Quick hits

1) As mentioned before, American doctors are seriously overpaid.  Yglesias has a nice discussion of the supply and demand aspects.  Short version– open up more medical school slots (of course, doctors oppose it because it keeps their pay high) and allow more competition from Nurse Practitioners (who generally do just as good a job.

2) Intelligent people are better at blocking out visual background information (does that count for blocking out stuff my wife tells me that I should remember?)

3) Cockroaches have evolved to taste glucose as bitter as sweet since it is so commonly used to attract them to poison bait.  Bastards.  Research done at NC State!

4) When states actually work to implement Obamacare correctly, the competitive nature of the insurance exchanges can work quite well for driving down prices.  Or so the case of California suggests.  Now, will other states be smart enough to copy?  (Presumably not ones led by overly-ideological Republicans– is that a tautology?)

5) Nice essay in the WSJ about how our increasing understanding of how the brain works raises interesting and complicated questions in our criminal justice system.

6) 97% of scientific studies agree on human-caused global warming.  I’m sure it’s all just liberal bias.  Maybe the’re wrong. It’s possible (the aether!), but given current knowlege I’d much rather put my trust into the best of what scientists have to offer than what James Infofe or Exxon-Mobil think.

7) Loves this cool buzzfeed inforgraphic on how American life has changed from the 1960’s till today.  E.g.,

When Americans today do have kids, they spend way more time with them.

8) Are boys more competitive than girls because they play in groups  Maybe.  Found this really interesting:

“In observed lab studies of six- to eight-year-old boys, they spent 70 to 80 percent of their time playing in groups,” while girls spend less than 20 percent of their time in groups. Boys are so desperate to arrange themselves in groups that “when [researchers] put a pair of boys in a room and forced them to talk to each other, they ended up talking about what it would be like to have a group of boys there.” By contrast, “Girls in a group will look at each other and try to find a single friend.” This behavior extends all the way up to the boardroom.

9) Cato types hate the idea of a national ID card.  Funny, in this essay where they describe how horrible it is, it sounds like a good idea to me.  Perhaps because it strikes me that privacy is already pretty much an illusion (and I think many people are way too hung up on it).  If you pay taxes the government already knows who you are.  So there’s an ID card to go with it– big deal.

10) Even most conservative economists agree the Bush tax cuts didn’t really give us much economic benefit.  I’m sure this will have a major impact on how Republican politicians view tax policy.  :-).

Too many bones

Fascinating story in the Atlantic about the very rare disease, fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP), in which people basically grow too many bones.  Due to a defective gene, the body simply grows bone instead of replacing muscle, in response to trauma.  The result is basically a second skeleton grafted onto the first in random, awkward ways that can make life mighty unpleasant.  Fortunately, it only strikes one in 2 million or so.  The story talks about how difficult it is for such rare diseases to get the attention of the medical and pharmaceutical communities.  As it turns out, though, the biochemistry of rare diseases can, hopefully, end up being very useful in common diseases, e.g., in understanding FOP, scientists may eventually find a better treatment for the common problem of low bone density.

Obviously, as the parent of a child with a rare disease, I was especially intrigued by this article.  In Alex’s case, the “good” news is that his rare disease is pretty common– about 1 in 6000– so there’s actually dedicated TSC clinics and a number of researchers working on the disease.  There’s also hope that by focusing on TSC, what researchers find may have much broader benefits.  In TSC’s case, the problem is a lack of tumor-suppressing proteins.  The implications of understanding that better are certainly clear.  Anyway, whether you are related to one of the 25-30 millions Americans who have a rare disease (in the aggregate, they are not so rare), or not, this is a really interesting topic and FOP is definitely a fascinating disease to learn about.

Photo of the day

From the Telgraph’s Animal Photos of the week gallery:

Animal handler John Rienke with lion Bonedigger and dachshunds Milo, Bullet and Angel at Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Oklahoma.

(I cannot include proper attribution as the Telegraph website has all the wrong captions for this gallery– but this is too good to pass up).

Race and IQ

A few weeks back, the Heritage Foundation released a pretty shaky report on how immigration reform was going to ruin the country.  Some sleuthing and it was quickly revealed that one of the authors of the report, Jason Richwine, had argued in his PhD thesis that Hispanic immigrants have lower IQ’s than native-born Americans and would thus leave a legacy of diluting American IQ years into the future.   Of course, this is so radioactive that even Heritage (who was surely aware of this when they hired him), let him go.  Meanwhile, it’s led to a number of fascinating pieces on the nature of race, the nature of IQ, and the intersection of the two.  Among my favorite, Ta-Nehisi Coates:

This, then, shows the limits to IQ tests: Though the tests are good measures of skills relevant to success in American society, the scores are only a good indicator of relative intellectual ability for people who have been exposed to equivalent opportunities for developing those skills – and who actually have the motivation to try hard on the test. IQ tests are good measures of innate intelligence–if all other factors are held steady. But if IQ tests are being used to compare individuals of wildly different backgrounds, then the variable of innate intelligence is not being tested in isolation. Instead, the scores will reflect some impossible-to-sort-out combination of ability and differences in opportunities and motivations. [emphasis mine]

Hugely important point.  It should seem fairly obvious that a person from a healthy, stable, middle-class or above background simply has the opportunity to maximize their cognitive skills in a way that somebody from an unstable, impoverished background does not.  IQ comparisons between upper-middle class white kids may tell you something (but only just something), but comparing those upper-middle class kids from stable homes to poor kids from unstable homes is not really telling you much at all that we don’t know already (i.e., it’s a huge disadvantage to be raised in a poor, unstable home).

I also love that TNC gets at the conceptual weakness of IQ as revealed in the ever-fascinating to me Flynn effect:

Among the strongest evidence that IQ tests are testing not just innate ability, but the extent to which that innate ability has been put to work developing specific skills, is the remarkable “Flynn effect”: In the United States and many other countries, raw IQ scores have been rising about three points a decade. This rise is far too rapid to have a genetic cause. The best explanation for what’s going on is that increasing social complexity is expanding the use of the cognitive skills in question – and thus improving the opportunities for honing those skills. The Flynn effect is acutely embarrassing to those who leap from IQ score differences to claims of genetic differences in intelligence.

Just yesterday, then, I read a long (but totally worth it, I don’t usually stick with something this long on-line) Zach Beauchamp piece that addresses the nature of race and IQ as well as just what it takes to get a horribly intellectually sloppy dissertation approved at Harvard.  So many things worth picking out of here.

In his dissertation on race and IQ, Richwine basically just elides over the whole issue of what Hispanic means as a “race” and how incredibly problematic that is:

Von Vacano’s basic critique centers on Richwine’s definitions, or lack thereof, of the terms “Hispanic,” “white,” and “race.” The most grevious of Richwine’s errors lies in his account of the first: the lack of a meaningful definition of “Hispanic” dooms the dissertation’s ability to draw rigorous conclusions about the people he’s chosen to study.

There’s enormous debate about just what “Hispanic” means and who counts as one in any meaningful sense. Richwine’s third chapter, titled “Hispanic IQ,” treats this debate in the most cursory of fashions…

Establishing the negative consequences of Hispanic immigration means first establishing there’s such a thing as “Hispanic immigration” in a scientifically useful sense.

Because Hispanic identity is so hotly contested among scholars of race and ethnicity, that means both providing a clear account of why people from an arbitrary set of geographic locations are homogenous enough for generalizations about them are meaningful, controlled social science. Richwine fails to do so.

What intrigued me as a social scientist who sees peers all too easily wowed by fancy stats in the service of sloppy conceptual thinking was this:

But she [a fellow Harvard PhD student at the time] thinks that, in this case, they missed some serious errors. “I can only imagine that they were so dazzled by the empirics that they overlooked many of the flaws in the text.” Essentially, the quality of mathematical and statistical analysis in Richwine’s work hid some major conceptual shortcomings in his treatment of IQ.

There’s also a great review on the latest thinking of the relationship between IQ and environment (as addressed to a lesser degree by TNC):

Some of the most persuasive research supporting this new consensus comes from Professor Eric Turkheimer. Turkheimer and his colleagues conducted several analyses of data on twins, perhaps most famously in a 2003 study that analyzed twin performance on IQ tests using a model that separated out genetic and environmental differences inside and between pairs and then mapped the results onto the soci-economic status of the children.  Turkheimer and company found that among poor twins, virtually no variation in IQ could be attributed to inherited traits, but among wealthier ones, a significant portion was. This suggests that poverty and material deprivation uniquely overwhelm any genetic component to IQ, artificially depressing IQ among disadvantaged children. Turkheimer’s research is supported by a wealth of direct evidence about the way in which stress and pollution in early childhood can stunt brain development.  [emphasis mine]

Finally, I love that this piece gets at the essential importance of non-cognitive skills.  And here I’m amazed to find a search of my archives suggests I’ve completely failed to write about one of my favorite books of the past year, How Children Succeed by Paul Tough (how did I let that happen– one of those books I should be mentioning once a month).

On the basis of several relatively crude correlations, Richwine treats a person’s IQ as an almost-perfect guide to someone’s prospects for success in life, relying heavily, once again, on Murray’s work in The Bell Curve. While it’s clear that the sort of intelligence IQ measures matters, particularly when you’re comparing two people from similar backgrounds (the higher IQ sibling in a pair, for example, is likely to do better), there’s simply no reason to think IQ matters enough to provide the juice for sweeping theories about the life prospects of entire groups of immigrants.

“There was no excuse for saying that kind of thing in 2009,” Nisbett said.

James Heckman would likely agree. Professor Heckman, an eminent economist at the University of Chicago who worked with Borjas when he was a post-doctoral fellow there, is an expert on the role that intelligence and other traits play in helping people succeed. He wrote a paper with Tim Kautz last year called, “Hard Evidence of Soft Skills,” reviewing the last several decades of research on the topic. As you might guess from the title, it’s not good for Richwine.

Experts generally think that, roughly, a “Big Five” set of psychological traits — Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism — are key predictors of how well someone will do in life in terms of income, college graduation and so on. These traits can matter as much or more than IQ on some measures: a 2006 paper by Heckman and others found that personality tests were, statistically speaking, better predictors of career choice, criminality, and teen pregnancy (among other important things) than “cognitive” metrics like IQ scores.

These findings make intuitive sense. No matter how good your brain is at crunching numbers, you can still make bad choices if you’re lazy, anti-social, or overly neurotic. Conversely, people who work hard and well with others don’t have to be cognitive geniuses to succeed. As Nisbett told me, “there are prominent people with IQs in the 90s.”

Okay, long post, but like I said, fascinating subject and a lot of really interesting material.  Hope you made it through (a fine demonstration of your non-cognitive skills of sticking with a long post worth reading).

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