Monthly Archives: May 2009

Sweat Intuition

I sweat, a lot, though I’ve never thought asked a doc about it. So why is it that I’ve just learned this?

So-called clinical-strength antiperspirants …come with instructions that they be applied before bed for “maximum” protection from wetness and odor. … Even regular-strength antiperspirants work best when applied to underarms at night, experts told us.  Bedtime application “really is the best way to use an antiperspirant,” says Daivd Pariser, M.D., president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

At night, when people perspire less, more of the antiperspirant’s aluminum-based active ingredient is pulled into the sweat ducts. Because there’s more antiperspirant present, it more effectively plugs pores.  That signals the sweat glands to reduce or stop perspiration.  the effect lasts 24 hours or possibly longer, even after morning bathing.  Eventually, the antiperspirant washes away.  Blocking perspiration by plugging pores might sound unhealthful, but it’s not, medical experts we consulted say.

That is the July Consumer Reports, p.12. Other sources agree. Now surely experts have known this for a long time; why isn’t the word out?

When I told my wife that Consumer Reports said antiperspirants should be applied at night, she said that was just silly, and was not persuaded.  And folks commenting on clinical-strength antiperspirants are often skeptical:

The product is very easy to use, but does have some strange directions that are unlike normal antiperspirant products.  First, you’re supposed to apply it at night before bed … I did not use it at night, only after getting out of the shower.

Do the rest of you also see resistance to this advice?  Why do people think they are such experts on the right time of day to apply antiperspirant, so that they prefer their own intuition to Consumer Reports, doctors, and manufacturer’s directions for use?

Added 4June: Many say what is the point if you already feel dry enough?  But there may be a real health risk from common dosages; if using it at night is more effective, then you can reduce the dosage and still get an acceptable effect.

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CO2 Warming Looks Real

Many have bent my ear over the last few months about global warming skepticism.   So I’ve just done some moderate digging, and conclude:

  1. In the last half billion years, CO2 has at times been 15 times denser, but not more than 10C warmer.  So that is about as bad as warming could get.
  2. In the last million years, CO2 usually rises after warming; clearly warming often causes CO2 increases.
  3. CO2 is clearly way up (~30%) over 150 years, and rising fast, mainly due to human emissions.  CO2 is denser than its been for a half million years.
  4. The direct warming effect of CO2 on warming is mild and saturating; the effects of concern are indirect, e.g., water vapor and clouds, but the magnitude and sign of these indirect effects are far from clear.
  5. Climate model builders make indirect effect assumptions, but most observers are skeptical they’ve got them right.
  6. This uncertainty alone justifies substantial CO2 mitigation (emission cuts or geoengineering), if we are risk-averse enough and if mitigation risks are weaker.
  7. Standard warming records show a real and accelerating rise, roughly matching the CO2 rise.
  8. Such warming episodes seem common in recent history.
  9. The match between recent warming and CO2 rise details is surprisingly close, substantially raising confidence that CO2 is the main cause of recent warming.  (See this great analysis by Pablo Verdes.)  This adds support for mitigation.
  10. Among the few bets on global warming, the consensus is for more warming.
  11. Geoengineering looks far more likely to be feasible and acceptable mitigation than emissions cuts.
  12. Some doubt standard warming records, saying they are biased by urban measuring sites and arbitrary satellite record corrections.   Temperature proxies like tree rings diverge from standard records in the last fifty years. I don’t have time to dig into these disputes, so for now I defer to the usual authorities.

It was mostly skeptics bending my ear, and skeptical arguments are easier to find on the web.  But for now, the other side has convinced me.

Added: The Verdes papers is also here.  Here is his key figure: Continue reading "CO2 Warming Looks Real" »

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Reply to Caplan

Regarding Minimal Morality, Bryan Caplan complains:

Robin Hanson has come up with the least plausible moral principle since “Might makes right”: “Usually it is fine to do what you want, to get what you want.”  Robin manages to make his principle seem less crazy by focusing on mundane self-regarding activities. … When is it not fine to do what you want, to get what you want?  When you’re preventing other people from doing what they want, to get what they want.  But what if you want to prevent other people from doing what they want, to get what they want?

Let me clarify:

  1. I was focused on moral intuitions about goodness of outcomes, not rightness of actions.  I set aside issues of when it is wrong to do good, or not wrong to not do good.
  2. Wanting to want, wanting others to want, and wanting others’ wants to be frustrated, all count as wants, and can be weighed just like ordinary wants when considering outcome goodness.
  3. I was only trying to argue that most case-specific moral intuitions on goodness fit the pattern that it is usually good for someone to get more of what they want, if everyone else gets the same of what they want, and no other special considerations apply.  Elsewhere I told Bryan why economic efficiency is a good metric if goodness increases as each person gets more of what they want.
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Minimal Morality

(Inspired by my conversation with Will Wilkinson.)

In a typical moral philosophy paper, an author proposes a principle to summarize his specific intuitions about some relatively narrow range of situations.  For example, he might propose a principle to account for his intuitions about variations on a scenario wherein passerbys learn one or more folks are downing in a lake.  This practice makes sense if such intuitions are very reliable, but much less sense if intuitions are very unreliable, as clues about moral truth.

In the ordinary practice of fitting a curve to a set of data points, the more noise one expects in the data, the simpler a curve one fits to that data.  Similarly, when fitting moral principles to the data of our moral intuitions, the more noise we expect in those intuitions, the simpler a set of principles we should use to fit those intuitions.  (This paper elaborates.)

The fact that our moral intuitions depend greatly on how situations are framed, differ greatly across individuals within a culture, and vary greatly across cultures, suggests lots of noise in our moral intuitions.  The fact that moral philosophers don’t much trust the intuitions of non-moral-philosophers shows they agree error rates are high.  So I wonder: what moral beliefs should we hold in the limit of expecting very large errors in our moral intuitions?

It seems to me that in this situation we should rely most on the simplest most consistent pattern we can find in our case-specific moral intuitions.  And it seems to me that this simplest pattern is  just our default rule, i.e., what we think folks should do in the usual case where no other special considerations apply.  Which is simply: usually it is fine to do what you want, to get what you want, [added: if no one else cares.]
Continue reading "Minimal Morality" »

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Political Signaling Theories

My conversation with Andrew Gelman inspires me to elaborate my position on politics:

Policy wonks talk about political ideologies as sets of value weights to use in policy tradeoffs … I’m suggesting instead that “Politics Isn’t About Policy.”  In large polities, the main function of our politics in our lives is how it influences the way others see us; its influence on us via policy is far weaker.   But it looks bad to admit we do politics to selfishly show off, instead of to help society make better policy.  So we are built to instead talk, and think, as if we do politics for its influence on policy; we are build to be self-deceived about how politics matters to us.

Modern political science does a pretty good job understanding the behaviors of politicians and bureaucrats, given how the public behaves; we fail most in understanding how ordinary folks relate to political processes.  And our best hope for doing better there is, I think, the idea that we are executing strategies that evolved long ago among our distant ancestors.

Our ancestors argued beliefs and negotiated actions in groups ranging from size two to a hundred.  No doubt they evolved to adapt their behavior to the size of the group, at least within this range.  And for the largest groups, the main payoffs from their arguing and negotiating behavior was not via influencing the resulting group beliefs and actions, but from how their words and deeds influenced how others thought of them.  This is all the more true for modern group sizes, and I suspect our strategies are adaptive enough to emphasize impression management even more for larger groups. Continue reading "Political Signaling Theories" »

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Reply to Wilkinson

Responding to Will’s comments, I wrote:

Will Wilkinson seems to me a bit too quick here to assume the activities he likes are less deserving of taxes. …  If we are to tax positional or unhappy activities, then let’s do that consistently, following our best data on positionality or happiness.

Will replied:

First, I think Robin may have missed one of my key points, which is that “negative externality” is not a synonym for “harm” in the relevant sense of the word. It begs the question to just go ahead and talk about various harms as if I had not just argued that they don’t all count as harms just because someone is bothered by each of them. …

There is no clear theoretical basis for selecting a single, clear theoretical basis for determining what does and does not count as a harm. Indeed, no one is rationally bound to accept the normative assumptions underlying the case for economic competition–the clear theoretical basis for “harm” Robin is willing to accept. …

Moral diversity and disagreement are ineradicable. … I think Robin complains that I share Miller’s and Frank’s reliance on intuitions about things we happen to dislike because I’m arguing with them from within what I see to be their prior liberal moral commitments, which I share. We’re all liberals, which means we dislike many of the same things.

Will is such a pleasure to converse with that I didn’t notice how differently we use words.  Like most economists, I do count anything that bothers anyone as a “harm,” and anything that benefits anyone as a good.  (The same act can be both.)  To decide which acts should be taxed or subsidized, I use the usual economists’ efficiency criteria to rank policies.  Call me morally naive, but this seems a good guide to me.

Given these choices it becomes a matter of fact whether taxing any given activity increases or decreases efficiency, and disagreement should be eradicable.  In the absence of substantial market failures it is clear that ordinary competition is favored.  What I meant when asking for “a clear principle we are willing to apply consistently” is a way to see through the mass of detail to discern the efficient policies in the other subtler cases.

I get that you can offer quicker stronger arguments to your fellow liberals by referring to your shared assumptions with them.  But I seek more widely acceptable arguments.

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Wilkinson on Side Effects

When I buy a really expensive car, this story goes, it subtly shifts my community’s frame of reference for signals of social status. … As Robin has been insistently pointing out, how good-looking we are, … how smart and funny we are when we talk, … signals at least as strongly as our cars. If our investments in appearance, … Bourdieuian cultural capital, … are not equally harmful, then why not? …

This line of thinking can be taken even further. Many so-called “culture wars” are largely about cultural externalities. Consider Linda Hirschman-like arguments to the effect that women who choose to stay at home raising children impose a significant cost on women who wish to pursue professional success by reinforcing traditional stereotypes of women’s relative strengths. …

It looks like we’ve defined “harm” so loosely that the harm principle, so understood, could be the basis for the state regulation of any action whatsoever that affects anyone else in a way they don’t like. … If I open a hot dog stand across the street from your hot dog stand, I will take some of your business. … Have I “harmed” you in some way that requires that you be made whole … ? The law says no, and the law is right. …

Continue reading "Wilkinson on Side Effects" »

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Reinventing Idea Futures

From the April Physics World:

A key problem, suggests mathematical physicist Eric Weinstein of the Natron Group, a hedge fund in New York, is that it is too easy for scientists in the “establishment” of any field to cut down new ideas, and to do so without really putting anything at risk, thereby leading to a culture that is systematically biased toward caution. …

Weinstein suggests another idea — that we should borrow some ideas from financial engineering and make scientists back up their criticisms by taking real financial risks. You think that some new theory is utterly worthless and deserving of ridicule? In the world Weinstein envisions, you could not trash the research in an anonymous review, but would buy some sort of option giving you a financial stake in its scientific future, an instrument that would pay off if, as you expect, the work slides noiselessly into obscurity. The money would come from the theory’s proponents, who would similarly benefit if it pans out into the next big thing.

Weinstein’s point is that markets, in theory at least, work efficiently and — putting the current financial meltdown to one side — lead to the accurate valuation of products. They exploit the “wisdom of crowds”, as a popular book of the same title recently put it. Take the famous electronic prediction markets at the University of Iowa, which pool the views of thousands of diverse individuals and consistently seem to give better predictions than any expert. …

“It would be more efficient,” he says, “if the maverick could demand of the critic, if my theory is so obviously wrong, why don’t you quantify that by writing me an options contract based on future citations in the top 20 leading journals secured by your home, furniture, holiday home and pension?”

This article makes it seem like Eric reinvented idea futures.  Except that Eric and I discussed the concept last May, when we had two phone conversations and exchanged seven emails.

In 1996, a Russ Ray published a paper in Futures Research Quarterly that was basically cut and paste from my Idea Futures paper.  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?  Hat tip to Jef Allbright.

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Reply to Gelman

Andrew Gelman disagreed with me Sunday:

Conservatives support low taxes so that those who have worked hard for their money can show off the fruits of their labor and earn full respect for it.

I don’t think that showing off is anything like a basic conservative value, beyond the idea that people should feel free to show off if they want to. … Conservatives support low taxes because they think the market is more effective than the government at producing prosperity.

Liberals support gay marriage because they want us all to officially respect gays as much as straights; gay activists have earned their group more respect.

Liberals support gay marriage because they don’t think it’s fair that straight people can marry and gays can’t.

His commentators said I meant unconscious strategies, and I said:

This was an attempt to identify the signaling persona behind common ideologies, not the conscious rationalizations people give.

Andrew clarified:

I don’t think signaling is as important as [Robin] does, but I’m pretty sure it’s more important than most of generally assume. … That said, I think his descriptions of conservatives and liberals are so caricatured as to be a hindrance to his thinking.

Monday, Andrew elaborated in a new post:

Continue reading "Reply to Gelman" »

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Just A Handshake

“Between you and me, my friend, a handshake is enough.”

A recent economics journal article says one might reasonably avoid complex formal contracts to show you trust your associates:

This paper shows how the fear of signaling distrust can endogenously lead to incomplete contractual agreements. We consider a principal agent relationship where the agent may be trustworthy (dedicated to the project) or not. The principal may trust the agent (i.e. have a high belief of facing a trustworthy agent), or distrust him. The proposal of a complete contract, including fines and other explicit incentives, is shown to signal distrust. When trust is important in some non-contractible part of the relationship, a principal may prefer to leave the contract incomplete rather than to signal distrust by proposing a complete contract. Contractual incompleteness arises endogenously due to asymmetric information about how much one partner trusts the other side.

There are literally hundreds of papers out there showing how signaling can or does explain various details of human behavior.  In fact, fifteen years ago my Ph.D. thesis advisor tole me not to write such papers, because there were already so many of them that they weren’t very interesting.

Yet people keep complaining everytime I mention a signaling explanation of something, that I’m too free with such explanations.  So I’m stuck between an academic discipline that considers such explanations too obvious to be worth publishing, and an audience that finds them too implausible to believe, even when backed by such publications.

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