Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Fake silver bullets are always easier than the real burden of problem solving

From How the Self-Esteem Craze Took Over America And why the hype was irresistible. by Jesse Singal. A very good history of the sociological and educational fad over cultivating self-esteem.

Singal is making an even more important point though - how often we subscribe to sociological fads because they appeal to us rather than because there is a robust evidentiary base for the fad. Self-esteem, follow your passion, small class sizes, self-learning, group learning, affirmative action, busing, low-fat diets, etc. All ideas meant to serve a good purpose but all without any evidence and all of them either counter-productive or destructive once they were implemented.
It wasn’t just schoolkids. During this span, just about everyone, from CEOs to welfare recipients, was told — often by psychologists with serious credentials — that improving their self-esteem could, as The Lovables put it, unlock the gates to more happiness, better performance, and every kind of success imaginable. This was both a personal argument and a political one: The movement, which had its epicenter in California, argued that increasing people’s self-esteem could reduce crime, teen pregnancy, and a host of other social ills — even pollution.

It would be hard to overstate the long-term impact of these claims. The self-esteem craze changed how countless organizations were run, how an entire generation — millenials — was educated, and how that generation went on to perceive itself (quite favorably). As it turned out, the central claim underlying the trend, that there’s a causal relationship between self-esteem and various positive outcomes, was almost certainly inaccurate. But that didn’t matter: For millions of people, this was just too good and satisfying a story to check, and that’s part of the reason the national focus on self-esteem never fully abated. Many people still believe that fostering a sense of self-esteem is just about the most important thing one can do, mental health–wise.
This is one of the epistemic challenges of our time - the ratcheting of erroneous ideas. You see it most transparently on social media such as Twitter. Someone will tweet an outrageous storyline that becomes viral, being retweeted 20,000 times. A couple of hours later, a correction is issued, essentially retracting the original story. The correction gets retweeted 6 times. In an environment where the dollars all rest in views, likes, and retweets, the incentive structure is heavily weighted towards inaccurate fake news over accurate news.
The excitement was fueled by a steady drumbeat of “research,” purporting to confirm Vasconcellos’s theory that self-esteem lay at the heart of many personal and societal difficulties, much of which was fairly anecdotal or otherwise low quality. Vasconcellos’s task force also held a series of events around California in which police officers, social workers, ex-cons, and others testified to the importance of self-esteem. Yes, there were embarrassing hiccups — like when a photographer caught the commission’s members holding hands in a circle after their lunch break — but overall, the group was surprisingly successful at quickly carving itself out a place in the national conversation about drugs, crime, and other social ills.

Baumeister observed all this with increasingly arched eyebrows. “Starting in ’84 and ’85,” he said, “I started to watch for contrary evidence and began to notice that things aren’t as rosy as I had assumed.” As an author of some of the research which likely convinced Vasconcellos to make self-esteem his major policy project in the first place, Baumeister was worried the self-esteemers in California had neglected a fairly straightforward possibility: Maybe it isn’t that high self-esteem causes high performance, but rather the reverse, that people who are more talented or smart or successful have higher self-esteem because of their positive attributes and accomplishments. This is the sort of thing that can be checked empirically, but while the task force produced a healthy quantity of research, its quality was lacking. “I read the publications that they produced and they were not strong,” Baumeister explained.
Poor research, misunderstanding the causal direction, mistaking correlation for causation, confusion about terms and definitions - all elements of poor decision-making which no-one was willing to reign in.
As it turned out, there was very little validity to the causal claims everyone was making about self-esteem in the 1980s and ’90s. We know that because around the turn of the century, long after self-esteem programs had blossomed all over North America, the psychological Establishment decided to take a more critical look at the dogma surrounding the subject. Baumeister and three other researchers were invited by the American Psychological Society to conduct a comprehensive review of the literature to find out whether self-esteem really “works” as advertised. In a 2005 article in Scientific American and a more technical paper published in Psychological Science and the Public Interest, they delivered the bad news: There was little published evidence supporting Vasconcellos’s ideas. In some areas, high self-esteem actually correlated with worse behavior — some criminals, it turns out, actually view themselves quite favorably.

In other areas, it turned out that correlation did not imply causation, just as Baumeister suspected. Take a 1986 study his team reviewed which found that “self-esteem in 10th grade is only weakly predictive of academic achievement in 12th grade,” for example. Academic achievement, on the other hand, did predict higher self-esteem. It’s more likely that successful people with high self-esteem have high self-esteem because they’re successful than vice versa.
Singal begins to pivot from self-esteem to the larger issue. People are always hungry for silver bullet solutions to complex problems and will gladly convince themselves without ever skeptically examining the evidence for a policy.
So many of the features that defined the self-esteem craze — the simple, inspiring message, the large quantity of less-than-rigorous research, the prevalence of confirmation bias, the cottage-industry opportunities for profit — have popped up again and again in the years since, in the many other forms of half-baked psychological science that have garnered mainstream attention and vacuumed up resources (think blockbuster research ideas like power posing and the implicit association test). But none of these ideas have quite changed our culture the way the self-esteem craze did. Today, it is simple, ingrained common sense for millions of Americans that of course increasing people’s self-esteem works. Countless books will tell you as such.
Power posing, implicit association tests, girl power, grit, open work spaces and learning environments, vouchers, carbon-trading, dress for success, seven habits, listicles, trigger warnings. Self-esteem is simply a poster child for a long litany of outbreaks of social hysteria.

There is a flip side to this silver bullet hysteria. All the above are believed to be silver bullets to perceived problems. We also have a long litany of fearful hysteria; the imagining of problems that either aren't real or are vestigial: reds under the bed, gender wage gaps, college rape culture, fluoridation of water, gateway drugs, micro-aggressions, refrigerator mothers.

There are real problems to be solved and there are real solutions. They are rarely simple or easy. The burden of real problem solving is probably what creates such an incentive for hysterical approaches.

UPDATE: I did a google trends to explore the relative frequency of self-esteem, self-discipline, self-control, self confidence and girl power. The old fashioned virtues of self-esteem, self-discipline, self-control are steady but unpopular. Self-esteem has declined since 2004 and was overtaken by the more specialized but just as undermining "girl power" around 2007
Double click to enlarge.

Kind of an important omission it would seem

Martin Van Buren was something of an odd duck of a president. He was our first president to have been born a US citizen (i.e. the first elected president to have been born after Independence.) He was our only president for whom English was not his native tongue. Of Dutch heritage, he only learned English once he began attending school. He was the first president to have been elected not to have either a military commission or a university degree. He was the second president (after Thomas Jefferson) who was a widower when elected and he remained a widower during his full term as President.

I have just been told, and can find nothing to contradict the claim, that his 700 page The Autobiography of Martin Van Buren is notable for not mentioning either his wife or his presidency. Kind of an important omission it would seem.

One little wandering, western star

At A Window
by Carl Sandburg

Give me hunger,
O you gods that sit and give
The world its orders.
Give me hunger, pain and want,
Shut me out with shame and failure
From your doors of gold and fame,
Give me your shabbiest, weariest hunger!

But leave me a little love,
A voice to speak to me in the day end,
A hand to touch me in the dark room
Breaking the long loneliness.
In the dusk of day-shapes
Blurring the sunset,
One little wandering, western star
Thrust out from the changing shores of shadow.
Let me go to the window,
Watch there the day-shapes of dusk
And wait and know the coming
Of a little love.

All emotion, little science and no data

From NYT Peddles More Global Warming Science Without Numbers by Robert Tracinski. Tracinski does a nice job of addressing the weakness of science reporting in the mainstream media, particularly when it touches on subjects of ideological faith.
Recently, I noted the basic pattern of science reporting on global warming, particularly as practiced by The New York Times: feeding you an overall conclusion, illustrated with pretty pictures designed to make you feel like you’ve been given information—but withholding from you the real numbers you would need to actually evaluate and understand the issues.

I can’t overstate how important this is. There is no science without numbers. Science can’t get by on qualitative descriptions. If you say the average global temperature in 2016 was “higher” than in 2015, that’s not science. It could be a lot higher or a little higher. It could be a number that is enormous, or it could be a number that is literally insignificant. (And if they don’t tell you the number, guess which of those it is likely to be.) So to impart information of actual scientific value, a reporter needs to give you a specific number and a margin of error.


Now they’re at it again. Remember what I said about pretty pictures? They’ve got a big new article, not by one of their science reporters, but by their graphics editor. The article is about the shrinking glaciers at Glacier National Park.

This is kind of a big deal if you’re a park ranger, because that’s the draw to bring people to the park. It’s right there in the name. On the other hand, glaciers have been in decline in North America for—well, for a very long time. During the last Ice Age, they covered most of the continent and came as far south as Virginia. But they’ve been in decline since the big natural global warming of 10,000 years ago, so they’ve been reduced to hiding out in a few mountains in Montana.

We can already suspect this is a long-term, natural decline. But nothing can be attributed to mere natural causes any more. It all has to be because of global warming. And that’s what the New York Times report claims.

Yet if the glaciers at Glacier National Park are declining because of warming temperatures, there’s one thing we would expect to know: how much have temperatures increased in Glacier National Park? How much warmer has it gotten, in order to melt all of those glaciers so fast?

That number, you will not be surprised to know, is not given in the New York Times article. At all. And you will probably be even less surprised to find out what the numbers actually show: that temperatures in Glacier National Park haven’t warmed.
Tracinski provides the data that the NYT does not and the data demonstrates that for the past 20 years (from one data set within the park) and the past 100 years (from another data set taking in a larger geographic area), there has been no change in temperature patterns.
Keep this in mind when you go back and read the New York Times article. Suddenly you see how the article acknowledges that the glaciers in the park “have been shrinking rapidly since the late 1800s, when North America emerged from the ‘Little Ice Age,’ a period of regionally colder, snowier weather that lasted for roughly 400 years.”

Cue that record-scratching sound. The little what? The Little Ice Age was a period of colder temperatures in Europe and North America from about the year 1300 to 1850. Because accurate, systematic global thermometer measurements don’t go back that far, we know about the Little Ice Age from contemporary accounts, which describe significantly colder conditions, and from estimates based on other measurements (like tree ring growth) that can be used as proxies for temperature. At any rate, the last 150 years or so have been a slight natural warming from the temperatures of the Little Ice Age.


Against that, all we have are a few assertions that the glaciers have been receding much more quickly—really, we assure you—than they otherwise would have. But we have no numbers, no projections, and no cause and effect. All we get is a link to a single paper in Science, which—if you bother to go through the registration process—you discover is not about the glaciers in Glacier National Park at all. It is based on computer models “not of individual glaciers but of all the world’s glaciers outside of Antarctica combined.”

So The New York Times may want to make Glacier National Park into a symbol of the impact of global warming, but they haven’t given us a single scientific reason to think this is actually true. In short, it’s the basic method of “science reporting” on global warming in the mainstream media. They’ve handed down to us the conclusions that we are supposed to hold, without giving any evidence to back it up.
I have been an environmental conservationist my whole sentient life. I am passionate about the preservation of species, ecological systems and the environment. I am also a reasonably knowledgeable practitioner of the scientific method. What I see in our AGW discussion has little to do with effective environmental conservation and science and is mostly to do with ideological emotionalism bordering on religious fanaticism. As Tracisnki notes, this NYT article is par for the course when it comes to anthropogenic global warming (AGW). All emotion, little science and no data.

Most the mainstream media functions not only as a purveyor of religious belief but also as a modern day Inquisition, seeking to shame and root out deniers, apostates, and blasphemers. What the MSM Inquisition fails to distinguish is that there is a continuum from the faith-based believers, through apostates, to agnostics to atheists. The Inquisition's claim of "Climate Deniers" is simply an indictment that you are not a member of the faith, the equivalent of an apostate or atheist. What the Inquisition fails to distinguish is that, when it comes to climate change, not only are most people not a member of the faith but most people are agnostics rather than apostates or atheists. The agnostics are not "Climate Deniers", they are Science Investigators: they want the data, the reasoning and the evidence to support the claims.

If you adhere to the scientific method, you recognize that climate is a classic example of a complex system - many contributing parts, chaotic, multi-causal, subject to hidden feedback loops, and non-linear. You also recognize that climate, dealing with patterns over centuries or millennia, presents a difficult data challenge. We have only had reliable satellite data for the past four decades or so. Before then, we are relying on core sampling, dendrology, variable/unreliable earth-based thermometers, etc. Not only are there large margins of error in the measurement of each of those variables, but not infrequently the variables conflict with one another.

In addition, all our concern about AGW is based on forecasting models and can be dated to circa 1970s/1980s when we switched from being concerned about an impending global ice age to being concerned about AGW. In those forty years, the models have periodically incorporated a larger and larger set of variables as our scientific awareness has expanded. Things like the heat sink effect of oceans, the complex role of cloud cover, the episodic/chaotic effect of volcanic activity, natural sources of CO2, recalibration of the rapidity of CO2 take-up in increased vegetation, oceanic oscillation, solar cycles, etc. On top of that, the models have had a terrible record of backcasting and forecasting.

There is nothing wrong with the models incorporating new scientific understanding. But you cannot simultaneously believe that the science is settled and also believe that the models should incorporate new knowledge which materially affect their forecasts.

Finally, there is the on-going politicization of the climate discussion which first came to broader public attention when the East Anglia University leak of emails revealed the extent to which AGW advocates were seeking to modify data records, spin interpretation, suppress inconsistent data, suppress research inconsistent with their beliefs, punish real scientists whose conclusions were solely driven by data, and the AGW believers's efforts to ensure an ongoing flow of funding.

System complexity, data paucity and unreliability, model inaccuracy and inconsistency, and evidence of collusion against the scientific method are all sufficient reasons to be at least agnostic about the underpinnings of the AGW faith. You don't have to be either ignorant or anti-science to have doubts. Yet the mainstream media such as the NYT is consistent in characterizing any questioning of the faith as anti-science and denialism.

The mainstream media which cannot, as fisked by Tracinski in this article, even bring itself to make the scientific case for its faith-based beliefs.

Our minor morbidities, or sulky vanities and malicious self-righteousness

From Lunacy and Letters by G.K. Chesterton.
It is indeed, an absurd exaggeration to say that we are all mad, just as it is true that we are none of us perfectly healthy. If there were to appear in the world a perfectly sane man, he would certainly be locked up. The terrible simplicity with which he would walk over our minor morbidities, or sulky vanities and malicious self-righteousness; the elephantine innocence with which he would ignore our fictions or civilization—these would make him a thing more desolating and inscrutable than a thunderbolt or a beast or prey. It may be that the great prophets who appeared to mankind as mad were in reality raving with an impotent sanity.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

You are never as alert as you think you are

This surprised me. From Suicide Among Veterans and Other Americans 2001–2014. As alert as I try to remain about seeing problems holistically and not just from the angle advocates wish me to see them, it is still easy to be subverted by your own assumptions.

For the past few years, the media has been filled with numerous articles about the tragedy of veteran suicides, now occurring at 20 a day. The evidence in the articles is based on how dramatically higher suicide rates among veterans are compared to the suicide rate in general population.

I am predisposed to believe that we do an inadequate job with mental health anyway, and I also am predisposed to believe that military service entails stresses of a type and degree which are probably contributive to elevated psychological stresses and therefore potentially suicide. Therefore, these articles were entirely consistent with my assumptions.

At the same time, as I point out dozens of times in this blog, you always have to compare apples-to-apples.

And I did not ever ask that of myself when processing an article about veteran suicide. But the report above points out:
After adjusting for differences in age and gender, risk for suicide was 21 percent higher among Veterans when compared with U.S. civilian adults.
The risk of suicide is elevated for veterans, but not nearly to the degree that I assumed. I failed to compare apples-to-apples. Suicide is overwhelmingly prevalent among males and therefore, since the military is overwhelmingly male, you would expect the rate among veterans to be higher.

Separate from the above epistemic issues, I have long been concerned about mental health and suicide as two areas in which we do poorly and should do better. The clarification from the report doesn't change that at all. But it is a cognitive surprise when something you casually assumed you understood reasonably well turns out to be different than you understood. It is even more humbling when it is for reasons against which you thought you were well protected.

The price of liberty may be eternal vigilance but so is the price of truth. It is easy to let your guard down and simply see what you expect to see.

Predetermined policy recommendations

Thoughts prompted by Saving, cost control, and infrastructure by Scott Sumner. This is an issue that is currently almost surpassingly complex, mostly because the payoffs are so large, the principles so fundamental, and the inducements for obfuscation so extreme.

When it comes to infrastructure, we don't even know what we are talking about much less whether or how to address it. Is there an infrastructure crisis in the US? I don't know. All my adult life, there have been cycles of bewailing the dilapidated state of our infrastructure. But is it really that dilapidated? What's the evidence? Anecdotally, living and working across much of the country and averaging all those places, I can't make a clear case that infrastructure is that much worse than it was three of four decades ago. Sure, specific issues in specific locations but not an overall systemic decline. In fact, based solely on personal experience, I would have to say that the general condition of infrastructure has improved, not declined. But anecdote is no substitute for empirical evidence objectively collected. Comprehensive, robust standardized empirical evidence seems in short supply.

Sumner's argument is summarized:
Places like Singapore have nice infrastructure because they have pro-saving public policies and effective cost controls on construction projects. America has neither. As long as this is the state of affairs, we will not have top-notch infrastructure, no matter how much money the federal government throws at the problem.
The first thing I would like to see is some sort of realistic comparison of apples-to-apples. It is easy to look at gleaming public infrastructure in Singapore and say they must be doing something right while we are doing something wrong. But you have to do a 360 degree view of the picture. What did it cost them? What have been the benefits? Who has benefited? Who has lost? Who has paid how much? What is being compared to what?

Singapore is, too all intents and purposes, a modern state. Literally. At the end of WWII Singapore was a small, devastated island of only 880,000 people with virtually no infrastructure. It now is home to some 5.5 million people with everything built from scratch in those seventy years. Most of it in the past thirty-five years. Of course, it is gleaming. It is all new. None of what I am trying to say is intended to take away from the accomplishments of Singapore. The point is that if Sumner wishes to make his case on comparisons, he needs to be comparing apples-to-apples. The US has older infrastructure because the US is an older country.

There is systems perspective as well. It's not just about how old or new is the infrastructure. It is easy to see that major construction companies, unions, and local governments all have an incentive to increase infrastructure building, particularly if some or all the costs can be off-loaded onto someone else (such as the federal government and taxpayers across the country). That's one side of the ledger, the proponents who benefit. But we also have to look at the other side of the ledger, other projects such as education and health, which do not get funded, property rights which get subverted, etc.

I periodically read about just how many dams, bridges, roadways, sewer lines, airports, sewer lines, etc. need to be upgraded or replaced. But is that true? What is the average life span of a well constructed and well maintained infrastructure project? Fifty years? A hundred years? Just what percentage of bridge collapses, dam failures, sewer line erosions occur in a year? Blessedly, relatively few.

I have lived and travelled in London, Paris, Stockholm, Sydney, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore, Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, etc. Every one of those cities has a range of trade-offs that they make between politics, policy, state power, human rights, citizen rights, etc. None of those trade-offs are easy and few of them are optimal.

Catch them at the right time in a thirty year business cycle and the impression is much more positive than on the down side of a cycle. In the 1970s, Britain's transportation infrastructure was abysmal. By the 2000s it was much, much better but inordinately expensive and with a narrower range of options than virtually any city in the US. France does much better at public infrastructure but with the loss of citizen property rights compared to the US.

Infrastructure does have to be maintained. Over decades it does have to be upgraded or replaced. There is no denying those realities. But at what cost and at what rate?

There are so many other issues that factor into the discussion. In this article, Sumner is leading off with the fact that infrastructure (in this case subway tunnels) cost nearly seven times more to build in New York City than they do in places like Singapore, London, Paris, etc.

On that pitiful foundation (talk about weak infrastructure), Sumner leaps to a coercive policy recommendation that we should have compulsory savings accounts, the argument being that increased savings will decrease the cost of capital for major construction projects.

That's economically true, forced saving would increase the supply of capital and reduce its cost. However, is scarce, expensive capital what is driving the construction costs in New York? Is capital indeed scarce? It seems to me that the answer is no and no. The world has been awash with capital seeking returns for more than a decade. It is cheap already. Scarcity and expense of capital doesn't seem to be a constraint. And how much does the cost of capital actually affect the cost of construction? Some, certainly, but not all that much in the scheme of things.

If the cost of New York City construction is seven times that in Singapore, it is for reasons other than the cost of capital. Excess regulation, stronger property rights, conflicting policies (using more expensive union labor over non-union), stronger environmental protections, stronger court systems for protecting individual rights, etc. seem more likely candidates for the excess of costs in the US over those in other countries.

Bringing construction costs in the US down would likely entail weakening property rights, environmental protections, reducing policies that favor unions, weakening the powers of courts to delay projects, and basically weakening citizen rights in the face of State powers.

I am sympathetic to the argument that our protections are too strong or that the cost consequences of those protections are counterproductive to long term well-being. Fair enough. But that is the argument we need to have. Just how much protection is too much? Let's be open and honest that that is the debate.

There is no magic pot of gold that gives us the free lunch we want. Someone has to pay in some fashion.

Public infrastructure is a systems question. Costs and benefits, determinism and risk, payers and beneficiaries, subsidies and lost alternatives. You have to be asking systems questions not making your argument on apples and oranges comparisons and ignoring all the trade-offs and alternatives.

Saving, cost control, and infrastructure seems to be exactly what is wrong. Glib observations deriving from misperceptions based on shallow data leading to predetermined policy recommendations.

Castles and Catherdrals

From Lunacy and Letters by G. K. Chesterton
If you wish for a sharp test to divide the true romantic from the false (a useful thing when considering the claims of a poet, a son-in-law, or a professor of modern history), about the best I can think of is this: that the false romantic likes castles as much as cathedrals. If the poet or the lover admires the ruins of a feudal fortress as much as the ruins of a religious house, then what he admires is ruins; and he is a ruin himself. He likes medievalism because it is now dead, not because it was once alive; and his pleasure in the poetic past is as frivolous as a fancy-dress ball. For castles only bear witness to ambitions, to ambitions that are dead; dead by being frustrated or dead by being fulfilled. But the cathedrals bear witness not to ambitions but to ideals; and to ideals that are still alive. They are more than alive, indeed they are immortal because they are ideals that no man has ever been able to frustrate or to fulfill.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Many leading humanitarians have an objection to human beings

From On Keeping a Dog by G.K. Chesterton.
Here, however, I only want to maintain that the real experience of things is often much better than our poetic anticipation of them; that peaks are often higher than they look in pictures and truths more terribly true than they appear in copy-books. Take, for example. the innovation which I of late introduced into my domestic life; he is a four-legged innovation in the shape of an Aberdeen terrier. I have always imagined myself to be a lover of all animals, because I have never met any animal that I definitely disliked. Most people draw the line somewhere. Lord Roberts dislikes cats; the best woman I know objects to spiders; a Theoeophist I know protects, but detests, mice; and many leading humanitarians have an objection to human beings.


But there is something deeper in the matter than all that, only the hour is late, and both the dog and I are too drowsy to interpret it. He lies in front of me curled up before the fire, as so many dogs must have lain before so many fires. I sit on one side of that hearth, as so many men must have sat by so many hearths. Somehow this creature has completed my manhood; somehow, I cannot explain why, a man ought to have a dog. A man ought to have six legs; those other four legs are part of him. Our alliance is older than any of the passing and priggish explanations that are offered of either of us; before evolution was, we were. You can find it written in a book that I am a mere survival of a squabble of anthropoid apes; and perhaps I am. I am sure I have no objection. But my dog knows I am a man, and you will not find the meaning of that word written in any book as clearly as it is written in his soul.

It may be written in a book that my dog is canine; and from this it may be deduced that he must hunt with a pack, since all canines hunt with a pack. Hence it may be argued (in the book) that if I have one Aberdeen terrier I ought to have twenty-five Aberdeen terriers. But my dog knows that I do not ask him to hunt with a pack; he knows that I do not care a curse whether he is canine or not so long as he is my dog. That is the real secret of the matter which the superficial evolutionists cannot be got to see. If traceable history be the test, civilization is much older than the savagery of evolution. The civilized dog is older than the wild dog of science. The civilized man is older than the primitive man of science. We feel it in our bones that we are the antiquities, and that the visions of biology are the fancies and the fads. The books do not matter; the night is closing in, and it is too dark to read books. Faintly against the fading firelight can be traced the prehistoric outlines of the man and the dog.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Postmodernism "and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades"

From DENNETT ON WIESELTIER V. PINKER IN THE NEW REPUBLIC Let's Start With A Respect For Truth by Daniel C. Dennett. A Two Cultures argument a la C.P. Snow.

I was interested because it is such a vocal, but rare, argument against the ludditism, intolerance, bigotry and authoritarianism of postmodernists and their ilk (critical theory, critical race theory, gender studies, deconstructionism, postcolonial theory, multiculturalism, etc.).
Postmodernism, the school of "thought" that proclaimed "There are no truths, only interpretations" has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for "conversations" in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster. Wieseltier concedes the damage done to the humanities by postmodernism "and other unfortunate hermeneutical fashions of recent decades" but tries to pin this debacle on the "progressivism" the humanities was tempted to borrow from science. "The humanities do not progress linearly, additively, sequentially, like the sciences," he avers, in the face of centuries of scholarship and criticism in the humanities that have corrected, enlarged, illuminated, and advanced the understanding of all its topics and texts. All that accumulated knowledge used to be regarded as the intellectual treasure we humanities professors were dedicated to transmitting to the next generation, and Pinker is encouraging us to return to that project, armed with some new intellectual tools—both thinking tools (theories and methods and models and the like) and data-manipulating tools (computers, optical character recognition, statistics, data banks). Wieseltier wants no part of this, but his alternative is surprisingly reminiscent of the just discredited fads; perhaps he has not completely purged his mind of the germs of postmodernism.


Pomposity can be amusing, but pomposity sitting like an oversized hat on top of fear is hilarious. Wieseltier is afraid that the humanities are being overrun by thinkers from outside, who dare to tackle their precious problems—or "problematics" to use the, um, technical term favored by many in the humanities. He is right to be afraid. It is true that there is a crowd of often overconfident scientists impatiently addressing the big questions with scant appreciation of the subtleties unearthed by philosophers and others in the humanities, but the way to deal constructively with this awkward influx is to join forces and educate them, not declare them out of bounds. The best of the "scientizers" (and Pinker is one of them) know more philosophy, and argue more cogently and carefully, than many of the humanities professors who dismiss them and their methods on territorial grounds. You can't defend the humanities by declaring it off limits to amateurs. The best way for the humanities to get back their mojo is to learn from the invaders and re-acquire the respect for truth that they used to share with the sciences.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

He saw no reason to challenge the premises of a social dispensation that had contrived to produce a man as genial and accomplished as himself

From The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. Describing Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Yet he was unabashedly provincial. His chief ambition was to represent the Boston point of view in all things. (He also suffered from asthma, which made travel uncomfortable.) On the other hand, he regarded the Boston point of view as pretty much the only point of view worth representing. He considered Boston "the thinking centre of the continent, and therefore of the planet." Or as he also put it, in a phrase that became the city's nickname for itself: "Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system." He was an enemy of Calvinism (which had been his father's religion) and a rationalist, but his faith in good breeding was nearly atavistic, and he saw no reason to challenge the premises of a social dispensation that had, over the course of two centuries, contrived to produce a man as genial and accomplished as himself.

Crows commute 20 miles to work

From The Secret Life of Urban Crows by James Ross Gardner.
There was nothing at first, just an empty sky. Then, a caw. A crow appeared on a nearby power line. Then another caw and another crow. Suddenly crows flew in from all directions. Their plaintive entreaties soon combined into a chorus. New arrivals joined what quickly grew into a cacophonous dervish of black silhouettes swirling directly above Swift.

It was like sorcery. Conjuring dozens of birds from thin air by simply removing fabric from a body.

This, according to Swift, is what its like to attend a crow funeral—an instinctive ritual that evolved generations ago and was just discovered by humans; Swift coauthored an article on her findings in the journal Animal Behaviour in 2015. The gist: Upon spotting one of its dead, the flock attends to the fallen bird en masse with loud shrieking. Given enough time the throng will mob any predator it thinks is responsible, like say, a human in a Dick Cheney mask, or in a mask like the one Swift had in her bag (the lab affectionately refers to that be-soul-patched fellow as Joe).
But what if I were to tell you that the crows you spy in your yard are almost always the same individual crows? That those birds—usually two, a male and a female known as a territorial pair—don’t live there but fly in every day from 20 miles away? During the day urban crows rummage and build nests in a specific spot, in a specific neighborhood, then decamp for the evening to a massive, crowded roost outside the city—their own crow planet— and report back to the neighborhoods each morning. Like you, they commute to work.

TDS and lingustics

There are so many elite factions struggling so mightily to protect their vested interests in the populist era of Trump, that it is hard to sort the wheat from the chaff in mainstream media reporting. The problem is exacerbated by there being an inordinate proportion of chaff. AKA fake news in the form of speculation, misinterpretation, stories based on anonymous sources, cognitive biases and simple straight-forward self-serving spinning. This disposition to extreme trafficking in partisan rumors has already led to the coinage Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS).

I recently came across an article that seemed to fall into that category, Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change? by Sharon Begley. Begley is trying to give credence to the idea that Trump is suffering some form of cognitive impairment based on the patterns of his speech. Basically it comes down to: "The president is crazy. A few of my friends agree." This is, of course, simply a single element of the larger effort to establish grounds to remove a president elected by the people but hated by the elite.

Of course such politically motivated speculation based on communication patterns is nothing new. Conservatives during the Obama era took delight in highlighting Obama's dependency on teleprompters and the challenges he faced in speaking articulately without one.

Double click to enlarge.

Well, there is one difference. Conservatives generally were seeking to denigrate Obama's intelligence or talent for public speaking, rather than trying to make a case for cognitive incapacity as Begley seems to be doing.

The reporting of Begley's speculation was in such outlets as Huffington Post. I read the headline and nothing more, anticipating that the research or reportage or both would be the product of TDS.

Which is unfortunate as there are a couple of legitimate issues in here.

While Ronald Reagan's presidency was immensely successful in many respects, he was, at that time, our oldest elected presidents and his age was always a partisan talking point and criticism. Reagan, being the communication master that he was, turned the criticism on its head in the October 21, 1984 second presidential debate against Walter Mondale. Henry "Hank" Trewhitt of the Baltimore Sun asked:
You already are the oldest President in history, and some of your staff say you were tired after your most recent encounter with Mr. Mondale. I recall, yes, that President Kennedy, who had to go for days on end with very little sleep during the Cuba missile crisis. Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to function in such circumstances?
To which Reagan famously replied:
Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience.
And yet, it is a fair question. Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer's just five years after leaving office. Were there demonstrable symptoms earlier, perhaps in the closing years of his presidency? Did it affect his performance? And how could we know? In a chronic wasting condition of that sort, there is no red line of transition, just increasing shades of grey.

At what point can a chronic condition, mental or physical, be considered disbarring of office? It is ironic that Trewhitt used Kennedy as the counterexample to age, positing him as young and vigorous. While youth and vigor were the Kennedy campaign brand, that was not Kennedy's condition at the time. Would we today consider John F. Kennedy unfit for office owing to his heavy dependence on an "extraordinary variety of medications" for a wide range of serious physical conditions?

While these are all good questions, it is almost impossible to have a discussion of the issues in a political context. The answers are predetermined by one's partisanship, not by query and evidence.

While I did not read Begley's original charge sheet, I did read Donald Trump: Cognitive decline or TDS? by Mark Liberman. Liberman is a professor of linguistics at my alma mater, University of Pennsylvania. Liberman is skeptical of Begley's thesis on methodological grounds. Begley appears to have made her criticism by creating a possible hypothesis rather than working the scientific method to create a plausible argument.

STAT may have reviewed decades of Donald Trump’s on-air interviews, but what’s presented in the article is a scant handful of anecdotes. There’s one example of a verbal flub from an (unidentified) interview in May of 2017; 41 seconds of a Larry King interview from 1987; 13 seconds from another unidentified NBC News interview “earlier this month”; a hundred words of transcript from an unidentified “interview with the Associated Press last month”; and one or two other fragments. Begley asserts that
[L]inguistic decline is also obvious in two interviews with David Letterman, in 1988 and 2013, presumably with much the same kind of audience. In the first, Trump threw around words such as “aesthetically” and “precarious,” and used long, complex sentences. In the second, he used simpler speech patterns, few polysyllabic words, and noticeably more fillers such as “uh” and “I mean.”
This comparison between 1988 and 2013 brought to mind a post from November 6th, 2014, When progress doesn't at first seem like progress. In it I note research indicating "Presidential speeches have been declining in complexity since 1800, with a big drop in complexity circa 1925." In 1800, presidential speeches came in as college level in their structural complexity and vocabulary choice. In recent decades they are at a sixth-grade level.

Under Begley's position, our presidential cognitive capability has declined by more than half since the beginning of Republic. While there is a certain nostalgic attachment to the idea of declinism, I do not think such an indulgence is sustainable when you look at the academic, military, commercial, and political achievements of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, etc. No fools they, regardless of how you might assess their policy or moral conditions.

Conceding those accomplishments highlights a fundamental weakness of Begley's position. As I note in When progress doesn't at first seem like progress, presidential speech complexity did not decline because presidents became cognitively more disabled. The speeches became simpler as the electorate expanded from educated property owners to all citizens. Presidents deliberately simplified their speech patterns.

Occam's Razor suggests that what is true historically might also be true for individuals. In 1988 Donald Trump was a property and casino developer, also involved in event promotions (wrestling and boxing). 1988 was also his first consideration whether to run for the presidency (he did not). It would hardly be surprising that since 1988, his speech patterns and habits would have changed. He became a daily radio talk show host from 2004-2008. He was executive producer and star of a reality show, The Apprentice from 2003 to 2015. He owned and ran the Miss Universe pageant from 1996 till 2015.

One would expect his speech patterns to morph from those acceptable in the boardroom and at the negotiating table to patterns more pertinent to a wide American and global audience. I am making no argument as to whether those patterns should be deemed appropriate or effective, simply that you would expect there to have been change. Begley has to disentangle changes resulting from changed audiences and changed contexts to changes that might be arising from cognitive function (her thesis).

As far as I can tell, she makes no effort to disentangle these confounding variables and therefore her thesis remains possible but not yet plausible.

Liberman reaches the same conclusion but on methodological grounds.
So Begley and her mostly-unnamed “experts in neurolinguistics and cognitive assessment, as well as psychologists and psychiatrists” might be right to wave their hands at “a neurodegenerative disease or the normal cognitive decline that comes with aging”. But the evidence that they offer is anecdotal at best, without even citations or links to let readers check out the context of the anecdotes.
J.W. Brewer, in the comments, makes a point not dissimilar to mine:
I am fascinated to note that three out of the four things “indicative of dementia” according to Fraser et al as summarized in the Neurocritic blog post linked above sound exactly like things a fully cognitively-competent person might deliberately do in order to communicate more effectively to a comparatively unsophisticated audience of oh let’s say swing voters in a swing state.

“Semantic impairment – using overly simple words”
“Acoustic impairment – e.g., speaking more slowly”
“Syntactic impairment – using less complex grammar”

I expect my own idiolect is different in all sorts of ways from Trump’s earlier idiolect as exhibited in the vintage talking-to-Letterman clips, but I certainly suspect that I would not be a particularly effective giver of political stump speeches to an audience of median American registered voters, not least on account of how, left to my own devices, I almost certainly (as judged for optimal rapport with that sort of audience): a) use too many complicated/obscure words; b) talk too fast; and c) use unduly complex or convoluted syntax. If for some improbable reason I wanted to learn to communicate effectively to that sort of audience in that sort of context, I would need a lot of coaching to help me develop all three of those “impairments.”

Friday, May 26, 2017

Charming and vivacious

We attended, this morning, the funeral and celebration of life of a charming, vivacious woman who was a model of good cheer, happy acceptance, and respectful interest in people, Sally Tyler Lehr.

There were five or six hundred people in attendance and the service was very much a joyous celebration of life.
A beloved Emory University professor, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, and friend, Sally lived with intention and loved well. She will be remembered by many for her infectious smile, her great sense of humor, and her unconditional love for everyone she met.
In that wonderful Southern way, it was a service of stories. Stories humorous, illuminating and touching.

Among her many roles, Sally was a professor of nursing at Emory University. There were many, many touching moments in the service, but among the most touching was when the euologist asked everyone who had been a student of hers to stand and perhaps fifty or so women rose. Women from fresh young students to matrons of established years. What a legacy. We will miss her.

A full memory of her is here.

Every year he drank a glass of wine in observance of the anniversary of the battle of Antietam

From The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. Menand opens with a discussion of one of the founding members of the Metaphysical Club, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., was an officer in the Union Army. He stood six feet three inches tall and had a soldierly bearing. In later life, he loved to use military metaphors in his speeches and his conversation; he didn't mind being referred to good-naturedly as Captain Holmes; and he wore his enormous military mustaches until his death, in 1935, at the age of ninety-three. The war was the central experience of his life, and he kept its memory alive. Every year he drank a glass of wine in observance of the anniversary of the battle of Antietam, where he had been shot in the neck and left, briefly behind enemy lines, for dead.

But Holmes hated the war. He was twenty years old and weighed just 136 pounds at the time of his first battle, at Ball's Bluff, where he was shot through the chest. He fought bravely and he was resilient, but he was not strong in a brute sense, and as the war went on the physical ordeal was punishing. He was wounded three times in all, the third time in an engagement leading up to the battle of Chancellorsville, when he was shot in the foot. He hoped the foot would have to be amputated so he could be discharged, but it was spared, and he served out his commission. Many of his friends were killed in battle, some of them in front of his eyes. Those glasses of wine were toasts to pain.

Holmes recovered from the wounds. The effects of the mental or-deal were permanent. He had gone off to fight because of his moral beliefs, which he held with singular fervor. The war did more than make him lose those beliefs. It made him lose his belief in beliefs. It impressed on his mind, in the most graphic and indelible way, a certain idea about the limits of ideas. This idea he stuck to, with a grimness and, at times, a cynicism that have occasionally repelled people who have studied his life and thought. But it is the idea that underlies many of the opinions he wrote, long after the war ended, as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court. To understand the road Holmes had to travel in order to write those opinions, we have to go back to one of the worlds the Civil War made obsolete, the world of prewar Boston.

Predictive capacities tend to select for unpredictability in counter-strategies

From Protean primates: The evolution of adaptive unpredictability in competition and courtship by Geoffrey Miller
From the Abstract:
Machiavellian intelligence evolves because it lets primates predict and manipulate each others’ behavior. But game theory suggests that evolution will not stop there: predictive capacities tend to select for unpredictability in counter-strategies, just as many competitive games favor “mixed” (stochastic) strategies. For example, prey animals often evolve “protean” (adaptively unpredictable) evasion behavior to foil the predictive pursuit tactics used by their predators. The same adaptive logic should apply to more abstract social tactics, but protean social behavior remains overlooked in primatology and psychology, because complex order rather than useful chaos has been considered the hallmark of evolved adaptations. This chapter reviews the notions of psychological selection from evolutionary theory, mixed strategies from game theory, and protean behavior from behavioral ecology. It then presents six possible types of social proteanism in primates, and develops a model of how sexual selection through mate choice could have elaborated primate social proteanism into human creative intelligence.
An interesting proposition. It certainly seems plausible. However, the world is full of things which are plausible not true and of things which are true but not plausible. Now all we need is the evidence to support the proposition.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Grace, honour, praise, delight

From Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais. Rabelais describes a type of cognitive utopia called, Abbey of Thélème. On the entrance gate to the Abbey there is this inscription.
Grace, honour, praise, delight,
Here sojourn day and night.
Sound bodies lined
With a good mind,
Do here pursue with might
Grace, honour, praise, delight.
Rabelais describes the Abbey:
All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed,
Do What Thou Wilt;
because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour. Those same men, when by base subjection and constraint they are brought under and kept down, turn aside from that noble disposition by which they formerly were inclined to virtue, to shake off and break that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved; for it is agreeable with the nature of man to long after things forbidden and to desire what is denied us.
Regrettably, I suspect our stockpiles of honor are dangerously low. Otherwise this might work.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Health conundrum

From Is Preventive Care Worth the Cost? Evidence from Mandatory Checkups in Japan by Toshiaki Iizuka, Katsuhiko Nishiyama, Brian Chen, Karen Eggleston. The abstract:
Using unique individual-level panel data, we investigate whether preventive medical care triggered by health checkups is worth the cost. We exploit the fact that biomarkers just below and above a threshold may be viewed as random. We find that people respond to health signals and increase physician visits. However, we find no evidence that additional care is cost effective. For the “borderline type” (“pre-diabetes”) threshold for diabetes, medical care utilization increases but neither physical measures nor predicted risks of mortality or serious complications improve. For efficient use of medical resources, cost effectiveness of preventive care must be carefully examined.
This is consistent with much other data I have seen, including natural experiments such as in Oregon. All are either dispositive or ambiguous about the benefit of preventive care.

It is an interesting question. I have been monitoring this and related issues ever since the mid-eighties. As a management consultant I had a Fortune 500 client. It was tangential to my project but they were at that time questioning the investments they had made in employee fitness centers. The justification in part rested on an anticipated improvement in employee health if they were able to more easily access health/exercise centers. It was thought that the monetary investment in fitness centers would be offset by declines in health costs. Fitter, healthier employees should have lower health costs, right?

Their actual experience was that they expended money to build the exercise centers. Employees used the centers but not to quite the extent that they had anticipated. The problem was that they did not see any linkage whatsoever between investments in exercise/health centers and declines in health costs.

And that, in many fashions, seems to have been the pattern since then. It is logical that better fitness and preventative care ought to lower long term healthcare costs but it is hard to find robust evidence that that is actually what happens.

Lamenting the death of expertise is lamenting the loss of power

Tom Nichols has a new book out, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters. I have not read it but have read the original essay from which the book is derived, the eponymous Death of Expertise.

Nichols is a deeply knowledgeable individual but the original essay struck me as an articulation of the arrogance which has become such a force in our governance and to which, I suspect, many voters are reacting. It came across as a plea that the peasants should leave the thinking to the, well, to the experts.
I am (or at least think I am) an expert. Not on everything, but in a particular area of human knowledge, specifically social science and public policy. When I say something on those subjects, I expect that my opinion holds more weight than that of most other people.


I fear we are witnessing the “death of expertise”: a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and laymen, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers – in other words, between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all. By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields. Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live.

This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is silly.
While there are many points in his essay with which I agree, there are as many, or more, with which I disagree. He concludes:
Expertise is necessary, and it’s not going away. Unless we return it to a healthy role in public policy, we’re going to have stupider and less productive arguments every day. So here, presented without modesty or political sensitivity, are some things to think about when engaging with experts in their area of specialization.
1. We can all stipulate: the expert isn’t always right.

2. But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, it shouldn’t engender insecurity or anxiety to think that an expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. (Because, likely, it is.)

3. Experts come in many flavors. Education enables it, but practitioners in a field acquire expertise through experience; usually the combination of the two is the mark of a true expert in a field. But if you have neither education nor experience, you might want to consider exactly what it is you’re bringing to the argument.

4. In any discussion, you have a positive obligation to learn at least enough to make the conversation possible. The University of Google doesn’t count. Remember: having a strong opinion about something isn’t the same as knowing something.

5. And yes, your political opinions have value. Of course they do: you’re a member of a democracy and what you want is as important as what any other voter wants. As a layman, however, your political analysis, has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.
I agree - opinions aren't facts. So why do I disagree with so much of the essay?

Till now I simply left this unanswered. Too many other useful questions to answer first. But I came across an essay, The Expertocracy by Barton Swaim which helped crystalize the issues. I think my objection to Nichols' argument comes down to four elements which I do not think are taken into account in the original article.
Expertise in static and/or simple systems versus expertise in dynamic and/or complex systems.

Credentials versus expertise.

Variance in goals of individuals.

Inclination of experts to prognosticate beyond their realm of expertise.
In many field of expertise, there are bounds on that expertise which allow one to develop not only knowledge but also practice. One can become an expert plumber or an expert orthopedic surgeon because there are limits to the domain of knowledge. Only so much can happen to a leg, only so much variance in a system of plumbing. This is not to deny that those bounds might be broad and complicated, but it acknowledges that those boundaries exist. You can study in the classroom to know everything that there is useful to know and then you can practice to become familiar with the applied knowledge.

On the other hand, there are also innumerable fields of knowledge for which there are no bounds or for which the system is dynamic and complex. It is always changing and exogenous forces impinge to a much greater degree. Politics, diplomacy, sociology, culture, psychology, language, economics, education, etc. Basically, most human systems.

You can know a great deal about these topics. You can be an expert. However, because they are dynamic and complex and subject to exogenous forces, the variability of outcome can be enormous, no matter how much you know. Paul Krugman, winner of the Clark Medal in Economics and the Nobel Prize in Economics, is indisputably an expert. He knows his stuff. But economics is complex, dynamic, and subject to exogenous events.

On election night, as markets plunged on the unexpected news that Donald Trump had won the election, Paul Krugman offered his expert opinion of what was likely to happen.
It really does now look like President Donald J. Trump, and markets are plunging. When might we expect them to recover?

Frankly, I find it hard to care much, even though this is my specialty. The disaster for America and the world has so many aspects that the economic ramifications are way down my list of things to fear.

Still, I guess people want an answer: If the question is when markets will recover, a first-pass answer is never.
A forecast which was almost immediately invalidated by a strong and continuing market rally over many months. Krugman is routinely wrong about many economic things. It is wrong to say he is ignorant, and it is too easy to say that he is simply a partisan commentator. You can know a great deal about economics and still wrestle with making reliably useful forecasts of cause and consequence. It is the nature of a boundless, complex, dynamic system that is consequentially affected by exogenous events.

Credentialism is another bane. There are many people who have credentials but who do not know what they are talking about. I am not sure that needs much elaboration other than to say that with the rise in university attendance, credentialism has become even more prevalent than in the past.

A most critical issue is the totalitarian mindset which admits only one set of goals. However arrived at, there are only one set of goals and all knowledge/expertise is purposed towards achieving those goals. It puts the personal preferences of the expert above those of everyone else.

Keeping with the theme of economics, most mainstream economists are reasonably ardent in their support for unfettered global trade or at least managed trade. And they are perfectly correct - free trade leads to better allocation of resources, reduced waste, and rising prosperity for the global system. But, critically, not for every person.

When trade restrictions fall, there will always be some group of people who suffer from the changes. The expert in global trade can afford to make decisions about global trade because they will not be affected by those changes. Those who will lose their jobs and their communities might be willing to accept a marginally lower standard of living in order to maintain their communities and livelihoods.

The final weakness in the argument for deference to experts is that experts never stay within their domains of expertise. They have opinions about many things, most, necessarily, being unrelated to their expertise. They trade on their expertise in one field in order to gain power or influence in a separate field in which they have an interest but not expertise.

The above case of Krugman is likely an example of this. Yes, he is an expert in economics but he is also a rabid political partisan who hates conservatives in general and Republicans in particular. His forecast that markets would never recover from the election of Donald Trump was almost certainly not an expert economic opinion, though issued under the color of authority of expertise, but rather a passionate partisan comment. A comment on politics, a field in which he has no expertise.

UPDATE: A related argument is being made in On truth: A revolt against deference by Frank Furedi

Higher education enrollment declines 1.5%

From Current Term Enrollment Estimates – Spring 2017 by National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Probably primarily just a product of declining cohort of 18 year-olds but clearly there are other dynamics in play including the increasing cost, the increasing repression on campus, and sometimes (such as University of Missouri which has declined 15% since its BLM protests) decreasing effectiveness of campus leadership and disconnect from the paying public. Strange we haven't seen much press about this.

From the article:
In spring 2017, overall postsecondary enrollments decreased 1.5 percent from the previous spring. Figure 1 shows the 12-month percentage change (fall-to-fall and spring-to-spring) for each term over the last three years. Enrollments decreased among four-year for-profit institutions (-10.1 percent), two-year public institutions (-2.5 percent), and four-year private nonprofit institutions (-0.2 percent). Enrollments increased slightly among four-year public institutions (+0.2 percent). Taken as a whole, public sector enrollments (two-year and four-year combined) declined by 0.9 percent this spring.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Before the gods that made the gods

The opening stanzas of The Ballad of the White Horse by G.K. Chesterton
Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.

Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.

Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.

For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.

For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.

Only about a third of the IT workforce has an IT-related college degree

From Guestworkers in the high-skill U.S. labor market An analysis of supply, employment, and wage trends by Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn, and B. Lindsay Lowell. From the summary:
This paper reviews and analyzes the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) labor market and workforce and the supply of high-skill temporary foreign workers, who serve as “guestworkers.” It addresses three central issues in the ongoing discussion about the need for high-skill guestworkers in the United States:
Is there a problem producing enough STEM-educated students at sufficient performance levels to supply the labor market?

How large is the flow of guestworkers into the STEM workforce and into the information technology (IT) workforce in particular? And what are the characteristics of these workers?

What are the dynamics of the STEM labor market, and what are the employment and wage trends in the IT labor market?
Analysis of these issues provides the basis for assessing the extent of demand for STEM workers and the impact of guestworker flows on the STEM and IT workforces.

Our examination of the IT labor market, guestworker flows, and the STEM education pipeline finds consistent and clear trends suggesting that the United States has more than a sufficient supply of workers available to work in STEM occupations:
The flow of U.S. students (citizens and permanent residents) into STEM fields has been strong over the past decade, and the number of U.S. graduates with STEM majors appears to be responsive to changes in employment levels and wages.

For every two students that U.S. colleges graduate with STEM degrees, only one is hired into a STEM job.

In computer and information science and in engineering, U.S. colleges graduate 50 percent more students than are hired into those fields each year; of the computer science graduates not entering the IT workforce, 32 percent say it is because IT jobs are unavailable, and 53 percent say they found better job opportunities outside of IT occupations. These responses suggest that the supply of graduates is substantially larger than the demand for them in industry.
Analyzing new data, drawing on a number of our prior analyses, and reviewing other studies of wages and employment in the STEM and IT industries, we find that industry trends are strikingly consistent:
Over the past decade IT employment has gradually increased, but it only recovered to its 2000–2001 peak level by the end of the decade.

Wages have remained flat, with real wages hovering around their late 1990s levels.
We also find that, while there were strong increases in the number of computer science graduates and entrants from other fields that supply the IT industry during the late 1990s, after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001 a declining number of both guestworkers and U.S. students entered the IT pipeline. But since then, the number of IT college graduates has recovered modestly, while the number of guestworkers has increased sharply, suggesting a fundamental change in this labor market.

Our review of the data finds that guestworkers make up a large and increasing portion of the IT labor market:

The flow of guestworkers has increased over the past decade and continues to rise (the rate of increase dropped briefly with the economic collapse of 2008, but the flow of guestworkers has since continued its rapid upward pace).

The annual inflows of guestworkers amount to one-third to one-half the number of all new IT job holders.
It could appear to casual observers that the striking increase in guestworkers might be a response to increased labor demand in the IT field. But employment and wage levels in IT jobs have been weak, trends that are not consistent with strong demand. The data also show that there are multiple routes into IT employment, most of which do not require a STEM degree:
Only about a third of the IT workforce has an IT-related college degree.

36 percent of IT workers do not hold a college degree at all.

Only 24 percent of IT workers have a four-year computer science or math degree.
The data also strongly suggest that there is a robust supply of domestic workers available for the IT industry:
The number of domestic STEM graduates has grown strongly, and many of these graduates could qualify for IT jobs.

The annual number of computer science graduates doubled between 1998 and 2004, and is currently over 50 percent higher than its 1998 level.
At the same time, current U.S. high-skill immigration policy, which includes the granting of work permits to foreign students and the issuance of a variety of nonimmigrant guestworker visas, provides employers with large numbers of STEM guestworkers, most of whom are in IT occupations.

Until about 2001, when the dot-com bubble burst, the IT labor market performed in the way that economic fundamentals suggest it should, with the supply of IT graduates and workers responding to strong wage increases and reflected in growing employment. Since then, however, the IT field appears to be functioning with two distinct labor market patterns:
The domestic supply of IT workers exhibits increasing but slow growth in line with market signals.

The supply of IT guestworkers appears to be growing dramatically, despite stagnant or even declining wages.
The immigration debate is complicated and polarizing, but the implications of the data for enacting high-skill guestworker policy are clear: Immigration policies that facilitate large flows of guestworkers will supply labor at wages that are too low to induce significant increases in supply from the domestic workforce.

Family structure as the origin of partisan policy differences

From President Trump Is the Enemy of Their Enemies by Thomas B. Edsall

Edsall is making an entirely different argument but in his essay, he includes this chart.
Click to enlarge

The NYT is awkward in their expression of what this graph shows. On the left of the chart are states with more traditional family structures and values. People marry younger, have more children, are less likely to divorce, are less likely to cohabitate, are less likely to have children out-of-wedlock. On the right are states with more postmodernist familial structures: later marriages, fewer children, more cohabitation, more divorce, more out-of-wedlock children.

Edsall does not mention it but these two patterns of family formation have dramatically different demographic consequences. Those who self-identify as strong liberals (the family pattern on the right of the chart) have a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of 1.6, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. Those self-identifying as strongly conservative have a TFR of 2.6, well above the replacement rate.

Many conservatives have long taken solace in demographic inevitability. Demographics is destiny. They view the wins and losses of the quotidian political struggle with greater equanimity, confident that because of the difference in TFR, conservative sentiments will replace liberal.

Maybe. But simplistic demographic projections don't ever seem to turn out the way anyone expects. Democrats have long been much more enthusiastic about generous immigration than Republicans, in part because of their belief that immigrants will be more liberal and will vote Democrat. And while that has to some extent been marginally true so far, it hasn't helped Democrats locally or nationally. I suspect that this is principally because immigrants often locate into areas already heavily Democrat; they are adding votes but are not changing the outcomes.

Expansive immigration policies have often harmed Democrats' own base of blue collar workers and African American communities leading to defections. In addition, not all immigrant groups remain solidly Democrat affiliated once they have integrated within the community. The point is that demography is destiny, but not always in ways that we can anticipate.

However, I wonder if there isn't a different TFR dynamic going on that might tend towards the same outcome as expected by conservatives but by a different mechanism than simple displacement.

To make the point, I'll use extreme examples. Reality is much more shaded. However, the marginal differences will show up, just in the longer term.

I suspect groups (in developed countries) with high TFR probably differ materially in at least three existential ways from groups with low TFR and that it is these existential differences which actually drive displacement rather than simply outbreeding. The three existential differences would be:
Tragic View over Rationalist View
Main Street View over Wall Street View
Long Term View over Short Term View
Tragic View versus Rationalist View

Having multiple children will almost always force several realizations on a person that differ from someone who has no children or only one.
There are things beyond your control. Each child is their own person, regardless of your preferences.

There is variability among children outside your control. Three children raised in the same family, of the same parents,
and as equally as feasible, will still turn out quite differently from one another and from their parents.
If you have no children or only one, it is possible to sustain the conceit that all matters can be resolved rationally and amicably. Everything becomes simply a matter of planning, engineering and communication. It fosters a deterministic view.

If you have multiple children, it forces a degree of humility and acceptance. Regardless of what you want, there are others who have to be taken into account and those others can be highly variant from you. You either learn tolerance for variability or you suffer constant contention.

Main Street versus Wall Street

If you have no children, planning and managing your life arc entails a different financial perspective and a different risk sensitivity. You generate value financially and you manage your income statements (costs and expenses) and your balance sheets (accumulated capital). It is not so much how well is the economy doing which interests you as it is how well are your investments doing? You can be very charitable to others but it always under your control, subject to your personal finances. This is very much a Wall Street view. You also tend to have much more latitude for discretionary spending.

If you have multiple children, the pressures on you are much more extreme and force you to make more, and harder, trade-off decisions. You have to mind your personal income and balance sheets closer but you also have to take a much more holistic view to ensure coverage for spouse and dependents. Can you, do you, invest in private school education K-12 or University or both? How much do you restrict your own consumption to ensure that there is a rainy day nest egg for a much larger range of contingencies? How much longer do you put up with a difficult employment circumstance in order to ensure income continuity given all your dependents, etc.? Given the tightness of budgets and absence of discretionary income, you become much more sensitive to tax rates.

In the midst of all this, with children, you are forced to confront that there are value calculations that cannot easily be translated into financial terms. Your value calculations become more complex and more nuanced.

As your children mature into adulthood, you are not just interested in how well your financial returns are accumulating (Wall Street), you are as interested, or more, in how well real business is doing, whether there are jobs for your children (Main Street). A Wall Street mindset pursues one set of policies, a Main Street mindset another.

Long Term versus Short Term

With many children, you tend towards a thirty and sixty year time horizon with a much lower temporal discount rate. You are keeping in mind how what you do today might affect your children and grandchildren in the future. You are also probably more risk averse in terms of policy. You don't undertake longterm, consequential policies unless there is a deep knowledge base to support it. You are risk adverse because managing a five person unit through major change is inherently more challenging than managing a one or two person unit.

The upshot of this train of speculation is that familial structure might be driving more of the division between left and right than is being acknowledged.

Policy differences between conservatives and liberals may be less about partisan differences than it might be as a consequence of the differences in world view being generated because of the difference in their familial traditions.

Under this scenario, because of their families, conservatives are more tolerant of variance among people, more focused on values (and less on money), more focused on the long term and less on the short, more focused on the economy and less on the financial markets, more aware of constraints, more accepting of trade-off decisions or of accepting the least bad of two bad options, etc. And of course, liberals are, because of their family choices, correspondingly the mirror of the above attributes: more consumption and less saving, more present oriented than future oriented, more focused on excellence than on the optimal, less accustomed to compromise, more likely to rely on abstract rationality than on human calculation, less aware of human system complexity and fragility, etc.

I think this is an interesting train of thought but I am reluctant to put too great a store by it. I suspect something of this order is happening at the margin but that it likely has cumulative consequence.

Here are several examples where this difference likely has significant impact based on family considerations over and above partisanship or ideology per se. Take two families earning exactly the same amount of household income but one family has five persons and the other only three.
Tax rates - If you are a five person family, your finances are both constrained and you need to cover a broader range of risk scenarios. You simply do not have the leeway in your budget to accommodate higher taxes compared to the three person family. Any rise in taxes is necessarily going to come at the expense of reduced consumption or saving. You would expect states with more and larger families to have lower tax rates, and that is what you see in Edsall's chart above. States with high taxation also have smaller families.

Inheritance taxes - If you are a five person family, you almost certainly have a higher probability of wanting to pass along accumulated savings untouched by inheritance taxes. If you pass early, you want to ensure that your young adult children have the benefit of your estate. If you pass later, likely the same equation with grandchildren. With three children, you also are more likely to have one with health, behavioral, or other issues that you wish to shelter with money even after you are gone. The net impact is that states with many larger families are likely to have no or fewer estate taxes. I am not as informed in this area, but eyeballing the states in the chart, I think that is also what we see.

Global Warming - If you are a five person family, you likely are more skeptical of the trade-offs implied under climate change policies. Not because you are unconcerned about the climate but because the uncertainty surrounding the models, the forecasts, and the necessary reduction in the economy implied by the various climate change policies. With a higher risk aversion and a longer time horizon, there is likely greater aversion to climate change advocates. Again, that is what we see in the chart above.

Public Finance - The five person family is likely much less tolerant of lax public finances. They themselves are having to manage against many demands, risks and contingencies, they expect their public finances to also be closely managed. You would forecast that states with more, larger families would have more balanced state budgets, more fully funded state pension plans, less deficit spending, less public spending, and fewer municipal and state level bankruptcies or financial disruptions. Again, that is exactly what you see in the chart above. The states to the right, with much smaller families, also have more deficit spending, more municipal bankruptcies, more underfunded state pensions, etc.
I don't want to over invest in this train of speculation, but once you start thinking in this fashion, it does seem to explain a lot. The implication is that we have overweighted the importance of partisan differences (Democrat versus Republican) and maybe even overweighted the importance of political differences (Liberal versus Conservative). Perhaps the more important variable is familial structure.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Everyone believes in genes as the cause of life outcomes

From The Politics of the Gene: Social Status and Beliefs About Genetics for Individual Outcomes by Sara Shostak, Jeremy Freese, Bruce G. Link, and Jo C. Phelan.

From the abstract:
Social scientists have predicted that individuals who occupy socially privileged positions or who have conservative political orientations are most likely to endorse the idea that genes are the root cause of differences among individuals. Drawing on a nationally representative sample of the US population, this study examines belief in the importance of genes for understanding individual differences in a series of broad domains: physical illness, serious mental illness, intelligence, personality, and success in life. We also assess whether the belief that genetics are important for these outcomes is more common among those in relatively advantaged positions or among those who are more politically conservative. Finally, we consider whether such beliefs predict attitudes toward genetics-related social policies. Our analyses suggest that belief in the importance of genetics for individual differences may well have a substantial effect on attitudes toward genetics-related policies, independent of political orientation or other measures. Our study identifies high levels of endorsement for genes as causes of health and social outcomes. We describe a cultural schema in which outcomes that are “closer to the body” are more commonly attributed to genetics. Contrary to expectations, however, we find little evidence that it is more common for whites, the socioeconomically advantaged, or political conservatives to believe that genetics are important for health and social outcomes.
In other words, it is common to believe that genes cause health and social outcomes and there is no measurable difference by race, status, or political orientation in terms of this common belief.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Their grave's an altar

Simonides of Ceos famously wrote the epigram at Thermopylae marking the self-sacrifice of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans:
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
that here obedient to their laws we lie.
Ὦ ξεῖν', ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.
From After Thermopylae: The Oath of Plataea and the End of the Graeco-Persian Wars by Paul Cartledge I learn that there was another encomium by Simonides to the Spartans. From Diodorus Siculus, Books 11-12.37.1 by Peter Green.
Of those who died at Thermopylae
Renowned is the fortune, noble the fate:
Their grave's an altar, their memorial our mourning, their fate our praise.

Such a shroud neither decay
Nor all-conquering Time shall destroy.
This sepulcher of brave men has taken the high
Renown of Hellas for its fellow occupant, as witness
Leonidas, Sparta's king who left behind a great
Memorial of valor, everlasting renown.

Fame, as it reaches the furthest limits of the sunlit earth, Shall learn the valor of these men

After the Battle of Marathon in which 192 Greeks died, the Athenian dead were interred in a great funerary mound at the edge of the Marathon plain. Ten white marble slabs, one for each of the ten Athenian tribes, were set up at the foot of the mound.

Of these, only one survives with the memorialization of the twenty-two members of the tribe Erechtheis.

The inscription reads:
Fame, as it reaches the furthest limits of the sunlit earth,
Shall learn the valor of these men: how they died
In battle with the Medes, and how they garlanded Athens,
The few who undertook the war of many.
There is a very faint echo of Churchill's August 20th 1940 speech in Parliament paying tribute to the pilots of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain:
Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.