Monthly Archives: February 2011

Beware Local Smoothing

In simple cultures, folks mostly have simple intuitive accounts of why people do things, and what is forbidden or required. Kids may be told stories about the origin or justification of various elements, but those stories are shallow and poorly integrated.

Attending an Episcopal wedding Saturday, I noticed how big an advance such churches represented. Their rules are more easily found and better standardized. And they come with larger more integrated stories about their origins and justifications.

Of course that larger story isn’t fully integrated, not by a long shot. But you do have to look at it on somewhat larger scales, or ask “why?” a few more levels deeper, to see the incoherences. I didn’t notice them much as a child, but by college they loomed larger.

Today, academia is treated by many as a standard source for official explanations and justifications. Academic explanations aren’t as entertaining or accessible as Episcopal stories, but they offer more coherence on why folks should believe what academics say, some mix of experiments and peer review. And academic stories are coherent on yet larger scales – you have to know more and look deeper to see the incoherences.

The general approach has been to smooth out local wrinkles, relative to distant reference points. In each topic area, one assumes the validity of some distant standard assumptions or beliefs, and then seeks local conclusions that more simply and reliably cohere both with local evidence and those more distant assumptions. For example, one might assume that medicine helps health, and that people prefer to insure against risks, and calculate co-insurance levels to recommend.

This sort of local-smoothing isn’t obviously likely to move much further away from the truth. But I worry that it better hides our ignorance when initial assumptions are pretty far from the truth. It has taken me twenty years in social science to become solidly convinced that there are huge incoherences in our standard accounts of human behavior. On the largest scales, our stories are quite jagged, and far from smooth. Many of the 2600 posts on this blog have been my attempts to point out such jags.

To me, humans seem quite mistaken about the main functions driving a great many important areas of human behavior. Yet because so many have worked so hard at local smoothing, it is now rather hard for college kids to see these broader incoherences. Also, local academic incentives mainly reward better local smoothing, and overconfidence in the insights that result. And our delusions may well have functions, so that we are built to punish those who try to expose or deny them.

Could it be that the main folks able to see the problem, and interested in solving it, are senior academics who are less inspired by local academic incentives, and in a mood to expose human delusions, even if they offend many by doing so? I despair, but will not yet quit hope.

Instead, I call out to capable intellectuals: join me in this holy and oh so neglected crusade, to understand who and what we are. Let us doubt as many standard assumptions as possible on why we do what we do. Let us stay close to evidence, and to basic solid conclusions such as standard statistics, physics, and that we evolved from other animals. Let us collect otherwise-puzzling stylized facts, and seek simple theories to simultaneously account for many such facts via a few new assumptions. Let us seek an account of what we are that is at least not so jagged on the very largest scales, and let us find better ways, like prediction markets, to coordinate to give ourselves incentives to reward large scale smoothness.

And let us steel ourselves to hold our gaze upon whatever we are, however pretty or ugly that may be.

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Hail Winter’s Bone

Though Intrade gives it the lowest odds of winning best picture tonight, like Tyler my fav was Winter’s Bone. Like another Oscar contender, True Grit, it is the story of a teen girl’s gritty struggle. Except that the world of Winter’s Bone is rural and low class. A colleague’s wife confessed to me that she was so horrified and repulsed by the world depicted as to make her reluctant to venture out of the city. While most folks in our society pride themselves on their respect for other cultures and ethnicities, such folk have little reason to fear being mistaken for someone from most such cultures. Their respect extends the least to “white trash,” who they have the most reason to fear being confused with.

Words like seamy, sleezy, and seedy are negatives vaguely associated with sloppiness, immorality, and low class, as if to imply that such things naturally go together. Which seems to me the worst sort of vague insinuation. I can accept that low class folks tend to be sloppier, and in some folk’s morality that in itself makes them less moral. But while I’m happy to celebrate our new better top class, if we are talking about an economists’ sort of immorality, i.e., hurting other folks on net, it isn’t clear to me that low class folks are less moral. They contribute a larger fraction of income to charity, if I recall. I can see you might be terrified of associating with them if you feared being confused with them, but I can’t sympathize much with that, as your desire to keep your status high comes at the expense of keeping the status of others low. I don’t see great cause to fear more direct harms.

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Easterly On Swimsuits

Yes a swimsuit video has sexual connotations and doesn’t emphasize all aspects of the performer, but then the same can be said of many rock concerts. Why do folks complain so much more about swimsuit vids?

When I posted that Wednesday, I hadn’t noticed William Easterly’s post from Sunday:

The relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object … has been a negative trend since the 1960s, inducing more women to be treated disrespectfully or harassed.

Easterly doesn’t explain how exactly watching swimsuit models induces disrespect and harassment, and I find it hard to see the imagined causal path.

In a trivial sense calling attention to folks with exemplary abilities or features generally makes most others look worse by comparison. But if this is “disrespect,” our media is chock full of it – swimsuit models aren’t any worse than the rest.

Perhaps men get hornier viewing swimsuit models, and then try harder to gain sex from other women. But few complain about similar effects on women from watching sexy rock stars. Or from men watching ads for sexy female clothes, or live women in swimsuits at the beach or in sexy party outfits.

Yes if any unwanted sexual advances are “harassment” then hornier men would induce more of that, but if “harassment” means advances that one should know have very little chance of success (e.g., done to humiliate or assert dominance), it is hard to see why wanting sex more should induce more useless attempts. And do we really want to discourage anything that makes men horny?

Compared to most sexy clothing ads, or to real swimsuited women at the beach, swimsuit models express a more playful submissive come-hither persona. Does this give men the misleading impression that ordinary women are more eager for sex? It is hard to see why, since most real women only rarely give such come-hither looks. If anything men should learn that this is more what a woman who eagerly wants sex might look like – if your woman doesn’t act like this, maybe she isn’t that interested.

I suspect that, as so often, the real issue here is status. When the media highlights and celebrates women who are acting submissive to men, this lowers the status of women overall relative to men. It can be ok for woman to act submissive in specialty fashion magazines, since the main audience there is presumed to be other women.  And it is apparently ok to show sitcoms where husbands submit to their wives. But for those eager to raise fem status, submissive swim-suiters are a no-no.

Added: Katja also responds to Easterly here.

Added 8a: In an email, Easterly elaborates:

The causal mechanism I have in mind is that marketers have greatly expanded the supply of a consumer product — the image of woman as sex object — which is complementary to the demand for real women to be sex objects. Hence, more women get treated as sex objects, leading to more disrespectful treatment and harassment.

Added 2p: In a post, Easterly elaborates further:

I don’t think this debate hinges on an empirical claim. Nobody decides whether to use the N-word or not based on randomized controlled trials of whether its use quantitatively predicts assaults on African Americans. We have a moral sense of what is respectful, how to treat our fellow human beings with dignity, how to treat them as equals, in short, what respects their individual rights. Treating women as sex objects transgresses the moral obligation to respect the rights of women.  I believe the Swimsuit Issue does that; others may disagree.

Wow – looking at swimsuit pictures violates the “rights of woman” even if the models themselves don’t mind, and no matter what the empirical consequences, yet watching real women in swimsuits is just fine?!

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Against DIY Academics

Vladimir M:

In many areas, … respectable academic authors are the richest and most reliable source of information, and people claiming things completely outside the academic mainstream are almost certain to be crackpots. … [But] what happens when a field fails both of them, having no clear research directions and at the same time being highly relevant to ideologues and interest groups? Unsurprisingly, it tends to be really bad.

The clearest example of such a field is probably economics, particularly macroeconomics. … Even a casual inspection of the standards in this field shows clear symptoms of cargo-cult science: weaving complex and abstruse theories that can be made to predict everything and nothing, manipulating essentially meaningless numbers as if they were objectively measurable properties of the real world, experts with the most prestigious credentials dismissing each other as crackpots.

Now it might be that academics in fields low in ideological conflict tend to accept each other’s work too easily, to protect the reputation of their field. In this case, fields with more ideological conflict could be more reliable, if that conflict led to more critical examination of results.

However, let us accept for the sake of argument that all else equal in ideological fields intellectual progress is slower, and claims tend to be make with more overconfidence.  What exactly would this imply for your beliefs about this area?

It certainly wouldn’t imply that you ignore what experts write. Yes, it makes sense to adjust your beliefs for the average overconfidence there, but even with large adjustments your best estimates should still rely heavily on average expert estimates.  After all, even if they know less than they think, they still know a lot more than you.

I suspect that what Vladimir and others usually have in mind is Do It Yourself Science:

Looking at the data yourself and drawing your own conclusions.

Now trying your own hand at the subject can help you to understand most any subject.  It can help you discern who are the real experts, and better understand what they say.  There’s a reason students are asked to do labs and problem sets.

But if you plan to mostly ignore the experts and base your beliefs on your own analysis, you need to not only assume that ideological bias has so polluted the experts as to make them nearly worthless, but you also need to assume that you are mostly immune from such problems!

Yes, this is a natural assumption to make, as we rarely feel that we are subject to the biases we suspect we see in others.  But without substantial evidence clearly supporting it, this is mostly just wishful thinking.  If ideology severely compromises others’ analysis on this subject, then most likely it severely comprises yours as well.  You should mostly just avoid having opinions on the subject.  But if you must have reliable opinions, average expert opinions are probably still your best bet.  (Unless of course you have a prediction market available. :))

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Hail Julie Henderson

Top 10 Ways Sports Illustrated Disrespects Women … The swimsuit issue features women models posed not as athletes of strength, skill, and endurance but as playthings; … showing women’s primary value to be their value as sex objects; … bodies as if they are merely body parts; … encouraging … to view women as sex toys … to ogle at; … numbing men to women’s humanity; … exhibiting women to men as the “other”; … sending a message to girls … that … all that matters is how they look to men. (more)

After reading that, I browsed the free videos at Sports Illustrated and — I liked them a lot. More even than their for-pay magazine pictures. I especially liked Julie Henderson, presented like a “flower child” from my generation’s youth (best in full screen):

This sort of thing isn’t easy to do well, requiring skill in composition, photography, makeup, costumes, etc. Hats off to the whole team, including Julie.

Of course I didn’t just admire production skills – I enjoyed the vid, in part because it made me feel attracted to Julie and helped me fantasize that she likes me back. And yes, that includes some sexual attraction.

But most everything that humans do to impress each other has a sexual component. Women are more attracted to men who do music, sport, art, politics, and even research well, and men do such things more as a result. Also, standard displays rarely give equal weight to all of a person’s aspects. A sport performance emphasizes different aspects than a poetry reading or a rock concert, and none give a whole view of the performer.

Yes a swimsuit video has sexual connotations and doesn’t emphasize all aspects of the performer, but then the same can be said of many rock concerts. Why do folks complain so much more about swimsuit vids? Some possibilities:

  1. Since common folks like swimsuits, liking them doesn’t signal elite class or culture.
  2. It takes fewer special skill to appreciate swimsuits, making it hard to signal discernment this way.
  3. For most other displays with sexual connotations, one can more easily pretend to be interested for other reasons. Homo hypocritus prefers ambiguous sex displays in public.
  4. Swimsuits are more salient to men seeking short term mates, and women seeking long term mates fear short term mates in disguise. To present themselves as seeking long term mates, both men and women disapprove of swimsuits.
  5. We prefer displays that emphasize effort over innate ability. and presume swimsuits mostly show off innate ability.
  6. [Added] For other displays we can more easily self-deceive to think that our displays are just as good.
  7. What else?
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Elite College Fems Earn Less

David Leonhardt:

A decade ago, two economists — Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger — published a research paper arguing that elite colleges did not seem to give most graduates an earnings boost. … Ms. Dale and Mr. Krueger have just finished a new version of the study — with vastly more and better data … and the new version comes to the same conclusion. (more; HT Tyler)

Ezra Klein quotes David approvingly. But as I reported two years ago, many, like David and the original paper’s abstract, quite misleadingly ignored its (statistically significant) finding that:

Men who attend the most competitive colleges [according to Barron's 1982 ratings] earn 23 percent more than men who attend very competitive colleges, other variables in the equation being equal. …

Ack!  I was almost conned by elite journal editors and media reporters into believing a comforting lie!  What saved me was becoming puzzled by actually reading the original paper.

The new study’s abstract is also seriously misleading, suggesting that the study finds no effect of college average SAT scores on graduate earnings:

When we adjust for unobserved student ability by controlling for the average SAT score of the colleges that students applied to, our estimates of the return to college selectivity fall substantially and are generally indistinguishable from zero. There were notable exceptions for certain subgroups, [namley] for black and Hispanic students and for students who come from less-educated families.

To find the truth, you have to study Table 4 carefully, and note footnote 13:

For both men and women, the coefficient was zero (and sometimes even negative) [in] the self-revelation model.13

[footnote:] 13 This lower return to college selectivity for women is consistent with other literature. Results from Hoekstra (2009), Black and Smith (2004) and Long (2008) all suggest that the effect of college selectivity on earnings is lower for women than for men.

Table 4 shows that attending a college with higher SAT scores clearly lowered the wages of women 17-26 years after starting college (in 1976) — a school with a 100-point higher average SAT score reduced earnings by about 6-7%!  The two estimates there are significant at ~0.01% level! (The other three, for other periods after starting college, are significant at the 5% level.)

One obvious explanation is that women at more elite colleges married richer classmate men, and so felt less need to earn money themselves. Why don’t the study’s authors want us to hear about that?

The new study conflicts with the earlier one in finding no significant effects of college higher tuition or Barron’s selectivity rating on later earnings. The authors attribute those differences mostly to the earlier study using reported earnings, while this new study used Social Security Administration data. So do elite college folks do earn more, but hide it better from the government, or do they just lie more about their income? The relevant section from the new paper on this conflict: Continue reading "Elite College Fems Earn Less" »

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Fat Is Low Status

Adult obesity is a growing problem. … Should this widespread obesity epidemic be a cause for alarm? … A common starting point is the assertion that those who are obese impose higher health costs on the rest of the population—a statement which is then taken to justify public policy interventions. … The existing literature on these topics suggests that obese people on average do bear the costs and benefits of their eating and exercise habits. (more)

Many are eager to push policies that “help” fat folk get less fat. Many justify such policies as compensating for harms fat folk impose on others. But there doesn’t seem to be much net harm via health insurance, and fat folk help others via dying young and encouraging med research. It is pretty hard to argue that fat folk aren’t aware of health harms of weight, or that others would rather they were thinner. Some argue fat folk lack self-control, but very few of those who are aware of and have access to self-control mechanisms like stickk.com choose to use them.

The health harm from being over weight is much less than from being underweight, and there seems to be little health harm from weight once one controls for exercise – exercise is the key. Why then does policy focus so much on fatness?

I’d guess that since fat is low status, thinner folks enjoy asserting their higher status by belittling and controlling fat folk. Places like the US with more fat folk are also embarrassed to have their status lowered in distant eyes, and want local fat folk to get thin to raise the place’s status.

More quotes: Continue reading "Fat Is Low Status" »

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Teaching Science Process

Scientists and science educators often say they wished they could teach how science is really done. But Katja Grace says it isn’t hard to teach kids “the central idea of science: experimenting for the purpose of changing your mind”:

If you want to learn to do science, with all the thrills of actually discovering anything, you are probably best to pick an area where people don’t already know all of the cheap answers … Does decreasing the length of my skirt increase the propensity of the cool students to talk to me? Does learning the piano as a child really make people happier later in life? Does Father Christmas exist? Do the other children hate me or are they just indifferent? What factors best cause my brothers to leave me alone? How much do my grades change if I do half an hour more or less homework each night? Does eating sugar all evening really keep me awake? How often will I really be approached by potential kidnappers if I hang out at the mall by myself after school? …

Most children and teenagers disagree with their parents, teachers and other adults on a large number of issues. Investigating those issues scientifically might have the added benefit of getting students in the habit of keeping their opinions related to reality. (more)

Given the typical expression on the typical student’s face, it is amazing that schools present themselves as sanctuaries of personal fulfillment, and sacred founts of creativity and innovation. School advocates imply: “All the great artists, scientists, etc. did well at school, and without school they’d be so much less.” But in fact schools arose with industry to get folks to accept the regimentation and ranking of the industrial workplace, and to curb natural human creativity, exploration, and challenging of authority. As Katja’s proposal’s illustrates, schools could in fact teach folks how to question common beliefs “scientifically,” if in fact authorities wanted common folks doing that sort of thing.  As I’ve written:

School is mostly not about the material taught in classes. I’m less sure to what extent it is about learning-to-learn, coming-to-obey, bonding with other kids, and signaling these features as well as intelligence and conscientiousness. I’m pretty sure signaling of various sorts is at least 30% of the average private value of school, and it could go as high as 80%. … The best evidence I’ve seen that school adds great value is the stories I’ve heard about how difficult are employees who grew up in “primitive” cultures without familiar schools. Apparently, it is not so much that such folks don’t know enough to be useful, but that they refuse to accept being told what to do, and object to being publicly ranked relative to co-workers. (more; see also more)

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Status Isn’t About Features

Malcom Gladwell complains that US News rankings are arbitrary:

Some years ago … a former chief justice of the Michigan supreme court … sent a questionnaire to a hundred or so of his fellow lawyers, asking them to rank a list of tend laws schools in order of quality. “They included a good sample of the big names. Harvard. Yale. University of Michigan. And some lesser-known schools. John Marshall Thomas Cooley. … They ranked Pen State’s law school right about in the middle of the pack. Maybe fifth among the ten schools listed. Of course, Penn State doesn’t have a law school.” … Reputational ratings are simply inferences from broad, readily observable features of an institution’s identity, such as its history, its prominence in the media, or the elegance of its architecture. …

“Ratings drive reputation.” … When U.S. News asks a university president to perform the impossible task of assessing the relative merits of dozens of institutions he knows nothing about, he relies on the only sources of detailed information at his disposal … U.S. News. The U.S. News ratings are a self-fulfilling prophecy. …

A Web site called the Ranking Game['s] …intention is to demonstrate just how subjective rankings are, to show how determinations of “quality” turn on relatively arbitrary judgments about how much different variables should be weighted. … If we don’t understand what thee right proxies for college quality are, let alone how to represent those proxies in a comprehensive heterogenous grading system, then our rankings are inherently arbitrary.

Gladwell talks as if we each have different preferences over component variables, and are being fooled into putting too much weight on arbitrary common rankings that poorly reflect our individual preferences. He doesn’t even consider the possibility that what we really want is status itself, a common perception of quality, and don’t much care what status is made of.  We mainly want to know how to rate others’ status, and how to get more of it for ourselves.

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Our Worthy Overlords

If there must be rich folks, what would you want them to be like? You might want:

  • They mostly work, instead of living lives of leisure.
  • They or their parents are mostly self made, vs. coming from long rich families. You probably sympathize more with parents wanting to help their kids than their great-great-grandkids.
  • They compete fiercely for positions in orgs that themselves compete strongly globally, assuring you their wealth isn’t from local insider clubs.
  • They don’t promote national conflicts or wars, but instead look to what’s good for the world.
  • They give most of their wealth away, to especially innovative and socially valuable charities.

In the January Atlantic, Chrystia Freeland says that that is exactly the sort of elites we now have! Yet Freeland seems more inclined to scold than to celebrate:

Today’s super-rich are … more hardworking and meritocratic, but less connected to the nations that granted them opportunity—and the countrymen they are leaving ever further behind. … [A rich guy] argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. … “If the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade.” … [Another said,] “It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut.” … [Regarding] the financial crisis, … the real cuplrit, he explained, was his feckless cousin, who owned three cars and a home he could not afford. …

Someone will have to pay for the improved public education and social safety net the American middle class will need in order to navigate the wrenching transformations of the global economy. (That’s not to mention the small matter of the budget deficit.) Inevitably, a lot of that money will have to come from the wealthy. … If the plutocrats’ opposition to increases in their taxes and tighter regulation of their economic activities is understandable, it is also a mistake. The real threat facing the super-elite, at home and abroad, isn’t modestly higher taxes, but rather the possibility that inchoate public rage could cohere into a more concrete populist agenda. … In the long run, super-elites have two ways to survive: by suppressing dissent or by sharing their wealth. … Let us hope the plutocrats aren’t already too isolated to recognize this.

It doesn’t seem to matter to Freeland how deservingly the rich obtain or spend their wealth; they still must be taxed to help average Americans, even if that slows the lifting of Chinese and Indians out of poverty. It isn’t clear why she recommends the rich eagerly submit to such taxation; she suggests taxation will happen whether they like it or not. Why fear “populism” beyond its taxation? The point seems more to scold the rich, in order to reassure the rest of us that we are justified in taxing them.

How many elites are we talking about? The top 1% of households worldwide, ~37 million of them, are each at least half-millionaires, and hold ~40% of world wealth. “Thirty millionaire” households number ~100,000 (0.03% of world), and ~800 billionaires hold ~1% of world wealth (2.4 of 195T$). I’d guess Freeland’s cutoff for “elite” is somewhere in this 30M$ to 1B$ range.

Me, I celebrate these new worthier elites. We aren’t obviously justified in taking their wealth, however convenient that might be, and they might manage to avoid such takings via international competition to attract them. The US seems a bit too arrogantly unaware that we compete on this and many other margins.

If you resent this level of concentration, by new elites more confident and justified in their sense of superiority, you may really hate the new world of emulations, which I guess will arrive within roughly a century or so. After all, you may take some comfort from the fact that our elites’ fractional genetic influence on future generations is vastly smaller than their wealth faction. I doubt the top 1% in wealth has more than 2% of the grandkids, and it may be less than 1%.

But in the em transition, profit-driven scanning and copying may result in many trillions of ems who are mostly copies of the thosand most capable and adaptable humans. Members of our very capable and productive social elites should be prime candidates for profit-driven consideration, and they may in addition pay out of their own deep pockets. The vast majority (99+%) of our progeny may descend from a thousand or so (<0.0002%) of the very elite humans living at the time the em transition.

Of course if the vast majority of these ems are living near susistence level, you can’t really envy their individual wealth. But you might envy the overall wealth and influence of the total clan of descendants of each initial human. Just remember that you are descended genetically from distant ancestors who also had a quite disproportionate influence on future generations. In order for innovations to accumulate, the long run influence of whatever embodies innovations must be highly inequitable. And in the em revolution, where brains hold most innovations, a lot of history will be crammed in a rather short clock time.

More quotes from Freeland: Continue reading "Our Worthy Overlords" »

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