Map of the day

Trace the course of increasing diabetes in the US through a series of interactive maps (via NPR).  Pretty amazing.  I’ve included the first and last below– click through for the whole series.  I imagine the maps for prevalence of adult obesity would like almost identical.


Diabetes in America - 1995


Diabetes in America - 2010


Numbers vs. Pundits

Really nice piece by Newsweek’s Andrew Romano on the triumph of statistics over pundits.  It leads to some excellent media criticism. It’s almost like it’s not written by an ordinary journalist:

Much of what currently passes for campaign coverage is deliberately unenlightening. On TV and at websites like Politico, commentators incessantly hype individual polls and bluster about their “sense” of “where things stand,” creating the illusion that the candidates are trading the lead and that the contest is a so-called toss-up. Sure, the Everything Is Breaking News All the Time business model keeps readers and viewers entertained. But it also makes them cranky, suspicious, and misinformed.

So perhaps it’s time to rethink how we cover these contests. After all, innumerate forecasting isn’t our only problem. Advertising revenue is scarce. Embedding on a campaign plane is expensive. Blanketing a national convention is even costlier. Neither endeavor is particularly rewarding, newswise; the candidates themselves have never been less accessible or spontaneous. And the media’s reputation isn’t getting any better.

Which is where the whole Silver skirmish comes in. My guess is that the journalists who will stand out in 2016 will be the ones who stick to a simple plan: if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Most political hacks aren’t equipped to become quants. But the best of them will become more quantlike. Grapple with the data. Absorb the political science. Unravel the policy. And distrust the gut.[emphasis mine] “It’s head-in-the-sand-ism to say you can’t quantify anything,” argues Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan. “Silver is a threat to the pundit’s status as arbiter of who’s winning and losing. But we need more statistical literacy in journalism, not less. That should be part of the skill set.”

The first step is obvious: let Silver and his fellow quants handle the forecasting stuff. The sooner the political media stop devoting the vast majority of their cable-news segments and A1 articles to unquantifiable Who Will Win the Election?–style analysis—coverage that pretends “the latest gaffe is always a possible turning point [and] the momentum is always swinging wildly,” as The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein puts it—the more relevant they will be. But what, you ask, would journalists do instead? Easy. Focus on the two horse-race questions they are uniquely qualified to address: Who Should Win the Election? and How Is the Election Being Won?

Of course, the recipe that Romano outlines is already pretty much followed by all my favorite bloggers.  This journalism is already happening and becoming increasingly important.  Now all we need is the overthrow of the old-school worthless pundits.  Not that I see that happening any time soon.

Either you believe scientists or you don’t

Here we have Marco Rubio trying not to offend the completely out-of-touch with reality young earth creationist crowd:

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) declined to say how old he thought the earth was in an interviewwith GQ magazine, saying instead that he’s “not a scientist” and that it’s “one of those great mysteries.”

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?

Marco Rubio: I’m not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that’s a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I’m not a scientist. I don’t think I’m qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.

Give me a break!!  The earth is about 4.5 billion years old.  Period.  It’s called science.  Either you accept science and that there are certain ways of knowing and understanding reality or you don’t.  Does Rubio take antibiotics when he’s got a bacterial infection?  He’s not a doctor.  Does he bring an umbrella when the TV weather guy says it’s not going to rain? He’s not a meteorologist.  Does he believe that his body is made out of tiny particles called atoms and molecules?  He’s neither a physicist or chemist.  The idea that you can just take it or leave it when it comes to science based on your political views is just down-right intellectually offensive.  And so sad that Rubio either A) believes this, or B) believes that his national viability in the Republican Party means that he needs to pretend he believes this.

Tax cut theology

Liked this Yglesias post last week as it really captures how the Republican party’s position on tax cuts has moved from ideology to theology:

The text of the no-taxes pledge that he gets all Republicans to sign is terse and like all good elements of holy writ could be interpreted in different ways. But the Pope of the supply-side cult himself has weighed in and says this doesn’t work for him:

“If you raise taxes, it’s a problem with the pledge,” Norquist says in an interview. “Romney’s plan was always revenue neutral – I’m in favor of getting rid of deductions and credits and reducing rates, as long as it’s revenue neutral. That’s always been the Republican position.”

No tax reform.

This is why in practice things get a lot simpler if you just go “over the cliff.” With the new baseline in place, basically everything the White House has proposed counts as a tax cut rather than a tax increase. That doesn’t mean Republicans would just say yes to anything Obama put on the table. But it does mean that they at least could say yes. You can do tax reform, you can do a big bargain, you can do whatever. But you need to change the baseline first. It’s not logical for so much to hinge on the baseline rather than the policy outcome, but that’s how religion works. Its mysteries can only be truly understood by those who have faith. To those of us looking in from the outside it all seems arbitrary. [emphasis mine] But the details matter.

Yep. Somewhere I read the other day that even some little kid remarked that it’s ludicrous that Republicans should be opposed to a particular outcome on December 31, but favor the same outcome on January 1st.  Of course it is.  But, (not to pick on Judaism, but Kosher rules come readily to mind), does it really make a lot of sense that it’s okay to eat beef, it’s okay to eat cheese, but not together.

Photo of the day

From N&O day’s best yesterday:

Flames engulf a portion of Tamweel residential tower at Jumeirah Lakes Towers, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012. Civil defense officials did not give immediate details on possible casualties or the cause of the predawn fire. (AP Photo/Kaveh Kashani)

Yeah, social science!

Came across this yesterday.  It’s actually from Obama’s 2008 campaign, but an absolutely perfect example of how relentless empiricism and experiments results in a more successful campaign.  In this case, the tested whether particular still pictures of Obama or videos would draw in more users to the campaign website as well as variations in the slogan such as “sign up” “join us now” “learn more” or “sign up now.”

To my surprise, the campaign staff all thought the videos were the way to go.  Seriously?  Do they even use the internet?  I hate websites that automatically run an annoying video.  Just give me a pretty picture.  Which, of course, proved to be much more effective in their experiment.  Here’s the winning combination.   Definitely worth checking out the site for all the permutations.

And here’s how much difference this could potentially make:

The winning variation had a sign-up rate of 11.6%. The original page had a sign-up rate of 8.26%. That’s an improvement of 40.6% in sign-up rate. What does an improvement of 40.6% translate into?

Well, if you assume this improvement stayed roughly consistent through the rest of the campaign, then we can look at the total numbers at the end of the campaign and determine the difference this one experiment had. Roughly 10 million people signed up on the splash page during the campaign. If we hadn’t run this experiment and just stuck with the original page that number would be closer to 7,120,000 signups. That’s a difference of 2,880,000 email addresses.

Sending email to people who signed up on our splash page and asking them to volunteer typically converted 10% of them into volunteers. That means an additional 2,880,000 email addresses translated into 288,000 more volunteers.

Each email address that was submitted through our splash page ended up donating an average of $21 during the length of the campaign. The additional 2,880,000 email addresses on our email list translated into an additional $60 million in donations.

Pretty cool.  Yeah social science!

Laboratory of federalism (marijuana edition)

The truth is, there is much more uncertainty about de-criminalizing or legalizing marijuana that most people like to admit.  Our current national regime clearly makes no sense, but just what might be the consequences of full legalization are far from known.  That said, for the moment, Colorado definitely seems to have a smart regulatory regime.  Tony Dokupil describes both how things work in Colorado and the great uncertainties with full legalization in a great Fresh Air interview.   And he nicely lays out the latter in the Daily Beast as well:

The case against legalization begins with a defense of its opposite: the benefits of prohibition. Reformers sometimes say prohibition is pointless, because everyone who wants to use pot already does. But as state laws have softened, pot use has risen sharply. More than three million people started smoking it regularly in the past five years, and the rate of high-school experimentation is at a 30-year high. One in 15 high school seniors are smoking daily or near daily. And when a kid first lights up at about age 16, it’s usually not with a cigarette.

Prohibition prevents an even more tremendous uptick, according to “Marijuana Legalization.” Remove it and you can expect a doubling or even tripling of the existing market, a spike to levels far surpassing any on record, and this in a country that already consumes the plant at three times the global average. What would be the health and welfare cost of such an explosion? The honest answer is: we don’t know. No one actually knows what legalizing marijuana will do to adult use, teen experimentation, and public health and safety overall. No one knows because no modern society has ever tried it.

We know enough, however, for serious concern. The mantra of marijuana legalization is “Safer than Alcohol,” which—to be fair—is generally true. But safer than alcohol is not the same as “safe.”…

But at least pot isn’t addictive, right? Wrong. More than 4 million people self-report behavior that meets the clinical criteria for marijuana dependency or abuse. The “capture rate,” as scholars call it, was once about 9 percent, according to one study, but for people who start before age 25—as almost everyone does today—it jumps to 15 percent, the same capture rate as alcohol and just a percentage point less than cocaine.

That said, he’s no prohibitionist, just not in favor of full legalization, but rather a far more incremental approach:

 In fact, of all the available options the status quo of arresting hundreds of thousands of people—most of them nonwhite, poor, and in for a world of collateral damage as a result of their arrest—is probably the least attractive choice, worse only than full legalization. The better decision is incremental reforms at the state level and a hands-off approach from the feds. Let people grow pot, and sell it, but not for profit, and without advertising, and in a tightly regulated marketplace. Tinker every year, adding new provisions and privileges as much needed new research comes in. And always update the law with a sunset provision. That way the process can’t be hijacked by lobbyists and special interests—and only one thing goes up in smoke.

Of course, much of the research Dokupil relies on comes from criminologist (and my personal guru when it comes to all things criminal justice policy related) Mark Kleiman.  Kleiman makes the case that the feds should lay off Colorado and Washington (and I think they will) so we can learn these unanswered questions on a safer, smaller scale:

But those of us who try to study the issue scientifically find ourselves in a world of doubt. How much lower would legal prices be than current illegal prices? If there were heavy taxes, how much evasion would there be? Would buyers in a legal market favor possibly more dangerous high-potency varieties, or would lower-strength products dominate the marijuana market as beer dominates the alcohol market? Would legalization greatly increase problem marijuana use? Use among teenagers? (That might depend on the price.) Would there be an increase in auto accidents due to stoned driving? Would problem drinking decrease – or increase – as result?

All of those questions matter. None of them can be answered by abstract reasoning, or by studying small variations in marijuana policy such as decriminalization of possession for personal use. The only way to find out how legalization would work in practice is to actually try it.

But actually trying it on a national basis carries heavy risks. If it goes badly – if, for example, heavy use and use among teenagers quadrupled – it would be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. All those new users would become potential customers for an expanded illicit market if the drug were re-prohibited.

So the obvious way to learn something about marijuana legalization would be to try it out one state at a time: relying on what Justice Brandeis called “the laboratories of democracy.” If Colorado’s legalization went badly, that would be a much easier problem to correct than if the mistake had been made on a national basis…

So why shouldn’t the federal government cut Colorado and Washington some slack? As long as those states prevent marijuana grown under their laws from crossing state lines and thereby subverting marijuana prohibition in the rest of the states, the Justice Department could step back and let the consequences of the new policies play themselves out. They might succeed, or they might fail. In either case, the rest of us could learn from their experience.

I’m not always the biggest fan of federalism (the fact that Mississippi does most everything so much worse than Minnesota or Massachusetts, or heck, any other non deep South state seems just wrong), but I do think the “laboratory of federalism” really is a great principle and the key recommendation of a federalist form of government.  States really can– and do— learn from the policy successes and failures of other states.  That’s a great thing and a perfect arena for marijuana policy to play out given the many unknowns.

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