Climate change and scientific expertise

Listened to a great This American Life about climate change today (I love when TAL gets political– almost always a phenomenal job).   One of their stories was about former SC Congressman, Bob Inglis, a conservative’s conservative except for his apostasy of saying climate change is real and we should do something about it.  That’s why he’s former Congressman.  He’s doubled-down, though, and is now on a mission to convince conservative’s to address the problem by speaking to them in the language of another conservative.  Sadly, he’s not having much success.  It seems mostly liberals come out to hear his speeches designed to convince a conservative audience.  Part of the segment had him trying to convince a conservative talk-radio host who basically said, “I’m from Mississippi, why should I believe in this.”  I.e., I am a political conservative and I take it as a matter of faith that this is a liberal plot; tell me why I should believe otherwise.

And there’s the rub, so many conservatives simply take it as a matter of faith that there is no climate change.  It’s theology as ideology.  Now, surely the 97-98% of climate scientists could be wrong, but who the hell is any non-scientist to judge.  I know I’m not.  Yes, scientists have gotten things wrong all the time, but science remains far and away the best approach we have to understanding the natural world and “well, liberals are for it so it cannot be true” does not exactly trump the scientific method.  Alternatively, reading a few skeptical articles here does not mean you are actually qualified to judge the science.  Yes, there is evidence that the rise in global mean temperatures has stabilized for the time being.  So, either A) climate scientists are persisting, despite contrary evidence, in their overwhelming conspiracy to pull the wool over the eyes of the the world’s citizen; or B) there’s plenty of other measures/indications (i.e., sea level, sea ice, etc.) that suggests we very much still have a growing problem that largely fits with the science and mathematical models.  Given the choice, I’ll go with the latter.

Guns for hunting people

Really enjoyed this piece in the Atlantic last week buy a Charles Eisendrath, “gun guy,” who talks about why we need to regulate assault weapons.  I especially likes how he refers to them as “guns for hunting people,” which, of course, is exactly what they are.  Some highlights:

In most states, it is illegal to hunt animals or birds with more than six rounds in a rifle or three in a shotgun. Why? Because if you can’t kill within those limits you need remedial marksmanship (of the sort NRA Executive Vice President Wayne R. La Pierre might require to bring reportedly poor marksmanship up to snuff). If you’ve got ten or even 30-shot replaceable clips, then you’re holding arms for hunting humans–equipment that brings the Second Amendment face to face with the Sixth Commandment.*

Wow– I had no idea about that six rounds law.  I’ll be quoting that in the future.  Anyway, the author argues that rather than just limiting the size of detachable magazines is to simply eliminate detachable magazines:

One way to do that is to change manufacturing standards for guns as we did in barring vehicles without seatbelts or catalytic converters. Civilian weapons should be required to conform to the more humane rules for hunting game. No amount of legislative fiddling will prevent Rambo-styles clips from replacing small ones if the structure of the gun isn’t changed. The answer is to return long guns to traditional magazines internal to the weapons, themselves, limited to hunting restrictions.

Here’s his take on handguns:

Do I favor handguns’ remaining legal? Yes, except for the kind that are really assault rifles without stocks. For one thing, the huge sales boom in pistols represents a whole nation’s understandable lunge for self-defense, largely against bad guys with the assault weapons we hear about all to often. For that reason, keeping the option open for handguns, at least for now, may make it easier to eliminate assault rifles. It also weakens the argument that by eliminating civilian war weapons we would disarm law-abiders to the advantage of outlaws. We should start with the main threat. When people feel less fearful, they may buy fewer pistols, too.

Here, though, I think Eisendrath makes a big mistake.  He assumes that since he loves guns and approaches gun policy rationally, most others will as well.  I’m still waiting for that.  He’s right that keeping handguns legal absolutely, positively weakens the argument about law-abiding citizens defending themselves.  But this has never been about whether arguments are weak or strong, rational or irrational.  Sadly, to far too many on the right, gun ownership is a sacred right and any infringement on that right, no matter how sensible, is pretty much blasphemy.

So, I really appreciated what Eisendrath suggests as far as assault rifles go and think it would make smart policy (as if that means anything in the gun debate), but think it is completely dead as any other policy these days that actually tries to limit guns.

Everyone gets a trophy

So, not really paid any attention to politics (or much of anything else) this past weekend (made it a true vacation), but there was one thing I was thinking about.  My kids love their soccer trophies and it got me thinking about the “everyone gets a trophy” era we live in.  That definitely describes participation in team sports for kids these days, but I don’t think its quite as bad as it sounds.  I think maybe there was a while there where they idea was to get every kid a trophy to boost self esteem.  But, it seems to me now that a trophy has become pretty much a standard memento of participation and not much more.  I still remember my friend’s bowling trophy from many years ago that literally said “last place.”   I assume part of this is the falling cost of trophies.  It amazes me that my kids get really nice looking soccer trophies for $7-8.  I got exactly one sport trophy (though, many a well-earned piano “trophy”) in my days and damn did I value that thing as it actually represented first place for our soccer team– the only way to get a trophy.  That said, my kids love their trophies and in no way take it as meaning that they are somehow extra special, worthy, or whatever.  To them, it just means they played on a soccer team for a season.  I think that’s fine.  Though, I will say in my second season when the Blasters went 0-7-1, I didn’t even suggest we get trophies and no one else did either.

Photo of the day

Smithsonian photo contest Grand Prize winner.  Check out all the finalists for some amazing, amazing photos:


Mummy, I Am Down Here, and Hungry!

Bjorn Olesen

The morning this photo was taken was unusually quiet, Olesen says. “I was about to pack my bags I heard this juvenile Spectacled Spiderhunter (Arachnothera flavigaster) calling ‘chi-chit, chi-chit,’ trying to attract the attention of its parents above while flapping its wings.” Olesen snapped as many shots possible before the bird flew away seconds later. “[It was] the highlight of my Borneo Trip.”

Taken with a Nikon D3.

The loneliness of the conservative policy wonk

I think one of the most interesting and depressing (and truly bad for our democracy) asymmetries in modern American politics is the general ignorance, if not disdain, for serious policy analysis from those on the right.  Of course Republicans are going to disagree with Democrats, but on a basic level of approaching policy in an intellectually serious manner, the modern Republican party has almost completely ceded the ground.  Most of my favorite blogs are written by liberal policy wonks– and there’s a lot of them.  Practically the only conservative policy wonks out there (e.g., Frum, Bruce Bartlett) have become apostates in the Republican Party ultimately because they go where the data, and not ideology takes them.

Anyway, nice piece on this by Ezra, as conservative wonk Josh Barro has increasingly left the Republican party behind:

Over the last few years, the Republican Party has been retreating from policy ground they once held and salting the earth after them. This has coincided with, and perhaps even been driven by, the Democratic Party pushing into policy positions they once rejected as overly conservative. The result is that the range of policies you can hold and still be a Republican is much narrower than it was in, say, 2005. That’s left a lot of once-Republican wonks without an obvious political home…

As the Republican Party’s range of acceptable policies has narrowed, the Democratic Party’s range has expanded. Stimulus based entirely on tax cuts? It’s not their preference, but they’ll take it. Market-based approaches to environmental regulation? Sure, why not. Capping the employer-based exclusion for health care? Of course. Hundreds of billions of dollars in entitlement cuts to help reduce the deficit? Uh-huh.

If you imagine a policy spectrum that that goes from 1-10 in which 1 is the most liberal policy, 10 is the most conservative policy, and 5 is that middle zone that used to hold both moderate Democrats and Republicans, the basic shape of American politics today is that the Obama administration can and will get Democrats to agree to anything ranging from 1 to 7.5 and Republicans will reject anything that’s not an 8, 9, or 10. The result, as I’ve written before, is that President Obama’s record makes him look like a moderate Republicans from the late-90s.

Yep.  In general, I think it is good that the Democratic party is quite open to more “conservative” market based solutions.  My take (and increasingly that of the Democratic party)– whatever works.  Whether that’s government regulation or market forces, the ends is what matters.  For most Republicans and most conservatives today, it seems that the means are all that matters– government bad, markets good– no matter what.

Until we have two, not just one, political parties that actually take policy seriously it is going to be very difficult to effectively address our nation’s most serious problems.  Sadly, I’m not exactly holding my breath for that to change.

(Also, great piece by Chait on Josh Barro that inspired Ezra’s post).

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).

Women should hire private security

You know how I love me some great political satire.  This Slate post about an Oregon rape because budget cuts basically eliminated police on the weekend is brilliant and spot-on.  I’m just going to paste the whole thing:

Liberal blogs and, of course, public radio are up in arms over this story about an Oregon woman who was raped because, due to massive budget cuts, there were no cops available to take her panicked phone call to the police. The rape occurred last August in Josephine County, a rural district that responded to the loss of millions of dollars in federal subsidies by firing 23 of its 29 police deputies and restricting the remnant’s availability to Mondays through Fridays. (The woman placed her call on a Saturday.) It’s a very sad tale—and one wrapped up in the waning of the logging industry, which the original subsidy was designed to support—but I advise readers to be careful and hold on to their wallets, because the people peddling it have an agenda. This is what those big government types do, you see: Tug at your heartstrings and get you into an emotional place so that they can lure you into voting to raise taxes for more government spending. Well, I for one am not fooled.

Look, no one is for rape. But that doesn’t mean the nanny state tax-and-spend solution is the answer. A government handout—for law enforcement or otherwise—just, to quote Rep. Paul Ryan, “lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.”  All this feminist hand-waving about rape is really just about turning women into victims hooked on federal aid. Real feminists want women to be strong and pick themselves up by their bootstraps, instead of living their lives depending on things like police showing up to your house when you call 911.

I have three words for you women who don’t want rapists breaking into your house: Get. A. Job. That way, you can earn money and pay for a private security firm to guard your house while you sleep. That’s the sort of private enterprise and self-reliance that this country was built on. Government is absolutely terrible at job creation, after all. If they restored those federal funds to Josephine County, where the rape took place, or passed the public safety levy that the patriotic conservative voters rejected, how many cops would they have hired? Ten? Twenty? Even if they hired 100 police officers, that’s fewer jobs created than if every household in the county hired a private security officer to prevent rapists from getting into their houses.

For those who scoff at the old-fashioned American free market approach to personal security, I recommend the wise words from the Josephine County sheriff’s office: “Consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.” Exactly. I recommend France, where they love this wooly-headed socialist nonsense.


Photo of the day

Love this from the National Geographic Traveler photo contest:

Portrait of an Eastern Screech Owl

Portrait of an Eastern Screech Owl

Photo and caption by Graham McGeorge

Masters of disguise. The Eastern Screech Owl is seen here doing what they do best. You better have a sharp eye to spot these little birds of prey.

Location: Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia, USA

Book covers and gender

Earlier this month HuffPo ran a fun feature on gendered book covers.  I.e., what if you took book covers that were marketed to men and flipped them to appeal to women– and vice versa.  A fun idea– here’s a few examples:


Pretty cool.  Anyway, I was reminded of this by a very interesting essay in Slate about likability in female characters.  Apparently, if you are a woman and write likable female characters, people take your work less seriously.   Personally, I just finished a great novel with a very likable male character (and a likable, but subsidiary, female character).  But, I also love novels with more complex, darker characters (Humbert Humbert, anyone).  The likability of the characters just strikes me as a strange way to judge the literary aspirations of fiction.

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