Monthly Archives: February 2010

Only Trust Us

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, … for the Jews, …
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

PLoS Medicine:

While we continue to be interested in analyses of ways of reducing tobacco use, we will no longer be considering papers where support, in whole or in part, for the study or the researchers comes from a tobacco company.

Eric Crampton:

As good a [bias] case can be made … against tobacco industry funding. How many anti-tobacco public health researchers would be able to continue getting grants from Ministries of Health if their research found that smoking isn’t as bad as the Ministry might have thought?

John Tierney:

Many scientists, journal editors and journalists see themselves as a sort of priestly class untainted by commerce. … This snobbery was codified by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005, when it … refused to publish such work unless there was at least one author with no ties to the industry who would formally vouch for the data.  That policy … looked especially dubious after a team of academic researchers (not financed by industry) analyzed dozens of large-scale clinical trials in previous decades and reported that industry-sponsored ones met significantly higher standards than the nonindustry ones.


As Gary Taubes nicely illustrates in his book, “Good Calories, Bad Calories,” scientists who disagreed with the accepted wisdom on the evils of fat in the diet were accused of being corrupted by industry grants even if they had received most of their money from government agencies that were looking — unsuccessfully — for evidence to back the fat-is-bad theory. Meanwhile, scientists who went along with the conventional wisdom on fat weren’t criticized for the corporate money they’d received from food companies.

Mr. Taubes has also found some wonderful examples of selective journalism in the dispute over sugar’s health effect: An article stressing the harms of sugar would make dissenting scientists look bad by stressing their connections to the sugar industry, whereas an article exonerating sugar would make the other side’s scientists look bad by stressing the money they received from companies making sugar substitutes. …

“Scientists were believed to be free of conflicts if their only source of funding was a federal agency, but all nutritionists knew that if their research failed to support the government position on a particular subject, the funding would go instead to someone whose research did.” … Not-for-profit advocacy groups … “are rarely if ever accused of conflicts of interest, even though their entire reason for existence is to argue one side of a controversy as though it were indisputable.”

If the new principle is that we mustn’t publish research not funded by groups committed to proving our official beliefs, how long before “our” beliefs exclude yours?  How long before interdisciplinary journals like Science or Nature refuse to publish papers by economists, known for their suspiciously right-wing leanings, unless non-economist co-authors vouch for them?  Do you really think that can’t happen?

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Legalize Dud Drugs

According to Engber[‘s article], Human Growth Hormone (HGH or GH) has little to no performance enhancing-benefits. … I have the benefit of working down the hall from several exercise physiologists.  I forwarded [his] article to my colleague, John McLester. … “Oh yeah, I agree with [Engber]. This isn’t even controversial in exercise physiology. … There is no evidence of [benefit from bigger muscles]. It seems that the muscle that is developed is abnormal and not mature. I’ll point you to some studies (see below). …

With [Major League Baseball]’s adoption of mandatory testing for steroids, many thought that home run rates would drop dramatically. They didn’t, and many felt that the lack of a test for HGH could be part of the explanation. Well, it’s time for the scientists working on such a test to start something else more important.

That is John Bradbury.  He interprets:

The illegality of growth hormone actually promotes its use in sports. … The banning of a drug by anti-doping authorities sends a loud and incorrect signal that it works. … Therefore, I believe that legalizing growth hormone is needed to send the signal that it doesn’t work, largely to undo the widespread common belief that growth hormone does improve performance. … Think of the powerful effect it would have if MLB pulled growth hormone off its banned list. I can’t imagine a more powerful signal of a drug’s lack of potency as a performance enhancer. If we are going to be paternalists, let’s be effective paternalists.

Added 5Mar: See also here, HT Tyler.

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Big Bad News Ban

We’d love for things to go well.  So we’d love people to think that things are going well.  So we want folks to hear news about how things are going well.  But sometimes people hear bad news, about how things are going bad.  Gee – why don’t we fix this by banning bad news?  Then people will only hear good things, and so only good things will happen, right?

This argument is transparently stupid to most everyone, at least when they think of “bad news” as appearing in newspapers or TV shows.  Sadly, that insight seems to disappear when it comes to financial bad news communicated via short sales.  Making for this bad news:

The [US] Securities and Exchange Commission enacted new restrictions on short selling on Wednesday aimed at restoring investor confidence by preventing speculators from pouncing on stocks already in a tailspin.

The rules, which were approved in a 3 to 2 party-line vote, come as the agency has faced intense pressure from lawmakers and investors to crack down on the practice, which some on Wall Street have blamed for crashing the stock values of major financial companies during the 2008 market crisis. …

The new restrictions, which will take eight months to put into effect, only affect stocks that have declined at least 10 percent since the previous day. At that point, short sellers essentially will have to pay a small premium to bet against a stock.

Anyone who believes that stocks which have fallen at least 10% in a day are an unappreciated good buy are free to grab that free money they think is lying on the sidewalk.  Clearly most folks don’t do this, and so don’t believe this, implying that short sales that push stock prices down on average give reliable bad news: this stock is worse than you thought.

Taxing short sales is an attempt to ban this bad news, to trick people into thinking those companies are doing better than they are.  After all, we all know that the financial crisis was not caused by banks making bad loans, it was caused by short sellers telling people that banks had made bad loans — if only we’d killed the messenger, we wouldn’t be in this mess, right?

Related posts.

Added 9p: A “self-fulfilling bad news” argument can apply to restaurant or movie reviews as well.  In fact, they can apply to most bad news.  For example, if a review says a restaurant is bad, fewer people go there, so they replace their expensive good chef with a cheap bad one, etc.  So should we band negative restaurant reviews?  Should we ban all bad news?

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Smart Beliefs

Adult intelligence predicts adult espousal of liberalism, atheism, and sexual exclusivity for men (but not for women), while intelligence is not associated with the adult espousal of evolutionarily familiar values on children, marriage, family, and friends. … Childhood intelligence at age 10 significantly increases the probability that individuals become vegetarian as adults.

More here.  The author interprets these findings:

More intelligent individuals should be better able to comprehend and deal with evolutionarily novel (but not evolutionarily familiar) entities and situations. …. There has been accumulating evidence for this. …

  1. Individuals’ tendency to respond to TV characters as if they were real friends … appears to be limited to those with below-median intelligence. …
  2. Net of age, race, sex, education, marital history, and religion, less intelligent individuals have more children than more intelligent individuals, even though they do not want to do so. …
  3. More intelligent individuals stay healthier and live longer … [but] general intelligence does not appear to affect health and longevity in sub-Saharan Africa, where many of the health threats and dangers are more evolutionarily familiar. …
  4. Criminals on average have lower intelligence than the general population … Much of what we call interpersonal crime today, such as murder, assault, robbery, and theft, were probably routine means of intrasexual male competition in the ancestral environment, … [and] the institutions that control, detect, and punish criminal behavior in society today—the police, the courts, and the prisons—are all evolutionarily novel. …

Liberalism … [is] the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others.  Defined as such, liberalism is evolutionarily novel. Humans … are not designed to be altruistic toward an indefinite number of complete strangers whom they are not likely ever to meet or exchange with. … There is no evidence that people in contemporary hunter-gatherer bands freely share resources with members of other tribes. …

Our ancestors … could have attributed [an ambiguous situation] to intentional forces when they are in fact caused by unintentional forces … or they could have attributed them to unintentional forces when they were in fact caused by intentional forces. … [The] evolutionary origin of religious beliefs in supernatural forces may stem from such an innate bias to commit Type I errors rather than Type II errors. … Out of more than 1,500 distinct cultures … only 19 contain any references to atheism. …

A species-typical degree of polygyny correlates with the extent of sexual dimorphism in size. … On this scale, humans are mildly polygynous, not as polygynous as gorillas, but not strictly monogamous like gibbons. Consistent with this comparative evidence, … an overwhelming majority of traditional cultures in the world (83.39 percent) practice polygyny with only 16.14 percent practicing monogamy and 0.47 percent practicing polyandry.

The results are interesting and worth pondering, but it is still far from clear to me why the modern world should push smart folks in these directions.  Is it that smart folks are more open minded and willing to adopt new beliefs?  If so, why do they differ only on some topics but not on others?  Is it that some beliefs are newly rewarded in the modern world, and smart folks are faster on the uptake?  This makes some sense of monogamy values, since the farming revolution has preferred that institution (longer term investments, easier to hold women).  But how does this story make sense of smart folks being more liberal, atheist, or vegetarian?

HT Ajay Menon

Added 11a: Folks, these beliefs cannot credibly signal smarts if dumb folks can hold them as easily.  Perhaps dumb folks cannot defend these beliefs as ably, but dumb folks cannot defend any belief as ably.  So credibly signal smarts via defending such beliefs, it would have to be that one’s smarts shone more clearly when defending these beliefs, vs. when defending other beliefs on the same topic.

Could these be more far-mode beliefs, and smarties tend to think more far?

Added 28Feb: Apparently this source has questionable reliability.  So I won’t try so hard to explain his odd results.

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National Juries

The reason so many bad policies are good politics is that so many people vote. … Ignorant voters … are biased towards particular errors. …

The best way to improve modern politics? … The number of voters should be drastically reduced so that each voter realizes that his vote will matter. Something like 12 voters per district … selected at random from the electorate. With 535 districts in Congress … there would be 6,420 voters nationally. A random selection would deliver a proportional representation of sexes, ages, races and income groups. This would improve on the current system, in which the voting population is skewed … the old vote more than the young, the rich vote more than the poor, and so on.

To safeguard against the possibility of abuse, these 6,420 voters would not know that they had been selected at random until the moment when the polling officers arrived at their house. They would then be spirited away to a place where they will spend a week locked away with the candidates, attending a series of speeches, debates and question-and-answer sessions before voting on the final day.  All of these events should be filmed and broadcast, so that everyone could make sure that nothing dodgy was going on.

More here.  This logic is simple and strong enough for most folks to both understand and accept.  Yet most would still prefer our current system – why?

My guess: aside from status quo bias, it just doesn’t feel like the political ideal in the back of our minds – how our nomadic forager ancestors long ago would meet every few months to make major band decisions.  All 5-15 men could talk, they wouldn’t break until they’d all had their say, decisions were by informal consensus of all, and dissenters could leave the band.

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Soothing the Sad Savage

In the latest New Yorker, Louis Menand reviews reasons to be skeptical of psychiatric drugs, including this stuff I teach in my health econ class:

Fifteen years ago, [Irving Kirsch] began conducting meta-analyses of antidepressant drug trials. … Kirsch’s conclusion is that antidepressants are just fancy placebos. … Drug trials are double-blind: neither the patients (paid volunteers) nor the doctors (also paid) are told which group is getting the drug and which is getting the placebo. But antidepressants have side effects, and sugar pills don’t. Commonly, side effects of antidepressants are tolerable things like nausea, restlessness, dry mouth, and so on. … This means that a patient who experiences minor side effects can conclude that he is taking the drug, and start to feel better.

But after 6000 words of such skepticism, Menand still concludes: take the meds.  Why?  Because impressive authors have written eloquent testimonials:

The recommendation from people who have written about their own depression is, overwhelmingly, Take the meds! It’s the position of Andrew Solomon, in “The Noonday Demon” (2001), a wise and humane book. It’s the position of many of the contributors to “Unholy Ghost” (2001) and “Poets on Prozac” (2008), anthologies of essays by writers about depression. The ones who took medication say that they write much better than they did when they were depressed. William Styron, in his widely read memoir “Darkness Visible” (1990), says that his experience in talk therapy was a damaging waste of time, and that he wishes he had gone straight to the hospital when his depression became severe.

The only reason Menand can imagine resisting such artists is a perverse religious desire to suffer:

What if there were a pill that relieved you of the physical pain of bereavement—sleeplessness, weeping, loss of appetite—without diluting your love for or memory of the dead? Assuming that bereavement “naturally” remits after six months, would you take a pill today that will allow you to feel the way you will be feeling six months from now anyway? Probably most people would say no. … Gerald Klerman once called “pharmacological Calvinism” … the view, which he thought many Americans hold, that shortcuts to happiness are sinful, that happiness is not worth anything unless you have worked for it.

Numbers schmumbers – only uncivilized animals, or religious nuts, would not let eloquent authors soothe their savage doubts, until they accept being comforted by their culture’s conventional ways to show that folks care.

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Ancient Hobbits

It remains one of the greatest human fossil discoveries of all time. The bones of a race of tiny primitive people, who used stone tools to hunt pony-sized elephants and battle huge Komodo dragons, were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004. …

According to a growing number of scientists, Homo floresiensis is probably a direct descendant of some of the first apemen to evolve on the African savannah three million years ago. …  It sounds improbable but the basic physical similarity between the two species is striking. … Analysis of Lucy’s skeleton shows it has great similarities with the bones of H. floresiensis, although her species died out millions of years ago while the hobbits hung on in Flores until about 17,000 years ago. …

The crucial point about this interpretation is that it explains why the Flores people had such minuscule proportions. … In research that provides further support for this idea, scientists have recently dated some stone tools on Flores as being around 1.1 million years old, far older than had been previously supposed. … He has now uncovered stone tools on nearby Sulawesi. These could be almost two million years old.

More here.  HT Tyler.

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Think Before Talk

A New Scientist editorial:

Should we try to promote contact by broadcasting our presence to the heavens? If alien civilisations exist, they are likely to be so far away that our message will not arrive until after we are gone. In that case, what is there to lose? We might as well let them know that we used to be around.  If, by chance, there are intelligent aliens within a few tens of light years from Earth, their own SETI programmes might already have sniffed us out. … So let’s make some friendly overtures, rather than leave them to wonder why we’re not transmitting, and what we’ve got to hide.

David Brin’s reply:

There is an arrogance in the transmission of these messages by small groups who have claimed the right to shout on behalf of Earth without consulting anybody else.  Many SETI researchers and others, including the editorial board of Nature, have asked for there to be a moratorium on these messages until broad international discussions can take place. …

That doesn’t seem much to ask, given the importance of the matter and our ignorance of the cosmos. … The message zealots label as paranoid anybody who wants open discussion. With their peremptory broadcasts, they bet our future on the assumption that all technological alien species will be altruistic. …

They deploy a host of blithe excuses, such as “aliens have already picked up our radio leakage” and “harm cannot span interstellar distances”, but they do not hold up under scientific scrutiny. … The history of first contacts between human cultures, and between previously isolated Earthly biomes, … make a sad litany that suggests patience, caution and lengthy discussion are in order before we make our presence known to the cosmos at large.

Brin seems obviously right here.  There may well be little chance anyone will hear our signals, but the main benefits of such signals are conditional on someone hearing, and so we should be concerned about large costs that also show up under exactly the same conditions.

There is clearly a real risk of market failure here; each broadcaster can enjoy the glory of hoping to be the special one to make first alien contact, while our whole planet suffers most of the consequences of that choice.  This sort of situation is exactly what global governance should be for.

Furthermore, the sort of complications that bedevil coordination on global warming, estimating each nation’s costs of warming and contribution to cooling, are avoided here – this conflict is just the one broadcaster vs. the rest of the world.  (Regulations to limit unintentional signals, as in telecom or planetary radar science, move more in that bedeviling direction.)  Our failure to actually achieve any global coordination here shows just how weak are such abilities —  a slight air of “silly topic” is all it takes to completely block coordination.

As Brin notes, many would-be broadcasters come from an academic area where for decades the standard assumption has been that aliens are peaceful zero-population-growth no-nuke greens, since we all know that any other sort quickly destroy themselves.  This seems to me an instructive example of how badly a supposed “deep theory” inside-view of the future can fail, relative to closest-related-track-record outside-view.  As Brin says, the track record of contact between cultures, species, and biomes is not especially encouraging, and it is far too easy for far-view minds to overestimate the reliability of theoretical arguments to the contrary.

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Fairness in Love And War

The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.  John Lyly, Euphues, 1578.

All’s fair in love and war, we hear at a tender age.  Though this is tempered by schoolboy concepts of fair play and never hit a man when he’s down.  Fair play is reasonable if you don’t mean to win at any cost and the other guy doesn’t mean to kill you, but all that goes by the board in any genuine confrontation. more

Does ethics describe key ultimate wants, or only minor wants, and social norms and signals which instrumentally help us achieve key wants?  Consider the saying “All is fair in love and war.”  It is often quoted, and rarely does a listener respond “Not it’s not.”  Yet folks also often complain loudly about unfairness.  Taken together, these suggest that for most, fairness is largely instrumental.

Those who embrace this saying suggest that a threat of military defeat, and perhaps extermination, would overwhelm most other considerations.  Similarly, they suggest that the threat of not attracting a hoped-for mate also overwhelms most other considerations.

Setting love alongside war as a similar reason to ignore fairness is quite telling.  Wars have often ended extremely, with total victory or total defeat.  But if you don’t attract a particular desired lover, you might well attract a lover nearly as good.  Those who equate the harm of getting their second favorite mate, vs. their favorite mate, with the harm of losing vs. winning a war, seem to say that mate quality is overwhelming important.  Little matters nearly as much – certainly not fairness (or racism).

Added 11Aug2010: This page has been translated into Belorussian.

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Who Manages Best


10 conclusions of an excellent analysis of firm management:

  1. Firms with “better” management practices tend to have better performance on a wide range of dimensions: they are larger, more productive, grow faster, and have higher survival rates.
  2. Management practices vary tremendously across firms and countries. Most of the difference in the average management score of a country is due to the size of the “long tail” of very badly managed firms. For example, relatively few U.S. firms are very badly managed, while Brazil and India have many firms in that category.
  3. Countries and firms specialize in different styles of management. For example, American firms score much higher than Swedish firms in incentives but are worse than Swedish firms in monitoring.
  4. Strong product market competition appears to boost average management practices through a combination of eliminating the tail of badly managed firms and pushing incumbents to improve their practices.
  5. Multinationals are generally well managed in every country. They also transplant their management styles abroad. For example, U.S. multinationals located in the United Kingdom are better at incentives and worse at monitoring than Swedish multinationals in the United Kingdom.
  6. Firms that export (but do not produce) overseas are better-managed than domestic non-exporters, but are worse-managed than multinationals.
  7. Inherited family-owned firms who appoint a family member (especially the eldest son) as chief executive officer are very badly managed on average.
  8. Government-owned firms are typically managed extremely badly. Firms with publicly quoted share prices or owned by private-equity firms are typically well managed.
  9. Firms that more intensively use human capital, as measured by more educated workers, tend to have much better management practices.
  10. At the country level, a relatively light touch in labor market regulation is associated with better use of incentives by management.

It seems US firms have a bright future, and that China and India grow fast in spite of, not because of, their managers.

Added: There are some online MBA rankings; I wonder how well they correlate with these quality ratings.

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