Monthly Archives: March 2011

Against IRBs

Once upon a time some researchers gave people diseases and prevented their treatment without those folks’ consent or knowledge. Other researchers let volunteers think that they were torturing folks. This so horrified many that they created a system of regulation where any academic “experiments” must have prior approval by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). And that system has expanded to the point of requiring prior approval for any interaction between researchers and non-researchers intended to be the basis of an academic publication.

That is, researchers seeking publication can’t talk to people (e.g., survey), or buy or sell something with them, or even pay them to do trivial tasks like correcting spelling mistakes, without first writing out a detailed plan months in advance and getting that approved by a committee of other academics.

One common rule is “informed consent” – people must be informed in great detail of the consequences of their interacting with the researchers – researchers must tell much more than ordinary people must tell when they deal with others. A second common rule is that people must benefit in some other way than money – they must gain some sort of intellectual insight or learning. A third common rule is that no record can be kept of people’s identities unless a really strong reason is offered to the contrary.

IRBs seem a good example of concern signaling leading to over-reaction and over-regulation. It might make sense to have extra regulations on certain kinds of interactions, such as giving people diseases on purpose or having them torture others. But it makes little sense to have extra regulation on researchers just because they are researchers. That mainly gets in the way of innovation, of which we already have too little.

Notice that researchers continue to be allowed to publish their results, and give lectures and media interviews, without such prior approval. Yet couldn’t ordinary people be harmed by reading articles that induce them to have unethical or unpleasant beliefs?  Of course they could – it is only an accident of history that regulation does not also require prior ethical review of publications.

Added noon:

In the United States, IRBs are governed by … provisions of the National Research Act of 1974, for example defining IRBs and requiring them for all research that receives support, directly or indirectly, from … the Department of Health and Human Services. (more)

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Responsibility Is Near

We are more willing to let folks off the hook because “my atoms or my brain made me do it” in far than near mode:

A deterministic universe [is one] in which “Every decision is completely caused by what happened before the decision—given the past, each decision has to happen the way that it does.” … One group of participants was asked whether it is possible for anyone to be morally responsible for their actions in such a universe. These participants tended to say that it is not possible to be morally responsible in that universe. That question about moral responsibility is, of course, pitched at an abstract level.

Another group of participants was presented instead with a concrete case of a man who killed his family. That provoked a much different response. When presented with a concrete case of man performing a reprehensible action, people tended to say that the man was fully morally responsible for his actions, even when set in a deterministic universe. Indeed, concrete cases of bad behavior lead people to attribute responsibility, even when the action is caused by a neurological disorder. …

People are pulled in different directions because different mental mechanisms are implicated in different conditions. (more)

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Seek Criticism

Two weeks ago I read Penrose’s new book Cycles of Time. I enjoyed his review of the time’s arrow puzzle, and was intrigued by his proposal that distances fade away in vast infinite futures, allowing them to become tiny flat big bangs again. But not only did Penrose wave his arms pretty wildly on how there could be a metric along which metrics would disappear in approaching the vast-tiny border, he seems to make a very elementary mistake in positing that entropy could have a similar magnitude in our big bang post and our vast distant future, because info is lost in evaporating black holes. The entropy in black hole radiation is more than the holes themselves, which is far more than a tiny flat big bang before.

Raphael Bousso (co-author of that Anthropic breakthrough I raved about in ’08) reviews the book in Science, and seems to agree:

Penrose is at his best when he explains this deep and beautiful mystery, and the book may be worth reading for this chapter alone. However, he compounds the shortcomings of his cyclic universe model when he argues that it can solve the low-entropy problem. At this point, another idea is introduced: like vacuum cleaners, black holes appear to reduce disorder by swallowing matter. By the end of one “aeon,” Penrose argues, most matter has ended up in giant black holes. Very little entropy remains, and the next aeon can commence in perfect order. The second law guarantees that a vacuum cleaner does not actually decrease the overall disorder; at best, it just shifts it around. In fact, the machine creates far more entropy than it destroys (for example, by heating up the air in the room). A black hole, it turns out, is not different. Penrose’s assertion that black holes destroy entropy is flatly contradicted by “the generalized second law of thermodynamics”. (more)

How could such a big-shot make such a simple mistake? One should seriously consider the possibility that he isn’t saying what he appears to be saying, and in fact is saying something much more clever and insightful. But if so why wouldn’t he have devoted more effort to explaining, to avoid the misunderstanding. His book reads as if he didn’t even consider that this criticism would be offered. And that fact leads me to believe Penrose considers himself to be such a big shot that he didn’t even ask colleagues to read and criticize his book before publication. And that sort of isolation makes me more willing to believe that he did in fact just make a simple mistake.

The lesson: no matter how much better you think you are than the lowly incompetents that surround you, you’d still do well to ask for and listen to criticism.

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Choose: Help Or Show Concern

The Post has now given more media attention to damaged Japan nuke plants than to the entire rest of the earthquake, tsunami, etc. event.  I suspect lots of media worldwide act similarly. Yet, the tsunami was vastly more harmful. As MIT’s Josef Oehmen explains, there is very little chance that many will suffer much radiation harm.

There was and will not be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors. By “significant” I mean a level of radiation of more than what you would receive on – say – a long distance flight, or drinking a glass of beer that comes from certain areas with high levels of natural background radiation.

In fact, the nuke media scare will itself cause far more harm!

Although radiation escaping from a nuclear power plant catastrophe can increase the risk of many cancers and other health problems, stress, anxiety and fear ended up in many ways being much greater long-term threats to health and well-being after Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and other nuclear accidents, experts said Monday.

“The psychological effects were the biggest health effects of all — by far.” … “After almost every radiological emergency, anyone or anything seen as or perceived as associated with the emergency came to be seen by others as tainted or something to be feared and even the object of discrimination.” … [After] a much less severe nuclear accident in 1999 in Tokaimura, Japan, … people in other parts of Japan refused to buy products from that region, and travelers were turned away from hotels and asked not to use public baths and swimming pools. … Studies of more than 80,000 survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts have found that … only about 500 [cancer] cases could be attributed to the radiation exposure the people experienced. (more)

Now the media nuke emphasis does make business sense, since most ordinary folks I know seem quite eager to show each other their deep concern about those nuke plants. What sort of heartless person would not furrow their brow and express worry about those folks at risk? Some say this just shows nuke plants should not be built in earthquake zones.

Here is yet another example of where people tend to choose showing concern over actually helping. Shrugging your shoulders and saying this is no big deal, that would help. Loudly expressing deep “concern,” on the other hand, hurts.

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Academic Sycophants

In the Chronicle, Paul Rahe complains of intellectuals who suck up to dictators:

What would it take to elicit servility from an intellectual? Money would help, of course. Just ask the Harvard professors who … shilled for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in return for a quarter of a million dollars a month. …

If one wished to understand why thinkers who pride themselves on their acumen so often find themselves sucking up to those who wield power, one would, I think, be well-advised to reread Jean-Jacques Rousseau. … Rousseau distinguished the philosopher from the man of letters. “The taste for philosophy,” he claimed, “relaxes all the ties of esteem and benevolence that attach men to society” and renders men indifferent to acclaim. The “cultivation of the sciences” has the opposite effect on “the man of letters.”

“Every man,” Rousseau writes, “who occupies himself in developing talents which are agreeable wants to please, to be admired, and he wishes to be admired more than anyone else. Public applause belongs to him alone: I would say that he does everything to obtain it—if he did not do still more to deprive his rivals of it. … [Rousseau] paid special attention to the figure who “has the misfortune to be born among a People and in times when Savants, having become fashionable, have put frivolous youth in a state to set the tone; when such men have sacrificed their taste to the Tyrants of their liberty,” and there he contended that such an artist “will lower his genius to the level of the age and by preference will compose vulgar works that will be admired during his lifetime rather than marvels that will not be admired until long after his death.” …

It would be hard to deny that he identified a propensity evident within the intelligentsia. Think of the tyranny of fashion that besets the humanities and the social sciences. It is sufficiently powerful that one can pull a book off a library shelf, read a paragraph or two, and all too often know precisely when it was written and under the influence of what fad. When celebrity is the aim, a scholar who is ambitious is almost certain to become a sycophant—chained to the tastes adopted and the ideas embraced by the audience whose acclaim he seeks. In our time, the scholar, the writer, and the artist may not be parasites dependent on aristocratic patrons, but that does not mean they are truly free. The desire for applause tends to inspire servility in anyone subject to it—and it is a short step from flattering one’s public to flattering monsters who wield influence and power.

It’s not clear how many “philosophers” there are, versus “men of letters,” in Rousseau’s terms. But by definition, we shouldn’t expect such “philosophers” to be esteemed or admired by much of anyone. Most academics don’t claim they aren’t sycophants – they just claim that their audience is mainly other academics like themselves, who have better taste than the public or tyrants. But its not clear their tastes are much better, and they often pretend to more autonomy from outsiders than they actually have.

Rahe seems to focus his complaints on academics who shill for autocrats.  But are academics who shill for democratically elected leaders really any better?

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Farmers Commit

Our worthy overlords speak:

A survey … invited the very rich to write freely about how prosperity has shaped their lives and those of their children. … Roughly 165 households responded, 120 of which have at least $25 million in assets. The respondents’ average net worth is $78 million, and two report being billionaires. … Respondents report feeling that they have lost the right to complain about anything, for fear of sounding—or being—ungrateful. Those with children worry that their children will become trust-fund brats if their inheritances are too large—or will be forever resentful if those inheritances (or parts of them) are instead bequeathed to charity. ….

If the rich do take jobs, they sometimes find that co-workers resent them on the grounds that they’re “taking away the jobs of people who need them.” The rich also leave jobs more quickly than others, for the simple reason that they can afford to do so. … An heir … earned an M.B.A. from a top-tier school and was an obviously intelligent man. He nonetheless moved from one high-tech job to another. “At some point, something would happen at each job that those who have to work for an income would learn to tolerate. … And he’d just say, ‘I don’t want to deal with this.’ Eventually he had to say, ‘I don’t have a career.’” …

One issue that … comes up frequently is the question of at what point in a relationship to reveal one’s wealth—a disclosure he makes sound as fraught as telling your date you have herpes. “When do you tell someone that you have got a huge amount of money?” he asks rhetorically. “If you tell them too soon, you are going to worry that they want you for your money. If you wait too long, can the person really trust you? (more)

The right to complain, and when to disclose to mates, are issues mainly because the very rich are a minority. But committing less to careers because they don’t have to put up with stuff, that issue applies to all of us to a lesser extent, in this our rich world. Our farmer ancestors were way into commitment, to marriage, to land, to family, to religion, etc. But with increasing wealth, we feel less of the fear that inclined farmers to follow strong norms. Overall this self-indulgence is probably good, but let’s not pretend that something valuable is not being lost in the trade.

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Music Signals Status

Seventy participants were asked to rate photos of eight individuals (four males and four females). … More positive traits were attributed to females, high-status looking individuals and individuals with a preference for high-status music. … Liking for low-status music lowered evaluations in high-status looking individuals, but liking for high-status music did not affect evaluations of low status looking individuals. Participants’ own musical preference did not consistently affect ratings of photographed individuals. …

Participants rated individuals who like classical and jazz music as possessing significantly more positive traits, such as educated, rational and intelligent, than negative traits, such as aggressive, ruthless and hostile. … Liking for rock–pop, trance, oriental (Arab) and oriental pop music was associated with more negative traits. (more; HT Eric Barker)

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My Surprises

I am surprised that:

  1. I exist at all; the vast majority of possible things do not exist.
  2. I am alive; the vast majority of real things are dead.
  3. I have a brain; the vast majority of living things have none.
  4. I am a mammal; the vast majority of brains aren’t.
  5. I am a human; the vast majority of mammals aren’t.
  6. I am richer than the vast majority who have ever lived.
  7. I am alive earlier than the vast majority of human-like folks who will ever live.
  8. I am richer and smarter than most humans alive today.
  9. I write a popular blog, and unusually interesting articles.

Now how bothered should I be by these surprises? The bigger is some particular surprise, the more eager I should be to seek alternative theories, under which that surprise would be smaller.  But what alternative accounts could weaken these surprises?

One hypothesis that does the trick is the simulation argument – the idea that I’m really part of a simulation created in the distant future to explore their past world.  It lessens the surprise of #5-9, and maybe also #2-4 as well. Does this mean I should take the simulation argument a bit more seriously than I otherwise would?

Added 9a:  I find anything unusually interesting to be “surprising.” Sometimes that is of course just an accident, but the more surprising something is, the more one should seek alternate explanations.  If you can’t find them, you’ll just have to go back to considering them an accident.

Yes the fact that I am cognitively able to actually be surprised predicts other things, and given that fact those other things are no longer surprising.  But the fact that I am able to be surprised is itself surprising!

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An Innovation Lesson

After all these years of hybrids hogging ouf “car pool” lanes as well as huge subsidies, we learn:

The new Chevrolet Cruze Eco can reach eye-popping fuel economy levels of more than 50 miles per gallon on the highway, which even in this era of hybrid-electric cars stands among the best. But here’s the real trick: The Cruze Eco is neither a hybrid nor electric. It runs on that “old” technology, the conventional gasoline engine. … This year, General Motors, Ford and Hyundai began selling cars with conventional engines that achieve 40 mpg or more on the highway, exceeding the fuel efficiency of some hybrids. … The new fuel-efficient gasoline cars, critics say, raise doubts about government efforts that favor any one technology over another. If subsidies are to be made, they argue, they should go to efficient cars, no matter what their power source. (more)

Oh yes, yes, yes.

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Modular Innovation

Seth Roberts says economists neglect innovation:

How to avoid or recover from stagnation … is the central question of economic life, with no clear answer. Yet it is roundly ignored. In the Berkeley Public Library a few years ago, I picked up an introductory economics textbook for junior colleges, 700 pages long. It had one page – fact-free, poorly-written – about where new goods and services come from. This is typical of the introductory economics textbooks I’ve seen. It reflects the profession as a whole: I estimate about 1% of mainstream economic research is about innovation. It should be half the field.

He’s right; innovation is neglected, at least using a standard of what has impact or relevance. But academics don’t study topics because they are important; they study topics to gain prestige, by being certified as mastering impressive techniques. Sure, all else equal it can help to write about an important topic.  (At least if you avoid taking on a topic too big for your status – big grand overviews and contrarian jabs tend to be reserved for senior folk.) But academics usually aren’t rewarded enough for the added effort to figure out what topics are actually important. So they might as well just do what others say is important. And since it is hard to use standard impressive tools to study how to promote innovation, that topic gets neglected.

Enough excuses; here’s a positive contribution. It seems to me that one of the major factors limiting innovation is this: would be innovators must now combine two risky decisions:

  1. What innovative ideas or projects are ripe and promising to purse now?
  2. Who is best placed or skilled to attempt the realization of each idea?

People who pitch project ideas to venture capitalists often focus on convincing them of #1, idea quality, not realizing that if you convince them of that but not #2, your team quality, they will just steal your idea and give it to another better team. Usually they hear from several teams pitching pretty similar concepts, so they are judging mainly on team quality.

Knowing this, sophisticated innovators tend to neglect idea quality, and focus on team quality. Naive innovators address both issues, but being naive they don’t know enough about what other folks think about the quality of their ideas. The net result is too little aggregation of info about idea quality. Could we do better?

Prediction markets, to the rescue! Imagine prediction markets on which innovative ideas will succeed soon, possibly conditional on approach or team style. Such prediction markets could offer a valuable modularity to aid innovation. Some people could focus on idea quality, and profit from their insights by trading in markets on which ideas will succeed when. Other folks could focus on team quality, by creating high quality teams which pursue the ideas that prediction markets have endorsed. Such teams could hedge some of their idea risk in prediction markets, and that hedging would add market liquidity, enabling idea specialists to better profit from their insights.

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