Friday, September 4, 2015

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Participation in religious organizations may offer mental health benefits beyond those offered by other forms of social participation

All sorts of ways to interpret this study out of Europe, Social Participation and Depression in Old Age: A Fixed-Effects Analysis in 10 European Countries by Simone Croezen, Mauricio Avendano, Alex Burdorf and Frank J. van Lenthe.

Their conclusion is that simple social involvement is not predictive of mental health outcomes, you have to know type of social involvement. Attending church is associated with positive mental health outcomes whereas "participation in political/community organizations was associated with an increase in depressive symptoms." I would have to guess that a lot depends on the nature of your local political and community organizations.

Overall, they conclude:
Our findings suggest that social participation is associated with depressive symptoms, but the direction and strength of the association depend on the type of social activity. Participation in religious organizations may offer mental health benefits beyond those offered by other forms of social participation.
Not quite what I would expect but interesting food for thought.

Are we experiencing an increase in crime or are we simply perceiving an increase because of more democratized and decentralized information sharing?

Food for thought.

I live in an inner city residential neighborhood. We have homes on quarter acre lots but we are only fifteen minutes from downtown. It is a big city with 400,000 in the municipality and 6 million in the SMSA. The municipality is 55% black and 45% white and other. The SMSA is 65% white and 35% black and other.

Over the past couple of decades, during the blessed overall decline in crime at the national, regional and city level, we as a neighborhood enjoyed increasing security as well. Every couple of years or so there might be a rash of car thefts or break ins or someone stealing mail, but overall the trend was beneficial.

It is a reasonably engaged community. Most streets have some sort of Listserv for two or three or four streets, by which information can be quickly shared. Neighborhood party, information about a bond referendum, who to call when the garbage hasn't been picked up, who can recommend a good electrician - that sort of thing. Those listservs have been around for ten or fifteen years.

Then, some eighteen months ago we started to experience a distinct increase in burglaries of homes and cars all across the community. People increased their vigilance, installed better lighting, mounted security cameras, improved their window and door security, etc. The listserv's bumped up. There were community meetings. Security block captains were organized. More information was being shared about the latest intrusion. It was organic democracy in action.

In the middle of all this, someone introduces everyone to NextDoor App, a smart phone application that allows people in a vicinity to communicate with one another. A much enhanced listserv as it were. You can set your parameters very narrowly (just these few blocks), broader (this entire community), broader yet (adjacent communities), etc.. You can get emergency notifications sent directly to your email and to your smartphone.

NextDoor quickly takes off with several hundred in the neighborhood signing up. Information is now relayed faster and more accurately. "Someone is soliciting at the top of Main Street and headed south. They do not have a City issued solicitor's permit. I called 911." "Golden retriever seen running loose down Smith Street towards McKinley Street." The listservs generated a handful of comments in a week about a narrow range of issues. NextDoor generates 30-50 a day on a broad range of things. It is a great supplement to the neighborhood from a security perspective.

The police are always stretched thin. They encourage everyone to call 911 for even the most modest of suspicions. Their dispatching system prioritizes calls based on the immediacy of likely danger. Crimes in progress with weapons take top priority. Reports of property crimes that occurred last night, take bottom priority. Usually the police are able to cover the most active issues. Coverage of the more minor issues is hit-and-miss. Sometimes all you get is a request to file a report.

Since we are a relatively quiet part of the city, we get less police attention. Given that most reports are for property crimes that have already occurred (example: "my car was rifled last night and some CDs taken"), we get advice from the police but relatively little presence.

People are feeling preyed upon. The longer it continues the more people are on edge. The more they feel dissociated from the municipal political system. "We pay virtually all the city taxes and yet we don't get any protection."

I have been interested in this process of community engagement through technology enablement for a couple of reasons. This is a neighborhood of professionals with families. Everyone is always busy. Getting together is hard. Most people don't know more than their immediate neighbors. Would NextDoor increase the sense of community? Would more people connect with one another owing to NextDoor? I think the answer is turning out to be yes.

A second reason for my interest is related to the question of what happens in a complex, technologically enabled society when traditional media platforms no longer survive? Our hometown papers consolidated into a single monopolistic paper three or four decades ago. The local TV news reports are little more than fluff pieces and police blotter reporting. The financial condition of both is shaky. If we lose the traditional platforms, what replaces them? How does society process information? What are the implications if different groups access information at different rates, at varying degrees of breadth, and process it diversely? If we aren't all watching Walter Cronkite and trusting his version, what is the shared epistemological world view?

We are well down that path. The news media has lost virtually all trust among readers and viewers. We are well into this dystopian epistemological reality. The engaged and successful consume immense amounts of information and process it according to their own lights while others consume virtually no information and what they consume is predigested by increasingly marginal and extreme interest groups.

That is concerning. I am no advocate of one source of information that everyone listens to. Indeed, being reasonably libertarian, I look at the changes as liberating. There are more voices speaking more opinions. In the long run, I think this will all work out well.

In the near term, though, it is hard to let go of the familiar. I have read the New York Times for decades, I routinely listen to NPR. I know they represent highly biased viewpoints. I know they are not self-sustaining financially and therefore doomed to fail without adjustments. And yet, were I to wake up tomorrow without there being a New York Times at the door-step or NPR on the airwaves, I would regret that outcome.

This sense of unease is exacerbated by not being able to visualize what comes next. People want information. It has value. Where there is value and demand, there is commerce. What will the vehicle look like in the future. I can construct any number of increasingly variant scenarios but I simply have no real idea. I can see some experimentation already but it is not indicative yet. Is NextDoor app and its kin perhaps some foreshadowing of how communities might aggregate and disseminate information in the future?

The third reason for my interest was with regard to how NextDoor affects perception. A few months after the break-ins began, and after everyone began using NextDoor, a couple of burglars were arrested. Yay! But reports of car break-ins, carjackings, armed robberies kept coming in.

However, for some months now, I have had the nagging question in my mind, "Has crime really risen or do we just perceive it as rising because we are now more connected and communicating more locally?" My neighbors are increasingly on-edge. There is palpable concern. It is already translating into political action and changes in local behavior. In a deeply liberal community, more and more people are announcing their armed status.

But the first step to good solutions is good knowledge of the problem. And the first step to defining the problem is to ask "Is it real?" Has crime really risen or are we simply more aware of the crime that was always there?

Once you know the right questions to ask, sometimes you simply have to wait for the information to fall into your lap. And indeed, yesterday our block captain sent out the weekly crime report. She attached to it the monthly report for the neighborhood just to the south of us. They are closer to the transitional parts of town and have always been more exposed to crime (about 40% higher crime rate). They have also been better organized as a community with a more robust community security group.

In their monthly report, they included data and trend graphs for all the basic crimes (murder, rape, assault, burglary, robbery, etc.) going back four years for their neighborhood. For them, crime has not increased. There is noise in the system with quarterly swings up and down of 20%, but the trend line is basically flat on all categories of crime.

Their crime trends might be different from ours but I suspect not. With only that as evidence, it suggests that crime is flat and that the perception of increased crime is a function of improved communication within a community facilitated by such apps as NextDoor.

I find that fascinating and pregnant with implications, some good and some challenging. We live in interesting times.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Good intentions do not substitute for good outcomes

There is a movement in the US, among Social Justice Warriors and others, to increase the opportunities of some who are seen as less privileged by moving them to live among others who are seen as more privileged. This has taken on the force of the Federal government with the Obama administration seeking to punish neighborhoods who are deemed to have insufficient diversity and who will be required to make available housing for the less fortunate.

Independent of the constitutionality of such actions, there is the as important question of whether such policies work. The intentions are good but are they effective? The advocates argue essentially a human capital effect. That poor people are a product of bad civic environments and that putting them in locations with good schools, rule of law, safe environments, etc. can help increase their human capital as evidenced by increased graduation rates, increased labor force participation rates, college attendance, etc. It is a plausible theory but the evidence is murky, undermined in part by the fact that so much of the research is advocacy motivated, i.e. the researchers want the results to be true. On the other side of the argument is the contention that culture and family values shape behaviors to a greater extent than do physical environments and that simply moving people around avoids addressing the root causes of the dysfunction.

The research is also undermined by a decided asymmetry. Almost all the research looks only at the positive outcomes to the putative beneficiaries and none of the costs to them or the costs to the recipient community. The rare research in community costs suggest that they may be non-trivial, (see American Murder Mystery by Hanna Rosin.)

In this environment of incomplete, unclear and motivated research, it is useful sometimes to see what is going on in other countries. Moving to Opportunity or Isolation? Network Effects of a Randomized Housing Lottery in Urban India by Sharon Barnhardt, Erica Field, Rohini Pande suggests that the human capital cost/benefit equation is perhaps not what has been suggested, at least in India.

From the abstract:
A housing lottery in an Indian city provided winning slum dwellers the opportunity to move into improved housing on the city’s periphery. Fourteen years later, relative to lottery losers, winners report improved housing farther from the city center, but no change in family income or human capital. Winners also report increased isolation from family and caste networks and lower access to informal insurance. We observe significant program exit: 34% of winners never moved into the subsidized housing and 32% eventually exited. Our results point to the importance of considering social networks when designing housing programs for the poor.
In other words, of all the winners, only 45% actually moved to and stayed in their new communities. Their physical housing improved but there were no other measurable benefits gained and they lost some advantages that they had in their old environment.

We want to do well by others but good intentions do not substitute for good outcomes.

Dotted with pigeon droppings of extreme bias

I didn't wake up this morning thinking it should be "Critical of the New York Times" day, but it feels like that is what has happened. Ann Althouse has some thoughts on a politically (philosophically, racially? it gets hard to tell) motivated attack on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas on the most tenuous of possible grounds.
The Times' Adam Liptak wrote, in paragraph 2, that "opinions contain language from briefs submitted to the court at unusually high rates." And then way down in paragraph 15:
Over the years, the average rate of nearly identical language between a party's brief and the majority opinion was 9.6 percent. Justice Thomas's rate was 11.3 percent. Justice Sonia Sotomayor's was 11 percent, and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's 10.5 percent.
So, obviously, there is absolutely nothing special about Thomas's use of language that's also in the briefs.

And, I would add, the use of the same language isn't even a problem, because briefs and court opinions are always studded with quotes from old cases and the kind of stock word clusters that make up legal doctrine and shouldn't be paraphrased. I'm surprised the shared language is as low as 11%. I'd guess that any judge that does us readers the service of keeping it concise would have a higher percentage, because there'd be less filler and verbosity to dilute the necessary language.
The commentary to her post is solidly on side.

I liked this comment which describes my admiration of the New York Times' scope of reporting on important issues which is balanced by my outrage at their tendency to misreport or to allow their prejudices to color their reporting.
Scott said...
The New York Times is like a vast picnic in Central Park, resplendent with food of every kind -- and dotted with pigeon droppings of extreme bias.

That's why I like the Washington Post better. The spread isn't so sumptuous, and the menu is a bit tendentious, but the quality of what they serve is consistently better.

9/2/15, 8:39 AM

Too intellectually limited - ouch!

A very nice summary of a recent controversy, The Timothy Hunt Witch Hunt by Jonathan Foreman. Too often, something comes up, there is all sorts of noise and cognitive pollution borne along by tidal waves of emotional reasoning. Only later, sometimes much later, does someone sort through the intellectual debris and come back with a full report of what actually happened. Not uncommonly what happened was not what was perceived to have happened.

With the recent tenth anniversary of Katrina, someone republished such a post facto summary of what actually occurred as opposed to what was reported to have happened at the time (Katrina: What the Media Missed by Lou Dolinar). Undoubtedly the hurricane was a tragedy and undoubtedly the political system (local, state and federal) missed many opportunities for a better response. But, contrary to much of the partisan reporting at the time, the operational aspects of the Katrina response were far, far better than reported.

Regrettably, most post-facto summaries are downplayed and so it can be many months or years before you discover the real circumstances. Who remembers the Air France Flight 447 which disappeared over the South Atlantic. It took two or three years after the crash to discover the wreckage and then another year or so to piece together what happened. I came across a good review of the current state of knowledge last year and Wikipedia is always there for a more bare-bones summary. But I would wager for every 1,000 people who were aware of the Air France Flight 447 crash at the time, only one or two know what actually happened.

A recent example is the controversy around comments the esteemed scientist Tim Hunt made at a conference in South Korea in early June. A third-wave feminist sent out several tweets either lying about his comments or misrepresenting them (depending on your interpretation). The tweets were false but picked up by a New York Times reporter without checking and amplified from there. There was two or three months of increasing exposure of the lies and misrepresentations but of course by then the reading eye had moved on.

Foreman's is a good summary of the timeline and his reporting is consistent with all the evidence I have seen. This was a terrible event with major damage done to a fine man at the hands of despicable cognitive lowlifes. But who will now pay attention to the truth as opposed to the SJW lies? More to the point, the university which employees the woman who started this mob has not fired her nor has been the New York Times "reporter", two individuals who clearly did much damage with ill-intent and no regard for truth or accuracy. Actually, the latter is also a professor of journalism at MIT. What is it with universities harboring radicals of low intellect?

Foreman observes.
But there’s another explanation for the fact that reporters such as Zadrozny and Ferguson felt no obligation to verify the facts of the case or do any old-fashioned reporting. In their cases, the temptation to cut journalistic corners may have been overwhelming. That’s because for anyone with an ax to grind about gender equality or sexism in science, this was one of those stories that the tabloids used to label (jestingly for the most part) “too good to check.”
Ouch -
The most generous interpretation of Connie St. Louis’s bizarre behavior is that she was too intellectually limited to recognize irony that was somehow obvious to an audience composed mostly of people who spoke English as a second language. A leak of the unedited version of her “Stop Defending Tim Hunt” piece for the Guardian is so garbled and incoherent that this actually seems plausible, though it also makes you wonder how and why she came to be teaching journalism even at a third-rate institution like London’s City University.
The sooner we are rid of these intellectual flounders, these social justice warriors, third wave feminists, critical race theorists, these postmodernists, the better off everyone will be. Read Foreman's whole article for a full dose of outrage.

Let's not lose sight of the class and inequality issues bound up in here

Maternity leave in particular and employee benefits in general are always an odd conjunction of hard economics and utopian euphoria. It is nice, if you ignore the fascistic overtones, to think of the company as a large family looking after its own. Sometimes benefits policies do indeed address particular employee needs in such a direct way that they do materially improve critical performance measures such as unplanned employee turnover. More often, benefits become a fixed cost that ratchets up during boom times and do not fall during bad times. Even if employees are happy with their career at a company, there is almost always high resistance to the removal of benefits once they have been "earned." Resistance so high that bankruptcy is preferred over adjustment (think of the auto industry.)

The problem is hard economics. Benefits are too often treated as a low cost signalling mechanism to employees (and the external market) rather than as specific value propositions. Only as long as they serve some beneficial function (which can be translated into financial benefit) are they in any sense worthwhile. If a year long paid maternity leave costs $100,000, it still makes sense if the fully loaded cost of finding, on-boarding, and training a new replacement is greater than $100,000. But if the person is doing a fungible job with little cost to simply replacing the person, then there is little business sense in paying that $100,000. It is money spent with no immediate benefit. There still might be some overall benefit based on overall employee morale, but that becomes very hard to measure.

And there are so many hidden costs and issues. This is all brought to mind by this article, Big Leaps for Parental Leave, if Workers Actually Take It by Claire Cain Miller and David Streitfeld.

There's the usual rah rah cheer about companies doing good by their employees, with a special call out to doing well by their female employees.
Some corners of corporate America have a new message for new parents: Put down that laptop and pick up your baby instead.

Even as employees are increasingly tethered to the office, a workplace culture that urges new mothers and fathers to hurry back to their cubicles is beginning to shift.

In recent weeks, companies like Accenture and Microsoft said they would offer more family-friendly benefits like generous parental leave. The trend may be a sign of a tightening job market, at least for a certain segment of highly skilled performers.
The broad focus of the article, above the cheerleading of family and female friendly policies, is the question about whether giving new benefits is meaningful if employees don't actually use those benefits. Its nice, as an employee, to have the choice of taking a paid year off to be with your newborn and a guaranteed job to return to. But if you are in a demanding position with limited turnover, perhaps you are unwilling to step off the escalator for a year. Yes, you'll have some job to return to, but will it be the job you want?

These are absolutely legitimate personal and professional considerations and I think that many policies are designed with the anticipation that few people will take them up. The company gets to brag about being progressive and generous but it doesn't actually have to pay much or anything to be seen to be progressive and generous.

The article falls into the usual bromides, tropes and cliches.
Highly educated women have become more likely to believe that an ambitious career does not preclude children. And the competition for elite workers has become so fierce that companies are searching for new ways to recruit and retain them.

“The U.S. may be behind on family-friendly benefits, but I see it’s changing, because we’re all facing a talent war,” said Julie Sweet, Accenture’s chief executive of North America.
I am all for generosity and especially keen for companies to be accommodating of families and employees with family obligations. But let's be pragmatic and realistic. Whatever we do has to be done within the context of individual and corporate productivity. And let's not delude ourselves about the real impact.

From this article, look at the companies that serve as reference points of innovative and generous benefits: Accenture, Adobe Systems, Goldman Sachs, IBM, KKR, Microsoft, Netflix, Twitter, Vodafone, and Yahoo. All representatives of the pinnacle of new economy companies. All are fiercely competitive. Half of them won't be around a decade from now. But they (and their ilk in their sectors) are perhaps 1% of employees in the US. And it's worse than that. Consider this paragraph.
Just 12 percent of workers in the United States private sector have access to paid family leave, according to the Department of Labor. White-collar workers are often expected to have a singular focus on work: Amazon, which a recent New York Times article showed fosters a bruising atmosphere, offers no paternity leave. For blue-collar workers in most companies, leave is even less common. Netflix, for instance, did not give its leave to hourly workers.
The article is talking about an issue, paid leave, that only affects 12% of employees and the examples of generous leave come from sectors that only represent some 1% of the 12%, so 0.12% of employees. And the benefits are targeted towards female employees (about 30% of employees in these sectors) so affecting, in all, about 0.04% of employees.

Let's not lose sight of the class and inequality issues bound up in here, all this talk is about benefits for the elite in elite industries. Middle class? You are not part of this. Blue collar? Don't even think about it.

If you want to signal to me about how well you treat your employees and how progressive you are, talk to me about how you are making all your employees more productive, how you are looking out for their interests. Telling me about how generous you are to the 1% (and less) of your most productive employees doesn't make you a good company.

Remember that most these companies in the tech industry have recently settled a class action suit based on their industry practice of coordinating to reduce competition among each other for employees, thus keeping down labor costs (and therefore cheating employees of higher income). They are also the companies who are constantly lobbying for more relaxed H1B1 visas so that they can wholesale replace their middle management technical employees with cheaper labor from overseas.

It is not the companies' actions which gall me. Well, maybe a little sometimes. It is the New York Times' hypocrisy or cluelessness. If you want to be a leading media voice in the campaign for reduced income inequality and increased social mobility, fine. But you can't take that position and simultaneously gullibly celebrate the press releases these companies are pushing as to their flexibility and generosity to the 1% of the 1%.

You have to look at the whole picture. Benefits cost money. How is the company making all its employees more productive and who is accruing these benefits? If the company is not making its employees more productive and/or if the company is showering all these benefits on a very small, very elite group of its employees (which may be necessary to be successful) then don't talk about being innovative, progressive, and cutting edge.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Is there a problem or not? The article does not say.

A frustrating piece of reporting in the New York Times yesterday, Murder Rates Rising Sharply in Many U.S. Cities by Monica Davey and Mitch Smith.

It is interesting as an exercise in trying to understand what is going on in the author's mind. Information is put in to the article that is unclear why it is relevant, information is left out that you would think to be critical, opinions are advanced without support and opinions are rejected without evidence. You reach the end of the article and you wonder, what does what I just read mean?

They open with dramatic evidence.
Milwaukee - Cities across the nation are seeing a startling rise in murders after years of declines, and few places have witnessed a shift as precipitous as this city. With the summer not yet over, 104 people have been killed this year — after 86 homicides in all of 2014.

More than 30 other cities have also reported increases in violence from a year ago. In New Orleans, 120 people had been killed by late August, compared with 98 during the same period a year earlier. In Baltimore, homicides had hit 215, up from 138 at the same point in 2014. In Washington, the toll was 105, compared with 73 people a year ago. And in St. Louis, 136 people had been killed this year, a 60 percent rise from the 85 murders the city had by the same time last year.
But is this just noise in the system? What is the overall trend in the murder rate for all US cities? If it is flat, then these surges are balanced by dramatic dips in other cities leading one to conclude that perhaps this is just routine noise in the system and that there likely have been similar rises and falls among cities in past years. The article does not say.

And how does the trend in murder rates in major cities relate to that of the country overall? If major cities are seeing a rise but overall the murder rate continues trending down, then there is a different set of issues to address than if the overall rate is rising. The article does not say.

Resorting to google, it appears that there was a recent release of information in mid-July, likely from the FBI, of crime rates in major cities. There are half a dozen reports in major papers, all following the same template as the NYT: Murder up in select cities, down in others, no context in terms of major city trend, and sotto voce indication that the overall national crime rate appears to continue to decline.

Since nobody seems to be willing to establish the context to understand the selected numbers being reported, one might naturally conclude that perhaps the FBI released a press release summary of the data which all the papers are using as their template for reporting rather than analyze the data themselves and come up with their own conclusions. This scenario makes sense as press release journalism is a common cost saving practice among media companies and because all crime enforcement agencies have an incentive to accentuate the negative in order to shore up their budgets.

Scanning several of these articles in addition to the NYT reporting, it appears, but I can’t be certain, that the national murder rate continues to drop but perhaps more slowly than in the past. It appears that the murder rate for all the major cities is either flat or showing a small rise.

Definitions: What constitutes a major city? The article indicates that there are 35 cities with increases in the murder rate but it does not define what constitutes a major city. All the cities in the article make the top fifty list by population except St. Louis. If the list includes St. Louis, then they are probably looking at all cities with populations greater than 200,000 or about 100 cities. If that train or reasoning is correct, then we can conclude that there have been sharp spikes in the murder rate but only for a third of major cities in the US.

Big increases among some major cities are being balanced by continued declines in other cities (such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, and Indianapolis.) What sets the surge cities apart? What do they have in common with one another and different from all the rest?

It appears that what is being reported is not so much a changed trend in the murder rate at the national level or even among major cities. What is being reported is that there are sharp surges in select cities. So is the murder rate highly varied among cities from year to year? Again, the article does not say. My general impression is that there is normally a 10% noise factor in any given year around the long term trend lines and that what is being called out is that these few cities are having surges outside the normal noise level.

If that is true, then there are different issues at play than the headline and original reporting indicate. IF (a big If) all the above conclusions are ballpark correct, then these 35 cities are seeing an abnormal surge at the same time that the national rate continues to fall and the rate for all cities remains flat or up slightly. What do these 35 cities have in common with one another and that is different from all the other major cities that might explain these spikes. The NYT only names 10 cities with increases in the murder rate (in declining order they are Milwaukee, St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas, New York, and Philadelphia). The only thing that stands out at a high level are that they are all older cities (no west coast representatives or New South cities), they are old Democrat machine cities, and they all have high African-American populations. Indeed, USA Today indicates the surge in violence is concentrated African-American and Latino neighborhoods.

Other distinctive aspects of the surge cities include low clearance rates, randomness of the killings, concentration of killings among individuals known to one another, and the youth of the killers and victims. If I were to construct a narrative of what is going on, based on the fragmentary evidence in the NYT reporting and trying to link known recent events and changes to the surges in 2015, it might look something like this:
There is a surprisingly sharp increase in the murder rate among African-Americans in old Democrat dominated cities. The violence is being committed primarily by younger offenders against their peers. Those committing the crimes have already committed other violent crimes indicating an escalation in their behavior. The cities experiencing the surges in violent crime have responded to the cessation of Stop-and-Frisk in New York City, to the Ferguson shooting, and to the Black Lives Matter advocacy group by encouraging police officers to moderate their policing in African-American neighborhoods. In addition, efforts to reduce the population of the incarcerated has exacerbated the situation by increasing the percentage of the population at large who have violent histories.
Based on this interpretation and based on the data in the NYT which indicates that the 10 cities have experienced an excess of 322 deaths over the same time last year, then the logical conclusion is that moderating policing in African-American neighborhoods and deinstitutionalizing criminals has come at the expense of 322 primarily African-American lives. I don't think that is what the NYT wants us to believe but that is what their reporting is implying.

Despite the reasonable conclusion above, I have no confidence that it is reflective of reality. At the end of this puzzling and frustrating article, I have some tentative conclusions but the NYT has served its readers ill. They have created cognitive pollution without shedding light. This could be an important national issue warranting attention. Or this could be ephemeral local noise. The article does not say.

UPDATE: David French goes where the NYT fears to tread, tracing a straight arrow from reduced policing to increased crime, #BlackLivesMatter Costs Black Lives by David French.

Not wrong but incomplete

A succinct essay by Asimov on the distinction between something being wrong versus something being less true. From The Relativity of Wrong by Isaac Asimov.
The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern "knowledge" is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. "If I am the wisest man," said Socrates, "it is because I alone know that I know nothing." the implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

My answer to him was, "John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together."

The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that "right" and "wrong" are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.

However, I don't think that's so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so.

When my friend the English literature expert tells me that in every century scientists think they have worked out the universe and are always wrong, what I want to know is how wrong are they? Are they always wrong to the same degree?
As he elaborates his argument, he offers up several examples and facts that are just interesting in and of themselves.
Perhaps it was the appearance of the plain that persuaded the clever Sumerians to accept the generalization that the earth was flat; that if you somehow evened out all the elevations and depressions, you would be left with flatness. Contributing to the notion may have been the fact that stretches of water (ponds and lakes) looked pretty flat on quiet days.

Another way of looking at it is to ask what is the "curvature" of the earth's surface Over a considerable length, how much does the surface deviate (on the average) from perfect flatness. The flat-earth theory would make it seem that the surface doesn't deviate from flatness at all, that its curvature is 0 to the mile.

Nowadays, of course, we are taught that the flat-earth theory is wrong; that it is all wrong, terribly wrong, absolutely. But it isn't. The curvature of the earth is nearly 0 per mile, so that although the flat-earth theory is wrong, it happens to be nearly right. That's why the theory lasted so long.
He later quantifies this more precisely. The curvature of the earth is 0.000126 per mile. Impressively close to 0 but still not 0. And the consequences of not being zero are, of course, huge.

Asimov then goes into the next evolution of knowledge with the emerging realization that the earth was not a sphere but an oblate spheroid. A fact known to all school children (presumably even in this era of emotional reasoning and aversion to facts when they contradict felt perceptions). I've known this since a child but I don't know if I ever knew what the differential was. For the record, the earth is 27 miles wider than it is tall.

The concept I use is that all knowledge has some margin of being usefully true and that the measurement needs of a purpose can vary widely. There are essentially two categories of knowledge about something - there is the quantifiable knowledge, how big, how heavy, what dimensions, etc. That is useful and the degree of precision needed is dependent on the purpose. That kind of knowledge is important, but is different in some ways than causal knowledge. I know why this item has the attribute measures it has. Causal knowledge allows some degree of forecasting.

Asimov finishes with:
Since the refinements in theory grow smaller and smaller, even quite ancient theories must have been sufficiently right to allow advances to be made; advances that were not wiped out by subsequent refinements.


Naturally, the theories we now have might be considered wrong in the simplistic sense of my English Lit correspondent, but in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete.

Monday, August 31, 2015

What is exotic is ordinary when translated into our own terms

From Scott Alexander
70% of Pakistani medical students are female, but only 23% of doctors are. A medical education is a status symbol in Pakistan, and women seem to be pursuing it to increase their value in the marriage market, then getting married and dropping out of medicine. As a result, Pakistan spends a lot of money on medical education and is drastically short of doctors. What do they do? Does your opinion change if I tell you that people involved in US medical education have told me we have a similar problem here? (albeit much less severe, and more related to child-rearing than marriage)
When you first read this, it sounds like some exotic foreign phenomenon but it is actually prevalent across the OECD. Pakistan is typical in this manner rather than an outlier. In the US, in fields that entail lengthy and/or competitive periods of skill building (on the order of ten or fifteen years), women tend to represent 50% of the threshold of the beginning participants but only 15-30% of the workforce at the threshold achievement. Licensed doctors, law firm partners, accounting firm partners, CEO and CFOs, Senators, Senior management of companies, award winning authors, judges, etc.

The mediating factor is family formation and child rearing. I am reminded of Charles Murray's criticism in Coming Apart that the successful fail to preach what they practice. Education, then employment, then marriage and then family - regular as clockwork and with disproportionately positive outcomes.

Hence my perspective that we sometimes, in our emotional trope of the warm and cuddly elements of "family", lose sight of the fact that the family unit is also another economic and social unit and that there are varying degrees of effectiveness in structure and practices within such units. Looking at it from that dispassionate point-of-view, it is perfectly rational for Pakistani female medical students to leverage their academic career towards a marital outcome. We have assortative mating here in the US, why not in Pakistan? The mechanisms may differ somewhat but the process is similar. We may not like acknowledging the measured reality, but there it is.