Monthly Archives: May 2007

In Obscurity Errors Remain

The May 17 Nature suggests that papers in less prestigious journals are less likely to be checked by readers for errors:

Murat Cokol and his colleagues at … Columbia ..identified 596 retracted articles – flaggged as such by PubMed – and found … Journals with high impact factors retract more papers, and low-impact journals are more likely not to retract the, the study finds.  It also suggests that high and low-impact journals differ little in detecting flawed articles before they are published.  … Cokol argues that the larger number of retractions in high impact journals reflects the fact that they receive more scrutiny. 

Not surprising, but pregnant with implications.

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Requesting Honesty

An old Bloom County Sunday cartoon has Cutter John in his wheelchair dressed as Santa, asking "And what would you like this year?" to Roland-Ann in his lap:

Truth. I’d like a little truth.  Openness .. Forthrightness … Directness.  For once, I’d just like a couple of those. 

Childhood seems to be one long series of adult deceptions.  Lies … Myths … Half-truths … Fibs.  Yesterday I asked my father what a "libido" is.  He said it’s a kid of guinea pig. 

So I think it would be nice, this Christmas, to get just a little, simple, adult honesty for once.  Yes.  It really would. 

Anyway … Thanks for listening, mister Santa Claus.  Please give my best to Mrs Claus, all the elves, and give Rudolph a big kidss just for me.  Good bye!"

By this point, John has his face in his hand, ashamed, and in the next panel says "I quit!"

This raises the obvious question: why don’t kids ask adults for more honesty, once they see that adults often lie? 

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Winning at Rock-Paper-Scissors

Rock, Paper, Scissors is a simple game whose winner should be determined completely by luck. Yet here is a guide to winning at the game. (HT Andrew Sullivan.)

Against a rational player you should randomize and play Rock, Paper and Scissors each with 1/3 probability. If your opponent does this you can never come up with a strategy that will give you an advantage over him. But, as the guide says, “Humans, try as they might, are terrible at trying to be random, in fact often humans in trying to approximate randomness become quite predictable.” For example, according to the guide, an inexperienced player will never play the same thing three times in a row. Taking advantage of this, you can gain an edge over your opponent.

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Policy Tug-O-War

Imagine the space of all policies, where one point in that space is the current status quo policy.  To a first approximation, policy insight consists on learning which directions from that point are "up" as opposed to "down."  This space is huge – with thousands or millions of dimensions.  And while some dimensions may be more important than others, because those changes are easier to implement or have a larger slope, there are a great many important dimensions. 

In practice, however, most policy debate focuses on a few dimensions, such as the abortion rate, the overall tax rate, more versus less regulation, for or against more racial equality, or a pro versus anti US stance.  In fact, political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal are famous for showing that one can explain 85% of the variation in US Congressional votes by a single underlying dimension, where there are two separated clumps.  Most of the remaining variation is explained by one more dimension.  Similar results have since been found for many other nations and eras. 

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Why Pretty HS Play Leads?

My son took me to see a high school play recently, and I noticed that among the cast, the pretty/handsome/hot kids had the lead roles, and the cast was on average prettier than the supporting crew.  I mentioned this to my wife, who was in drama club in high school, and she told me this was one of those things everyone knew – others would try out, but the prettiest kids were favored.  The effect is strong, stronger than could be explained by a weak correlation between acting ability and prettiness.

If viewers prefer to watch pretty people, I can understand why commercial plays would favor the pretty.  But I was surprised to see such transparent favoritism in what is supposedly an "educational" activity.  I doubt parents would knowingly tolerate a high school math teacher giving higher grades to the pretty; why do they tolerate similar behavior from drama teachers?

My wife tells me that choir teachers favor pretty singers for choirs when many people will listen, but not when only a few will listen.  Perhaps this is about parents and teachers wanting to make their school’s students look good in all ways compared to other schools?

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The Perils of Being “Clearer than Truth”

In his new book (see here for a post about it by Robin Hanson), Bryan Caplan argues that economists weaken the impact of what they say by  surrounding their main messages with a bunch of caveats that are intended to make their answers more complete but that in fact serve only to ensure that they will be ignored.

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When Differences Make A Difference

In the May 18 Science, Philip Tetlock reviews Scott Page’s book The Difference, and basically nails it:

Casual readers could easily conclude that Page .. has clinched the argument for the egalitarians.  Indeed, Page arguably invites the interpretation that there may be no awkward efficiency-equality tradoffs when he repeatedly declares that "diversity trumps ability."  … In brief, diversity appears to trump ability – at least when we equate high ability with drawing lucky starting points in sharply constrained searches for solutions.  But elitists will argue that the game was rigged. 

Scott’s book touts the virtues of having a big toolbox.  The more tools you can try on your problem, the better your chances of solving it.  And if the individuals who are consistently best at solving some class of problems tend to have a similar tool sets, then it can be wise to also include some different "less able" people on your team, to gain access to their different tools.  This can justify promoting organizational "diversity," at least when the dimensions of diversity being considered actually correlate with differing tool sets.  Of course it is noteworthy that many people promoting ethnic, racial, or gender diversity oppose including ideological diversity. 

Scott Page was a new assistant professor at Caltech in ’93 when I was a new grad student.  He has done very well for himself since then, and recently he asked me to clarify the relation between my perspective on prediction markets and the views he describes in his book.   That is easy, as there is almost no relation. 

The point of prediction markets is to give participants incentives to shut up when they do not know, and to speak up when they have something useful to add.   Such incentives can help regardless of whether any particular kind of diversity helps or hurts in any one context – the participants will have an incentive to find and include whatever works.  Prediction markets are not about the wisdom of crowds any more than they are about the wisdom of credentialed experts – they are about the wisdom of whatever works.   

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You Felt *Sorry* for Her?

There’s a quite powerful scene in To Kill a Mockingbird where Tom Robinson, a black man on trial for raping a poor, low-status white woman, is being cross-examined by the prosecutor.  Tom admits that he was in the woman’s house, but says that he was only there to help her take care of some chores that she was having a hard time handling on her own.  Here is the dialogue:

‘You did all this chopping and work from sheer goodness, boy?’
‘Tried to help her, I says.’
Mr Gilmer smiled grimly at the jury.  ‘You’re a mighty good fellow, it seems–did all this for not one penny?’
‘Yes suh.  I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try more’n the rest of ’em–‘
You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?’ Mr Gilmer seemed ready to rise to the ceiling.
The witness realized his mistake and shifted uncomfortably in the chair.  But the damage was done.  Below us, nobody liked Tom Robinson’s answer.  Mr Gilmer paused a long time to let it sink in.

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Do androids dream of electric rabbit feet?

Superstition seems a quaint old thing, more suitable for old grannies or the illiterate, but it’s alive and well in the information age. Online computer games, such as World of Warcraft and UltimaOnline, are full of examples of this:

[…] facing in certain cardinal directions would affect how your crafting came out. […] Many people, if they were successful over-enchanting an item at a certain spot, will return to that spot every time they need to over-enchant.

Or, to get monsters to reappear, little dances could develop (note the similarity with Skinner’s pigeons):

Some [characters] would sit and stand rapidly while strafing back and forth. Others would crouch and run in circles or figure-eight patterns. Jumping seemed also to be a common theme.

and sometimes it would go as far as "saying some ritual phrase out loud (in real life)."

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One Life Against the World

Followup to: Scope Insensitivity

"Whoever saves a single life, it is as if he had saved the whole world."

— The Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:5

It’s a beautiful thought, isn’t it? Feel that warm glow.

I can testify that helping one person feels just as good as helping the whole world. Once upon a time, when I was burned out for the day and wasting time on the Internet – it’s a bit complicated, but essentially, I managed to turn someone’s whole life around by leaving an anonymous blog comment. I wasn’t expecting it to have an effect that large, but it did. When I discovered what I had accomplished, it gave me a tremendous high. The euphoria lasted through that day and into the night, only wearing off somewhat the next morning. It felt just as good (this is the scary part) as the euphoria of a major scientific insight, which had previously been my best referent for what it might feel like to do drugs.

Saving one life probably does feel just as good as being the first person to realize what makes the stars shine. It probably does feel just as good as saving the entire world.

But if you ever have a choice, dear reader, between saving a single life and saving the whole world – then save the world. Please. Because beyond that warm glow is one heck of a gigantic difference.

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