Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Does education make people less religious?

The idea is peppered through the writings of scholars, great thinkers, and New Atheist-types: Education is the cure for religion. ...

New data from the Pew Research Center doesn’t disprove these claims, but it does challenge them. ...

There are at least two different ways to think about the relationship between education and religiosity: how schooling affects belief, and how it affects practice. Pew’s researchers looked at data from a number of recent surveys, including their 35,000-person study of American religion from 2014. They found that educated people are generally less likely to believe in God: Among all U.S. adults, only 83 percent of college grads said they think God exists, while 92 percent of people with only a high-school degree or less said the same.

Within Christianity, though, the difference all but disappears. Among educated mainline Protestants, 96 percent said they believe in God, compared to 97 percent among the less educated; among Catholics, 98 percent of both groups said the same. Among Mormons, black Protestants, and evangelical Protestants, there was effectively no difference at all, because virtually everyone in those groups said they believe in God.

Educational differences had a much bigger effect on religious practice. Sixty-eight percent of college-educated evangelical Protestants go to church every week, compared to 55 percent of those who only went to high school. In fact, college grads show up in the church pews more often in nearly every kind of Christian tradition: Among mainline Protestants, weekly attendance was 36 to 31 percent, more educated to less; among black Protestants, 59 to 52 percent; and among Catholics, 45 to 39 percent. The effect was perhaps greatest among Mormons: 85 percent of Mormon college graduates go to church at least once a week, compared to 66 percent of their peers with a high-school education or less.
--Emma Green, The Atlantic, on religiosity among the knowledgable

Monday, April 24, 2017

Who has buyer's remorse? Hillary voters, not Trump voters

I argued last week that anecdotal stories about disillusioned Trump supporters were overdone. The fact is that, on a broad scale, Trump supporters say they aren't disappointed. In fact, a poll showed they were more pleased than disappointed, by about 5 to 1:
...The Pew Research Center released a poll showing very little buyer's remorse among Trump voters. The poll showed just 7 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents say Trump has performed worse than they expected him to. Fully 38 percent — five times as many — say he has performed better.
A new Washington Post-ABC News poll confirms this — in spades. And, in fact, it shows more buyer's remorse for Trump's opponent in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton. And were the 2016 election held again today, it shows Trump would avenge his popular-vote loss.

While just 4 percent of Trump's supporters say they would back someone else if there was a redo of the election, fully 15 percent of Clinton supporters say they would ditch her. Trump leads in a re-do of the 2016 election 43 percent to 40 percent after losing the popular vote 46-44. ...

Just 2 percent of those who voted for Trump say he has been a worse president than they expected. Only 1 percent say he has been “much worse,” and 1 percent say he has been “somewhat worse.”

In contrast, 62 percent say he has been better than expected, with one-third (33 percent) saying he has been “much better.”
--Aaron Blake, Washington Post, on happenings outside the liberal bubble

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Correlation between likability and status is nearly zero for teenage girls

“In elementary school, the kids who are really well-liked and who are nice are also the kids who are popular,” said Amanda Rose, a psychology researcher at the University of Missouri. “But in middle school, this starts to change.” By the time high school starts, there are two kinds of popularity: There are the well-liked students, and then there is the emergence of a new group, which researchers call the high-status students — these are the ones who dominate their social groups, who are perhaps voted to the homecoming court, or are captain of the soccer team.

This distinction — between status and likability — is especially important in understanding the alpha girl over her teenage-boy counterpart. Alpha boys tend to be aggressive in physical ways, starting fights or pushing each other around, while alpha girls are more likely to act in relationally aggressive ways, spreading rumors or using the silent treatment. ...

For girls, “the more aggressive you are, the less likable you will be. But it will make you more popular,” said Mitch Prinstein, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the author of the upcoming book Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World. “For boys, a lot of them can be [high-status] and also well-liked at the same time. But that is so not the case for girls. The correlation between likability and status approaches zero for girls.” Alpha girls are admired and feared, but they’re not often liked. ...

For teenagers, as you’ll no doubt recall, their peers’ opinions mean everything. Their parents’ opinions, on the other hand, means nothing — less than nothing. The farther they can get from anything adults approve of, the better. ...

Hence the allure of the alpha girl. High-status teenagers, the research suggests, tend to behave in ways adults find inappropriate, which other teenagers find exhilarating. ... They skip class, they dabble in drugs, they go to parties. They are, in a word, cool. ...

One might assume, as I did, that your high school’s alpha girl grew up to be the office alpha girl, too. But every researcher I talked to said the opposite; several of them, for that matter, pointed me toward a fascinating study led by Allen and published in 2014 in the journal Child Development, titled: “What ever happened to the ‘cool’ kids?” For that paper, Allen and his colleagues interviewed a group of teenagers — including the “high-status” ones, otherwise known as the popular kids — when they were seniors in high school, and then tracked them down and reinterviewed them ten years later. “And a decade later,” Allen tells me, “they’re not doing so well. They’re doing less well in romantic relationships, they’re more likely to have problems with alcohol use and criminal behavior.”

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Do diets make you fat? a 2012 study, researchers followed over 4,000 twins aged 16 to 25. Dieters were more likely to gain weight than their non-dieting identical twins, suggesting that dieting does indeed increase weight gain even after accounting for genetic background...

The causal relationship between diets and weight gain can also be tested by studying people with an external motivation to lose weight. Boxers and wrestlers who diet to qualify for their weight classes presumably have no particular genetic predisposition toward obesity. Yet a 2006 study found that elite athletes who competed for Finland in such weight-conscious sports were three times more likely to be obese by age 60 than their peers who competed in other sports.

To test this idea rigorously, researchers could randomly assign people to worry about their weight, but that is hard to do. One program took the opposite approach, though, helping teenage girls who were unhappy with their bodies to become less concerned about their weight. In a randomized trial, the eBody Project, an online program to fight eating disorders by reducing girls’ desire to be thin, led to less dieting and also prevented future weight gain. Girls who participated in the program saw their weight remain stable over the next two years, while their peers without the intervention gained a few pounds. ...

If dieting doesn’t work, what should we do instead? I recommend mindful eating — paying attention to signals of hunger and fullness, without judgment, to relearn how to eat only as much as the brain’s weight-regulation system commands.

Relative to chronic dieters, people who eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full are less likely to become overweight, maintain more stable weights over time and spend less time thinking about food. Mindful eating also helps people with eating disorders like binge eating learn to eat normally. Depending on the individual’s set point, mindful eating may reduce weight or it may not. Either way, it’s a powerful tool to maintain weight stability, without deprivation.
--Sandra Aamodt, NYT, on winning by letting go

Friday, April 14, 2017

Reporting bias drives half of the starting MBA gender pay gap

Women MBAs are at a salary disadvantage from the onset of their post-business school careers, new data shows. According to self-reported data from MBAs graduating from top U.S. business schools, women earn an average total compensation package of $14,000 less than men in their first year of work. The data has been compiled by Transparent Career, an online MBA job reporting platform founded by an MBA team from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. ...

[Transparent Career CEO Mitch] Kirby continued, after running multiple regressions, “roughly $4.5K of the gap was driven by this difference in job function choice, or about 33% of the total.”

To go even further still, Kirby honed in on consulting, because of its “notoriously standardized compensation packages.” Yet, in the data, there was still a wage gap of more than $12,000. How could this be? ...

“We used data from a set of top consulting firms, which we know to offer completely standardized compensation to MBAs regardless of gender,” Kirby wrote of their methodology to examine the hypothesis. “We looked to see if there was a difference in how women and men reported these offers.”

While men and women both reported salaries around $144,400, men reported earning $8,000 more in “bonus” and “other compensation.” Of the $12,000 gap in consulting, Kirby reasoned at least two-thirds of it was due to men inflating their projected bonuses and overall compensation. According to the report, an additional 43% of the overall wage gap was a result of this phenomenon.

“What’s noteworthy here is that offered salary is an objective, immutable number,” Kirby wrote. “Performance bonuses and other compensation, however, can be interpreted more subjectively — based on a range candidates are given in an offer letter. Its likely that men are estimating they will achieve higher performance bonuses than women, which leads to a larger reported wage gap.”

--Nathan Allen, Poets and Quants, on self-confidence in pay estimates. Next step is to see how much of the forecasted bonus gap materializes in actual bonuses.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Job interviews are useless

...interviewers typically form strong but unwarranted impressions about interviewees, often revealing more about themselves than the candidates.

People who study personnel psychology have long understood this. In 1979, for example, the Texas Legislature required the University of Texas Medical School at Houston to increase its incoming class size by 50 students late in the season. The additional 50 students that the school admitted had reached the interview phase of the application process but initially, following their interviews, were rejected. A team of researchers later found that these students did just as well as their other classmates in terms of attrition, academic performance, clinical performance (which involves rapport with patients and supervisors) and honors earned. The judgment of the interviewers, in other words, added nothing of relevance to the admissions process.

Research that my colleagues and I have conducted shows that the problem with interviews is worse than irrelevance: They can be harmful, undercutting the impact of other, more valuable information about interviewees.

In one experiment, we had student subjects interview other students and then predict their grade point averages for the following semester. The prediction was to be based on the interview, the student’s course schedule and his or her past G.P.A. (We explained that past G.P.A. was historically the best predictor of future grades at their school.) In addition to predicting the G.P.A. of the interviewee, our subjects also predicted the performance of a student they did not meet, based only on that student’s course schedule and past G.P.A.

In the end, our subjects’ G.P.A. predictions were significantly more accurate for the students they did not meet. The interviews had been counterproductive. ...

What can be done? One option is to structure interviews so that all candidates receive the same questions, a procedure that has been shown to make interviews more reliable and modestly more predictive of job success. Alternatively, you can use interviews to test job-related skills, rather than idly chatting or asking personal questions.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Does a life of radical generosity bring moral satisfaction?

The “do-gooders” in Larissa MacFarquhar’s new book, “Strangers Drowning,” make these kinds of calculations every day. Obsessively. They sacrifice little luxuries and add up the lives they’ve saved. Then they wonder if they should give up more things they don’t need: cable television, having children, a new winter coat, that extra kidney they’ve been carrying around forever.

After Julia Wise allowed her boyfriend to buy her a $4 candy apple, she was overwhelmed with tortured thoughts. “With her selfish, ridiculous desire for a candy apple,” MacFarquhar writes, “she might have deprived a family of an ­anti-malarial bed net or deworming medicine that might have saved the life of one of its ­children.”

Wise became a social worker and married Jeff Kaufman, a young professional who was just as focused on giving. Their shared mission is to send money to people in distant countries and thus reduce the world’s suffering. To do so, they labor and scrimp and save — having lived at one point on a self-­imposed weekly allowance of $38 — so that they can give away tens of thousands of dollars to charity. ...

Martyrdom doesn’t seem to be the point, not even for the man who donates his kidney to a complete stranger. Without exception, MacFarquhar’s do-gooders are as messed up and conflicted as the rest of us, if not more so. They long for connectedness and a sense of purpose. ...

The stories in “Strangers Drowning” all have open-ended conclusions. After decades of giving, many of MacFarquhar’s do-gooders feel strangely unsettled. They’ve discovered that sacrificing for others doesn’t make them feel as if they’ve earned a spot in heaven. All it does is see them through one more day.
--Hector Tobar, NYT, on rediscovering Martin Luther's rediscovery that salvation is not by works. HT: CG

Why is victimhood all the rage?

We’re living in an age of great moral pressure, even if we lack the words to articulate it. In fact, as Wilfred McClay points out in a brilliant essay called “The Strange Persistence of Guilt” for The Hedgehog Review, religion may be in retreat, but guilt seems as powerfully present as ever.

Technology gives us power and power entails responsibility, and responsibility, McClay notes, leads to guilt: You and I see a picture of a starving child in Sudan and we know inwardly that we’re not doing enough. ...

McClay is describing a world in which we’re still driven by an inextinguishable need to feel morally justified. Our thinking is still vestigially shaped by religious categories.

And yet we have no clear framework or set of rituals to guide us in our quest for goodness. Worse, people have a sense of guilt and sin, but no longer a sense that they live in a loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace and forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for redemption.

The only reliable way to feel morally justified in that culture is to assume the role of victim. As McClay puts it, “Claiming victim status is the sole sure means left of absolving oneself and securing one’s sense of fundamental moral innocence.”

“If one wishes to be accounted innocent, one must find a way to make the claim that one cannot be held morally responsible. This is precisely what the status of victimhood accomplishes.”

I’d add that this move takes all moral striving and it politicizes it. Instead of seeing moral struggle as something between you and God (the religious version) or as something that happens between the good and evil within yourself (the classical version), moral struggle now happens primarily between groups.

We see events through the lens of moral Marxism, as a class or ethnic struggle between the evil oppressor and the supposedly innocent oppressed. The moral narrative of colonialism is applied to every situation. The concept of inherited sin is back in common currency, only these days we call it “privilege.”
--David Brooks, NYT, on our need for redemption

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The shortcomings of affirmative consent policies

The main problem with affirmative consent policies is that they don't match how people have sex in the real world, including on college campuses. They are a classic example of policies that sound good in theory but break down in practice.

After all, isn’t it important that people make sure that they have consent for sex? How could it be bad to codify that requirement in the clearest possible terms?

The problem is that what seems clear in principle is often decidedly less so in practice. Most affirmative consent policies, for example, say that consent may only be expressed through unambiguous words or actions. On its face, that is clear enough. Expressing unambiguous verbal consent only takes one word: “Yes.”

Requiring verbal consent seems that it would simplify proof in sexual assault accusations, but it doesn’t. We have seen multiple cases where the complainant acknowledged that they said yes, but claimed that they did not mean it, or that they non-verbally withdrew the consent later. The accused was found responsible for sexual assault in these cases. ...

This brings us to consent through actions. This is where, as most communist nations eventually discovered, what sounds great in theory can be a disaster in practice.

What does unambiguous consent through actions look like? Consider, for example, the last time you had intercourse without verbal consent. How did you know the other person wanted to do it? ...

If you point to any one thing and say that’s what made me think I had consent, you’re going to be found responsible for sexual misconduct. That’s because most sexual misconduct policies explicitly say that consent for one sexual act does not imply consent for another sexual act. So if you say, “I thought because she put my hand on X, she wanted Y,” you’re toast. ...

The problem is that consent through actions is all about context. It’s not any single thing, especially when the participants are in a romantic relationship. ...

But universities, in our experience, default to punishing the accused in these ambiguous cases. Breaking down how consent-through-actions was communicated, in the cold light of a conference room months or even years later, is impossible. The practical result is that the affirmative consent policy allows any student to get his or her former sex partners expelled or suspended.
--Justin Dillon and Hanna Stotland, Harvard Crimson, on a failure of social engineering

Friday, March 17, 2017

The case for tipping generously

[Steve Ross] was also well known in [New Haven’s] restaurants and was a generous tipper, [Rick] Antle said. “He said that extra that you give, that’s where all the action is, and it’s not that much money,” he said.
--Ed Stannard, New Haven Register, on the everyday wisdom of Steve Ross

A great bon viveur, [Steve Ross] would baffle friends with his ability to find tiny ethnic restaurants tucked into obscure corners of southern Connecticut, where the food was delicious and the staff invariably seemed to know and love him.

He was also a great aficionado of wine. At dinners he held for peers, it was decided to put a cap on the price of the wine, to make sure that the meal was within everyone’s budget. “Why would we want constrained optimisation like that?” Ross complained, in the language of economic theory.

He avoided the problem by bringing in ever more exquisite wines — and politely lying about their price.
--John Authers, Financial Times, on the generosity of Steve Ross

Steve Ross and Bernie Madoff

When Stephen Ross went to perform due diligence on the investment firm run by Bernard Madoff, he found himself baffled. His client, an investment group, was unsure Madoff’s great returns could be sustained — and the more the Madoff representatives talked to Ross in generalities about their options trading strategies, the less he understood what they actually did.

As he pressed them, they protested that options pricing was complicated. “I know it’s complicated,” said Ross. “I invented your model for pricing options.” He did not in the end recommend investment in Madoff’s funds.
--John Authers, Financial Times, on the limits of BS

Monday, March 13, 2017

Why professors should ask only tough Ph.D. oral exam questions

My second memory of Steve Ross is of the oral exam that he administered along with Jim Tobin. At that time, Yale students talked in whispers of the "Tobin spiral," caused when Tobin asked an easy question, the student assumed there must be a catch and froze up, prompting Tobin to ask an even easier question, and so on towards failure. I was actually more intimidated by Steve than by Jim, but escaped a Ross spiral when Steve asked what seemed to me abundantly difficult questions.
--John Campbell, a member of my dissertation committee, on a great man and scholar

Why you think you know things you don't

The truth is obvious if you bother to look for it, right? This line of thinking leads to explanations of the hoodwinked masses that amount to little more than name calling: “Those people are foolish” or “Those people are monsters.” ...

Here is the humbler truth: On their own, individuals are not well equipped to separate fact from fiction, and they never will be. Ignorance is our natural state; it is a product of the way the mind works.

What really sets human beings apart is not our individual mental capacity. The secret to our success is our ability to jointly pursue complex goals by dividing cognitive labor. ... Each of us knows only a little bit, but together we can achieve remarkable feats. ...

Consider some simple examples. You know that the earth revolves around the sun. But can you rehearse the astronomical observations and calculations that led to that conclusion? ... We’re guessing no. Most of what you “know” — most of what anyone knows — about any topic is a placeholder for information stored elsewhere, in a long-forgotten textbook or in some expert’s head.

One consequence of the fact that knowledge is distributed this way is that being part of a community of knowledge can make people feel as if they understand things they don’t. Recently, one of us ran a series of studies in which we told people about some new scientific discoveries that we fabricated, like rocks that glow. When we said that scientists had not yet explained the glowing rocks and then asked our respondents how well they understood how such rocks glow, they reported not understanding at all — a very natural response given that they knew nothing about the rocks. But when we told another group about the same discovery, only this time claiming that scientists had explained how the rocks glowed, our respondents reported a little bit more understanding. It was as if the scientists’ knowledge (which we never described) had been directly transmitted to them. ...

The key point here is not that people are irrational; it’s that this irrationality comes from a very rational place. People fail to distinguish what they know from what others know because it is often impossible to draw sharp boundaries between what knowledge resides in our heads and what resides elsewhere.

This is especially true of divisive political issues. Your mind cannot master and retain sufficiently detailed knowledge about many of them. You must rely on your community. But if you are not aware that you are piggybacking on the knowledge of others, it can lead to hubris.

Recently, for example, there was a vociferous outcry when President Trump and Congress rolled back regulations on the dumping of mining waste in waterways. This may be bad policy, but most people don’t have sufficient expertise to draw that conclusion because evaluating the policy is complicated. Environmental policy is about balancing costs and benefits. In this case, you need to know something about what mining waste does to waterways and in what quantities these effects occur, how much economic activity depends on being able to dump freely, how a decrease in mining activity would be made up for from other energy sources and how environmentally damaging those are, and on and on.

We suspect that most of those people expressing outrage lacked the detailed knowledge necessary to assess the policy. We also suspect that many in Congress who voted for the rollback were equally in the dark. But people seemed pretty confident.
--Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman, NYT, on the case for humility before outrage. HT: EP

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Hillary Clinton would be even more unlikeable as a man

Maria Guadalupe, an associate professor of economics and political science at INSEAD, had an idea. Millions had tuned in to watch a man face off against a woman for the first set of co-ed presidential debates in American history. But how would their perceptions change, she wondered, if the genders of the candidates were switched? She pictured an actress playing Trump, replicating his words, gestures, body language, and tone verbatim, while an actor took on Clinton’s role in the same way. ...

Guadalupe reached out to Joe Salvatore, a [NYU] Steinhardt clinical associate professor of educational theatre who specializes in ethnodrama—a method of adapting interviews, field notes, journal entries, and other print and media artifacts into a script to be performed as a play. Together, they developed Her Opponent, a production featuring actors performing excerpts from each of the three debates exactly as they happened—but with the genders switched. ...

Inside the evening’s program were two surveys for each audience member to fill out...

Many were shocked to find that they couldn’t seem to find in Jonathan Gordon what they had admired in Hillary Clinton—or that Brenda King’s clever tactics seemed to shine in moments where they’d remembered Donald Trump flailing or lashing out. For those Clinton voters trying to make sense of the loss, it was by turns bewildering and instructive, raising as many questions about gender performance and effects of sexism as it answered. ...

The gender-swapping technique, Salvatore suggests, could also be used to explore the communication styles of different political figures in other charged confrontations. ...

[Salvatore:] We heard a lot of “now I understand how this happened”—meaning how Trump won the election. People got upset. There was a guy two rows in front of me who was literally holding his head in his hands, and the person with him was rubbing his back. The simplicity of Trump’s message became easier for people to hear when it was coming from a woman—that was a theme. One person said, “I’m just so struck by how precise Trump’s technique is.” Another—a musical theater composer, actually—said that Trump created “hummable lyrics,” while Clinton talked a lot, and everything she was was true and factual, but there was no “hook” to it. Another theme was about not liking either candidate—you know, “I wouldn’t vote for either one.” Someone said that Jonathan Gordon [the male Hillary Clinton] was “really punchable” because of all the smiling. And a lot of people were just very surprised by the way it upended their expectations about what they thought they would feel or experience.
--Eileen Reynolds, NYU News, on new perspectives on Hillary Clinton's unlikeableness. HT: Marginal Revolution

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The loneliness of the American middle-aged man I ran down the list of those I’d consider real, true, lifelong friends, I realized that it had been years since I’d seen many of them, even decades for a few. ...

I turned 40 in May. I have a wife and two young boys. ...

I love “dada time.” And I’m pretty good about squeezing in an hour of “me time” each day for exercise, which usually means getting up before dawn to go to the gym or for a run. But when everything adds up, there is no real “friend time” left. Yes, I have friends at work and at the gym, but those are accidents of proximity. I rarely see those people anywhere outside those environments, because when everything adds up, I have left almost no time for friends. I have structured myself into being a loser. ...

Beginning in the 1980s, [psychiatrist Richard] Schwartz says, study after study started showing that those who were more socially isolated were much more likely to die during a given period than their socially connected neighbors, even after you corrected for age, gender, and lifestyle choices like exercising and eating right. ...

My wife and I also have other couples we like and see often. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that’s good enough — and for many men it is, at least until their spouse gets the friends in the divorce. ...

In February at a conference in Boston, a researcher from Britain’s University of Oxford presented study results that most guys understand intuitively: Men need an activity together to make and keep a bond. ... That’s why, studies have shown, men tend to make their deepest friends through periods of intense engagement, like school or military service or sports. ...

Researchers have noticed a trend in photographs taken of people interacting. When female friends are talking to each other, they do it face to face. But guys stand side by side, looking out at the world together. ...

But in the middle years of life, those side-by-side opportunities to get together are exactly the sort of things that fall off. ... Planning anything takes great initiative, and if you have to take initiative every time you see someone, it’s easy to just let it disappear.

That’s why Schwartz and others say the best way for men to forge and maintain friendships is through built-in regularity — something that is always on the schedule. ...

“Wednesday night,” Ozzy explained, was a pact he and his buddies had made many years before, a standing order that on Wednesday nights, if they were in town, they would get together and do something, anything.

Everything about the idea seemed quaint and profound — the name that was a lack of a name (such a guy move); the placement in the middle of the week; the fact that they’d continued it for so long. But most of all, it was the acknowledgment from male friends that they needed their male friends, for no other reason than they just did.
--Billy Baker, Boston Globe Magazine, on friendship beyond your 20s

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Why do governments tolerate leaks?

Leaks are supposed to be super-dangerous, or so we are told, yet actual leakers, until recently, were not prosecuted very often.

To make sense of this puzzle, I read a variety of interesting histories. The most interesting source was “The Leaky Leviathan,” by David E. Pozen of Columbia Law School.

Pozen stresses that leaks serve the purpose of the federal government more often than not. A survey from the mid-1980s found that 42 percent of surveyed senior government officials felt that it was sometimes appropriate to leak information to the press -- hardly a sign this is intrinsically treasonous behavior. ...

Sometimes governments trade leaked information to reporters, to curry favor. Other times leaks are used to hurt rivals within the public sphere, or a leak can serve as a trial balloon to test the popularity of an idea. Leaks also may help a president’s Cabinet members build up their own internal empires, which can boost a president’s agenda.

Or the American government may want to inform its people about, say, drone operations in Yemen, but without having to answer questions about the details. In this regard, leaks may substitute for more direct congressional oversight, to the benefit of the executive.

In other words, leaks are part of how the government manages the press and maintains its own popularity. ...

Leaks are also a way of threatening other governments, yet without the president putting all of his credibility on the line. For instance, it can be leaked that the national security establishment would be especially unhappy with a further expansion of Israeli West Bank settlements. That sends a message, yet without committing the American government to any particular response if the settlements proceed. Or leaks can signal to foreign terrorists or governments that we know what they are up to.

Of course, many leaks are unwelcome, such as when national security confidences are disclosed. Given that reality, why haven’t American governments worked harder to prosecute unwelcome leaks and leakers?

Well, if that policy were pursued successfully, the only leaks that would occur would be “approved” or government-intended leaks, and everyone would figure this out. The government could no longer use leaks as a way of providing information or making threats in a distanced manner with plausible deniability.
--Tyler Cowen, BloombergView, on solving for the equilibrium

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ken Arrow knew something about everything

Professor Arrow was widely hailed as a polymath, possessing prodigious knowledge of subjects far removed from economics. Eric Maskin, a Harvard economist and fellow Nobel winner, told of a good-natured conspiracy waged by junior faculty to get the better of Professor Arrow, even if artificially. They all agreed to study the breeding habits of gray whales — a suitably abstruse topic — and gathered at an appointed date at a place where Professor Arrow would be sure to visit.

When, as expected, he showed up, they were talking out loud about the theory by a marine biologist — last name, Turner — which purported to explain how gray whales found the same breeding spot year after year. As Professor Maskin recounted the story, “Ken was silent,” and his junior colleagues amused themselves that they had for once bested their formidable professor.

Well, not so fast.

Before leaving, Professor Arrow muttered, “But I thought that Turner’s theory was entirely discredited by Spencer, who showed that the hypothesized homing mechanism couldn’t possibly work.”
--Michael Weinstein, NYT, on an insatiable love of knowledge

Monday, February 20, 2017

Fitbit causes you to lose LESS weight

The trial took place at the University of Pittsburgh between 2010 and 2012, and it involved more than 470 adults between the ages of 18 and 35. All of them were put on a low-calorie diet, had group counseling sessions and were advised to increase their physical activity. Six months into the intervention, all were given telephone counseling sessions, text-message prompts and study materials online.

At that time, though, half were also given wearable tech devices that monitored their activity and connected to a website to help provide feedback. All participants were followed for 18 more months.

At the end of the two years, which is pretty long for a weight loss study, those without access to the wearable technology lost an average of 13 pounds. Those with the wearable tech lost an average of 7.7 pounds.

It’s hard for many to accept, so I’m going to state the results again: Those people who used the wearable tech for 18 months lost significantly less weight than those who didn’t.

You may rightfully point out that the primary reason to wear the devices isn’t to lose weight — it’s to be more active. But even in this respect, it didn’t work nearly as well as we might hope. In the IDEA trial, those who employed the technology were no more physically active than those who didn’t. They also weren’t more fit.
--Aaron Carroll, NYT, on the dubious health benefits of wearable fitness devices

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Baby carrots are not really baby carrots

Most baby carrots — those smooth, irresistible tricksters — are actually, 100 percent made of: That’s right: Normal carrots.

Despite their adorable name, baby carrots are actually whole, imperfect, craggy-looking carrots that are sliced into smaller pieces, sculpted into rounded sticks, washed and packaged for our snacking convenience. (Watch how they’re made here.)

In fact, baby carrots were originally one farmer’s ploy to sell more carrots. The late Mike Yurosek, a California carrot farmer, invented baby carrots in 1986 because most full-grown carrots were too ugly to sell.

Back in the ‘80s, supermarkets would only purchase the prettiest looking carrots, forcing farmers to turn the imperfect ones into carrot juice or animal feed. Due to the lack of demand, most of them were simply thrown away, according to the Carrot Museum.

In an attempt to find a second life for the ugly ones, Yurosek threw a few batches into an industrial green bean cutter that sliced them into uniform 2-inch pieces, then he ran them through a potato peeler to smooth them out.

He sent the polished sticks to grocery stores in California — and they were an instant hit.
--Carla Herreria, Huffington Post, on vegetables unnaturally born

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Prizes for innovation might not be so effective after all

Some economists have cited the experience of the prestigious Royal Society of Arts (RSA), which offered honorary and cash awards, as proof of the efficacy of innovation prizes. The Society initially was averse to patents and prohibited the award of prizes for patented inventions. This study examines data on several thousand of these inducement prizes, matched with patent records and biographical information about the applicants. The empirical analysis shows that inventors of items that were valuable in the marketplace typically chose to obtain patents and to bypass the prize system. Owing to such adverse selection, prizes were negatively related to subsequent areas of important technological discovery. The RSA ultimately became disillusioned with the prize system, which they recognized had done little to promote technological progress and industrialization. The Society acknowledged that its efforts had been “futile” because of its hostility to patents, and switched from offering inducement prizes towards lobbying for reforms to strengthen the patent system.
--Zorina Khan, NBER Working Paper 23042, on the strength of the second-best