I’m back!

I really should have given an update for just dropping off the face of the blogging world.  I’ve been busy, but never that busy.  I don’t do a whole lot of traveling, but a 5 day trip and 4 day trip within three weeks and all the attendant busy-ness that goes with that meant I just felt too guilty to take any time to write here– as much as I still wanted to say so much.  Anyway, I went to Rocky Mountain National park with the NCSU Park Scholars and had the most amazing time.  Here’s one of my favorite places ever– Bear Lake

Got back and had to work hard to finish up a paper for the American Political Science Association conference in Montreal the past few days and then went to Montreal.  Here’s a shot of the Old City where I had an amazing three-hour walking tour:

And here I am doing some actual political science 🙂


Anyway, I’m back and hope to resume regular blogging this week and I promise you’ll have your quick hits next weekend.  

Quick hits (part I)

1) Yglesias with some thoughts on Ukraine.  A couple I really liked:

13. Speaking of allies, note the total uselessness of America’s friends in the Middle East during this crisis. The UAE wouldn’t vote to condemn the invasion in the UN. Saudi Arabia is not opening the oil spigots to stabilize the world economy. Indeed, the Saudis and the Emiratis spent all fall and winter working hand-in-glove with the Russians to drive oil and gas scarcity. From their standpoint, it’s realpolitik, which is fair enough. But make no mistake about the terms of this alliance: the United States of America does favors for these countries, and in exchange, they give money to influential Americans while doing no favors for the American people.

14. Now more than ever! Any pundit worth his salt argues that the right solution to any crisis is to the stuff they’ve supported all along:

— Size and economic strength matter; One Billion Americans!

— Domestic energy production is incredibly valuable. The focus should be on zero-carbon sources first, but trying to strangle domestic fossil fuel output while we’re still relying on it is risky.

— Pushing hard to speed up the pace of electrifying everything is really good.

— The people who’ve been pushing, successfully, to turn off nuclear plants are a menace to the world.

— Investing in useful things is better than spare fiscal capacity. Germany’s long years of low deficits do absolutely nothing to get them out from under the Russian natural gas squeeze. They could and should have been spending the past decade building an alternative.

2) Anne Applebaum on Germany:

The German government has done an about-face and will even send weapons to Ukraine: 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles. More incredibly, this 180-degree turn has the support of an astonishing 78 percent of the German public, who now say they approve of much higher military spending and will gladly pay for it. This is a fundamental change in Germany’s definition of itself, in its understanding of its past: Finally, Germans have understood that the lesson of their history is not that Germany must remain forever pacifist. The lesson is that Germany must defend democracy and fight the modern version of fascism in Europe when it emerges.

3) Dan Drezner on sanctions:

As someone who has researched economic sanctions for more than half my life, let me be blunt: These sentiments worry me. There are a lot of very good reasons to sanction Russia right now, but I am not entirely convinced that those reasons are informing the actual economic statecraft being announced…

The thing is, I don’t think any of these reasons are behind the sanctions being rolled out. The real reason, the one most consistent with all that anger and outrage, is that foreign policy leaders want to punish Russia for what it has done. As the joint statement issued on Saturday stated, “As Russian forces unleash their assault on Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, we are resolved to continue imposing costs on Russia that will further isolate Russia from the international financial system and our economies.”

The sanctions that have been announced, including blocking sanctions on Russia’s central bank and knocking key Russian banks off SWIFT, are quite significant. If the priority is imposing costs, they are not the full smash but they’re close. Any time a central bank has to raise its discount rate more than a thousand basis points in one day is a sign that an economy is in distress. These sanctions will segment Russia from the global economy and punish Russian elites. As one senior Biden administration official told Politico’s Nahal Toosi, “We’ll go after their yachts, their luxury apartments, their money, and their ability to send their kids to fancy colleges in the West.”

The thing is, as satisfying as it might feel in the moment, “imposing costs” cannot be an end in itself. Sanctions should be a means to achieving a larger end. Maybe the goal is to nudge Putin’s elite coalition — you know, the guys sitting at the other end of the long table — into forcing him out. Maybe it is to delegitimize Putin in the eyes of a country that remembers the pre-Putin 1990s as a time of humiliation.

If the goal is to compel, then the sanctioners need to be explicit about what Russia can do to get the sanctions lifted. I saw nothing in the joint statement that suggested any demands that could cause these sanctions to be lifted. That lack of clarity undermines coercive bargaining, because the targeted actor believes that sanctions will stay in place no matter what they do.

4) George Packer:

Obama’s successor took the Russian side of the conflict. President Donald Trump was willing to see pro-Russian kleptocrats return to power in Ukraine because they served his corrupt political ends, and because he and his followers despise liberal democracy and admire naked “strength,” especially when it’s exercised to break rules and heads. It was no accident that Trump’s first impeachment had its origins in Ukraine, with his attempt to blackmail President Volodymyr Zelensky to obtain political favors. The two countries are entangled, not just because of the war with Russia but because Ukraine is where the battle for democracy’s survival is most urgent. The fate of democracy here turns out to be connected to its fate there. Putin understands this far better than we do, which explains his dogged efforts to exploit the fractures in American society and further the institutional decay, and his use of Russian-backed corruption in Ukraine to corrupt politics in America. The West’s yearslong underestimation of his intentions and the stakes in Ukraine showed a failure of understanding and a weakening of liberal values.

Now Putin, along with his patron and enabler, Xi Jinping of China, has pushed into American and European faces a truth we didn’t want to see: that our core interests lie in the defense of those values. To be realist in our age is not to define American interests so narrowly that Ukraine becomes disposable but to understand that the world has broken up into democratic and autocratic spheres; that this division shapes everything from supply chains and competition for resources to state corruption and the influence of technology on human minds and societies; that the autocrats have gained the upper hand and know it. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, following its earlier efforts to stifle independence and democracy there, as well as in Georgia and Belarus, is the most dramatic but far from the last point of conflict between the two spheres.

If this conflict is a new cold war, it’s one that the autocracies have been pursuing energetically and the democracies have been loath to accept. Until the past few days, the West seemed unwilling to confront Putin in a way that would hurt enough to make him regret his aggression. 

5) Still bummed that Ikea backed out of plans to build a new one just a few miles from my house.  This is cool, though, “How Ikea tricks you into buying more stuff”

6) My goodness did I just love Stuckey’s when we took family trips when I was a kid.  It’s also a joke between my wife and I that when we got married her parents warned us against stopping at Stuckey’s.  The latest, “Stuckey’s, the once-beloved road trip staple, tries to stage a comeback”

The emporium traces its roots to a Georgia pecan dealer who started a stand to sell nut candies made by his wife. As the country emerged from the Depression, W.S. “Sylvester” Stuckey Sr. began to build stores and soon was outfitting them with gas pumps, lunch counters and gift shops. His newly founded chain, with a signature blue roof, grew along with the country’s new interstate highway system, reaching 368 locations in more than 30 states, with a concentration across the South and Southwest.

For baby boomers, it became a road trip staple, an oasis of souvenirs and sweets, plus clean restrooms. But it was sold a couple of times to conglomerates and began a downward spiral after the oil embargo of the 1970s temporarily put the road trip out of fashion, and fast-food challengers sprouted along the highways.

Now it’s trying to launch a comeback.

7) It would be nice if post-pandemic restaurants took air quality seriously, but, is any of society really stepping up on this? “Restaurants Learned the Wrong Pandemic Lessons”

For a while, we’ve known that some straightforward air-quality improvements are plainly the best way to tamp down on some of the risk. Under typical building codes, restaurants have about the same indoor-air standards as other buildings—with more exhaust hoods in the kitchen to handle the smells and fumes. These codes aren’t designed with viruses in mind, and anyway, HVAC systems are rarely monitored to ensure that they’re working as advertised. At one Guangzhou, China, restaurant, an AC unit slingshotted the virus between diners sitting 15 feet apart.

Joseph Allen, the director of Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program, told me that in a perfect world, all restaurants would get regular tune-ups to ensure that their HVAC systems are working properly to swap out, dilute, and filter the air. After that, “you want to maximize the amount of outdoor air coming in,” Allen said. Opening some doors and windows helps, but the best play is to have your HVAC setup pump in even more fresh air while a filter (ideally rated MERV-13 or better!) strips away lots of menacing particles.

8) Loved Noah Smith’s interview with Political Scientist/Statistics guru, Andrew Gelman.  Lots of good stuff in here.  

9) Jesse Singal with a nice case study on social science clearly cherry-picking results in the case of transgender advocacy, rather than the most honest representation of the data.

10) As much as I want Jeff Maurer’s take to be true, Trump just seems like some political zombie where we just can’t get a headshot, “Ukraine Might Be Killing Trump’s Re-Election Chances: Historically, being a mouthpiece for America’s enemies doesn’t play well”

Putin’s Russia is now so toxic that if Trump does have improper ties to the regime, the consequences of that reality would be an even more potent poison than they were the first time around. This remains true even if the only thing that’s changed is Putin’s brand being downgraded from “noxious” to “PT Cruiser-esque”. Consider this simple equation that might represent the importance of a possible scandal in voters’ minds:

Republicans have spent the past several months acting as if the right side of that equation has been reduced to zero. And, of course, it’s true that the Steele Dossier does not look very credible, and also that some on the left spent the last few years about as obsessed with Russia as my five year-old nephew is with dinosaurs. But it’s also true that facets of Trump’s possible connections to Russia remain unknown. We never did find out why Paul Manafort left a job working for a pro-Russian politician in Ukraine to work for Trump for free, nor do we know why he gave campaign polling data to a Russian spy. Much of the Trump organization remains opaque, which leaves the door open for good, old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes avenues for extortion like money laundering and off-the-books financing. Trump’s backers are right that many suspicions about Trump’s ties to Russia were never proved, but they were never disproved, either.

Republican voters might wonder if it’s not too much to ask for a nominee without all that baggage. It seems like a fair question: Is it really too ambitious to want a candidate who doesn’t have a long record of saying nice things about a man who could accurately be described as America’s nemesis? And who didn’t advocate that man’s point of view at a NATO summit and in the Republican platform? And who didn’t also – by the way – get impeached twice, lose an election, and end America’s 224-year tradition of peacefully transferring presidential power? Isn’t there anybody else? I mean, really: Is Ted Cruz that fucking bad? And the answer to that question may be “yes”, but even primary voters who are willing to laugh off Trump’s coquettish flirtation with the most hated man on Earth might worry that general election voters might not be so kind.

11) I hate large SUV’s, so I loved this in Slate:

Whether you bought a Sierra, like the one in the photo above, or a Yukon, which the tweeter mistakenly thought he was standing next to, or a Ram or a Silverado or a Jeep Gladiator or any other megatruck or monster SUV, you’re making an announcement to the world. It’s not the announcement you think it is, though. It’s not about your wealth or your toughness or your masculinity. No, you’ve announced, very clearly, that you don’t care if you accidentally kill a stranger. You’re saying: “I’m totally cool with someone else dying because of a decision I made.”

I’m not saying you’re a murderer if you own a gigantic truck. I’m saying you’re a manslaughterer. If you do kill a person, it won’t be because you carefully planned it. It’ll happen totally by accident, and you’ll be horrified. The person you kill, if it happens, won’t be some jerk who wronged you. They won’t deserve it at all. Heck, there’s a solid chance it’ll be a toddler.

Does this make you feel bad? It should!

Your giant car, study after study shows, is remarkably dangerous to pedestrians. The heavier a car, the more likely it is to kill a pedestrian if it strikes them. And trucks and SUVs are getting heavier: New pickups weigh 24 percent more than they did in 2000, according to Consumer Reports, and these days big cars regularly exceed 4,000 pounds. Let’s not even talk about the new generation of electric vehicles, like the Hummer EV, which thanks to its immense batteries weighs more than 9,000 pounds. You ever nail someone with one of those, hoo boy! They’ll need to pry ’em off the road with a crowbar.

Your car is also really tall, and that makes it more dangerous, too. A grille that’s more than 50 inches off the ground—as tall as the roof of my Honda Civic—makes it more likely that a pedestrian will be struck in the head by a collision. Big trucks are also more likely to push a pedestrian under the tires, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, something that increases the likelihood of a fatality. Those big, road-handling tires you love so much? They’ll also do a great job handling some middle schooler’s torso.

But I’m a good driver! you say. That’s great! Unfortunately, the very act of driving a huge truck makes you a worse driver—that is, a less safe one. According to Consumer Reports, pickups and the like perform worse than other cars in emergency handling and braking tests. And trucks are less likely to be sold standard with advanced safety features like automatic braking and pedestrian detection.

lus, those tall grilles create enormous blind spots, ones so big that when you’re behind the wheel you might not be able to see a pedestrian, a whole-ass Corvette, or half a kindergarten class. And kids are the most vulnerable to that blind spot: Most victims of “frontover” deaths—in which a pedestrian in a front blind spot is struck and killed in a driveway or parking lot—are between the ages of 12 and 23 months. Eighty percent of those deaths since 1990 involved a truck, van, or SUV, according to the advocacy group KidsAndCars.org. Maybe you think that if you do run over a kid, it at least won’t be yours? It probably will be your kid, though. In 70 percent of those fatal frontovers, it’s a parent or close relative behind the wheel.

12) Wired with the latest on the saga of the startup trying to make McDonald’s ice cream machines work better versus McDonald’s. 

13) I imagine a straight-up intelligence test is not the best for evaluating NFL potential, but I really would be interested in what kind of cognitive tests could best predict future NFL performance– there’s got to be something there.  

14) I’ll be bookmarking this, “How Simple Exercises May Save Your Lower Back: Back pain is common and complicated. But altering your workout to build control and stability can help prevent it.”  I already do some of these, but I should probably do more and definitely do so more consistently.

15) Good analysis of the complexities of Biden’s new Covid plan, “Inside Biden’s big “Test To Treat” plan for COVID. Here’s why it’s complicated.”  But it’s definitely worth getting this working well!

16) This was quite good, “I’m a Parent and a Statistician. There’s a Smarter Way to Think About the Under-5 Vaccine.”

The bigger issue, as I see it, is in general statistical methods that are often relied on to evaluate the effectiveness of vaccines and drugs. The standard approach used in almost all clinical trials and endorsed by the F.D.A. requires new drugs to meet an arbitrary statistical threshold, the one people who have taken stats classes may recognize as statistical significance. This is appealing because it serves as a standardized final exam that experimental results all have to pass, unaided by preconceptions on the part of the reviewers or special pleading by the experimenters.

But the whole idea of statistical significance has been losing favor among many statisticians, for two good reasons. For one, this thinking is inherently binary; after the number crunching is complete, results are classified as significant or not significant, suggesting a finality and certitude that are rarely justified, and second, like any standardized test, it’s overly reductive. If relied on too heavily, it becomes a substitute for a more thoughtful, holistic analysis of the data, including important scientific context.

Nearly three years ago, an open letter signed by more than 800 scientists called for an end to the practice, and prominent statisticians, including the head of the American Statistical Association, put it bluntly: “Don’t say ‘statistically significant.’” Too often, they said, this binary labeling of results as worthy or unworthy has become “the antithesis of thoughtfulness,” a shortcut around what should be the hard work of any statistical inquiry.

What we need for the under-5 vaccine trial evaluation, instead of judgments of absolute safety or efficacy, is probable improvement over the next best alternative, considering all the available information. Even the concept of an emergency use authorization challenges the ordinary F.D.A. binary of approval and disapproval. We should take that idea and extend it.

There is a version of statistics that would be more suitable than significance testing for evaluating this trial data: Bayesian statistics. The essential tenets of this approach are that investigators should constantly update our understanding of any scientific claim based on the latest data and that we never need to label such a claim as definitively proved or disproved…

A Bayesian analysis of the vaccine for children under 5 would consider both that Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine has an excellent track record of safety for older children (obviously a 6-month-old is not a 5-year-old, but nor are they an entirely different species) and that we can already make reasonable estimates of how effective a two-dose regimen for little children will be, even against the Omicron variant. And if the newest data shows the vaccine losing effectiveness against this variant at the currently recommended dosages and schedules, statistical techniques that can incorporate this information as quickly as possible should be used to guide any necessary changes to the protocols.

The practice of borrowing information from one experiment to help understand another is not unprecedented. The F.D.A. has acknowledged the value of a Bayesian approach in certain circumstances, including pediatric trials. A 2020 policy document states, “Bayesian inference may be appropriate in settings where it is advantageous to systematically combine multiple sources of evidence, such as extrapolation of adult data to pediatric populations.” And the agency’s guidance for medical device clinical trials — where Bayesian methods have been more accepted for years — includes the endorsement that “Bayesian analysis brings to bear the extra, relevant, prior information, which can help F.D.A. make a decision.” The best way to demonstrate the advantages, when the under-5 vaccine is back up for review, would be for those evaluating it to put on their Bayesian goggles and consider the whole picture.

Referring to the vaccine trials for children under 5, Dr. Gregory Poland, the founder and director of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group in Minnesota, said recently, “I don’t like that there isn’t more data.” Neither do I and other parents. But I also don’t like that my children are unvaccinated going into Year 3 of the pandemic. If the vaccines are safe — and we know they work well in other age groups — that’s meaningful to me both as a parent and as a statistician.

Happy old age, here I come

Good health permitting, of course.  But, especially as I just turned 50, yeah, I’ll admit to thinking about “getting” old more lately.  Anyway, I loved this Arthur Brooks article “The Seven Habits That Lead to Happiness in Old Age” that sure suggests to me that I on track for a health old age.  Of course, my guess is that a generally happy disposition is probably a big factor in all of this, and I’ve got that covered.  But, here’s the things you can actually do

Using data from the Harvard study, two researchers showed in 2001 that we can control seven big investment decisions pretty directly: smoking, drinking, body weight, exercise, emotional resilience, education, and relationships. Here’s what you can do about each of them today to make sure your accounts are as full as possible when you reach your later years:

  1. Don’t smoke—or if you already smoke, quit now. You might not succeed on your first try, but the earlier you start the quitting process, the more smoke-free years you can invest in your happiness account.
  2. Watch your drinking. Alcohol abuse is strongly correlated with smoking in the Harvard study, but plenty of other research shows that even by itself, it is one of the most powerful predictors of winding up sad-sick. If you have any indication of problem drinking in your life, get help now. If you have drinking problems in your family, do not take your chances: Keep that switch turned off. Although forgoing alcohol can be difficult, you’ll never be sorry you made this decision.
  3. Maintain a healthy body weight. Eat a diet with lots of fruits and vegetables and moderate serving sizes, but avoid yo-yo diets or intense restrictions that you can’t maintain over the long run.
  4. Prioritize movement in your life by scheduling time for it every day and sticking to it. Arguably the single best, time-tested way to do this is by walking daily.
  5. Practice your coping mechanisms now. The earlier you can find healthy ways to deal with life’s inevitable distresses, the more prepared you’ll be if ill luck strikes in your 80s. This means working consciously—perhaps with assistance from spiritual practices or even therapy—to avoid excessive rumination, unhealthy emotional reactions, or avoidance behavior.
  6. Keep learning. More education leads to a more active mind in old age, and that means a longer, happier life. That doesn’t mean that you need to go to Harvard; you simply need to engage in lifelong, purposive learning. For example, that can mean reading serious nonfiction as part of a routine to learn more about new subjects.
  7. Do the work to cultivate stable, long-term relationships now. For most people, this includes a steady marriage, but other relationships with family, friends, and partners can fit in this category as well. The point is to find people with whom you can grow, whom you can count on, no matter what comes your way.

The best way to maximize your chances of happiness in your 70s is to pursue all seven of these goals with fervor, sort of like balancing your 401(k). But if you can choose only one to pour your heart into, let it be the last. According to the Harvard study, the single most important trait of happy-well elders is healthy relationships. As Robert Waldinger, who currently directs the study, told me in an email, “Well-being can be built—and the best building blocks are good, warm relationships.”

Regrets, I’ve had a few…

I really loved Derek Thompson’s podcast conversation with Daniel Pink about Pink’s new book on regret.  Admittedly, I didn’t love that one of Thompson’s regrets is being a political science major(!), but, a really great conversation.  

David Epstein also addresses Pink’s book and the power of regret in his latest newsletter, using the example of U.S. gold medal figure skater, Nathan Chen:


I’ve been thinking about Chen while reading Daniel Pink’s new book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward.

In articles on Chen, the topic of regret comes up regularly, since he is often asked about 2018. “I don’t regret anything,” he said in one article last week. Pressed on it, though, he admitted that he did regret 2018. Specifically, he regretted that he wasn’t able to enjoy the experience, and didn’t have fond memories of it.

I know that “no regrets” reflex well. I vividly remember telling a friend that I had no regrets about a relationship that went disastrously wrong. Now, many years removed from it, I realize that of course I had regrets; I could’ve handled things better. Professionally, I have regrets about stories I didn’t write, and pieces of writing that could’ve been done differently, and better. I’ve made two corrections in my book, Range, since it came out in 2019, and while they’re small enough that readers won’t notice, I really regret not catching them earlier. In sports, I went from walk-on to part of a university-record relay team in college track, but regret that I didn’t learn until the very end of my career how to modulate my intensity over the course of a season, so that at the end of the year I could be sharp and hungry rather than ragged and exhausted.

Regret regret regret. And yet, what is my first reflex when I think about these things? “No regrets!” It’s obviously not true. But as Pink shows in The Power of Regret, it’s a very human reflex. (And a very popular tattoo.)

I think the reality is that, far from not having regrets, I just feel like I’ve learned so much from them. That seems like Nathan Chen’s story too.

Here he is on NBC, describing a lesson from his 2018 stumbles:

“A big portion of preparing yourself is not just pushing yourself forward but also pulling yourself back. I just had my foot on the gas pedal the whole year.”

Sounds just like the lesson I learned at the very end of my track career. And so, after the 2018 Games, what did Chen do with that lesson?

“I had my sights set on 2022, but I did want to find a way to incorporate skating and school together.”

He started college at Yale, which he says gave him perspective, and a new appreciation for how lucky he is to get to travel the world doing something he loves.

Rather than devastation, a missed opportunity led to productive reassessment. Chen, again:

“Since the last Olympics, my sights were definitely set on coming up with a plan to try to put myself in the best position to be competitive and strong and healthy, both physically and mentally. And that’s definitely a result of, ya know, screwing up at the Olympics.”


Pink identifies three main benefits from regret research:

  1. Improved decisions. (Ex: negotiators who regret that their opening offer was accepted make better choices in future negotiations)

  2. Improved performance. (Ex: puzzle solvers and card players who felt regret drew more lessons and were subsequently more persistent)

  3. Deepened meaning. (Ex: personal “reviews” focused on regret can lead to revised life goals, and greater sense of purpose) [emphasis mine]

It seems to me that Nathan Chen (who has dominated since 2018) probably tapped into all three of these benefits.

I’ve never been a “no regrets” person, presumably because I implicitly already understood most of this.  When I think about my regrets, many of them are in the form of opportunity cost.  I really hated my college class on British Romantic poetry (and not just because it was my worst grade in undergrad).  The regret is, in large part, the great English classes that I did not take (like the great course my wife/then girlfriend took that made me so jealous with my wrong choice).  This has arguably led me to better decisions by thinking about opportunity cost even before I knew the term.  Almost all my regrets are actions I did not take (especially all the stuff I didn’t’ do that I should’ve tried during high school– I really wish I had tried some acting/drama) and this has led me to be much bolder in taking actions under conditions of uncertainty.  Of course, they don’t always work out, but I have no regrets about trying something new and different or taking a chance when I’m unsure.  And, actually, probably, some of those times I do have regrets, but if I do, I learned from them to make the next time better.

Anyway… really interesting stuff and I think a valuable perspective for thinking about how we live our lives.  

I’m a dog person

I get a perverse kick out of telling people “I like my dog; I don’t love my dog.”  I have a nice dog.  He’s sweet and cute, but he wants in or out (whichever he is not) all the time, and he’s good the misfortune of being a good dog on the heels of two great dogs.  (Here’s my daughter’s Instagram account dedicated to him).

Anyway, among all Arthur Brooks‘ happiness articles, I found this recent one among the most intriguing, “Which Pet Will Make You Happiest?”  I do love dogs and being a dog owner.  I appreciate cats and had one when I was a kid, but, not only am I subjectively a dog person, arguably, according to social science I’m the prototypical dog person.  Brooks:

1. Get a pet that matches your personality.

Dog owners might be happiest on average, but as the drug ads always emphasize, your results may vary. The Scientific American survey above found that owner personalities differ a great deal depending on the type of pet. For example, are you a mellow type? Fish owners consider themselves calm and emotionally stable. Highly educated? Hamster owners are the most likely to hold an advanced degree.

A group of Ph.D. psychologists (hamster lovers, perhaps) published a deeper look into pets and personality in the academic journal Anthrozoös in 2010. Using the Big Five” personality types, they found that dog people are higher in extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness than cat people. Cat people are higher in neuroticism and openness.

You might be tempted to note that dog owners are, well, kind of like dogs, and that cat owners are like cats. Knowing the types of matches that work well on average can help you decide on a new friend. But if you want to try to change your personality, you might decide to cross the cat-dog divide. For example, if you feel you should work on your openness, you might want to step outside your pet comfort zone and get a cat.

Well, how about that?!  I’m very high in extroversion and agreeableness and definitely above average in conscientiousness (especially for a liberal).  Anyway, this definitely has me intrigued to know more about the social science of pet ownership.  If only the American National Election Studies included a question on this!

Better late than never quick hits

0) Had a terrific vacation at the beach last week.  Read plenty of good stuff, but, more important to sit in the sun than to work on the blog.  And when I got back home, set back due to an AC failure.  Good news is that I had it repaired in less than 24 hours and I’m typing this in pleasant climate-controlled air.  Anyway…

1) Great conversation between Yascha Mounk and Sabrina Tavernise:

Mounk: You’re somebody who has spent much of your career as a foreign correspondent living outside the United States. You spent time in Russia and Turkey, some time in Lebanon and other places. But coming back to the United States, you suddenly felt like your experience of covering deeply divided societies gave you insight into the United States. [The U.S.] suddenly felt similar to both societies in a way that it hadn’t done when you were growing up here. What lessons can we take from these deeply divided societies? And how can we make sure that we have empathy for our fellow citizens who are on the other side of a political divide without excusing the most reprehensible actions?

Tavernise: I moved to Russia when I was 24 years old, and I started in journalism when I was 26. And I didn’t really know very much about the way the world worked at that point. And I feel like I kind of went out into that society speaking very good Russian—my Russian was very fluent—without very much humility, and with a lot of arrogance about who they were and how they were supposed to get their act together. I remember traveling to these little provincial towns, and I’d be writing about an aluminum plant or an oil company or a local election. And I remember thinking and writing in this way, “You know, guys, the widget factory is never coming back. I know everybody wants the widget factory because that was what was comfortable and safe. But that was a communist thing, and communism is over. You really need to get your act together. Why don’t you just go out and kind of invent something? Go out and build a business, go out and rearrange your life and your town in a way that will make you prosperous and more like us.” 

When I first came back to the United States, I’d been gone for the better part of more than a dozen years. And I started talking to Americans, also in provincial places, and I realized they were saying, “Oh, if only the widget factory that was here in the 70s, in the 80s, would come back! If only it would come back, then all of our problems would be gone.” I realized, oh, my God, it was the same thing. It was the same dynamic. And part of that was economic collapse. Part of that was extreme lack of trust in government and in each other. 

Another parallel was the disinformation that started to spread in Russia, quite early and very virulently. [With] every person you would talk to, every cab driver, you would get into it: “Gorbachev is actually being run by MI6.” Everybody had a theory of why life was so messed up, and who was responsible, who was to blame. And I remember thinking, “Oh, my God, this is just a bunch of tinfoil-hat stuff. These people were in the Soviet cave for 70 years, and they kind of got a little wacky in there. They didn’t modernize with everybody else.”

[But] more recently, in my own society, people say, “Oh, yeah, the election was stolen? Absolutely. Biden has basically been kidnapped, and there are all these people around him who are actually making the decisions and pulling the strings.” I realized we are absolutely not exceptional in any way. We basically have exactly the same problems and exactly the same group dynamics and exactly the same divides. We were richer and more developed, [but] that didn’t matter. That’s pretty sobering, because now we’re stuck. How do we get out of this situation? No one on the right I’m talking to even thinks that Biden is kind of a sentient, conscious individual. The elections [going forward] are going to be really fraught, because there’s been this poison pill injected into them by Trump, and it’s hard to know where it’s going. 

2) Great stuff on cuttlefish and the implications for the evolution of intelligence:

These studies suggest that cuttlefish are capable of self-control and of remembering their own past experiences. The next step will be tests of whether, like the jays, they are aware of how they will feel in the future, and can plan for it.

“We’re adapting these experiments that have been done in chimpanzees and corvids,” Dr. Schnell said, “to see if these animals that diverged from this lineage 550 million years ago have the same capacity.”

If they do, cuttlefish will have an important role in illuminating how and when intelligence evolves. Corvids and certain primates — including humans — each developed the ability to plan for the future, but they seem to have arrived at it independently, rather than inheriting the capacity from a common ancestor. Both kinds of creatures have complex social lives and lengthy life spans to learn from, commonalities that make it hard for biologists to say what traits or environment make intelligence a good investment for an organism.

The cuttlefish promises to add another dimension to the study of intelligence because they must have developed it in a completely different context.

“They don’t live a long time, unlike the corvids. They’re not highly social, unlike the corvids,” Dr. Clayton said. “It was very unlikely that it was social intelligence that was driving the evolution.”

There are still more tests to come. It’s not clear whether cuttlefish will turn out to have all the same skills as apes and corvids, or just a handful. If what they have is similar, then it’s possible that profound vulnerability, rather than long life or social complexity, is what has forced them to become so canny.

3) Philip Bump, “Want to know how a county voted? Find out how many White Christians live there.”

Here, as the title of the image says, are two maps of the United States. One shows every county in which at least half of the population is made up of non-Hispanic Whites who are Christian, as estimated by PRRI as part of its 2020 Census of American Religion. The other map shows counties that Preside nt Donald Trump won in the 2020 election. The darker the coloration, the greater each percentage.


So which is which?

The easiest way to tell is by looking at the Northeast. Much of New England votes reliably Democratic but is also densely White. So you can tell that Map B is the map of White Christians and Map A the map of 2020 election results.

The point, of course, is that it isn’t easy to differentiate between them. Looking at PRRI’s maps of the distribution of religious groups, the superficial similarity of White Christianity and Trump support is immediately obvious. But, of course, national maps of county-level data tend to obscure underlying trends, as anyone who has had a debate over how to depict presidential-vote results can attest.

4) I literally don’t get why paramedics are paid so little.  I’d like to see that addressed in this article.  I mean, like what’s going on economically that you can actually have a sufficient supply of people trained to treat heart attacks, major trauma, etc., on the spot for only $17/hour?

The misconception that emergency medics provide transportation, not medicine, leaves them to cope with all sorts of indignities. “They’re used to being second-class citizens,” says Michael Levy, the president of the National Association of EMS Physicians. In one hour—during which they may respond to several 911 calls—the median paramedic or EMT makes a little more than $17. That’s half the hourly pay of registered nurses and less than one-fifth the pay of doctors—if they’re paid at all. During the pandemic, emergency medics were literally enclosed in rolling boxes with COVID-19 patients. But in some states, they were not prioritized alongside other essential health-care workers for the first round of vaccines. After delivering their precious cargo to a hospital, in many cases they don’t learn the final diagnosis, or whether their patient ever makes it back home.

That medicine treats emergency medics like disposable, low-wage workers instead of the health-care professionals they are isn’t just unfortunate for the workers themselves—it also leads to less than optimal care for the rest of us on the day we may need it most.

5) Good Post editorial, “The U.S. is growing more unequal. That’s harmful — and fixable.”

First, the data: The combined wealth of all households in the United States added up to $129.5 trillion in the first quarter of this year. The wealthiest 1 percent held 32.1 percent of the total, up from 23.4 percent in 1989. The top 10 percent of households owned $70 of every $100 in household wealth, up from $61 in 1989. The bottom half, whose share never exceeded 5 percent, now holds just 2 percent of household wealth in the United States…

Though wealth inequality has grown in other industrialized democracies too, the U.S. figures mark this country as an outlier. A 2018 study of 28 countries in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found that, on average, the top 10 percent of households owns 52 percent of wealth, while the bottom 60 percent owns 12 percent. But in the United States the top 10 percent held 79.5 percent and the bottom 60 percent held 2.4 percent…

The wealth gap did not develop overnight. It neither can, nor should, be entirely eliminated; but the United States could aim for a more equitable distribution similar to that of our peer nations today — and, indeed, that which prevailed in the country during the era of its greatest international prestige. Policy reforms, starting now, could make it happen.

6) This was interesting, “The Secrets of ‘Cognitive Super-Agers’: By studying centenarians, researchers hope to develop strategies to ward off Alzheimer’s disease and slow brain aging for all of us.”

Fewer than 1 percent of Americans reach the age of 100, and new data from the Netherlands indicate that those who achieve that milestone with their mental faculties still intact are likely to remain so for their remaining years, even if their brains are riddled with the plaques and tangles that are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease.

Findings from the Dutch study may eventually pave a path for many more of us to become “cognitive super-agers,” as researchers call people who approach the end of the human life span with brains that function as if they were 30 years younger.

One day everyone who is physically able to reach 100 may also be able to remain mentally healthy. By studying centenarians, researchers hope to identify reliable characteristics and develop treatments that would result in healthy cognitive aging for most of us. Meanwhile, there is much we can do now to keep our brains in tiptop condition, even if reaching 100 is neither a goal nor a possibility.

These hopeful prospects stem from the study of 340 Dutch centenarians living independently who were tested and shown to be cognitively healthy when they enrolled. The 79 participants who neither died nor dropped out of the study returned for repeated cognitive testing, over an average follow-up of 19 months.

The research team, directed by Henne Holstege at Vrije University in Amsterdam, reported in JAMA Network Open in January that these participants experienced no decline in major cognitive measures, except for a slight loss in memory function. Basically, the participants performed as if they were 30 years younger in overall cognition; ability to make decisions and plans and execute them; recreate by drawing a figure they had looked at; list animals or objects that began with a certain letter; and not becoming easily distracted when performing a task or getting lost when they left home.

7) It’s been a while since I’ve adopted a pet, but can we all agree that so many rescue organization are over-the-top nuts?  I didn’t realize how bad it’s gotten. “Want to Adopt a Pet? Prepare for a Full Background Check.: Overlong applications, home inspections and fecal samples from existing pets are all fair game in finding a cat’s or dog’s “forever home.””

Shortly after the pandemic began, I started religiously checking Petfinder and Adopt-a-Pet in search of a kitten. Whenever I saw one I wanted, I filled out an application. Unlike the two pages I’d submitted to adopt my dog in 2009, these were long, exhaustive and, in my opinion, a bit invasive.

One rescue organization asked that I fill out a seven-page application, submit five personal references and provide a detailed record of every pet I’ve owned since childhood. Another wanted my driver’s license number, multiple references, a fecal sample from each of my dogs, a personal meeting and a separate home visit.

Others wanted to know whether my yard was fenced; if I’d enroll my pet in a training class; if I had ever been divorced; how much time I spent at home; and what my overall discipline philosophy was.

8) This NYT “How to be happy” guide is really good.  As for me, I am, of course, already on most of it.

9) Damon Linker argues that the anti-anti-CRT people have gone too far, and I think he’s right.  Yes, systemic racism is a thing, but CRT goes way further than that to places that are a lot less defensible:

According to an adage attributed to George Santayana, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it. But how to explain those who know history quite well and yet nonetheless repeat it?

That question has cropped into my head many times in recent weeks, as conservative activists and Republicans in Congress have actively denounced and in some cases acted to ban the teaching of what they call Critical Race Theory in public schools (both K-12 and universities) — and many of the left’s most intelligent writers have responded almost exclusively by railing against right-wing critics of CRT.

Put in slightly more schematic terms, the left is reacting to the anti-CRT movement by becoming loudly anti-anti-CRT. That is a big mistake, both intellectually and politically. How do we know? In part because we just lived through the folly of Republicans enacting the double negation of becoming anti-anti-Trump in order to avoid calling out the obscenity of the man himself.


But there’s an even more pertinent parallel further back in American history. Roughly seventy years ago the left’s forebears made precisely the same move when confronted with an overly zealous, demagogic critic of communism. Rather than single out Sen. Joseph McCarthy for hysterical overreach while also acknowledging that communism was a serious threat that demanded vigilance, they instead became anti-anti-communists, elevating “McCarthyism” into the real danger, perhaps even the only danger, and dismissing concerns about communism as a phantom threat…

Left-leaning critics of the ascendant anti-CRT movement like to point out that Critical Race Theory isn’t being taught in schools. Strictly speaking, this is correct, and I’ve made the point myself. CRT is a diffuse academic specialty animating the work of serious scholars across a range of fields, including law, history, and various disciplines in the social sciences. Much of this work is worthwhile and fruitfully provocative in its emphasis on structural dimensions of racial oppression in the past and present. But the suggestion that this scholarship is regularly being taught in K-12 history classes, or even in survey-level courses to undergraduates, is risible…

Others on the left will quietly concede that the past and present of American life is indeed more complicated than the most simple-minded construals of systematic or structural racism imply. Yet they will point out more loudly that conservatives hardly do better at advocating pluralism and complexity in the classroom. On the contrary, they propose and prefer uncritical patriotic homilies like those contained in the report produced by Donald Trump’s “1776 Commission.”

This is certainly true of some on the right. But that’s precisely why the country needs liberal-minded leftists to ally with liberal centrists in taking a stand against the pious simplicities proffered by illiberal ideologues on both extremes. Public schools should be teaching the story of the past and present in a way that foregrounds the admirable as well as the shameful, that shows students how to hold contrary and complex views in their minds at the same time, that highlights our noblest principles as well as our most egregious faults, in the past as well as in the present.  

But that’s not what we’re getting from the left. Instead, we’re seeing savage critiques of the critics of CRT, but almost nothing about the simple-minded counter-homilies that their own allies are proposing. 

10) That said, indeed, let’s be careful here.  Somehow I never read Jamelle Bouie’s 1619 Project essay, and it’s great.  Students need to learn stuff like this.  “America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others.”

The Republican rationale for tilting the field in their permanent favor or, failing that, nullifying the results and limiting Democrats’ power as much as possible, has a familiar ring to it. “Citizens from every corner of Wisconsin deserve a strong legislative branch that stands on equal footing with an incoming administration that is based almost solely in Madison,” one Wisconsin Republican said following the party’s lame-duck power grab. The speaker of the State Assembly, Robin Vos, made his point more explicit. “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority — we would have all five constitutional officers, and we would probably have many more seats in the Legislature.” The argument is straightforward: Some voters, their voters, count. Others — the liberals, black people and other people of color who live in cities — don’t.

Senate Republicans played with similar ideas just before the 2016 election, openly announcing their plans to block Hillary Clinton from nominating anyone to the Supreme Court, should she become president. “I promise you that we will be united against any Supreme Court nominee that Hillary Clinton, if she were president, would put up,” declared Senator John McCain of Arizona just weeks before voting. And President Trump, of course, has repeatedly and falsely denounced Clinton’s popular-vote victory as illegitimate, the product of fraud and illegal voting. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide,” he declared on Twitter weeks after the election, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

The larger implication is clear enough: A majority made up of liberals and people of color isn’t a real majority. And the solution is clear, too: to write those people out of the polity, to use every available tool to weaken their influence on American politics. The recent attempt to place a citizenship question on the census was an important part of this effort. By asking for this information, the administration would suppress the number of immigrant respondents, worsening their representation in the House and the Electoral College, reweighting power to the white, rural areas that back the president and the Republican Party.

You could make the case that none of this has anything to do with slavery and slaveholder ideology. You could argue that it has nothing to do with race at all, that it’s simply an aggressive effort to secure conservative victories. But the tenor of an argument, the shape and nature of an opposition movement — these things matter. The goals may be colorblind, but the methods of action — the attacks on the legitimacy of nonwhite political actors, the casting of rival political majorities as unrepresentative, the drive to nullify democratically elected governing coalitions — are clearly downstream of a style of extreme political combat that came to fruition in the defense of human bondage.

11) Appreciated reading the details of how the Raleigh Zebra Cobra was captured.  

12) Meanwhile a black bear was camped out in a tree near a local hospital and was lured down with doughnuts.  

13) As the parent of an intellectually disabled adult (here we are at the beach last week), I really appreciated former Obama adviser David Axelrod talking about the challenges for parents of intellectually-disabled adults.

14) Really appreciate BB sharing this article on NHL draft pick values with me.  After the first half of the first round, it’s really just a crapshoot.

15) Katherine Wu on the fact that we should not label all breakthrough Covid infections the same.

The first thing to know about the COVID-19 vaccines is that they’re doing exactly what they were designed and authorized to do. Since the shots first started their rollout late last year, rates of COVID-19 disease have taken an unprecedented plunge among the immunized. We are, as a nation, awash in a glut of spectacularly effective vaccines that can, across populations, geographies, and even SARS-CoV-2 variants, stamp out the most serious symptoms of disease.

The second thing to know about the COVID-19 vaccines is that they’re flame retardants, not impenetrable firewalls, when it comes to the coronavirus. Some vaccinated people are still getting infected, and a small subset of these individuals is still getting sick—and this is completely expected.

We’re really, really bad at communicating that second point, which is all about breakthroughs, a concept that has, not entirely accurately, become synonymous with vaccine failure. It’s a problem that goes far beyond semantics: Bungling the messaging around our shots’ astounding success has made it hard to convey the truly minimal risk that the vaccinated face, and the enormous gamble taken by those who eschew the jabs.

The main problem is this. As the CDC defines it, the word breakthrough can refer to any presumed infection by SARS-CoV-2 (that is, any positive coronavirus test) if it’s detected more than two weeks after someone receives the final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. But infections can come with or without symptoms, making the term imprecise. That means breakthroughs writ large aren’t the most relevant metric to use when we’re evaluating vaccines meant primarily to curb symptoms, serious illness, hospitalizations, and death. “Breakthrough disease is what the average person needs to be paying attention to,” Céline Gounder, an infectious-disease physician at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York, told me. Silent, asymptomatic breakthroughs—those that are effectively invisible in the absence of a virus-hunting diagnostic—are simply not in the same league.

16) I would’ve missed this if not for SAM sharing with me.  Profound biotechnological advancement, “Tapping Into the Brain to Help a Paralyzed Man Speak
In a once unimagined accomplishment, electrodes implanted in the man’s brain transmit signals to a computer that displays his words.”

Three years ago, when Pancho, now 38, agreed to work with neuroscience researchers, they were unsure if his brain had even retained the mechanisms for speech.

“That part of his brain might have been dormant, and we just didn’t know if it would ever really wake up in order for him to speak again,” said Dr. Edward Chang, chairman of neurological surgery at University of California, San Francisco, who led the research.

The team implanted a rectangular sheet of 128 electrodes, designed to detect signals from speech-related sensory and motor processes linked to the mouth, lips, jaw, tongue and larynx. In 50 sessions over 81 weeks, they connected the implant to a computer by a cable attached to a port in Pancho’s head, and asked him to try to say words from a list of 50 common ones he helped suggest, including “hungry,” “music” and “computer.”

As he did, electrodes transmitted signals through a form of artificial intelligence that tried to recognize the intended words.

Pancho (who asked to be identified only by his nickname to protect his privacy) also tried to say the 50 words in 50 distinct sentences like “My nurse is right outside” and “Bring my glasses, please” and in response to questions like “How are you today?”

His answer, displayed onscreen: “I am very good.”

In nearly half of the 9,000 times Pancho tried to say single words, the algorithm got it right. When he tried saying sentences written on the screen, it did even better.

By funneling algorithm results through a kind of autocorrect language-prediction system, the computer correctly recognized individual words in the sentences nearly three-quarters of the time and perfectly decoded entire sentences more than half the time.

17) While on vacation I read Andy Weir’s Hall Mary Project.  Loved, loved, loved it!  And, 2/3 of the way through, my 15-year old definitely feels the same.  I love how seriously Weir takes the science.  But, I had a nagging feeling about him not taking language/communication quite seriously enough.  Thus, I loved this essay on that part of the book.  But don’t read this if you think you will be reading the book.

18) Haven’t read much on gut microbiomes lately, so very much appreciated BB sharing this with me, “Gut-microbiota-targeted diets modulate human immune status”


Diet modulates the gut microbiome, which in turn can impact the immune system. Here, we determined how two microbiota-targeted dietary interventions, plant-based fiber and fermented foods, influence the human microbiome and immune system in healthy adults. Using a 17-week randomized, prospective study (n = 18/arm) combined with -omics measurements of microbiome and host, including extensive immune profiling, we found diet-specific effects. The high-fiber diet increased microbiome-encoded glycan-degrading carbohydrate active enzymes (CAZymes) despite stable microbial community diversity. Although cytokine response score (primary outcome) was unchanged, three distinct immunological trajectories in high-fiber consumers corresponded to baseline microbiota diversity. Alternatively, the high-fermented-food diet steadily increased microbiota diversity and decreased inflammatory markers. The data highlight how coupling dietary interventions to deep and longitudinal immune and microbiome profiling can provide individualized and population-wide insight. Fermented foods may be valuable in countering the decreased microbiome diversity and increased inflammation pervasive in industrialized society.

19) I found this “How to Raise Kids Who Won’t Be Racist” essay to be interesting just in the idea that, apparently many people have the idea that ignoring the fact that race is a thing will help your kids be less racism.  Ummmm… no.

Even if we don’t want them to, children do notice differences in race and skin color. And that means that attempts to suppress discussions about race and racism are misguided. Those efforts won’t eliminate prejudice. They may, in fact, make it worse.

So-called colorblind parenting — avoiding the topic of race in an effort to raise children who aren’t prejudiced — is not just unhelpful, it actually perpetuates racism.That’s because racism isn’t driven solely by individual prejudice. It’s a system of inequity bolstered by racist laws and policies — the very fact that opponents of teaching critical race theory are trying to erase…

When children aren’t presented with the context required to understand why our society looks the way it does, “they make up reasons, and a lot of kids make up biased, racist reasons,” said Rebecca Bigler, a developmental psychologist who studies the development of prejudice. Children often start to believe that white people are more privileged because they’re smarter or more powerful, Dr. Bigler says.

Parents should explicitly challenge these wrong assumptions and explain the role of centuries of systemic racism in creating these inequities. Brigitte Vittrup, a psychologist at Texas Woman’s University, and George W. Holden, a psychologist at Southern Methodist University, found that white children whose parents talked with them about race became less prejudiced over time, compared with children whose parents didn’t have such conversations.

Another study co-written by Dr. Bigler found that white children who had learned about racial discrimination had more positive attitudes toward Black people than children who were not exposed to that curriculum. The same researchers later found that classroom discussions about racial discrimination also had a positive impact on Black children.

20) Important research here, “Who is most likely to develop severe COVID-19 even after a second jab?” Answer: older people with serious health conditions.

21) So, is it wrong of me to still talk about gypsy moths? “This Moth’s Name Is a Slur. Scientists Won’t Use It Anymore.”

22) As you know, I’m a big fan of Matt Yglesias and a big fan of Noah Smith.  So I really enjoyed the latter interviewing the former.

This much I know is true?

Way back in my undergraduate days I was kind of into philosophy, but, in the end, too much of it really seemed to be so much “how many angels on the head of a pin” stuff.  But, these days, I’m really fascinated by ongoing debates of epistemology– that is, how we know, what we know.  I think because, at least in the political realm, there was pretty much a substantial consensus on the basic facts of the world in which we live.  But now, that is clearly not so much the case and increasingly a problem.  I really loved this Will Wilkinson post (pretty sure that he, like Yglesias, was a Philosophy major) trying to understand how so many people believe the Q nonsense:

If an individual were to voice belief in this stuff entirely of his own initiative and on his own steam, we’d suspect a loose connection in the noggin. But we don’t think it’s crazy to believe absolutely batshit stuff as long as enough people believe it. Why is that?

I think it’s because we have no choice but to rely on testimony. I’ve never been eye-to-eye with a virus. I think I’ve seen pictures taken through powerful microscopes. I just take it for granted that these microscopes exist, that they’re powerful enough to take snaps of viruses, and that these alleged depictions are what they’re said to be.

It’s trust. I don’t suspect that any of the people involved in the chain of transmission here are making mischief or telling fibs. The idea that there’s a conspiracy to make me falsely believe that there are pictures of viruses does not jibe with my web of belief. So I don’t give it a second thought. I just assume James Madison was real. All the books say so.

The fact is, almost all the general information in your personal web of belief is stuff you read, stuff somebody told you, stuff you saw on TV. Building a relatively accurate mental model of the world doesn’t have all that much to do with your individual reasoning capacity. It’s mostly about trusting and distrusting the right people. [bold is mine; italics is Wilkinson] The problem is that few of us have the capacity to independently assess whether someone, or some institution, or some process, is a reliable source of accurate information. You have to depend on other people to tell you whose testimony you ought to trust. There’s no way around it. The bootstrapping problem here is central the human condition. We can’t get started building a model of the world that encompasses more than our own extremely narrow idiosyncratic experience unless, at some point, we simply take somebody’s word for it.

It’s easy to see how, if you start out trusting to wrong people, you can get trapped in a bubble. If you start out trusting the wrong people, they’ll tell you to trust other unreliable people, who in turn will tell you to trust unreliable methods. Worse, they’ll tell you to distrust thetrustworthy people spreading the word about the genuinely illuminating results of reliable knowledge-gathering methods. You won’t be listening to the people you ought to be listening to. It’s a problem that comes for most of us, sooner or later. That’s why ideology tends to be self-insulating; it functions as a heuristic for grading the trustworthiness of testimony…

Now, I’ve come to think that people who really care about getting things right are a bit misguided when they focus on methods of rational cognition. I’m thinking of the so-called “rationalist” community here. If you want an unusually high-fidelity mental model of the world, the main thing isn’t probability theory or an encyclopedic knowledge of the heuristics and biases that so often make our reasoning go wrong. It’s learning who to trust. That’s really all there is to it. That’s the ballgame.

But that’s a lot easier said than done. I can’t use my expertise in macroeconomics to identify which macroeconomists we ought to trust most, because I have no expertise in macroeconomics. I’m going to have to rely on people who understand the subject better than I do to tell me who to trust. But then who do I trust to tell me who to trust?

It’s really not so hard. In any field, there are a bunch of people at the top of the game who garner near-universal deference. Trusting those people is an excellent default. On any subject, you ought to trust the people who have the most training and spend the most time thinking about that subject, especially those who are especially well-regarded by the rest of these people. This suggests a useful litmus test for the reliability of generalists who professionally sort wheat from chaff and present themselves as experts in expert identification — people like Malcolm Gladwell or, say, me. Do they usually hew close to the consensus view of a field’s leading, most authoritative figures? That may be boring, but it’s a good sign that you can count on them when they talk about subjects you know less well…

I don’t care how smart you think you are. It’s dangerous out there, especially if you have an Internet connection. Be careful who you trust. Tune that bullshit detector. Eschew iconoclasts and ideologues. Agree with the respectable consensus. Be a model citizen. And if you get a chance, stick up for maligned yet generally reliable sources of information. Stick up for your local critical race theorist. Stick up for the New York Times. If those suggestions make you stiffen, consider the possibility that you have trust issues.

Good, thought-provoking stuff.  Is science and scientific consensus wrong sometimes?  Absolutely!  But it’s still the best we’ve got.  Yes, science can lead us astray (from phlogiston to aether to lobotomies to primarily droplet spread of respiratory viruses), but, all else being equal, it sure beats the alternative.  And, yes, expert consensus can very much be wrong, but its almost always going to beat the alternative.  

I’m an independent-minded conformist

Enjoyed this essay from Paul Graham that has a typology of conformism and ideas on how to cultivate more independent thinking.  It was thought-provoking, in part, because I don’t actually feel like I fit into this typology.  In some ways I’m very much an independent thinker, and, in others, quite the conformist.  Anyway:

There are some kinds of work that you can’t do well without thinking differently from your peers. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough just to be correct. Your ideas have to be both correct and novel. You can’t publish papers saying things other people already know. You need to say things no one else has realized yet.

The same is true for investors. It’s not enough for a public market investor to predict correctly how a company will do. If a lot of other people make the same prediction, the stock price will already reflect it, and there’s no room to make money. The only valuable insights are the ones most other investors don’t share.

You see this pattern with startup founders too. You don’t want to start a startup to do something that everyone agrees is a good idea, or there will already be other companies doing it. You have to do something that sounds to most other people like a bad idea, but that you know isn’t — like writing software for a tiny computer used by a few thousand hobbyists, or starting a site to let people rent airbeds on strangers’ floors.

Ditto for essayists. An essay that told people things they already knew would be boring. You have to tell them something new.

But this pattern isn’t universal. In fact, it doesn’t hold for most kinds of work. In most kinds of work — to be an administrator, for example — all you need is the first half. All you need is to be right. It’s not essential that everyone else be wrong.

There’s room for a little novelty in most kinds of work, but in practice there’s a fairly sharp distinction between the kinds of work where it’s essential to be independent-minded, and the kinds where it’s not.

Interesting… and yet.  I’m many things, among them a reasonably successful academic social scientist.  What I’m pretty sure I’m not, though, is much of a novel thinker.  I definitely get some good ideas, but I’m really not sure how novel they are.  Mostly, they are modest extensions of truly novel ideas from more novel thinkers.

I’m also very much against mindless conformism, but, also think that, much of the time, there’s real value in just going along.  All that said, I think Graham’s ideas for cultivating more independent-minded thinking are good:

Can you make yourself more independent-minded? I think so. This quality may be largely inborn, but there seem to be ways to magnify it, or at least not to suppress it.

One of the most effective techniques is one practiced unintentionally by most nerds: simply to be less aware what conventional beliefs are. It’s hard to be a conformist if you don’t know what you’re supposed to conform to. Though again, it may be that such people already are independent-minded. A conventional-minded person would probably feel anxious not knowing what other people thought, and make more effort to find out.

It matters a lot who you surround yourself with. If you’re surrounded by conventional-minded people, it will constrain which ideas you can express, and that in turn will constrain which ideas you have. But if you surround yourself with independent-minded people, you’ll have the opposite experience: hearing other people say surprising things will encourage you to, and to think of more.

I actually feel like I’m a conventional-minded person that really enjoys surrouding myself with creative, independent-minded thinker.  I’ve always felt like I’m hopelessly inside the box and really appreciated being exposed to people who see the world differently.  But, in this formulation, conventional people probably don’t actually like doing this.

And I found this part about habits of mind, quite interesting:

The second component of independent-mindedness, resistance to being told what to think, is the most visible of the three. But even this is often misunderstood. The big mistake people make about it is to think of it as a merely negative quality. The language we use reinforces that idea. You’re unconventional. You don’t care what other people think. But it’s not just a kind of immunity. In the most independent-minded people, the desire not to be told what to think is a positive force. It’s not mere skepticism, but an active delight in ideas that subvert the conventional wisdom, the more counterintuitive the better.

Some of the most novel ideas seemed at the time almost like practical jokes. Think how often your reaction to a novel idea is to laugh. I don’t think it’s because novel ideas are funny per se, but because novelty and humor share a certain kind of surprisingness. But while not identical, the two are close enough that there is a definite correlation between having a sense of humor and being independent-minded — just as there is between being humorless and being conventional-minded. [9]

I don’t think we can significantly increase our resistance to being told what to think. It seems the most innate of the three components of independent-mindedness; people who have this quality as adults usually showed all too visible signs of it as children. But if we can’t increase our resistance to being told what to think, we can at least shore it up, by surrounding ourselves with other independent-minded people.

The third component of independent-mindedness, curiosity, may be the most interesting. To the extent that we can give a brief answer to the question of where novel ideas come from, it’s curiosity. That’s what people are usually feeling before having them.

In my experience, independent-mindedness and curiosity predict one another perfectly. Everyone I know who’s independent-minded is deeply curious, and everyone I know who’s conventional-minded isn’t. Except, curiously, children. All small children are curious. Perhaps the reason is that even the conventional-minded have to be curious in the beginning, in order to learn what the conventions are. Whereas the independent-minded are the gluttons of curiosity, who keep eating even after they’re full.

Firstly, there’s pretty much no independent concepts that actually predict each other perfectly.  Curiosity and independent-mindedness really are different things.  Anyway, out of all this, speculation on the topic, one think I know for sure about myself (and you probably know about me from just reading my blog) is that I am deeply curious.  I don’t think that alone does make me independent-minded, but it does probably counteract my more innate conformist nature.  I sure do love being deeply curious and I recommend it!

Anyway, like I said, definitely a thought-provoking essay for me.  Would love to hear how it struck any of you.

Why is facebook’s algorithm so bad?!

Just something I’ve been meaning to white about for a while.  On occassion, FB will decide to show me something of clear and strong interest to me literally days after it was posted.  For example, good friend recently posted first-day-of-school photos of her cute kids.  Pretty sure I “like” every photo I ever see of her cute kids.  And it shows me three days later?!  A wedding I have been invited to was recently canceled on FB (well, the big indoor celebration was canceled) and, again, three days later?!  And it’s not like I went three days without using FB.  I check multiple times every day (yeah, I know).  Anyway, I get that there may be some things that are hard to tell, but why it would hold off first day of school photos, wedding changes, or heck, any photos of my niece and nephew for literally days is absolutely beyond me.  Are they just too busy spreading Russian propaganda or something to do this right?  

Time to update my photo?

So, just going through my FB memories for today and I came up with this gem from 7 years ago exactly?  It should look familiar– it’s the basis for my WordPress avatar photo.  Bet you didn’t realize I had my daughter on my back.  I should probably update this because, I think this photo is giving people the idea I’m about 7 years younger than I actually am.

Speak up!

But not too much.  And then quiet back down.  Tim Herrera with a really nice piece on the importance of “paralanguage” on effective communication.  I cannot say I spend a lot of time consciously thinking about changing my tone and volume when teaching.  But I am aware that do a lot of it for emphasis and that it really matters.  Herrera:


Believe me?

O.K., I’m sorry, that was a cheap trick. But new research suggests that when we’re trying to seem persuasive, the volume of our words — when vocalized, of course — can have an outsize impact.

Does that mean you should shout when you’re trying to seem more persuasive? No, of course not. But according to a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, you can come off as more persuasive by speaking slightly louder than you normally do, and by varying the overall volume of your voice (i.e., speaking both more loudly and softly).

The effect isn’t quite as dramatic as giving you unholy levels of persuasive power. But it will make you appear more confident when you speak, which has a positive impact on your overall persuasiveness, according to the study.

“Every time we interact with someone, we’re trying to figure out how much they know about what they’re saying, how knowledgeable they are, how confident they seem,” said Jonah Berger, an associate professor of marketing at Wharton and a co-author of the study. “We found that these cues in particular” — the ones related to speaking volume — “made speakers seem more confident, which made them more persuasive overall.”

Humans have something of a built-in anti-persuasion radar, what psychologists call reactance, Mr. Berger said. When someone tries to persuade us, we sometimes push back because we don’t want to be persuaded. We can tell from the words being used, the context and other cues that someone is trying to influence us. “An incoming appeal comes in, someone tries to persuade us, we put up our radar to knock down the projectile,” Mr. Berger said. “We turn off the ad, we hang up on the salesperson, we counterargue against what someone is saying.”

However, we tend to look at speakers who vary their volume as more confident, which translates into an increase in their persuasiveness, according to the study.

In other words: If you’re trying to persuade your roommate to do the dishes, try speaking up a bit.

The core issue here is the influence — both conscious and nonconscious — that paralanguage, or how we say things, has on our perception of others. It’s “not something most people are aware of,” Mr. Berger said.

In conversations, “we spend a lot of time thinking about what we’re going to say, and we spend some time thinking about what our partner is saying,” Mr. Berger said. “We allocate a lot less attention to how we’re saying what we’re saying.” But how we say things can be significant: Whether the listener recognizes changes in paralanguage, and whether the speaker intentionally changes his or her voice, the effect paralanguage has on the listener can happen regardless.

Mr. Berger also said it’s not just those voice inflections that matter in persuasion; being physically present — as opposed to, say, writing a text or sending an email — can also have an enormous impact.

At the risk of being immodest, I think the fact that I have largely internalized this approach to public speaking is one of the reasons I am a good teacher.  And, honestly, I think this pretty much goes for all good teaching and public speaking.  And, heck, interpersonal communication in general.  And, of course, that’s why when it is really important to be understood, it is worth the phone call or in-person meeting (though I do take great pride in the perfectly-worded email).

Quick hits

Sorry this is really late and that I’ve been such a bad blogger, but somebody has got to make sure that the AP American Government test scores reflect college-level learning.

1) Sure I’m a feminist, but I also believe in (appropriately-regulated) markets and markets simply value mediocre male athletes (the US Men’s soccer team) more than amazing female athletes (the US Women’s soccer team).  So, I’m not a big fan of the pay equity campaign (the men’s poor international performance brings in way more dollars to US Soccer than the women’s terrific international performance.  But Sally Jenkins raises some good economic arguments (though I’m not entirely convinced):

I also don’t want to hear another word about the bigger size of revenue in the men’s World Cup. You think American networks and corporations are paying large rights fees and sponsorship deals for a USA men’s team that couldn’t even qualify for the World Cup field and hasn’t won an Olympic medal since 1904? You think Fox and ESPN got into a bidding war for the English language rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups all for a men’s squad that gets whipped by Venezuela?…

You think Nike committed $120 million to U.S. Soccer back in 1997 because of a men’s team that finished 10th in the Atlanta Olympics with a 1-1-1 record? Or do you think the company’s interest had something to do, just maybe, with Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy and Michelle Akers commanding an audience of 90,000 at the Rose Bowl and 40 million on TV?

2) A lot more research needs to be done, but pretty interesting that the negative health consequences of ultra-processed foods may be through the impact on the microbiome.

3) Really enjoyed Hans Noel’s book review essay on making sense of all the recent, excellent, research on partisanship and ideology.

Recent debates over partisan polarization in the mass public have foundered on differing conceptions not only of ideology but of polarization. There are at least five things that could be thought of as polarization on a variable like ideology. People could be (1) further apart on some continuum or (2) more likely to be at the extremes of that continuum. (3) That continuum might more accurately separate people of different groups, say party identifiers. (4) There might be increased constraint across many items.1 (5) And people on either half of the continuum might be more likely to dislike the people on the other half.

Kinder and Kalmoe test for the first two conceptions in the ideological identity variable. Like with most work on this subject, they do not find much. But it is types 3, 4, and especially 5 that the other three books highlight. This last, affective polarization, or increased tribalism, is really central to the insights of all three arguments.

Once we start to distinguish operational from symbolic ideology, the meanings of these notions of polarization change. On an operational measure, being further apart implies more extreme policy positions, and increased constraint implies a more meaningful ideological measure. But symbolically, increased distance means at most that more people are embracing the terms.

Meanwhile, for the operational measure, it might be interesting to find affective polarization. That would imply an increased intolerance of those who simply disagree with us. But that is not what these books find. They find that it is identity and worldviews and ways of thinking that drive intolerance, not mere disagreement.

4) OMG these incels are nuts.  The really disturbing story of one who shot up a Florida yoga studio.  Of course, only in America do these people have such easy access to guns.

5) There’s lots of good reasons that electric buses have not taken over the world:

If you want to buy an electric bus, you need to buy into an entire electric bus system. The vehicle is just the start.

The number one thing people seem to forget about electric buses is that they need to get charged. “We talk to many different organizations that get so fixated on the vehicles,” says Camron Gorguinpour, the global senior manager for the electric vehicles at the World Resources Institute, a research organization, which last month released twin reports on electric bus adoption. “The actual charging stations get lost in the mix.”

But charging stations are expensive—about $50,000 for your standard depot-based one. On-route charging stations, an appealing option for longer bus routes, can be two or three times that. And that’s not even counting construction costs. Or the cost of new land: In densely packed urban centers, movements inside bus depots can be tightly orchestrated to accommodate parking and fueling. New electric bus infrastructure means rethinking limited space. And it’s a particular pain when agencies are transitioning between diesel and electric buses. “The big issue is just maintaining two sets of fueling infrastructure,” says Hanjiro Ambrose, a doctoral student at UC Davis who studies transportation technology and policy.

6) Always had a particular fascination with pro-life Democratic Congressman Dan Lipinski, as I knew him back when he was a political science graduate student.

Her congressman is Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of the last remaining anti-abortion Democrats in the House. He has voted to defund health clinics that offer abortion services, and to ban abortions at 20 weeks. He opposed the Affordable Care Act and its mandate that employers cover birth control. He speaks at the annual March for Life and attends fundraisers for anti-abortion groups

This will be one of the most competitive Democratic primaries in 2020. And already, Newman is encountering some roadblocks. Though the district leans heavily Democratic, the national party has erected rules to protect incumbents like Lipinski. Newman says she can’t find a pollster who will work for her. Four political consultants have left her campaign because of a policy, made public in April, that the official campaign arm for House Democrats won’t do business with political vendors — like direct mail companies or political consultants — that also work for candidates challenging incumbent Democrats. Party superstars like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez oppose the rule; she also managed to topple an incumbent in a primary challenge. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee isn’t budging.

7) Seem crazy that there are still people out there who would argue that IQ is actually tied to melanin levels in skin rather than the dramatic environmental differences in the lives of white and Black people.  But, Drum is on the case.  Here’s his summary:

I hope this makes sense. You can draw your own conclusions, but my take from all this is that (a) the short time since humans migrated to Europe doesn’t allow much scope for big genetic changes between Africans and Europeans, (b) it’s clear that environment can have a very large effect on IQ scores, and (c) anyone who thinks the marginalization of African Americans isn’t a big enough effect to account for 10-15 points of IQ is crazy. There are counterarguments to all my points, and none of this “proves” that there can’t possibly be genetic differences between blacks and whites that express themselves in noticeable differences in cognitive abilities. But I sure think it’s very unlikely.

8) Brendan Nyhan on some new research.  Kind of like that whole “A million dead Russians…”

9) When you look at the big picture of how our world spends our resources while kids are starving and malnourished, it really is unconscionable and indefensible.  Kristof:

Nutrition programs are extremely cheap. often among the most cost-effective ways to fight global poverty.

School feeding programs promote education as well as nutrition, and cost just 25 cents per child per meal. Deworming costs about 50 cents per child per year to improve both nutrition and health, yet pets in the U.S. are more likely to be dewormed than children in many other places.

As Mia noted in a separate article, one nutrition initiative could save up to 800,000 lives a year and requires no electricity, refrigeration or high technology. It’s simply support for breast-feeding.

Fortifying foods with iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin A is transformative. Ensuring that children are screened for malnutrition and promptly helped with supplements that are similar to peanut butter is fairly straightforward. Yet malnourished children aren’t a priority, so kids are stunted in ways that will hold back our world for many decades to come.

If some distant planet sends foreign correspondents to Earth, they will be baffled that we allow almost one child in four to be stunted, even as we indulge in gold leaf cupcakes, $1,000 sundaes and half-million-dollar bottles of wine.

10) This was a really interesting article on Achilles Tendon injuries.  And Kevin Durant’s in particular.

11) Oh man was this a depressing article. South Korea’s got some work to do.  “An Overloaded Ferry Flipped and Drowned Hundreds of Schoolchildren. Could It Happen Again? South Korea promised to root out a culture that put profit ahead of safety. But cheating and corruption continue to endanger travelers.”

12) Of course Trump has a third-grade level response to flag burning.

President Trump is “all in” for a constitutional amendment banning desecration of the American flag, he said in an early-morning tweet Saturday, backing an effort by two Republican senators.

To commemorate Flag Day — which also happens to be Trump’s birthday — Sens. Steve Daines (Mont.) and Kevin Cramer (N.D.) introduced the amendment Friday.

“All in for Senator Steve Daines as he proposes an Amendment for a strong BAN on burning our American Flag. A no brainer!” Trump tweeted.

This isn’t a new position for the president, who a few weeks after the 2016 election tweeted: “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag — if they do, there must be consequences — perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!”

The Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that flag burning was protected by the First Amendment after a protester was convicted of burning an American flag outside the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas. The following year, the nation’s highest court reaffirmed its ruling when it struck down legislation passed by Congress to make flag burning illegal.

13) I took a little too much pleasure in the fact that I already knew about Chronic Wasting Disease which is a prion disease (like “Mad Cow”) that affects deer.  I take no pleasure in learning about it’s scary spread and really scary potential to infect new species.

14) This was a really, really interesting way of looking at the work of doctors and nurses, “The Business of Health Care Depends on Exploiting Doctors and Nurses: One resource seems infinite and free: the professionalism of caregivers.”

Increasingly, though, I’ve come to the uncomfortable realization that this ethic that I hold so dear is being cynically manipulated. By now, corporate medicine has milked just about all the “efficiency” it can out of the system. With mergers and streamlining, it has pushed the productivity numbers about as far as they can go. But one resource that seems endless — and free — is the professional ethic of medical staff members.

This ethic holds the entire enterprise together. If doctors and nurses clocked out when their paid hours were finished, the effect on patients would be calamitous. Doctors and nurses know this, which is why they don’t shirk. The system knows it, too, and takes advantage.

The demands on medical professionals have escalated relentlessly in the past few decades, without a commensurate expansion of time and resources. For starters, patients are sicker these days. The medical complexity per patient — the number and severity of chronic conditions — has steadily increased, meaning that medical encounters are becoming ever more involved. They typically include more illnesses to treat, more medications to administer, more complications to handle — all in the same-length office or hospital visit.

15) Pretty cool interactive quiz on the most effective steps for reducing carbon emissions.  Some of the answers might really surprise you.

16) Not at all surprising that the world works this way, “Unattractive people are less likely to get into medical school, Duke study says”

The study found that people who were obese or facially unattractive were discriminated against in the application process, according to Duke Health.

Researchers randomly assigned names and demographic information to 76 photos selected to represent different levels of facial attractiveness and obesity.

They then randomized other factors such as test scores, grades and class rank to each photo so that each application reviewer had a different combination of academic factors with every photo, Duke Health said.

They gave the fake residency applications to 74 faculty members at five different radiology departments to score the applicants, according to the study.

The reviewers were unaware they weren’t real applicants, Duke Health said.

Researchers found that applicants who appeared obese or unattractive in the photos were clearly discriminated against, according to the study.

17) Interesting essay on how charter schools have failed to live up their promise (though, obviously, some individual charter schools and networks are amazing).

Finally, charters have not produced the systemic improvement promised by their boosters. Theoretically, the introduction of charters and choice would force all schools to get better to maintain enrollment. But schools can attract students for reasons other than superior quality, and the obsession with securing per-pupil funding has in many cases been a distraction from the work of educating students. As a senior official for the pro-charter Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce recently observed: “We’ve turned education into a commodity — if that kid walks across the street, you’re chasing after him for the money attached to his seat. That’s ridiculous if you think about the long term.”

Meanwhile, as the big promises about charters have remained unfulfilled, real costs have been accruing. According to school finance expert Bruce Baker, the expansion of charters has weakened traditional public schools and created inefficiencies like duplicative administrative costs. Increased competition has led to many schools, charter and otherwise, closing down — an outcome that Robert Slavin of Johns Hopkins University has called “very damaging to kids.” And in places like New Orleans, where traditional public schools have been almost entirely replaced by charters, residents have expressed frustration with unelected and unrepresentative governing boards that routinely violate state transparency laws.

In light of these shortcomings, the long-running consensus that has sustained the charter movement has begun to unravel. That isn’t because charter schools have suddenly gotten worse. If anything, leaders in the sector have learned something over the past 25 years, and standardized scores have improved over time. Instead, it’s because the promised future has failed to materialize.

18) Of course, if we did more to help people create sustainable lives in Central America, they’d have far less incentive to try and migrate here.  Of course, just try telling Donald Trump we want to spend money to help foreigners.

19) Really quite enjoyed Netflix’s “I am Mother.”

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