Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Emotionally an eight-year old

An enormously revealing (bordering on the delusional) response from Washington Post reporter Paul Kane. The questioner said that there was " no factual basis" for a claim that Kane and his colleagues made. This charge was part of a larger widely-circulated accusation that Kane and co. have repeatedly distorted their coverage to maintain a comfortable narrative and avoid the blowback that inevitably follows when you hold powerful people responsible for their actions.

Kane is familiar with these accusations (he's the one who brings up the subject) and it's clearly a sore point, because when he hears the question he angrily... Well, I'm not sure what the hell he does but he certainly does it angrily.


Paul, I'm guessing you won't be sympathetic to the following point, but I'll put it out there anyway. Most reporting on the supercommittee--like most reporting on the deficit--reflects an acceptance of a basic fallacy. Whenever there is an impasse, there seems to be a desire to blame both sides equally, on the theory that if only Democrats would concede more, Republicans would reciprocate (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding). Yes, Democrats have drawn lines in the sand, but as Greg Sargent and other commentators have documented, when you compare the specifics, there is no factual basis for blaming both parties equally. So my question is, why does the Post's coverage do so anyway, either explicitly or implicitly?
– November 21, 2011 11:48 AM


Yeah, you're right. I think this point is just absurd and ridiculous. This is a big thing among folks calling it "moral equivalence" (Fallows, Ornstein) and others calling it the "cult of balance" (Krugman).

It's just stupid. If you want someone to tell you that Republicans stink, read opinion pages. Read blogs. Also, the underlying sentiment on the left is that this is the real reason why things went wrong in 2010: That the mainstream media is to blame. Sorry, I think that's the sorta head-in-sand outlook that leads to longer term problems for a movement.

Greg is a fine writer. He's an opinion writer, in the opinion section of the web site. I encourage you to keep reading him. And I encourage you to keep reading the news coverage, which should always strive to present both sides of the story. If you really don't want to hear anything about the other side of the story, I really do encourage you to stop reading the news section.
You'll notice he never says "I never implied that both sides were equally to blame." or "Both sides are equally to blame." Instead he calls the complaints 'stupid' and says that if people don't like his rules they can just go home.

Kane's stunted emotional development might be amusing if not for the bigger story. I'll try to come back later and flesh the following out but here is the need-to-get-to-bed version.

Our ability to have a productive public discourse has been eaten away by this and other problems including:

a decline in standards of accuracy;

undermining of authoritative sources like the CBO;

subsidized debate by partisan foundations;

an increased use of press releases as news and a tendency of journalists to simply print what they're told;

coziness with subjects;

more and more groupthink.

As someone who likes the idea of a democracy, these things scare the hell out of me.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lots of good stuff

From NPR:
Priya sits between two operating tables. When she finishes one patient, usually in less than 10 minutes, she turns to the next table, where the patient is draped and ready. This way, there is no time wasted between surgeries. Priya says she performs 30 to 40 surgeries a day.

And Marketplace:

But what if I told you that there's a way to cut the deficit by as much as $7 trillion over the next 10 years? That's way more than the $1.2 trillion the super committee was supposed to cut. And the best part? Congress wouldn't have to do much at all. Anything, really.

And Richard Thaler via Salmon:
Having decided that charitable giving is a worthy cause, the government subsidizes charitable gifts from certain households, and for those chosen to be part of the plan, every dollar donated to a charity is increased by a specified percentage. To qualify, taxpayers must have a substantial home mortgage; the subsidy rate increases with taxable income. Low-income taxpayers receive no subsidy, but donations from qualified high-income taxpayers are subsidized by as much as 40 percent — or more…

And Harvard via TPM:

Monday, November 28, 2011

I hate John D. Cook

As God as my witness, I swear I was getting ready to do a post looking at argument from authority in terms of informative priors.

Apple Stock

Karl Smith is bearish on Apple:

On the one hand you can buy Apple stock for $375 a share and pay $7 to ScottTrade. On the other hand I also have a trash can in which you can deposit your $375, pay me $5 and I will set it on fire for you.

Clearly, I am offering the better deal as in both cases you have approximately zero probability of getting your money back and I am willing to burn it for $5 whereas you have to pay ScottTrade $7.

This is really one of the paradoxes of the stock market. It is not clear whether or not companies that do not issue dividends will ever be investments that pay off. The longer Apple puts its cash in executive compensation without rewarding owners, the higher the risk that Karl Smith is right.

How many rich families do you know that sustained multi-generational wealth via the stock market? How many do it with real assets? It is worth thinking about.

Another statistics/auteur theory post -- causality

[the second in a very infrequent series]

From the LA Times:
Cinema trends ebb and flow, but one facet of Hollywood moviemaking proving remarkably consistent is gender inequality, according to a study being released Monday by USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

In a survey of the top 100-grossing movies of 2009 — including "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" and "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" — researchers found that 32.8% of the 4,342 speaking characters were female and 67.2% were male, a percentage identical to that of the top-grossing movies of 2008.

"We see remarkably stable trends," said USC Annenberg associate professor Stacy L. Smith. "This reveals an industry formula for gender that may be outside of people's conscious awareness."


Researchers found that the sex of the storytellers had a significant effect on what appeared on-screen. In movies directed by women, 47.7% of the characters were female; in movies directed by men, fewer than a third of the characters were female. When one or more of the screenwriters was female, 40% of characters were female; when all the screenwriters were male, 29.8% of the characters were female.

The article doesn't quite come out and say it explicitly but I think it's fair to read this as claiming that there's a causal relationship between director's gender and the number of female characters, and that's really not feasible.

Gender of characters with speaking roles (which seem to be the ones we're talking about) are specified in the screenplay and, despite a widely held opinion to the contrary, directors don't write screenplays. This leaves us with two possibilities: writer/directors are confounding the data or the causal relationship runs the other way -- a screenplay with more female characters is more likely to be directed by a woman (perhaps because female directors are seen as less capable of handling male-heavy action films).

This question of causal direction has interesting implications for other auteurist analyses. How many of the common themes we see in a director's work are the result of the artist's personal vision and how many are the result of a certain director being assigned a certain type of picture (director as subgenre)?

Take Dial M for Murder. Thematically, it certainly feel like Hitchcock, but it was a successful stage play before it was a movie and pretty much all of the themes were in place before anyone even considered a motion picture version. In this one case isn't it reasonable to suggest that the themes caused the studio executives to pick Hitchcock rather than Hitchcock being responsible for these themes?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sad news

I think that the statement speaks for itself:

My wife, Kimberly Webb Joyner, died this morning in her sleep from unknown causes. She was 41.
She leaves behind two little girls she loved more than anything, Katie, who turns 3 on New Year’s Eve, and Ellie, who was born June 21.

I have always respected Dr. Joyner (even if I often disagreed with him) and I am deeply sorrowed to hear of this tragedy. Best wishes to him and his family from the OE team.


Karl Smith is striking me as an optimist:

In any case, during the GOP Google debate there was a poll that asked GOP voters if someone should be denied medical treatment because they could not afford it. 80% said no. This is the end of the major question in my mind. If you answer no then you have de facto signed on to socialized medicine through some means.

After all, he is demanding consistency here. I am not sure that humans are especially good at consistency. People often get quite annoyed at me when I drive the speed limit. I have the attitude that if we all want to drive faster on the road I am game, but I am unwilling to get a speeding ticket because local government cannot reach consensus on an appropriate speed limit.

In the same vein, I suspect that there can be a lot of daylight between the principle here and the application. That being said, I'd be delighted if we did adopt a more socialized medical system, purely for reasons of economic efficiency.

Living with Mistakes the easy way -- larger points

Andrew Gelman fact-checks the New York Times:
For example, David Brooks wrote the following, in a column called “Living with Mistakes”:

The historian Leslie Hannah identified the ten largest American companies in 1912. None of those companies ranked in the top 100 companies by 1990.

Huh? Could that really be? I googled “ten largest american companies 1912″ and found this, from Leslie Hannah:

No big deal: two still in the top 10 rather than zero in the top 100, but Brooks’s general point still holds. As Brooks said, we have to live with mistakes. This is more a comment on how a statistician such as myself will see a number and immediately feel the urge to check it.


Again, this is no criticism of Brooks—as a journalist, he’s of course more interested in good stories than in getting the details right (recall the notorious $20 dinner at Red Lobster). That’s ok. Storytelling is his job, numbers are mine.

I appreciate Gelman's sharp eye and I can understand why, being a nice guy, he tends to favor catch-and-release criticism, but I disagree sharply with his conclusions here.

For starters, creative destruction a big part of the story Brooks is telling, both in this column and in his body of work collectively. In this narrative, it's a tough process, but a healthy and fundamentally fair one. Here's the sentence that precedes Gelman's excerpt from Brooks: "Even if you make it to the top, it is very hard to stay there."

We can argue about the validity of this view, but there's no question that Brooks' incorrect statement supported this point while the corrected version undercuts it. There are millions of businesses and if success is truly determined solely by who has the best business model, the best execution and the best timing, a long run in the Fortune 500 (with shifts in markets and changes in management) would be a hell of a feat. The number we actually see would certainly imply something more at work (regulatory capture, anti-competitive practices, etc.).

So yes, I would call this a big deal with respect to the story Brooks is telling.

Perhaps more importantly, I have a problem with the distinction drawn here between statisticians and the rest of the world. It's true that the ability to sniff out suspect numbers and questionable findings is an essential part of being a good statistician, but it's also part being a good journalist (and a good engineer and a good accountant and any number of other professions).

As statisticians we need strong mathematical intuition and a heightened sense of how numbers relate to each other, but we don't have any claim to the urge to check the unlikely. David Brooks was simply being a bad journalist when he wrote that passage. It was not because of inability -- Brooks is smart and highly capable -- but because he didn't care enough to get it right. He know there would be no real consequences either for him or his paper if he got it wrong.

And a lack of consequences, my friends, makes living with your mistakes amazingly easy.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

"[T]he numbers show that wage inflation is — literally — the least of the problems when it comes to university cost inflation"

The quote comes from Felix Salmon and it's part of an excellent discussion (nicely summarized at Rortybomb). If you're interested in either education or the economy (where student debt is becoming a major factor), you should read all of the posts, but if I had to pick one point it would be this unbelievable projection cited by Malcolm Harris:
And while the proportion of tenure-track teaching faculty has dwindled, the number of managers has skyrocketed in both relative and absolute terms. If current trends continue, the Department of Education estimates that by 2014 there will be more administrators than instructors at American four-year nonprofit colleges.
Also posted at Education and Statistics.

Probably the damnedest thing you'll see this weekend

And you think you have trouble getting out there for your morning jog...

Friday, November 25, 2011

Peak Life Expectancy

I am often skeptical of these claims that we will see the next generation have a shorter life expectancy as these claims require models. These models may be incorrect for a variety of reasons: misspecification, noise, shifting patterns of disease, unexpected technological improvements, and so forth.

But what was fascinating was the map in the article. The places in the United States where life expectancy is dropping are focused mainly in the Southeast. Now that distribution is, itself, interesting as the southeast has long had health issues: think of the classic stroke belt. Furthermore, it is an area of high inequality that has a climate that is very compatible with a sedentary lifestyle.

Contrast this with the California coast (and especially Los Angeles) where life expectancies are actually rising, or even New York city. Could it be that an urban lifestyle is actually life enhancing (both in terms of quantity and quality)?

So perhaps, instead, what we have is an ecological experiment to really try and understand these phenomena.

Glycemic control and diabetes: today's evidence

This paper has the potential to be pretty important:

Intensive glycaemic control for patients with type 2 diabetes: systematic review with meta-analysis and trial sequential analysis of randomised clinical trials

The article is free online but let me quote from the conclusion:

Intensive glycaemic control does not seem to reduce all cause mortality in patients with type 2 diabetes. Data available from randomised clinical trials remain insufficient to prove or refute a relative risk reduction for cardiovascular mortality, non-fatal myocardial infarction, composite microvascular complications, or retinopathy at a magnitude of 10%. Intensive glycaemic control increases the relative risk of severe hypoglycaemia by 30%.

This is actually quite important. It is very difficult for patients to maintain low levels of blood glucose, with consequences in both quality of life and adverse events. Tight glycemic control, for example is the reason that some policy makers have concerns about diabetics driving (due to worries about hypoglycemic attacks).

Given the difficulty of getting diabetics to adhere to tight glycemic control (and concerns about issues like driving), perhaps we should be more cautious in pushing tight control? More interestingly, we should ask why this association seems non-linear, as it is obvious that objectively poor glycemic control is very cardiotoxic.

But this was a very interesting paper for highlighting what we do and not not know.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Things that make you wince science writing edition

I heard a brief discussion of Milgram's six degrees by KCRW's Sara Terry and NYT's Somini Sengupta. It wasn't pretty, but it did get me thinking about science stories that are consistently misreported. Two immediately jumped to mind:

Milgram's Small World

The Butterfly Effect

Now that we've got things started, I'm opening the floor to nominations. What science stories can you count on to make you wince?

Tax Levels

From Don Talyor:

If we adopted 21% of GDP as a future target for balancing the budget, we would be saying government spending will be less while the baby boomers are eligible for Medicare and Social Security than it commonly was when they were paying taxes to support these same programs. This will be very hard. Plans seeking balance at lower levels seem implausible.

I think that this is worth keeping in mind. A 21% of GDP budget target would already be a painful and difficult process to achieve with the headwinds we have already due to population aging. Lower levels require a really novel idea about how to reverse these headwinds.

But the options that might really shift the balance (immigration) seem to be out of favor right now.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Toys for Tots -- reprinted, slightly revised

A good Christmas can do a lot to take the edge off of a bad year both for children and their parents (and a lot of families are having a bad year). It's not too late to pick up a few toys, drop them by the fire station and make some people feel good about themselves during what can be one of the toughest times of the year.

If you're new to the Toys-for-Tots concept, here are the rules I normally use when shopping:

The gifts should be nice enough to sit alone under a tree. The child who gets nothing else should still feel that he or she had a special Christmas. A large stuffed animal, a big metal truck, a large can of Legos with enough pieces to keep up with an active imagination. You can get any of these for around twenty or twenty-five bucks at Target;

Shop smart. The better the deals the more toys can go in your cart;

No batteries. (I'm a strong believer in kid power);*

Speaking of kid power, it's impossible to be sedentary while playing with a basketball;

No toys that need lots of accessories;

For games, you're generally better off going with a classic;

No movie or TV show tie-ins. (This one's kind of a personal quirk and I will make some exceptions like Sesame Street);

Look for something durable. These will have to last;

For smaller children, you really can't beat Fisher Price and PlaySkool. Both companies have mastered the art of coming up with cleverly designed toys that children love and that will stand up to generations of energetic and creative play.

* I'd like to soften this position just bit. It's okay for a toy to use batteries, just not to need them. Fisher Price and PlaySkool have both gotten into the habit of adding lights and sounds to classic toys, but when the batteries die, the toys live on, still powered by the energy of children at play.

The most disgusting image I could come up with in the education reform debate

You can read my thoughts on dismembered puppy math over at Education and Statistics.

Statements that I violently disagree with

From Tyler Cowen via Scott Sumner:

Congratulations to Matt Yglesias on his new gig. He’s arguably the best progressive economist in the blogosphere, which isn’t bad given that he’s not an economist. I said “arguably” because Krugman’s a more talented macroeconomist. But Yglesias can address a much wider variety of policy issues in a very persuasive fashion. So he’s certainly in the top 5. His blog is the best argument for progressive policy that I’ve ever read. (But not quite persuasive enough to convince me.)

Now do not get me wrong: I post a lot about Matt Yglesias because I think that he is a fine thinker and has some really nice points to make. But there is now way he is competitive to be the top progressive economist in the blogosphere. I can't claim to be an expert but, off the top of my head, I have have:

Noah Smith
Paul Krugman
Bradford Delong
Mark Thoma

Plus the Worthwhile Canadian Initiative folks occasionally drift into progressive territory and are always worth reading. And this is just off the top of my head and including blogs I read regularly. Again: the provocative policy thinker with good ideas and a solid grasp of economists label definitely applies to Yglesias. But I find him a very odd choice for #1 given the alternatives. If anything, I find him awfully centrist on economic matters, at times (which, I suppose, could explain the appeal).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Evaluating evidence

I want to steal a quote from Paul Krugman to illustrate a point:

And in the end, Ryan’s answer is that we need strong economic growth, the kind that we get by cutting taxes on the rich. Because that’s why the Clinton years were an economic disaster and the Bush years so prosperous.

Is this strong evidence?

First of all, we need to consider a number of causal hypotheses:

1) Tax rates on the rich are unrelated to economic growth
2) Higher tax rates on the rich increase economic growth
3) Economic growth makes it easier to tax the rich
4) Higher tax rates on the rich decrease economic growth

Then we need to consider lags between tax policy and changes in economic growth. I am suspicious of anyone who says that this is an easy problem. After all, what we really want (the counterfactual of what would happen if Bush/Clinton not changed tax policy) is completely unavailable.

So what value is this evidence?

It does rule out one very clear talking point in the debate. It suggests that moderate changes in tax policy (Bush Tax cuts) do not have a stronger effect on economic growth than the economic fundamentals do. We may even take this as weak evidence of hypothesis #4 above (with all of the caveats about not being able to make a strong inference).

So the ideas that tax cuts [focused on high income earners] are a good response to short term problems with weak economic growth seems to be contrary to the best evidence available. Nor does looking at period like the 1950' (with very high marginal rates and rapid growth) seem to provide a lot of support for Hypothesis #2.

But if it is case that Hypothesis #2 is true, we know that it is unlikely to overcome other economic issues (or it would have made the Bush years a time of prosperity). Or, in other words, that the overall effect size of this tax policy change is small relative to other factors (if it works in the direction predicted by Hypothesis #2). Now one can reframe this as a moral question, and some do.

But it is worth considering that, in the absence of controlled experiments, how do we update our expectations when a strategy that sounds reasonable doesn't seem to give expected results.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why aren't you reading the incidental economist?

Because if you care about health care, they are one of the most informative blogs around for those of us in the medical research community.

Consider this statistic:

By 2010, more than 60% of people lived in areas where insurance premiums cost at least 20% of their income. And that’s just premiums; it doesn’t include deductibles, it doesn’t include co-pays, and it doesn’t include co-insurance.

This is likely unsustainable. The growth rate of insurance is far above that of wages, meaning that health care costs are going to consume a higher and higher percent of people’s incomes in the future. Moreover, this is a problem of the non-elderly. Because of Medicare, few elderly have premiums which consume this level of income.

This statistic very nicely frames the entire underlying issue with the explosion in medical costs. Placed in such stark terms, the question shifts from "can we reduce medical costs" to "how are we going to reduce medical costs".

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hard work

Noah Smith has a couple of interesting posts up, but the one that I really found interesting was "Why conservatives can't get people to work hard". It had several insightful comments including the classic:

One basic idea is that hard work should be rewarded. Obvious, right? I mean, we're supposed to be economists here! People respond to incentives, and they are risk averse. A winner-take-all society is not very conducive to hard work; I'm not going to bust my butt for 30 years for a 1% shot at getting into The 1%. But I am going to bust my butt for 30 years if I think this gives me a 90% chance of having a decent house, a family, some security, a reasonably pleasant job, a dog, and a couple of cars in my garage. An ideal middle-class society is one in which everyone, not just anyone, can get ahead via hard work.

Even more interesting, he points out the underlying ambivalence among conservatives as to whether hard work has a causal link to productivity:

Conservatives, meanwhile, are all too often divided on whether they actually believe that hard work works. Plenty of conservatives have undermined Cowen's hard-work-and-discipline bloc by saying that success in life is all due to natural differences in ability. These "I.Q. conservatives" see inequality as the natural order of things. They have focused on getting people to accept their place in society and learn to live with what they have, rather than strive to move up in the world. This is a very Old British sort of conservatism, a nobility-and-peasants ethos dressed up in the faux modernism of psychometric testing.

Conservatives need to look in the mirror and ask themselves: "Do we really want people to work hard and be disciplined? Or do we just say that in order to keep the peasants from getting restless, when deep down we believe that it's all about good genes?" Because if it's the former, conservatives should do some hard thinking about what actually gets people to work hard. And they should think about how to respond to those among their colleagues for whom it is simply the latter.

I think that the "I.Q. conservatives" (as Noah calls them) are actually a fairly concerning movement. We all know that social structures based on accepting one's lot in life (think feudalism) have shockingly low levels of productivity. A social creed that suggests that this lack of productivity is due to innate personal differences is also one that cannot address any social dysfunction that may be present. After all, if the reason person A is successful is that they are the "right sort of person" then we don't have to handle questions like "why is person B unsuccessful".

A broad adoption of this ethos would be an unfortunate outcome for any society because it then concentrates decision making ability into a more and more restricted class. Democracy and capitalism succeed by making the information base broad. It's not that they always succeed in creating good outcomes. But the track record of a narrow elite making decisions is . . . poor.

Laboratory animals in biomedicine -- a recycled reply

In response to Joseph's recent post on the over-reliance on mice in medical research (which was prompted by this thought-provoking piece in Slate), I thought I'd dredge up something I wrote on the subject last year:

Landscapes and Lab Rats

In this post I discussed gradient searches and the two great curses of the gradient searcher, small local optima and long, circuitous paths. I also mentioned that by making small changes to the landscape being searched (in other words, perturbing it) we could sometimes (with luck) improve our search metrics without significantly changing the size and location of our optima.

The idea that you can use a search on one landscape to find the optima of a similar landscape is the assumption behind more than just perturbing. It is also the basis of all animal testing of treatments for humans. This brings genotype into the landscape discussion, but not in the way it's normally used.

In evolutionary terms, we look at an animal's genotype as a set of coordinates for a vast genetic landscape where 'height' (the fitness function) represents that animal's fitness. Every species is found on that landscape, each clustering around its own local maximum.

Genotype figures in our research landscape, but instead of being the landscape itself, it becomes part of the fitness function. Here's an overly simplified example that might clear things up:

Consider a combination of two drugs. If we use the dosage of each drug as an axis, this gives us something that looks a lot like our first example with drug A being north/south, drug B being east/west and the effect we're measuring being height. In other words, our fitness function has a domain of all points on our AB plane and a range corresponding to the effectiveness of that dosage. Since we expect genetics to affect the subjects react to the drugs, genotype has to be part of that fitness function. If we ran the test on lab rats we would expect a different result than if we tested it on humans but we would hope that the landscapes would be similar (or else there would be no point in using lab rats).

Scientists who use animal testing are acutely aware of the problems of going from one landscape to another. For each system studied, they have spent a great deal of time and effort looking for the test species that functions most like humans. The idea is that if you could find an animal with, say, a liver that functions almost exactly like a human liver, you could do most of your controlled studies of liver disease on that animal and only use humans for the final stages.

As sound and appealing as that idea is, there is another way of looking at this.

On a sufficiently high level with some important caveats, all research can be looked at as a set of gradient searches over a vast multidimensional landscape. With each study, researchers pick a point on the landscape, gather data in the region then use their findings to pick their findings and those of other researchers to pick their next point.

In this context, important similarities between landscapes fall into two distinct categories: those involving the positions and magnitudes of the optima; and those involving the search properties of the landscape. Every point on the landscape corresponds to four search values: a max; the number of steps it will take to reach that max; a min; and the number of steps it will take to reach that min. Since we usually want to go in one direction (let's say maximizing), we can generally reduce that to two values for each point, optima of interest and time to converge.

All of this leads us to an interesting and somewhat counterintuitive conclusion. When searching on one landscape to find the corresponding optimum of another, we are vitally interested in seeing a high degree of correlation between the size and location of the optima but given that similarity between optima, similarity in search statistics is at best unimportant and at worst a serious problem.

The whole point of repeated perturbing then searching of a landscape is to produce a wide range of search statistics. Since we're only keeping the best one, the more variability the better. (Best here would generally be the one where the global optimum is associated with the largest region though time to converge can also be important.)

In animal testing, changing your population of test subjects perturbs the research landscape. So what? How does thinking of research using different test animals change the way that we might approach research? I'll suggest a few possibilities in my next post on the subject.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The limitations of laboratory animals in biomedicine

There is a very interesting take in Slate on the reliance of Mouse Models in biomedical science. You can see the temptation in a fast growing animal that elicits limited sympathy from the general public. But the concern with missing key drugs is real -- especially when the diseases in mice operate differently than in humans.

But the real kicker was the discovery that control mice are overfed, under-stimulated and obese. This puts an entirely new spin on studies that restrict caloric intake. They may be saying that eating a normal diet is life enhancing and not caloric restriction. These sorts of blind alleys can have enormous consequences.

Go and read -- it is worth it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How not to convince people

The approach taken by Occupy Seattle here seems to be deeply counter-productive. I think that new ideas and paths forward require us to spend less time in "gumming up process" and more time deciding how to address real problems.

Not a good start for a dynamic movement seeking change.

Tone poem -- how Duncan Black and company missed the big picture

I'd thought about blogging this yesterday, then I decided that too much had been written about Penn State, at least too much by people like me who knew nothing about the subject. I reconsidered when I followed this link from Brad DeLong. DeLong, Black and co. see David Brooks' statements as standard issue liberal bashing, but I think they missed a more significant part of story.

Take a look at this excerpt from All Things Considered:

RAZ: In the just short time we have left, E.J., I want to ask you about Penn State - both of you. Obviously, the university president and the head coach, Joe Paterno, were fired by the board of trustees.

Do you think they should've considered shutting down the program for a year?

DIONNE: Yeah. Well, you look at that indictment, I mean, what happened was hideous. What was done to kids, 10-year-old boy and others that young, was just awful. And you had an institution that seemed more interested in self-protection than anything else. And we've seen that before.

And I understand Joe Paterno is a much-loved figure in sports terms. He was one of the better college coaches. His kids graduated. But this entire episode is so ugly and it, again, you hate institutional protection over the interests of little kids.

RAZ: David.

BROOKS: Yeah, I guess think - it's I have a bigger view, which is that when we have a society where we don't know how to handle the concept of evil when we see it, we don't know how to deal with it, we're not really aware of it and people hid away. I do not think they should shut down the program, however. I think a lot of very honest football players have committed themselves to that program. I don't think they should be punished.

If you've followed any of the major debates going on now, you have to be discouraged by the lack of progress. You will see some good substantive arguments but more often the pundits will simply focus on maintaining the appropriate tone and making the right associations.

David Brooks is a master of this kind of punditry. That skill has allowed him to maintain his reasonable conservative persona under very difficult circumstances (look at what happened to David Frum). See how he hits both notes here, first chastising us for moral relativism then warning against excessive reaction. In terms of tone, this combination of conservative values and measured responses is almost perfect. As an argument, though, it's gibberish.

There is no way to reconcile the two sides here. You can't condemn society for lacking the strength and clarity of vision to deal with evil then recommend that we not punish an institution that tolerated and enabled genuine atrocities. Brooks, who is a very intelligent man, undoubtedly knows what he said makes no sense, but he also knows that, as long as maintains that proper tone, most people won't care.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Cross sectional reasoning

I want to follow up on a post by Bad Astronomy that has been discussed by both Mark and Noah Smith. The post comments on the results of the 2010 census on employment rates:

I highlighted one in particular: Astronomy and Astrophysics. Note that it has a 0% unemployment rate; in other words, last year everyone who majored in these fields got a job! Now, I find myself being a tad skeptical about this, but if there’s some weird thing going on with this survey, I can at least make the broad assumption that the relative job numbers are probably OK. Majoring in astronomy is still a good idea, and will strengthen your chances of getting a job after college.

I want to take this in a different direction. What this metric shows is that, if you were lucky enough to have majored in Astronomy in 2005 then you were very likely to be employed in 2010. It says nothing about what will happen to somebody who enters the program in 2011 and whether they will be employed in 2015.

See, I was actually a physics major in the mid 1990's, in a school with a large astrophysics group. I knew a lot of these students and even took classes with them. Do you know what they mostly ended up as: High School Teachers. Plus a few academics. At the time there was a terrible job placement rate in physics and we were all depressed by the poor employment outcomes. Using the tool, I see a 4.5% unemployment rate for physics, which does make me wonder how many astrophysicists are counted in this group.

But, in general, past performance is no guarantee of future employment. A depressed job market could easily have led to full employment years later, long after only the most dedicated students remained. I've seen this phenomenon in a lot of fields -- people go where the markets signal but, in education, the signals are lagging indicators.

So maybe we are seeing the unemployment ghettos of the future?

Another "It's too late tonight to do it justice..."

Noah Smith has an excellent post on the employment picture for science major with important implications for our ongoing mathematics education debate:

No, a science major does not guarantee you a job...

Sunday, November 13, 2011

I'm not knowledgeable enough to sufficiently mock this* #

DNA Testing Could Help Choose Your Kid's Sport

* Yeah, it's a split infinitive. What are you, the grammar police?

# Now with no words omitted from the title.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Libertarians in Space

Herman Cain gave a speech to a group of Young Republicans and the subject of the space shuttle came up:
In his speech, Cain praised President John F. Kennedy as a "great leader" for inspiring a national effort to put a man on the moon, a goal achieved when astronaut Neil Armstong stepped onto the moon's surface in 1969.

"He didn't say, 'We might.' He didn't say, 'Let's take a poll,'" Cain said. "He said, 'We will.' And we did. Only for this president to move us back by canceling a major part of our space program."

Cain also criticized Obama for using Russian technology to ferry astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station.

"I can tell you that as president of the United States, we are not going to bum a ride to outer space with Russia," Cain said to loud applause. "We're going to regain our rightful place in terms of technology, space technology."
I don't know what the reaction of the crowd was (the reporting wasn't that detailed) but I'd imagine it was friendly. You can usually get a warm response from a Republican crowd by coming out in favor of manned space exploration which is, when you think about, strange as hell.

If you set out to genetically engineer a program that libertarians ought to object to, you'd probably come up with something like the manned space program. A massive government initiative, tremendously expensive, with no real role for individual initiative. Compared to infrastructure projects the benefits to business are limited. You could even argue that the government's presence in the field crowds out private development.

(Much has been made of the rise of private space firms, but barring a really big and unexpected technological advance, their role is going to be limited to either unmanned missions or human flights in low earth orbit for the foreseeable future.)

There have been efforts in libertarian-leaning organs (The Wall Street Journal, Reason, John Tierney's NYT columns) trying to argue that interplanetary exploration can be done on the cheap. These usually rely heavily on the blatant low-balling of Robert Zubrin* (Tierney, a science writer who has no grasp of science, made a particularly ripe mark), but even if we were to accept these numbers, it's still difficult to reconcile this kind of government program with libertarian values.

* On a related note, check out this other example of Zubrin's estimation skills.

Tex Avery animates David Frum's sudden move to the center

At about ninety seconds in.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pre-blogging Jack Shafer

I've got a couple of posts coming up on related subjects so I thought I'd get this out of the way in advance.

Here's Jack Shafer explaining how his intense antipathy toward plagiarism is all about the readers (via Salmon):
The plagiarist defrauds readers by leading them to believe that he has come by the facts of his story first-hand–that he vouches for the accuracy of the facts and interpretations under his byline. But this is not the case. Generally, the plagiarist doesn’t know whether the copy he’s lifted has gotten the story right because he hasn’t really investigated the topic. (If he had, he could write the story himself.) In such cases he must attribute the material he borrows so that at the very least the reader can hold somebody accountable for the facts in a story.
Putting aside the fact that Shafer has never gotten that worked up about colleagues' inaccuracy (you'll notice he didn't jump on this story about his friend Gregg Easterbrook), there's an interesting game here of rhetorical Three-card Monte. The cards in this game are the three types of plagiarism: theft of ideas and interpretations; theft of facts and data; and theft of wording.

In the world of research, the first two are considered the most serious. Stealing the hypothesis of another paper or presenting someone else's data as your own is about the worst thing you can do. Lifting a passage of someone else's writing is frowned upon but prose style does not drive impact factors.

For journalists, the situation is exactly reversed. Reusing another writer's phrases is clearly considered the worst kind of plagiarism, perhaps the worst journalistic crime period. Stealing facts (such as using other people's reporting to cover an event) is seldom even mentioned except in the most flagrant of cases. As for appropriating ideas, the practice is so common as to almost be standard. Even those most modern of journalistic concepts, memes, are almost always based largely on the plagiarism of hypotheses and arguments.

Now, here's the part where the cards really start to move. Shafer's criticism only applies to the first two types of plagiarism, the two types he doesn't object to. (aren't the first two nested in the third? Sometimes, but Shafer apparently doesn't have a problem with borrowing and paraphrasing, it must be the not-paraphrasing part that bothers him). If Shafer really wants to convince us that borrowing without paraphrasing is more than journalist-on-journalist crime, he'll have to do better than that.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Health Care Costs

We have known for a while that the United States spends a lot on health care. What is interesting is that the direction seems to be moving in the wrong way both in terms of life expectancy and cost:

You can see that not only is the United States the outlier when it comes to spending, but we are moving in the wrong direction: we are becoming more of a spending outlier, and we are drifting down from the average life expectancy into the lower group (currently surpassing only Turkey, Hungary, Mexico, Poland, and Czech Republic).


The other thing you see is that our life expectancy gain was the absolute lowest of the whole group (and we weren’t starting from a particularly high level, as you can see in the previous chart).

Ordinarily, you would think there should be convergence across countries. Since other countries spend less and live longer, you would think that we would learn from them—global competition, you know. But instead we’re moving the wrong way on both dimensions.

The article and neat charts are worth looking at in their entirety.

Now, it is true that there can be a lot of reasons for low life expectancy and high medical costs. It could be that the environment in the United States makes us much more accident prone, for example, requiring both higher spending and more fatalities.

But, in general, it is uncomfortable when the most important metric of health care outcomes (all cause mortality) is so uncorrelated with cost. This suggests the possibility of productivity improvements. I read a lot of the Incidental Economist, who try to explain these issues. But I admit that I tend to come away confused.

The major comparison is often Canada. It is a bad reference on a lot of levels (as they have their own issues). But they have similar culture, ethnic diversity, large geography, heavy use of cars, high levels of obesity and yet they are improving on both metrics (from a lower level of cost and higher life expectancy at baseline).

Why is health care the one area that we aren't willing to look at how other countries have been successful and try to steal ideas?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Old story, different hemisphere

More good work from American Public Media's Marketplace:
Rob Schmitz: If you walk down the street in Shanghai, it's hard to miss the advertisements for college placement agencies. In big bold letters, they promise -- some even guarantee -- your child's admission to an American university. The price: $5,000, $6,000, sometimes $7,000.

Jiang Xueqin is a well-known education reformer in China. He also heads the International division at Peking University High School -- one of China's best high schools. He has followed college placement agencies for years. He says this is how many of them deliver on their admission promises: they falsify students application materials.

Jiang Xueqin: There's a lot of pressure on the agencies to write the application essays, to fake transcripts, to fake recommendation letters. This is just general business practice in China to falsify a lot of documentation.

A report by consulting firm Zinch China seems to confirm this. Zinch advises American colleges and universities on recruiting Chinese students. The firm interviewed agents and admissions consultants, as well as more than 200 Beijing students headed to U.S. schools. Zinch estimates 90 percent of these students submitted false recommendation letters; 70 percent had other people write their personal essays, and half of them submitted forged high school transcripts.

Werner Herzog, LA, and structural employment in hot jazz

The director had an interesting interview on KCRW's none-too-imaginatively named show on the business of Hollywood. The part that particularly caught ear occurred about nineteen minutes in:
"We [Herzog and his wife] have to move into the city with the most substance in the United States, cultural substance."
"And that wasn't New York..."
"New York is more on the receiving end, it's more on the consuming end. ... Los Angeles, this is a place where things get done."
This jibes with something I've noticed since moving to LA and falling in (through no fault of my own) with the hot jazz scene in town. There are some extraordinary musicians around here, the kind who develop international followings and get glowing notices in the New York Times.

LA has a wealth of musical talent, but if those musicians want any wealth for themselves they have to head east. Because, though you might argue that the West Coast has the best musicians, the East Coast unquestionably has the best fans, at least when it comes to ponying up. In NYC these musician actually make good money; in LA you can often find them working for kind words and Pez.

If you're looking for creative energy, I'm with Herzog -- you can't do better than LA. If you're looking for a market for all that creativity, you might want to try the other coast.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

But some of my best friends are administrators

As I've said before, most principals and superintendents I've dealt with have been dedicated and highly professional educators, so why do I keep picking on them? While it's possible that I do have a small problem with authority, my motives here are mostly pure. I'm trying to correct a cherished but dangerous piece of misinformation embraced by movement reformers.

For all their admirable traits, we have to acknowledge the world administrators live in: they are generally at least one step removed from the classroom and regular contact with students; their jobs are highly paid and highly political with badly aligned incentives and considerable temptations to abuse the system. Movement reformers like Jonathan Chait have convinced themselves that a major key (perhaps the key) to improving education is removing checks on administrators' power and upping rewards for manipulating the system. I'm just pointing out that some administrators need less power and fewer temptations.

I haven't taken a cheap shot at an administrator for a while

And superintendent Eric Ely certainly has one coming. He's certainly not the main villain in this amazing story from This American Life, but he clearly did his share to allow this psycho* to terrorize a number of people and endanger students, and while that character ended up in prison (probably for the rest of his life), Ely landed in another cushy superintendent's job.

* think this is hyperbole? Listen to the episode.

Speaking of curriculum -- Armenian edition

From NPR's The World:

Armenia’s public schools started mandatory chess classes for every second, third and fourth grader in the former Soviet republic this year. Twice a week, seven- to ten-year-old Armenians are getting a half hour of instruction in chess basics, with the goal of being able to play a competent game by the end of fourth grade.

One of those schools is Public School 81 where Grigor Martikian is drilling 20 second graders on how to move the bishop. He positions a bishop into the corner of a large model board in front of the class.

The students follow along on chess mats on their desks.

Edouard Aroustian and Seta Kevorkian are both seven and have learned a new checkmate move. When I ask them if they know about Armenia’s national chess team, they nod and smile.

That team was the pride of Armenia this past summer, when it won the World Chess Team Championship in Ningbo, China. Armenians treat chess champions like star athletes. Chess is one of the most popular games here and there are 32 grandmasters in a population of about 3 million.

If only I could talk them into trying octagonal games...

Monday, November 7, 2011

At least we aren't giving them antidepressants

From NPR:
Babies have been crying and spitting up since time immemorial. But these days many parents ask: Isn't there a drug for that?

"Parents come in often demanding medication," says Eric Hassall, a pediatric gastroenterologist at Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation in San Francisco.

Prescriptions for acid-suppressing medicines for infants have increased dramatically. Hassall says some parents have picked up on the idea that heavily advertised medicines for reflux in adults can help fussy babies who spit up a lot.

He documented a 16-fold increase in prescriptions of one proton pump inhibitor, or PPI, Prevacid, which comes in a child-friendly formulation. A Food and Drug Administration review also found an 11-fold increase in number of new prescriptions dispensed between 2002 and 2009.

These medicines aren't approved for infants with reflux, or GERD. Still, some doctors have been prescribing them off-label anyway. Doctors generally agree this practice is OK when babies really need the medicine, such as when they're spitting up so much that they're not gaining weight.

One of the risks of living is dying

From the incidental economist:

I can hear the howls of protest already. But here’s the example I always go to: the number one killer of children in the US is car accidents. But we don’t ever consider stopping driving. I know that every time I put my kids in a car, I’m significantly increasing the chance that they could die. But I (and pretty much all of you) believe that the benefit to our lives from cars outweighs the increased risk of death in our children. Let me put it another way. We all accept that it’s worth a number of children dying so that we can all get around more easily.

One of the great challenges that we face as a society is how to balance risks and benefits. I am becoming increasingly convinced that people are simply poor at making these trade-offs. This is especially true given that the risk of death is 100%. In a real sense we all end up dying. The goal, instead, seems to be to make the time that we have as good as possible. A theory of the joint maximization of lifespan and happiness seems to be the best way to go.

Given that, I think Dr Carroll's point is quite sound: we take risks all of the time in order to make life worth living. The trick is to quantify which risks are worthwhile, conditional on the absolute level of risk.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The worst example of curriculum dead wood?

One of the first things that hit me when I started teaching high school math was how much material there was to cover. There was no slack, no real time to slow down when students were having trouble. The most annoying part, though, was the number of topics that could easily have been cut, thus giving the students the time to master the important skills and concepts.

The example that really stuck with me was synthetic division, a more concise but less intuitive way of performing polynomial long division. Both of these topics are pretty much useless in daily life but polynomial long division does, at least, give the student some insight into the relationship between polynomials and familiar base-ten numbers. Synthetic division has no such value; it's just a faster but less interesting way of doing something you'll never have to do.

I started asking hardcore math people -- mathematicians, statisticians, physicists, rocket scientists*-- if they'd ever used synthetic division. By an overwhelming margin, the answer I got was "what's synthetic division?" Not only did they not need it; it made so little impression that they forgot ever learning it.

Which bring us to this passage from a recent Dana Goldstein post (discussed earlier):
The problem, according to [David] Coleman, is that American curriculum standards have traditionally been written by committees whose members advocate for their pet pedagogical theories, such as traditional vs. reform math.
Except, of course, that's not what happened here. As was the case with so many topics in mathematics, synthetic division remained in the curriculum because no one who knew what was going on had bothered to look that closely. Coleman has a clever narrative, but it doesn't fit the facts all that well.

Now I have a request for all the math geeks in the audience (and given that you're reading a blog called Observational Epidemiology...). Since we need to pare down the curriculum, what you choose to cut? Specifically, what mathematical topics that you learned in school can future generations do without?

* Literal rocket scientists -- JPL's just down the road.

Also posted in a slightly different form at Education and Statistics.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

We need curriculum reform but we need to do it right

Dana Goldstein is arguably our best education writer and I have long argued that we need curriculum reform, but this post makes me nervous as hell:
Past attempts to develop national curriculum guidelines became mired in culture war controversy, but this latest effort--led by the states, not the federal government--has a real shot at influencing teaching and learning at the classroom level, and hopefully fostering a more rigorous academic culture in American public schools. If administrators and teachers implement the new standards faithfully, how will the curriculum evolve? Let's first look at math.
Currently, American students are taught just a little bit about a whole lot of mathematical topics each year; we have a curriculum with tons of breadth, but not much depth. Check out this chart Coleman showed us from education researcher Bill Schmidt. It demonstrates that while typical first-graders in high-achieving Western European and Asian countries learn just three concepts--quantity, measurement, and addition/subtraction of whole numbers--American first-graders must learn 14 topics, including polygons, circles, how to use a compass, and how to estimate.

The American curriculum may appear more rigorous, but our six-year olds are actually being denied the opportunity to master the foundational skills upon which the rest of their mathematical education will be based. The problem, according to Coleman, is that American curriculum standards have traditionally been written by committees whose members advocate for their pet pedagogical theories, such as traditional vs. reform math. "The only way to end a committee meeting is to let everyone get their stuff in," Coleman said. The result is that teachers feel rushed each year to move through an enormous list of standards. "Students and teachers bear all the weight of this," Coleman pointed out. "The standard writers are removed from this." The goal of the Common Core is, for the first time, to move American math standards in the simplified direction of our international peers.


Before closing out, a few words on the nuts and bolts of the effort to implement the Common Core. The project is a partnership between a number of organizations, including the National Governor's Association; the Council of Chief State School Officers; Achieve, a non-profit testing group created by the governors; the ACT; the College Board; the State Higher Education Executive Officers; the American Association of School Administrators; and the Business Roundtable. The federal government is supporting the Common Core with about $350 million, most of which is dedicated to developing and implementing tests based on the new standards. Federal funds are also being used to create instructional materials and professional development sessions for teachers who will use the new curricula.

The other major supportor of the Common Core is the Gates Foundation, which expects to spend a total of $250 million "to develop next-generation instructional tools and assessments that will help states and school districts implement the standards."
Before I wade into the red flags, the suggestion that the curriculum needs to be greatly pared down is dead on. We do try to cover a ludicrous amount of material, much of it of little value. The explanation given here is too tidy (there are plenty of ways for undeserving concepts find their way into the standards), but it is, at least partially true.

Now the parts that make me apprehensive:

If you take on the paring without some serious thought, you can do more damage than good, and this example seems exactly the sort of thing that someone who hadn't given the subject much thought and who didn't know much about math might come up with;

And on the subject of the people behind the initiative, the list of partners seems rather light on mathematicians and scientists;

The emphasis here on elementary school is troubling. Historically, I believe it's the upper grades where we start to fall behind on international tests. Are we possibly fixing the part that works? This may be a small point but we've seen a long string of solutions that mainly affected areas which weren't actually affected by the problem. This does not inspire confidence;

The focus on international rankings is an even more troubling sign. TIMSS and PISA are too big a subject to go into this late in the evening, but there are a lot of reasons to worry about role that international tests play here. Just for a a brief overview, there are questions about
-- what these tests are really measuring,
-- where the problems with American scores are coming from,
-- what techniques really drove the successes in highly ranked countries,
-- whether those techniques would carry over to other cultures,
-- and finally the one closest to my heart, is there a possible downside to a country that built the world's greatest economy largely on creativity and unconventional problem solving suddenly doubling down on rote learning and regurgitation?;

Nor does the make up of the list of partners reassure me. I've already mentioned the lack of math and science people. As for the rest, the combination of politicians, administrators and businessmen seems awfully like the assortment that got us in this mess to begin with.

Curriculum reform is important but it's also difficult and I've grown rather cynical about the willingness and ability of most reformers to do the hard work and lay a solid foundation to support the big talk when it comes to difficult problems. Perhaps I judge these things too harshly but I haven't read anything here that makes me optimistic.