Monday, January 19, 2015

Richard Feynman on

Physicist Richard Feynman had a great criticism of social science, saying that they reach conclusions with an insufficiently small amount of work and a large amount of speculation.

There is all kind of myths and pseudoscience all over the place. Now I might be quite wrong, maybe they do know all these things but I don’t think I’m wrong. You see I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to know something, how careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something and therefore I can’t…I see how they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it. They haven’t done the work necessary, haven’t done the checks necessary, haven’t done the care necessary. I have a great suspicion that they don’t know.

The obvious thing my mind runs to is economics. I think of economics as a science, but with many issues still undecided. We have a great understanding of Pigovian taxes, but far less certainty on how to stop a depression. The lesson here isn't to abandon the social sciences, but to take their conclusions with a dose of skepticism.

This isn't anything new, of course. That was the subject of Friedrich Hayek's 1974 Nobel Lecture, titled The Pretense of Knowledge.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Scott Alexander rescued the "nice guy" concept

About five years ago I encountered the idea of the evil "Nice Guy™". I'm not sure which essay started the whole thing, it could have been this one but I'm not sure. The basic concept was a male author was criticizing women for falling for jerks and rejecting good but shy partners. 

I read it and didn't see anything wrong with the argument, then it was pointed out to me that the author expects women to make the first move towards timid men.

Critics portrayed the essay as saying that self-described nice guys were actually vile men who expected sex for women as an exchange for treating them in a normal fashion. Legitimate nice guys are spelled out in lowercase, while the evil ones are called Nice Guys™.

But when I read it I saw someone who doesn't understand female attraction. I believe women are attracted to confidence and a take-charge attitude. They don't want to make the first move; they want to feel desired and swept up the romantic display. What the author needed was a better approach, not sensitivity training.

Still, it gave the term "nice guy" a dark aura for me, the way men who promise they will be a "perfect gentlemen" always seem to be grabby creeps and I now refuse to use the term.

Well, Scott Alexander has saved the term singlehandidly with a long but brilliant and well-paced blog post. He describes a man named Henry who is a serial abuser of women who has been married five times and used violence against all of them.

When I was younger – and I mean from teeanger hood all the way until about three years ago – I was a nice guy. In fact, I’m still a nice guy at heart, I just happen to mysteriously have picked up girlfriends. And I said the same thing as every other nice guy, which is “I am a nice guy, how come girls don’t like me?” 
There seems to be some confusion about this, so let me explain what it means, to everyone, for all time. 
It does not mean “I am nice in some important cosmic sense, therefore I am entitled to sex with whomever I want.” 
It means: “I am a nicer guy than Henry.” 
Or to spell it out very carefully, Henry clearly has no trouble with women. He has been married five times and had multiple extra-marital affairs and pre-marital partners, many of whom were well aware of his past domestic violence convictions and knew exactly what they were getting into. Meanwhile, here I was, twenty-five years old, never been on a date in my life, every time I ask someone out I get laughed at, I’m constantly teased and mocked for being a virgin and a nerd whom no one could ever love, starting to develop a serious neurosis about it. 
And here I was, tried my best never to be mean to anyone, gave to charity, pursuing a productive career, worked hard to help all of my friends. I didn’t think I deserved to have the prettiest girl in school prostrate herself at my feet. But I did think I deserved to not be doing worse than Henry...

I don’t think I ever claimed to be, or felt, entitled to anything. Just wanted to know why it was that people like Henry could get five wives and I couldn’t get a single date..

Henry has four domestic violence charges against him by his four ex-wives and is cheating on his current wife with one of those ex-wives. And as soon as he gets out of the psychiatric hospital where he was committed for violent behavior against women and maybe serves the jail sentence he has pending for said behavior, he is going to find another girlfriend approximately instantaneously.

Exactly. That's exactly how I felt growing up, before I lost weight and started exercising confidence.

Alexander's point in the post is that whenever shy nerds like himself complain about their lack of romantic luck they are bombarded with claims of being the evil Nice Guys™ and not actual nice guys. These criticisms come from the social justice pit of the Internet, which is known for its vulgar hyperbolic scorched-earth rhetoric.

In a recent follow-up post, Alexander expands on that subject of online feminists bullying shy male nerds.

When feminists say that the market failure for young women is caused by slut-shaming, I stop slut-shaming, and so do most other decent people. 
When men say that the market failure for young men is caused by nerd-shaming, feminists write dozens of very popular articles called things like “On Nerd Entitlement”.
The reason that my better nature thinks that it’s irrelevant whether or not Penny’s experience growing up was better or worse than Aaronson’s: when someone tells you that something you are doing is making their life miserable, you don’t lecture them about how your life is worse, even if it’s true. You STOP DOING IT.

Alexander very carefully documented his examples of prominent feminist blogs kicking shy male nerds when they try to lift their faces out of the dirt, labeling them as scum and accusing them of every vile thing possible. This is not an example of idiot hunting. There really is a reactionary social justice mentality that crushes innocent, gentle male nerds whenever they try to voice a complaint. Some of them really are nice guys.

Hat tip to Bryan Caplan for the link.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Rational behavior and perfect information

Zach Weinersmith, author of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, continues to pump out the best web comic for academic economic jokes. Not just jokes about economics, but occasionally jokes defending economics as a discipline.

This recent strip lampoons educated folks who insist economics is flawed because it assumes human beings are rational. Here's the link.

My usual response to this line is that human beings are indeed rational, but only up to a point. No one insists that human beings are perfectly rational, but at the same time they are not completely irrational.

For example, say you had a store that sold two similar types of food at similar prices and customers bought them at about the same rate, say $1 hamburgers and $1 hot dogs. If suddenly you raised the price on one of the items to be 100 times that of the other, you would expect a shift in sales. Sales of the inflated item would fall, perhaps to zero.

If you want to hold the view that humans are not rational, then you would have to believe that purchases habits would not be affected in any way by that large price increase. There is a rich discussion about whether economics deserves to be called a science or not, but when someone denies economics has any credibility at all they are assuming that half of those customers would eat $100 hamburgers instead of $1 hot dogs.

On a similar note, opponents of markets and mainstream economics claim that markets only function where there is perfect information. That's obviously false, as the important concept of price signals only makes sense in markets with imperfect information, but what is the alternative to markets? Government action, and all governments operate with imperfect information.

Yet, many anti-market advocates assume that the government will have perfect information.

Weinersmith's comic is not focused on economics, but it does visit the subject often. See here, here, here, here, here and here for a taste. The first time I read this one I thought the joke was at the expense of economists, but Mike Munger got me to consider that philosophers were the ones being ridiculed, and this earlier parallel comic on engineers proved it.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The shadow work behind your supper

Mother Jones printed an article I agree with that wasn't written by Kevin Drum.

This doesn't happen very often, so let's go into more detail. It's a few years old, but it's new to me. In the piece, Tom Philpott challenges the idea that cooking at home is cheaper than eating fast food.

First, a little background information. Poor Americans are more likely to be overweight, and one explanation is that they lack access to healthy foods and buy fast food because it is easier to get and costs less money. I don't buy that explanation, but I've never found the counter-argument compelling either; that it's cheaper to cook at home than to eat fast food.

The New York Times printed a column and infographic by Mark Bittman showing a hypothetical McDonald's meal and contrasting it to a meat and potatoes meal at home. According to Bittman, the home-cooked meal is both cheaper and healthier.

But Philpott noticed a key difference: One is a prepared meal, ready to eat, while the other is just the raw ingredients.

But what about the time it takes to plan the dinner, shop for the ingredients, transform them into a meal, and then clean up the resulting mess? 
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) tells us that the median hourly income in the United States is $16.27. Let's say it takes two hours to put the Times' meal together and clean up afterward—for the median US worker, that's about $32 worth of labor. VoilĂ ! Our chicken dinner now costs around $46. Suddenly, that $28 Mickey D's excursion looks like quite the bargain. 

Here's what I saw as Philpott's first flaw in the article: His $16.27 an hour figure is for a median hourly worker, but that's not a valid figure for a poor person. Their time will be worth significantly less. Let's forgive his poor choice of numbers and instead look at this as an opportunity cost issue.

Cooking for one's family is an example of shadow work, or unpaid labor that could otherwise be performed by a middleman. Without trying to put a specific dollar amount on it, people's time does indeed have value. They may be extremely busy and lack the time to cook a full meal, or see it as wasteful. There may be other things they want to do with their time.

Despite what Philpott says, the family who gets take -out is not leveraging "the fast-food industry's cheap labor pool for a fuss-free meal." No, they are leveraging the economies of scale that comes from purchased food, as opposed to cooking it at home in a small-scale operation that frequently ends with extra perishable ingredients and may have to throw them out.

While I don't agree with the details Philpott used, his overall idea is correct that preparing cooked foods and raw ingredients will always be an apples and oranges comparison.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Can a major university get free speech right?

Colleges and universities are absolutely horrible over free speech matters. This includes speech codes, protest restrictions, hurt-feelings protections and lately, submitting to close-minded students who want to ban visiting lecturers, entertainment acts and graduation speakers with messages they don't like.

It's sad, really. Free speech really is being pushed out of university's, even though university's will pat themselves on the back over and over and dub themselves champions of free speech.

Well, kudos to the University of Chicago for taking a stand against this trend. Here are some excerpts from a new statement the university has released.

President Hanna Holborn Gray observed that “education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”

...Of course, the ideas of different members of the University community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.  
...As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression, members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

By the way, here's what a violation of that last paragraph looks like. When you're pulling a fire alarm to keep a speaker from being heard, or physically barring the doors of an assembly hall, you are an enemy of free speech. It is the duty of the university to thwart those activities and protect the rights of people who want to hear ideas.

Let's hope the University of Chicago lives up to the great platitudes expressed here.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

You are right, but for even better reasons than you think

John Herrman's list of 2015 predictions is worth your time checking out. Here are some highlights.

It will be declared problematic to call things or people “stupid.” This one’s been coming for a while, and it’s finally time. Unlike empathetic identity-based problematicals, this one will serve only the powerful. Its enforcers will disingenuously adopt the language of social justice.

I almost agree. I don't think there's anything disingenuous about people who adopt the language of social justice for silly causes. I think they are entirely sincere but are simply off the rails.

There will be a backlash not against podcasts but against the podcasting voice, which is really an extension of Ira Glass voice [30 seconds of post-rock] which is a mutation of NPR voice.

As someone in the process of starting a podcast, I say good. I want to hear people speak their minds, not hushed tones carefully pronounced in a yuppie log cabin.

My absolute favorite out of the bunch is this pessimistic view of intellectual discourse articles.

No human, for the entirety of 2015, will be convinced of anything but his own rightness by any “explainer” site. They will become extremely popular, fully stocked with “Perfect Response” and “Reasons Why” posts that are first and foremost affirming to the reader, and secondarily intended to demonstrate the rightness and virtue of the sharer. One high-growth post-type in 2015: “You’re Right, But For Even Better Reasons Than You Think.”

We've already seen a growth in How To Win Thanksgiving Arguments posts, written for the family members that everyone dreads seeing during the holidays. Not for a response to the dreaded family member, mind you, but for them to read and recite.

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen for the link.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

USA Today was right to print editorial defending Islamic violence

People are going off the rails that USA Today printed an editorial claiming the massacre of a French satirical newspaper was justified by the Quran, and the fault lies on the French government for not censoring the paper's blasphemous images of the prophet Mohammed.

People, you just don't get it.

Washington Post blogger Radley Balko voiced a typical response to the editorial criticizing USA Today for running it. That's what drew it to my attention and while I read the editorial, I thought it was written by the Washington Post editorial staff and they were complete fools. Look at this excerpt:

The truth is that Western governments are content to sacrifice liberties and freedoms when being complicit to torture and rendition — or when restricting the freedom of movement of Muslims, under the guise of protecting national security. 
So why in this case did the French government allow the magazine Charlie Hebdo to continue to provoke Muslims, thereby placing the sanctity of its citizens at risk?

Then I got to the bottom and saw it was a guest editorial written by Anjem Choudary, the radical British Imam I've heard about for years from Pat Condell.

Well, that's completely difference.

USA Today did the world a favor by letting us see exactly what we're up against, and how crazy and perverse radical Islam is. Anjem Choudary doesn't speak for all Muslims, even the violent radicals, but he does speak for some Muslims. Look at this gem he wrote, presumably in blood:

Contrary to popular misconception, Islam does not mean peace but rather means submission to the commands of Allah alone. Therefore, Muslims do not believe in the concept of freedom of expression, as their speech and actions are determined by divine revelation and not based on people's desires.

Isn't that worth knowing? Shouldn't you be aware that some Muslims truly believes Islam needs to conquer the world, not as a response to the west's foreign policy decisions, but because of divine right? It doesn't tell us how widespread the view is, but now we know it's not zero. Don't you want to know that? Thanks to USA Today, you now do.