so from the cliff,
They kindly suggest the sea.

I try the rocks, and I think it cool
That they laugh with such an excess of glee,
As I heavily slip into every pool
That skirts the cold, cold sea.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

If you really want to live, we'd better start at once to try

From Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the opening paragraph.
If you really want to live, we'd better start at once to try;
If we don't, it doesn't matter, but we'd better start to die.
- W.H. Auden

The lines by Auden reproduced above compress precisely what this book is about. The choice is simple: between now and the inevitable end of our days, we can choose either to live or to die. Biological life is an automatic process, as long as we take care of the needs of the body. But to live in the sense the poet means it is by no means something that will happen by itself. In fact everything conspires against it: if we don't take charge of its direction, our life will be controlled by the outside to serve the purpose of some other agency. Biologically programmed instincts will use it to replicate the genetic material we carry; the culture will make sure that we use it to propagate its values and institutions; and other people will try to take as much of our energy as possible to further their own agenda-all of this without regard to how any of this will affect us. We cannot expect anyone to help us live; we must discover how to do it by ourselves.

Friday, June 26, 2015

They will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I Have a Dream by Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we've come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.

We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead.

We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. *We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only."* We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."¹

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. And some of you have come from areas where your quest -- quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together."2

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

And this will be the day -- this will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim's pride,

From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.

And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.

Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.

Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.

Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.

From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!

Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!

Is It True? Is It Necessary? Is It Kind?

I came across a discussion that ultimately led in several directions. The upshot was several points within the Buddhist tradition regarding appropriate speech. From AN 5.198 PTS: A iii 243, Vaca Sutta: A Statement translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
"Monks, a statement endowed with five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people. Which five?

"It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.

"A statement endowed with these five factors is well-spoken, not ill-spoken. It is blameless & unfaulted by knowledgeable people."
There is also from here:
And what other five conditions must be established in himself?

[1] "Do I speak at the right time, or not?

[2] "Do I speak of facts, or not?

[3] "Do I speak gently or harshly?

[4] "Do I speak profitable words or not?

[5] "Do I speak with a kindly heart, or inwardly malicious?

"O bhikkhus, these five conditions are to be investigated in himself and the latter five established in himself by a bhikkhu who desires to admonish another."
Right time, true facts, gentleness, constructiveness, and goodwill. Sounds like a good foundation.

These ideas find a different form of expression in Is It True? Is It Necessary? Is It Kind? in Miscellaneous Poems by Mary Ann Pietzker, published in 1872 by Griffith and Farran of London.

Is It True? Is It Necessary? Is It Kind?

Oh! Stay, dear child, one moment stay,
Before a word you speak,
That can do harm in any way
To the poor, or to the weak;
And never say of any one
What you’d not have said of you,
Ere you ask yourself the question,
“Is the accusation true?”
And if ’tis true, for I suppose
You would not tell a lie;
Before the failings you expose
Of friend or enemy:
Yet even then be careful, very;
Pause and your words well weigh,
And ask if it be necessary,
What you’re about to say.
And should it necessary be,
At least you deem it so,
Yet speak not unadvisedly
Of friend or even foe,
Till in your secret soul you seek
For some excuse to find;
And ere the thoughtless word you speak,
Ask yourself, “Is it kind?”
When you have ask’d these questions three—
Ask’d them in all sincerity,
I think that you will find,
It is not hardship to obey
The command of our Blessed Lord,—
No ill of any man to say;
No, not a single word.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Inversion of political terms

I have commented a number of times in the past few years about the inversion of values between what are called "liberals/left" and "conservatives/right" from the sixties to today. When I was growing up, if you were for freedom of speech, due process, equal rights under the law, etc., you were a liberal or of the left whereas people concerned about communities and identity and defense, etc. were conservative or of the right.

Those terms have been inverted so that conservatives of the oughts are the liberals of the sixties and seventies. They are the ones for due process and equality under the law, they are the ones for international engagement, they are the ones protecting free speech, rule of law, tolerance, privacy, etc. It is both intriguing and puzzling to me. Robert Tracinski has his own list and issues in Seven Liberal Pieties That Only the Right Still Believes. His list of seven include:
1. The Right to Offend

2. The Value of a Liberal Education

3. Government Should Stay Out of the Bedroom

4. Live and Let Live

5. Support for Israel

6. Support for Human Rights

7. The Dignity of the Working Man
I think number seven is a good catch. The right very much esteems both the work ethic and the inherent dignity of any constructive work in a manner that the left has long lost.

Tracinski observes,
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve increasingly had the experience of saying things that would have been considered pieties in the liberal catechism when I was young—and which now will get you labeled as a howling reactionary.

In retrospect, this is partly because the left didn’t always mean some of the ideals it used to pronounce for itself, or at least it didn’t mean them in the high-minded, principled way they sounded. The left had the reputation of being defenders of free speech, for example, but it was always something of a case of “free speech for me but not for thee.” They were all in favor of “questioning authority”—until they became the authorities.

More important, the left has moved farther to the left, leaving moderate “liberalism” behind and embracing a more consistent, authoritarian collectivism.
An interesting collection. I think commitment to international trade and international engagement are two additional important items where there has been an inversion and which should be part of this list.

Pluralistic ignorance

Steven Pinker on Taboos, Political Correctness, and Dissent

Pinker makes a critical point that the overlapping of distribution curves (whether within race, religion, class, gender, etc.) means that you should never mistake the average for the individual. Averages are a useful but crude substitute when you have no other knowledge but specific knowledge is always superior and to be sought after when making critical decisions. Whatever the attribute, and no matter what the group, there is a distribution curve of that attribute and that distribution curve will have greater or lesser standard deviations. Consequently, knowing the average is better than knowing nothing but it is never as good as knowing the particular.

If dissenters are punished and can anticipate that they are going to being punished then you might have a situation where no one actually believes something, but everyone believes that everyone else believes it, therefore no one is willing to be the little boy who says the emperor is naked. And this pluralistic ignorance, as it is sometimes called, is easily implemented when you have the punishing or censoring of unpopular views.

Mozzies and raindrops

An answer to a question which has periodically reoccurred to me over the years - How does rain not damage small insects? From Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head: A Mosquito’s Lament by Robert Krulwich.

Krulwich provides useful perspective.
Raindrops aren’t mosquito friendly. If you’re a mosquito darting about on a rainy day, those drops zinging down at you can be, first of all, as big as you are, and, more dangerously, they’re denser. Water is heavy, so a single raindrop might have 50 times your mass, which means that if one hits you smack where it hurts (between your wings) …

… you should flatten like a pancake. A study says a mosquito being hit by a raindrop is roughly the equivalent of a human being whacked by a school bus, the typical bus being about 50 times the mass of a person. And worse, when it’s raining hard, each mosquito should expect to get smacked, grazed, or shoved by a raindrop every 25 seconds. So rain should be dangerous to a mosquito. And yet (you probably haven’t looked, but trust me), when it’s raining those little pains in the neck are happily darting about in the air, getting banged—and they don’t seem to care. Raindrops, for some reason, don’t bother them.
Professor Hu at Georgia Tech, along with a high=speed camera determined the answer.
What he found is that most of the time anopheles mosquitoes don’t play dodgeball with the raindrops. They do get hit but usually off center, on their long gangly legs, which splay out in six directions. The raindrop can set them rolling and pitching, but they recover quickly—within a hundredth of a second. But even in the worst case, where the mosquito gets slammed right between the wings—a dead-on collision, because the mosquito is so light compared to the heavy raindrop …

… it doesn’t offer much resistance, and the raindrop just barrels along with the mosquito suddenly on board as a passenger. Had the raindrop slammed into a bigger, slightly heavier animal, like a dragonfly, the raindrop would “feel” the collision and lose momentum. The raindrop might even break apart because of the impact, and force would transfer from the raindrop to the insect’s exoskeleton, rattling the animal to death.

But because our mosquito is oh-so-light, the raindrop moves on, unimpeded, and hardly any force is transferred. All that happens is that our mosquito is suddenly scooped up by the raindrop and finds itself hurtling toward the ground at a velocity of roughly nine meters per second, an acceleration which can’t be very comfortable, because it puts enormous pressure on the insect’s body, up to 300 gravities worth, says professor Hu.

300 Gs is a crazy amount of pressure. Eric Olsen, at his blog at Scientific American, says a jet pilot accelerating out of a loop-de-loop experiences “only about nine gravities (88/m/squared).” One imagines his cheeks all splayed, his face squishy, but hey, that’s a soft-skinned human. We’ve got mosquitoes here. Their heads are harder. They have exoskeletons. Sudden accelerations don’t hurt as much, but what mosquitoes should fear, what they do fear, are crash landings. The ground is a lot harder than a mosquito.

So what a mosquito has to do is get off that raindrop as quickly as possible. And here comes the best part: In most direct hits, Hu and colleagues write, the insect is carried five to 20 body lengths downward, and then, rather gracefully—maybe helped by a dense layer of wax-coated, water-repellent hairs—gets up and “walks” to the side, then steps off into the air, almost like a schoolchild getting off of a bus (albeit a fast-moving bus hurtling toward its doom). It does this almost matter-of-factly, like it’s no big deal. A mosquito, Hu writes, “is always able to laterally separate itself from the drop and recover its flight.” Always. (Unless the raindrop hits them too close to the ground.)
There's a neat video at the article.

If you are a mosquito, being hit by a raindrop is like a human being hit be a schoolbus. If you get caught on a raindrop, you feel nearly forty times the gravity that an astronaut feels when launched into space. Most the time, you are knocked out of the way. Occasionally you have to walk off the drop.

Interesting. Now I just need to get an answer to the other perennial question - How do forest birds avoid crashing into branches as they fly along.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The susurration of the breeze in the tall grasses vs. the city's incessant sound, now violent and jagged, now falling into unfinished rhythms, but endless and remorseless

You finish individual books more quickly if you read them one at a time but I have always been partial to reading multiple books at the same time. I find that there are interesting cross-connections to be made that you might not otherwise notice when reading sequentially. In this case, there is a pairing between a passage in Public Opinion by Walter Lippmann and Death in Holy Orders by P.D. James.

From Lippmann, in Chapter Five.
In the laboratory the fatigue is slight enough, the distraction rather trivial. Both are balanced in measure by the subject's interest and self-consciousness. Yet if the beat of a metronome will depress intelligence, what do eight or twelve hours of noise, odor, and heat in a factory, or day upon day among chattering typewriters and telephone bells and slamming doors, do to the political judgments formed on the basis of newspapers read in street-cars and subways? Can anything be heard in the hubbub that does not shriek, or be seen in the general glare that does not flash like an electric sign? The life of the city dweller lacks solitude, silence, ease. The nights are noisy and ablaze. The people of a big city are assaulted by incessant sound, now violent and jagged, now falling into unfinished rhythms, but endless and remorseless. Under modern industrialism thought goes on in a bath of noise. If its discriminations are often flat and foolish, here at least is some small part of the reason. The sovereign people determines life and death and happiness under conditions where experience and experiment alike show thought to be most difficult. "The intolerable burden of thought" is a burden when the conditions make it burdensome. It is no burden when the conditions are favorable. It is as exhilarating to think as it is to dance, and just as natural.

Every man whose business it is to think knows that he must for part of the day create about himself a pool of silence. But in that
helter-skelter which we flatter by the name of civilization, the citizen performs the perilous business of government under the worst possible conditions. A faint recognition of this truth inspires the movement for a shorter work day, for longer vacations, for light, air, order, sunlight and dignity in factories and offices. But if the intellectual quality of our life is to be improved that is only the merest beginning. So long as so many jobs are an endless and, for the worker, an aimless routine, a kind of automatism using one set of muscles in one monotonous pattern, his whole life will tend towards an automatism in which nothing is particularly to be distinguished from anything else unless it is announced with a thunderclap. So long as he is physically imprisoned in crowds by day and even by night his attention will flicker and relax. It will not hold fast and define clearly where he is the victim of all sorts of pother, in a home which needs to be ventilated of its welter of drudgery, shrieking children, raucous assertions, indigestible food, bad air, and suffocating ornament.

Occasionally perhaps we enter a building which is composed and spacious; we go to a theatre where modern stagecraft has cut away distraction, or go to sea, or into a quiet place, and we remember how cluttered, how capricious, how superfluous and clamorous is the ordinary urban life of our time. We learn to understand why our addled minds seize so little with precision, why they are caught up and tossed about in a kind of tarantella by headlines and catch-words, why so often they cannot tell things apart or discern identity in apparent differences
From Death in Holy Orders, the protagonist, Adam Dalgliesh, a police Commander in London is on his way to investigate a murder out in the countryside of East Anglia.
Leaving the tow, he took side roads and then a rutted and over-grown lane just wide enough for the Jaguar. There was an open gate giving a wide view over the autumn fields and here he parked to eat his picnic. But first he turned off his mobile phone. Leaving the car, he leaned against the gatepost and shut his eyes to listen to the silence. These were the moments he craved in an over-busy life, the knowledge that no one in the world knew exactly where he was or could reach him. The small, almost indistinguishable sounds of the countryside came to him on the sweet-smelling air, a distant unidentifiable birdsong, the susurration of the breeze in the tall grasses, the creaking of a branch over his head. After he had finished his lunch he walked vigorously down the lane for a half-mile, then returned to the car and made his way back to the A12 and towards Ballard's Mere.
Public Opinion was published in 1922, seventy-nine years before Death in Holy Orders. I have no reason to believe that James was aware of Lippmann's work. And yet her passage is a neat bookend to Lippman's observation.

Science cannot significantly help us to ascertain all . . .

From F.A. Hayek quoted in The Market and Other Orders edited by Bruce Caldwell.
Science can help us to a better theoretical understanding of the interconnections [that form a complex economy]. But science cannot significantly help us to ascertain all the widely dispersed and rapidly fluctuating particular circumstances of time and place which determine the order of a great complex society.

The delusion that advancing theoretical knowledge places us everywhere increasingly in a position to reduce complex inter-connections to ascertainable particular facts often leads to new scientific errors.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Do not whine and be complex-ridden, because it is annoying

I liked this summary, particularly Maxim 15, Eco’s “How to Write a Thesis” in 15 Maxims by Christian.
1. Academic humility is the knowledge that anyone can teach us something. Practice it.

2. A thesis is like a chess game that requires a player to plan in advance all the moves he will make to checkmate his opponent.

3. How long does it take to write a thesis? No longer than three years and no less than six months.

4. Imagine that you have a week to take a 600-mile car trip. Even if you are on vacation, you will not leave your house and begin driving indiscriminately in a random direction. A provisional table of contents will function as your work plan.

5. You must write a thesis that you are able to write.

6. Your thesis exists to prove the hypothesis that you devised at the outset, not to show the breadth of your knowledge.

7. What you should never do is quote from an indirect source pretending that you have read the original.

8. Quote the object of your interpretive analysis with reasonable abundance.

9. Use notes to pay your debts.

10. You should not become so paranoid that you believe you have been plagiarized every time a professor or another student addresses a topic related to your thesis.

11. If you read the great scientists or the great critics you will see that, with a few exceptions, they are quite clear and are not ashamed of explaining things well.

12. You are not Proust. Do not write long sentences.

13. The language of a thesis is a metalanguage, that is, a language that speaks of other languages. A psychiatrist who describes the mentally ill does not express himself in the manner of his patients.

14. If you do not feel qualified, do not defend your thesis.

15. Do not whine and be complex-ridden, because it is annoying.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Normative sociology - the study of what the causes of problems ought to be

Excellent explicative post, On the problem of normative sociology by Joseph Heath.
The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one. Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B. This can lead to a situation in which denying that A is the cause of B becomes morally stigmatized, and so people affirm the connection primarily because they feel obliged to, not because they’ve been persuaded by any evidence.
Normative sociology. I've never heard of it but I see it all the time. Assuming the root causes of a problem without actually empirically confirming what the root causes might actually be. The example I see most often relates to reading. Reading is good. Therefore more reading ought to be better. But when you ask for evidence regarding how reading actually measurably causes good outcomes, you are quickly met with stunned but disapproving glares. Of course everyone knows that reading is good. Yes, but show me.

I am an enthusiastic reader and instinctively believe that there is some as yet unexplained causal relationship between good life outcomes and enthusiastic reading. I believe it but cannot meaningfully prove it. Nor can anyone else. The challenge is that if you do not know the nature of the causative relationship, then you have no empirical grounds on which to make a claim for resources. I would love it if schools spent more time on elective reading and spent money building up libraries. But that time and that money has many claims including band and music, sports, science, history, arts, etc. If I cannot show a causal relationship between my objective (more reading and more books) and desired life outcomes (such as aptitude test scores, grades, graduation rates, college acceptances, etc.) then I am making a belief-based argument, which is very weak and ultimately political (can I get enough other parents who believe what I do to prioritize spending on books and reading as opposed to all the other good demands).
I actually think this sort of confusion between the moral and the causal order happens a lot. Furthermore, despite having a lot of sympathy for “qualitative” social science, I think the problem is much worse in these areas. Indeed, one of the major advantages of quantitative approaches to social science is that it makes it pretty much impossible to get away with doing normative sociology.

Incidentally, “normative sociology” doesn’t necessarily have a left-wing bias. There are lots of examples of conservatives doing it as well (e.g. rising divorce rates must be due to tolerance of homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births must be caused by the welfare system etc.) The difference is that people on the left are often more keen on solving various social problems, and so they have a set of pragmatic interests at play that can strongly bias judgement. The latter case is particularly frustrating, because if the plan is to solve some social problem by attacking its causal antecedents, then it is really important to get the causal connections right – otherwise your intervention is going to prove useless, and quite possibly counterproductive.
To solve social problems you have to address the real causal antecedents. The challenge is that often it is exceptionally hard to determine what the real causal antecedents might be. Poverty is not simply a matter of lack of money. It is the product of a horrible stew of historical circumstance, path dependency, behaviors, values, beliefs, experiences, psychology of individuals and groups, institutions, etc. But which of these are most contributive in what fashion and which of those are most amenable to action are major issues.
I recall marvelling at how seldom I had heard this idea expressed: that the left consistently gets it right when it comes to identifying problems, but then gets the explanations wrong (and often clings to those explanations long after they have proven problematic), and so is practically ineffective.
So many social policies not only fail but fail in a fashion that exacerbates the original problem it was seeking to ameliorate. Is this simply a matter of incompetent government? There is plenty of evidence to suggest that that is the case. but I wonder if there is not a subtler issue in play. Perhaps the welter of policy failure is a product of normative sociology. I.e. perhaps government execution is not the biggest issue but the underlying failure to establish causal relationships because of the normative sociology.

Further interesting observations (edited.)
1. Wanting a policy lever. Many of our outstanding social problems remain outstanding because they occur in areas that are outside the immediate jurisdiction of the state: either because they occur in the private sphere (e.g. the gendered division of labour within the family), or because they involve an exercise of individual autonomy, (e.g. students dropping out of high school). As a result, there is no obvious “policy lever” than can be pulled to solve the problem, because the state simply lacks the authority (and sometimes even the power) to intervene directly in these areas.
Think anything to do with poverty and education.
2. Worrying about “blaming the victim.” The most common confusion between the moral and the causal order occurs when people start thinking about responsibility. There is an enormous tendency to think that if person X caused A to occur, then X is responsible for A. As a result, when people don’t want to hold X responsible for A, they feel a powerful impulse to resist any suggestion that X’s choices or actions might have caused A. This is, of course, a confusion, since whether or not X caused A is just a factual question, which doesn’t really decide the question of responsibility. And yet I’ve often heard academics being challenged, after having made an entirely empirical claim about the source of a particular social problem, by people saying “aren’t you just blaming the victim?” One can see here a moral concern intruding where it does not belong. If we follow this line of reasoning, we wind up talking about what we would like the cause of problems to be, rather than what they actually are.
So common. If I cannot make a counterargument, I cast an aspersion on your motivations instead.
3. Picking one side of a correlation. This is a more subtle one. Statistical analysis often reveals a correlation between two things, but as we all know, correlation does not imply causation. If A tends to go hand-in-hand with B, it could be that 1) A causes B, or 2) B causes A, or 3) A and B are mutually reinforcing, or 4) there is some third thing, C, that causes both A and B. It is, however, very very common for statistical correlations to be reported as causal ones.
Excessively common overall but de rigueur in journalism.
4. Metaphysical views. I mentioned this above, but often there is a sense that the moral awfulness of some action or episode requires that it have enormous consequences. This can easily lead to the view that anyone who denies the causal effects is in some way minimizing or downplaying the moral awfulness.
Frequently seen in arguments about poverty, mental illness, crime and gun control. If you dispute the presumed causal flow you are accused of being a denier of something heinous. Again, a symptom of the debater not having an empirical grasp of the issue but a hot flame of moral outrage instead.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Foolishness rampant

I am a firm believer in the power of the wisdom of crowds under the right conditions both for decision-making and forecasting. It is also a technique or tool which can be badly misused. There is a lot of foolishness out there which is illustrated by this tweet and the juxtaposed survey results.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Differential impact that no one wants to address

From Boys to men: Fathers, family, and opportunity by Richard V. Reeves.

Reeves is summarizing some of the many trends which have had a material negative consequence on the lives of men in the past couple of decades, with those consequences being in education attainment, mortality, poverty, etc.
The plight of less-educated men makes the worse educational performance of boys more troubling. As The Economist points out, teenage boys are now 50 percent more likely than girls to fail at all three key school subjects—math, reading and science—than girls, across OECD countries.

Boys appear to be more vulnerable to the effects of being raised by a single parent, and also to growing up in certain areas. The latest research from Harvard’s Raj Chetty (highlighted at a recent Center on Children and Families event) shows that the places children grow up has a causal impact on their later earnings. But the effects of growing up in a worse area are bigger for boys.

As a result of growing up in Baltimore City, for example, boys earn 27.9 percent less than the national average. The equivalent wage penalty for girls is just 5.4 percent:

Woof! Boys in poverty in Baltimore suffer 5 times greater consequences than girls? Obviously there are a lot of factors in play but I have heard no quantified discussion of that. That is a huge differential.

Perhaps it is that we are too early in the learning cycle and the numbers are not yet rigorous or the causal mechanisms are so ambiguous. But if true, then that failure to address such a yawning differential is a grave failure. I have long thought that the concerns about declining men's rights was overexcited prattle. Yes, there are some real issues in there, particularly when the federal government actively seeks to eliminate fundamental rights for males (see the Dear Colleague letter to universities effectively demanding that universities strip males of due process rights and hold them to a different standard of evidence than females). Likewise, as best I can tell, something like 40% of all rapes that occur in this country are perpetrated against men in prison. That is an especially egregious issue as these crimes are effectively being allowed to occur by the government against citizens in the care of that government. There have been efforts to address this outrageous issue but as far as I can tell with little beneficial outcome yet.

But overall there is too much precious whining to get too committed to the issue of how neglected men are. Though simply writing that previous paragraph makes me think perhaps I am discounting too much.

Regardless, Reeves' article, if the numbers bear up, is very compelling that there is a dreadful problem that is being ignored. With evidence like this, I can see why men's rights advocates can get the impression that there is an active campaign to punish men and ignore their sufferings.

Friday, June 19, 2015

What's old is new

From Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.

It is hard to recall that the adventures and histrionics of feminism are age old. William Boot has returned triumphant from Ishmaelia and his employer, Lord Copper, is trying to decide how to reward him.
"Well, then, let us have no more of these petty jealousies. The office is riddled with them. I shall make it my concern to see that Boot is substantially rewarded. What, I wonder, would meet the case . . . " Lord Copper paused undecided. His eye fell on the page of drawings and he covered it with his blotting paper. "Suppose," he said at length, "we gave him another good foreign assignment. There is this all-women expedition to the South Pole - bound to be a story in that. Do you think that would meet the case?"

"Up to a point, Lord Copper."

"Not too lavish?"

"Definitely not."

"I imagine that the expenses of an expedition of that kind will be heavy. Have to charter his own ship - I understand they will have no men on board." He paused dissatisfied. "The trouble is that it is the kind of story that may not break for two years and then we shall have to put Boot's name before the public all over again. We ought to do something now, while the news is still hot. I gave that illiterate fellow Hitchcock a knighthood for less."

Thursday, June 18, 2015

This was partly metaphorical, partly false and in any case wholly relative

From Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.
At a banquet given in his honour Sir Jocelyn Hitchcock once modestly attributed his great success in life to the habit of "getting up earlier than the other fellow." But this was partly metaphorical, partly false and in any case wholly relative, for journalists are as a rule late risers.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

They're University men, you see.

I decided to reread Evelyn Waugh's Scoop as part of my campaign to sample more fiction. I read this sometime in my early twenties and enjoyed it a good deal but had little recollection of the story other than it is a fictionalized account based on Waugh's experiences as a war correspondent during the second Italo-Abyssinian War (1935-36) during the heyday of newspapers.

It is a wonderful satire and reads remarkably contemporaneously as it focuses on human behavior and foibles rather than on facts and events. My oldest son snatched it up after I was done and finished it in a day with lots of chortles. Recommended.

Some passages. William Boot, accidentally reassigned from writing his column on the British countryside to being the foreign correspondent for the Beast, receives a briefing from his editor, Salter. Salter's description of a 1930s progressive is still true today. Those interested in the Utopia of tomorrow usually have little regard for the workers of today.
"See that man there, that's Pappenhacker."

William looked, and saw.


"The cleverest man in Fleet Street."

William looked again. Pappenhacker was young and swarthy, with great horn goggles and a receding, stubbly chin. He was having an altercation with some waiters.


"He's going to Ishmaelia for the Daily Twopence"

"He seems to be in a very bad temper."

"Not really. He's always like that to waiters. You see he's a communist. Most of the staff at the Twopence are - they're University men, you see. Pappenhacker says that every time you are polite to a proletarian you are helping bolster up the capitalist system. He's very clever of course, but he gets rather unpopular."

"He looks as if he were going to hit them."

"Yes, he does sometimes. Quite a lot of restaurants won't have him in.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

We live partly in a real world and partly in a fabricated one that we construct from what others tell us.

From The Forward by Ronald Steel to Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion. Published in 1922, I had never heard of this book before I came across it in a used bookstore. It touches on some critical issues I have been wrestling with regarding the productive and rational role that prejudice and stereotype can play under conditions of high risk and low knowledge. Steel indicates:
We define, Lippmann, explained, according to 'stereotypes' imposed by our culture. Because we have successfully internalized them, we take them for granted. Although they may impose limitations, they are useful tools we cannot live without. They provide us with security in an unfamiliar world. They are, he wrote, the "guarantee of our self-respect . . . the projection upon the world of our own value." But of greater significance to decision-making is that if stereotypes determine what we see, our perceptions may be no more than partial truths. What we assume to be 'facts' may be only judgments. Facts, in other words, are subject to interpretation. 'But while men are willing to admit that there are two sides to a 'question,'' Lippmann wrote disturbingly, 'that do not believe that there are two sides to what they regard as 'fact.'' Part of the reason, he explained, is that we cannot experience most aspects or reality directly. We live partly in a real world and partly in a fabricated one that we construct from what others tell us: from stories, pictures, newspaper accounts, and the like. This constitutes not a real environment but, in his vivid term, a 'pseudo-environment.' To convey the idea of such a pseudo-environment, he evoked the analogy of Plato's cave, where people are chained with their backs to the light and come to believe that the shadows they see projected on the wall before them are real figures. They see the world as a shadow or reflection. This is true of average citizens as well. With no direct knowledge of the dramatic national and world events they read about, they experience them second-hand, through the prism of others' interpretations.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Doubt made a skittery run across their hearts

Trying to mix some literary fiction into my normal non-fiction fare, just to mix things up a bit. I have just finished Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones. I enjoyed it. There is a Wikipedia summary. The fictional story is told from the perspective of a young Bougainvillean during the Bougainville Civil War in the early 1990s. It covers a range of issues. Racial conflict (the black Bougainvilleans versus the Redskin Papua New Guineans with whites as a marginal further complicating factor), development versus tradition, acting versus being, books as windows and as mirrors, etc.

Oddly, in the past year, I have read three other accounts based in that area. An account by a District Officer in the British Foreign Service, responsible for Gilbert and Marshall islands from circa 1910-1930. A contemporary travel writer J. Maarten Troost in The Sex Lives of Cannibals about Tarawa in the Pacific island republic of Kiribati (adequate). And most recently, Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff (very good) an account of the rescue of survivors of an air crash in remote Papua New Guinea at the end of World War II.

A couple of passages.

A teacher, with no text books or supplies or curriculum is trying to hold the children together in school, primarily by reading Charles Dickens' Great Expectations but also by inviting in any of the village adults who have information, knowledge or stories they might want to share. But school is an intimidation to those not previously schooled.
The class broke into polite applause and then Mrs. Haripa nodded happily back at us. And we were happy for her. We wanted our cousins and our mothers and grandmothers to tell us stuff. We didn't want them scared to come to class. But we also saw how shame and a fear of looking stupid was never far from the surface, and this is what kept some at a distance; these ones made it as far as the clearing before doubt made a skittery run across their hearts. Marooned by doubt and unable to come closer for wondering if their story of the gecko was important enough to share. Then we might look up in time to catch the back view of someone fleeing across the open ground for the trees.
Language is an issue.
I was stuck on the word emigrant. To ask Mr. Watts its meaning, though, would be a risk. Mr. Watts' approach assumed a shared intelligence. And while that was flattering it was also intimidating. I didn't want to disappoint Mr. Watts. I didn't want to say anything that might rock his faith in me.
The Papua New Guinean soldiers raid the village, first burning all their possessions and then burning their huts. Great Expectations, hidden in the rafters, goes up in flames on the second raid. Mr. Watts set the students the task of reconstructing Dickens' story.
More than that, Mr. Watts had reminded us of our duty and in language that made us sit up straight. Our duty was to save Mr. Dickens' finest work from extinction. Mr. Watts now joined the endeavor, and of course his efforts surpassed our own.

He stood before us and recited: Pip is to be brought up as a gentleman - and in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations.
There is that concept again - that expectations craft the pathway to life outcomes.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Poor methods get results

From The Lancet’s editor-in-chief Dr. Richard Horton in the April 11th edition. commenting on a symposium examining peer review and the quality of science reporting. I found this quote in Science publication is hopelessly compromised, say journal editors from American Council on Science and Health.
“A lot of what is published is incorrect.” I’m not allowed to say who made this remark because we were asked to observe Chatham House rules. We were also asked not to take photographs of slides. Why the paranoid concern for secrecy and non-attribution? Because this symposium — on the reproducibility and reliability of biomedical research — touched on one of the most sensitive issues in science today: the idea that something has gone fundamentally wrong with one of our greatest human creations.

The case against science is straightforward: much of the scientific literature, perhaps half, may simply be untrue. Afflicted by studies with small sample sizes, tiny effects, invalid exploratory analyses, and flagrant conflicts of interest, together with an obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance, science has taken a turn towards darkness. As one participant put it, “poor methods get results”.
I like that list. Indicators of cognitive pollution:
Small sample sizes
Tiny effect sizes
Invalid exploratory analyses
Flagrant conflicts of interest
An obsession for pursuing fashionable trends of dubious importance
I was originally led to this through the comments related to this unfortunate post, The North-South Divide on Two-Parent Families by David Leonhardt. Leonhardt often does a good job of reporting on interesting work, but he is certainly hostage to the prejudices and biases of the New York Times.

In this case, there is an effort to arrive at a conclusion by ignoring critical information. An omission called out by the commenters. The argument attempting to be made is:
When it comes to family arrangements, the United States has a North-South divide. Children growing up across much of the northern part of the country are much more likely to grow up with two parents than children across the South.


Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Zill argue that there are actually two models for having a large share of stable families: the blue-state model and the red-state one.

In the blue-state model, Americans get more education and earn higher income — and more educated, higher-earning people tend to marry and stay married. In Minnesota, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut, at least 51 percent of teenagers are being raised by both biological parents, among the highest rates in the nation. (That figure excludes families in which the two parents are together without being married; such arrangements are still rare — and less likely to last than marriages.)

In the red-state model, educational attainment is closer to average, but “residents are more likely to have deep normative and religious commitments to marriage and to raising children within marriage,” write Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Zill, in a paper for the Institute for Family Studies. This model applies across much of the Great Plains and Mountain West, including Nebraska and Utah.
The article is trying to argue that family stability is primarily a function of higher education attainment (in the north) or religiosity (in the south).

There are a lot of other issues with the research, called out both in the article itself or in the comments. But the biggest issue is that this is not a map of family stability through education and religiosity and geography, this is a map of minority representation.
As commenters point out, the researchers try to ignore the correlation by dismissing it.
Mr. Wilcox and Mr. Zill also point out that two-parent families tend to be more common in states with predominantly white populations. But race is hardly the only explanation for the patterns. White single-parent families have become much more common in recent years. And in the Deep South, single parenthood is common among both whites and blacks.
And technically the researchers are correct. This has nothing to do with race per se. There is no biological or genetic necessity driving these outcomes. Race, at least in the US, is a general proxy for culture, i.e. individuals of different ethnic groups, on average, also demonstrate different cultural attributes, behaviors and expectations.

You want more familial stability? Focusing on education and religiosity won't get you very far. Focusing on behavioral attributes will get you a lot further. That's the danger of these shy articles which attempt to avoid hard conversations by diverting attention to non-root cause issues. They postpone actually addressing the real problems. Not education. Not religiosity. Not race. Not geography. Behaviors and values and expectations.

UPDATE: A statistical refutation of Leonhardt's position at Upshot sells Wilcox, but I’m not buying by Philip N. Cohen.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Do low education foreigners work more and harder than native born Americans with low education attainment?

The world is complex and data is interesting. From Need a high school diploma to work full-time? Natives, yes. Immigrants, no. by Brad Hershbein and Elisa Jácome. This is a great object lesson in being careful about averages and maintaining contextual awareness. Sometimes we get lost in the abstract. Abstract ideas can be appealing but misleading.
The share of men with a high school degree or some college (but not a BA) who worked full-time and year-round fell from 76 percent in 1990 to 68 percent in 2013. Interestingly, for men without a high school degree, the share was low but unchanged, at 55 percent. Why did men without a high school degree not experience the same declines in full-time year-round employment?
For a national economy, the erosion of labor force participation in general is of course concerning. it is hard to continue increasing productivity if fewer people are working. The loss of full-time workers is even more concerning because full-time work is what tends to drive higher efficiency and effectiveness.

So why did the labor force participation rate for less educated remain level while it was falling for others?
It turns out that overall employment rates for men without a high school degree mask important differences between immigrants and native-born individuals. Immigrants now account for a much larger share of men without a high school degree, doubling from about one-quarter to one-half between 1990 and 2013.

US-born men without a high school degree have seen a dramatic reduction in their employment rate—from 72 to 58 percent. The fall was also dramatic for the share working full-time and year-round, sliding from 54 to 42 percent.

In sharp contrast, the employment rate of immigrant men without a high school degree rose from 80 to 87 percent, and the share working full-time and year-round rose from 57 to 66 percent.
Well that's ideologically inconvenient. Many people want to believe that a bad economy hurts the poor and least educated the worst and that that in turn causes all sorts of sociological undesirable consequences such as crime. Empirically that is not true but that is what is believed.

In this case though, the data is indicating that the least educated and most impoverished (foreigners coming in with little to their name and usually with the additional burden of language and culture differences) are not only improving their labor force participation dramatically but doing so at the same time that the native born educationally comparable are letting their own labor force participation drop dramatically.

Hershbein and Jácome ask the relevant question.
Why are less-educated immigrants more likely than US-born peers to work?
They ask a good question but they have no idea what the answer might be. They trot out some mumbo jumbo about country of origin rapid pace of technological change, trade and globalization, and the growing generosity (relative to possible earnings) of safety-net programs without really developing an argument to explain the conundrum.

Right leaning ideologues might instinctively resort to "It's culture" with hoary stereotypes of hardworking high work ethic poor foreigners and low work ethic, lazy welfare layabouts. And undoubtedly that could be some element of the answer.

I suspect that the real answer is different and more complex. I would look at this using a somewhat different set of abstractions to get at a plausible answer. I suspect, even though we are controlling for education level as the variable of interest, we are not actually comparing apples and oranges.

Instead of looking at education level, let's look at whether the two populations (native and foreign born) are also alike in other pertinent attributes such as age, non-cognitive skills, health, mental health, substance abuse, etc..

The first aspect to consider is that education attainment is a product of both opportunity (usually much less available among poor foreign immigrants but universally available in the US) and personal behavior (self-control, self-discipline, perseverance, etc., the non-cognitive skills identified by James Heckman). Those who fail to complete high school in the US usually fail owing to behavioral/non-cognitive skill issues. Poor foreigners who fail to complete high school fail for economic reasons or simple lack of availability. The upshot is that foreign and domestic born might look the same in terms of low education attainment, they may have dramatically different non-cognitive skills.

Second. Domestic born individuals who have failed to achieve high school completion cover the entire age gamut from 18 to 75. If you measure labor force participation rates across a wide age range, you are going to get a far different answer than if you measure across a narrow age range. If all foreign born low education attainment rate individuals are between 15 and 35, you would expect their average participation rate to be much higher simply because of their average age.

Third. Self-selection among poor immigrants. Yes, they probably do have a high work ethic. They probably also have lower mental health issues, lower substance abuse, etc. In other words, the act of immigration is both difficult and risky, tending to weed out the lower functioning and the less able.

There are probably other ways in which low education attainment native born and foreigners differ but I think these might be the most significant: the foreign born low education attainment individuals have better non-cognitive skills, they are younger and healthier, and the very act of immigration self-selects for some degree of ability and accomplishment. The native borns who have lower education attainment are probably, on average, older, have lower non-cognitive skills, have more health issues, have more mental health issues, and have a broader array of social pathologies.

If that is true, then the mystery disappears. It is not that poor foreign immigrants with low education attainment are "better" people than our own native born low education attainment. It is that they have a materially different array of other attributes (health, youth, non-cognitive skills, etc.) which independently correlate with high labor force participation rate.

I doubt what I am describing is the full story but I suspect that the fact that we are not comparing apples to oranges is the root of the conundrum.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The system is evolving much faster than our capacity to understand how the system is working in the first place

From Is CBT for depression losing its efficacy? by T. Johnsen & O. Friborg.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) has many advantages for treating depression. Among them, the fact that it's easy to standardise, it's intuitive and it can deliver results relatively quickly (think weeks, not years as some other therapies demand). For many people with depression, it's also far more acceptable than the prospect of taking mind-altering drugs. But now the bad news: CBT's efficacy seems to be declining.
Anything in the field of psychology and sociology is deeply suspect until replicated multiple times by multiple sources.

But this research does raise the interesting conceptual idea that perhaps one of the challenges related to psychology is the nature of the area of study itself. In other words, human systems are subject to complex self-adjustments arising from multiple different and hard to identify sources. The implication, potentially, is that the rate of change of the underlying human psychological system may be broader and faster than the ability to robustly identify sources of cause and effect within that system.

An early canary in that particular coal mine is the Flynn Effect, the measured trend of an average increase in OECD countries of an increase in population average IQ of about three percentage points per decade. Originally it was accepted that IQ was essentially biologically determined and not susceptible to change over time. Once James Flynn introduced his empirical evidence that average IQ was subject to change, there was long discussion as to whether the trend itself was real. I think there is now fairly wide agreement that it is real. What remains open is the causal mechanism for that increase. And now, even before we understand the mechanisms that led to the increase, it appears that perhaps IQs have topped out among some of the OECD countries.

In other words, the system is evolving much faster than our capacity to understand exactly, or even roughly, how the system is working in the first place.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Kudos to the Washington Post

There has been an immense amount of coverage of problematic police shootings. Much of this coverage has been emotional and lacking in any sort of empirical grounding. Doing what great newspapers can and should do, the Washington Post has undertaken a project for 2015 to address the lack of transparency and accuracy of data. They are collecting data on all police shootings that result in death and report in Fatal police shootings in 2015 approaching 400 nationwide by Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins, Steven Rich, Keith L. Alexander and Wesley Lowery that so far this year there have been 385 deaths as a result of police shootings with a projected total for the year of around 1,000, a number nearly twice what the official data indicates.

There has been an attempt in many quarters to make this all an issue of police brutality, insensitivity, racism, etc. But the facts don't support such storytelling. Yes, there are tragics events, too many to be blithely dismissed. But the job that police face is far more complex than is readily acknowledged and they are the frontline for many deeply rooted and horribly complex issues (substance abuse and dependency, mental illness, etc.) which are not subject to easy resolution.

In the most recent reporting on their project, Fatal police shootings in 2015 approaching 400 nationwide by Julie Tate, Jennifer Jenkins, Steven Rich, Keith L. Alexander and Wesley Lowery, there is some interesting information that shows how complicated the issue is.

The very opening lines illustrate how difficult it is to stick with the facts. The authors open with:
In an alley in Denver, police gunned down a 17-year-old girl joyriding in a stolen car.
With that framing, it immediately suggests some negligence and culpability on the part of the police. A youngster joy riding. Death should not be an outcome in such a situation. But elsewhere in the reporting, the context is different. It indicates that the teen was:
killed by Denver police officers in January as she and friends allegedly tried to run them down in a stolen car.
That's quite a different frame.

While all the news reports tend to focus on shootings of black males, that is an unrepresentative picture. 25% of the deaths this year are black males. That is disproportionate to their numbers in the general population (13%) but is actually well below their numbers in terms of murders (50%) and more generally all violent crime (56% per the FBI). So while there is a common leit motif that police are disproportionately shooting young black men, the numbers indicate otherwise.

What about the story that police often shoot unarmed victims. 87% of those killed were armed (guns, cars, knives, etc. as well as with toys or facsimiles that appeared to be weapons). All deaths should be reduced but when nearly 90% involve weapons, the police response begins to make more sense. Especially when you recognize that police, in having to deal with uncertain situations every day, have to always anticipate the worst scenario first.

What else does the reporting tell us that is broadly inconsistent with the standard storyline? It confirms what was already known, which is that police shooting deaths are materially under reported in the official statistics. Of particular value is that the reporting allows us to estimate that underreporting. We now know that the official figures only capture about half of the police shooting deaths that actually occur.

Half the police shooting victims are white, somewhat underrepresented in terms of their proportion of the population (67%) but significantly overrepresented in terms of their involvement in violent crime.

5% of police shooting victims are women.

Only 8 of the 385 were under 18 years old. You'd want that to be zero but I would have thought that there might be a lot more 17 year-olds on a tear.

50% of all the killings resulted from domestic disturbances, often involving people with mental illnesses and off of their medications. 24% of all the victims were mentally ill.

Most of the victims (the Post does not specify how many) had prior criminal records.

From the examples in the article and from the numbers shared, it is clear that police shootings are rare events and almost always occur in fraught and dangerous circumstances. It is also clear that improved training might have some marginal impact on overall numbers. What is the minimum that might reasonably be expected to be accomplished? You'd like to say 0 but the mix of weapons (87%), demonstrated violence, mental health, etc. all call into question what might realistically be expected.

As both the Post and many in the article point out, you won't know, in fact, can't know, until you start actually measuring the magnitude of the problem and the details surrounding every one of the incidents. The Washington Post is doing the right thing. Instead of complaining about the absence of valid numbers and/or fanning false perceptions, they are actually investing heavily in getting the facts. This is not about race, no matter how much social justice warriors might want to make it so. It is about mental health and weaponized criminals, and domestic violence. The police face an unenviable job. With good numbers and details behind the incidents, we ought to bring the overall numbers down. If there are 1,000 in a year, perhaps we can bring it down 100-200. 200 lives would be a tremendous accomplishment. But until something can be done about the actions and behaviors of criminals themselves and about the care extended to those who are mentally ill, it seems challenging to believe that we can materially reduce the numbers beyond that improvement.

This abstraction is actually more valuable than that abstraction

People talk energetically, emotionally and sincerely about things which they really don't understand. Inequality being one of those issues. Washington Monthly has a very good article, Wealth and Generations by Phillip Longman, which addresses one of the fundamental misconceptions in inequality discussions, the difference between individuals and abstract categories. Thomas Sowell has been banging this drum for years.

The fact that the top 20% earn X times more than the bottom 20% compared to a decade or two ago is purely an abstraction. It misses the central fact that those in the bottom 20% a decade ago are, generally, no longer in the bottom 20% today. Focusing on the abstract categories fails to capture what is happening to real people as they move across a career/life.

Longman goes some ways toward addressing this. He is still working in abstractions, but a much more meaningful one, generational cohorts rather than income quintiles.
We miss that those Americans who were middle-aged in 1979 have, as a whole, seen their standard of living rise sharply compared both to their own previous experience and to that of their counterparts in the previous generation. So, for example, when people who were forty something in the late 1970s became fiftysomething in the late 1980s, their income and net wealth were not only higher than they had been ten years before, they were also far better off than fiftysomethings had been in the 1970s. And as retired seventysomethings today, not only have most seen their personal income net worth hold even or even continue to rise, they are also way better off financially than were seventysomethings in the 1990s. For this birth cohort of Americans, dramatic upward mobility, not stagnation, has been the norm.
When focusing on and discussing generational cohorts, you begin to pick up on some the major issues such as path dependencies, productivity and savings behaviors.

For example, those coming onto the labor market in their early twenties at the height of the great recession will see dramatic reductions in their initial income owing to low employment rates and low wages (driven by the recession). Theoretically, these would bounce back after the recession ended but much research shows that is not the case. All those in that cohort entering during the recession will see a life time reduction in their income generation and wealth accumulation. That is a path dependent event.

What all this analysis does, from my perspective, is highlight the overwhelming criticality of focusing on productivity and savings. All the other issues flow as a consequence of low or declining productivity and low and declining savings.

You can see why people don't want to deal with these more nuanced issues as they tend to highlight the ineffectiveness of social tropes and government policies. In this article, while not dealt with directly, the following factors are mentioned or alluded to in terms of their impact on productivity and wealth accumulation.
Changes in marriage rates, ages and stability

Changes in natality rates and ages

Changes in work practices (part time work, contract work, contingent work, etc.)

Changes in family structure (size, sequencing, earner status, etc.)

Changes in relative market valuations of skills and abilities

Changes in technology infrastructure

Changes in regulations

Changes in relative market valuations of non-cognitive skills

Changes in contextual environment

Changes in individual productivity

Changes in education/skill acquisition

Changes in consumption preferences

Changes in demographic structures

Changes in mortality and morbidity profiles
Longman does a good job of shedding light on the topic of income inequality in a way that is critical and little acknowledged.

His diagnosis is very valuable but I think his recommended prescriptive treatment is badly lacking. None-the-less, he offers a much better diagnostic discussion than virtually everyone else spilling ink on income inequality.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A very large variation in psychological states

Fascinating. I had heard nothing of this till I came across the details today. Two librarians, Lisa Rabey and Nina De Jesus, concerned about their perception that sexual harassment was rife in Librarian circles (an industry that is 80% female), advanced malicious and damaging rumors about a male librarian with the intent to destroy his career. They had no evidence for the rumors they started and it seems unclear why they picked him. Since one of the female librarians was Canadian, the male plaintiff brought a lawsuit in Canada on the grounds of libel and defamation.

Lisa Rabey and Nina De Jesus launched a defense fund and celebrated the likelihood that the plaintiff, Joe Murphy, would be defeated in court and have to pay court costs. Rabey and De Jesus mocked and denigrated right up to the point where they issued an unreserved apology for lying about Joe Murphy. It appears that at depositions, they were unable to produce any witnesses or evidence to support any of their allegations.

This is a fascinating peek into the mind of the Social Justice Warrior/Mean Girl mind, what Eric Hoffer referred to as True Believers. You are left with questions: Were Lisa Rabey and Nina De Jesus simply misguided?, Ignorant? Were they naive?, Immature? Did they receive bad counsel? Were they so completely blinded by ideology that they failed to properly assess their actions and behaviors? Do they even now understand and believe that what they did was both wrong and malicious? The actions and behaviors of Lisa Rabey and Nina De Jesus are so outside the bounds of rationality and normal behavior that it is hard to make sense of them.


By the way, what person names their legal defense fund TEAMHARPY? That alone would seem to argue that they were immature and ignorant.

The Apology and Retraction from Lisa Rabey and Nina De Jesus: Apologies and retractions

Both individuals have blogs which shed even more light on their lives, thoughts, actions and mental state. Nina De Jesus writes at Satifice. Lisa Rabey writes at Exit, Pursued by a Bear

Library Journal has an article covering the background and outcome of the lawsuit, Librarians Embroiled in Lawsuit Alleging Sexual Harassment by Lisa Peet. Read the comments to begin to understand the epistemological gymnastics of the true believers who can't let go of their conviction that there was a real wrong committed by Murphy rather than that the whole issue was entirely made up by Lisa Rabey and Nina De Jesus.

It is easy, and I don't think necessarily wrong, to see Social Justice Warrior antics as something of a prolonged rearguard Gramscian campaign of a failed ideology. Looking at this particular instance though, it seems to suggest that perhaps it might in many cases be simply a consequence of a very large variation in psychological states.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

How to support a pseudoscience or pseudoargument

From How to Sell a Pseudoscience by Anthony R. Pratkanis.

Pratkanis starts off with his dilemma.
Every time I read the reports of new pseudosciences in the Skeptical Inquirer or watch the latest "In Search Of"-style television show I have one cognitive response, "Holy cow, how can anyone believe that?" Some recent examples include: "Holy cow, why do people spend $3.95 a minute to talk on the telephone with a 'psychic' who has never foretold the future?" "Holy cow, why do people believe that an all-uncooked vegan diet is natural and therefore nutritious?" "Holy cow, why would two state troopers chase the planet Venus across state lines thinking it was an alien spacecraft?" "Holy cow, why do people spend millions of dollars each year on subliminal tapes that just don't work?"
Pratkanis then derives the nine common propaganda tactics that a social psychologist would recommend to advance a pseudoscience.
1. Create a Phantom - an unavailable goal that looks real and possible

2. Set a Rationalization Trap - The rationalization trap is based on the premise: Get the person committed to the cause as soon as possible.

3. Manufacture Source Credibility and Sincerity - manufacture source credibility and sincerity. In other words, create a guru, leader, mystic, lord, or other generally likable and powerful authority, one who people would be just plain nuts if they didn't believe.

4. Establish a Granfalloon - Establish what Kurt Vonnegut terms a "granfalloon," a proud and meaningless association of human beings.

5. Use Self-Generated Persuasion - the subtle design of the situation so that the targets persuade themselves.

6. Construct Vivid Appeals - a vividly presented case study or example can make a lasting impression.

7. Use Pre-Persuasion - Pre-persuasion is defining the situation or setting the stage so you win

8. Frequently Use Heuristics and Commonplaces - Heuristics and commonplaces gain their power because they are widely accepted and thus induce little thought about whether the rule or argument is appropriate.

9. Attack Opponents Through Innuendo and Character Assassination - I offer the advice of Cicero: "If you don't have a good argument, attack the plaintiff."
Sounds all very recognizable. Virtually all public advocates, regardless of the specific issue, utilize these tactics instead of making reasoned, evidence-based arguments.