20/05/2013 § 1 Comment
The Dominion Post runs a science column by Bob Brockie, who briefly introduces readers to new findings or key ideas from the world of science. It’s a nice addition to the newspaper, better than the scandale du jour that passes for journalism, even if he has the annoying habit of speaking ex cathedra.
Monday, though, he got up my nose [no link -- sorry -- stuff.co.nz doesn't actually want you to find anything easily]. He was discussing the new DSM-5, which has courted controversy by redefining psychological pathologies. We are all — well, half of us — apparently in need of treatment by the very people who decide whether we need treatment.
In his brief history of the DSM, Brockie said that psychology moved away from Freud to science. The meaning of this is clear: there is real, true knowledge that is produced through science, and then there’s all that other stuff that people believe without it actually being true, and that’s where Freud (and by extension, Lacan) belongs.
There are two enormous problems with this. The first is that this statement is glaring proof of the social production of scientific knowledge. I’d venture to guess that Brockie has not actually studied Freud, and has little knowledge of the split between Freudian psychotherapy and Anglo-American psychology. What he knows is likely to be what he’s been told, the stories he’s heard along the way. Science proceeds not only ‘funeral by funeral’ but clique by clique, lunch table by lunch table. Waving the ‘Freud’s not science’ flag isn’t so much a statement of fact but a not-so-secret handshake that marks him as one of gang.
And what a gang it is. They are in charge of funding, and funding allows science research. That’s the second problem with Brockie’s statement. They’ll say they want investigator-led research; they’ll say they want to give researchers the ability to follow their curiosity and investigate all manner of topics, regardless of where they might lead. The truth is, they are perfectly happy to strangle research in the crib if they don’t like it.
I know this, because they have strangled mine, repeatedly, while intoning ancient rites of scientific concern. They have just done the same to novel research proposed by a friend and colleague. We can show the theoretical basis for the work, we can demonstrate the linkages to international peer-reviewed literature, we can link the primary research to the hypothesis — we can do all the things these quartermasters of science demand. And then, they say that it isn’t ‘science’ because the science hasn’t been done because it hasn’t been funded.
It doesn’t help that we are talking about inter-disciplinary research – research that falls somewhere in between the disciplinary silos. Call it economic psychology, or psychological economics, or decision sciences if you like, but it is just the latest area of research in which we develop theories of human behaviour and test them. I’ve tried to explain it here (pdf), Andrew Dickson tried a different angle here, and yet another perspective is here. And still we get things like this 2012 article saying ‘Surprisingly little scholarly work has linked food and Lacan’.
Maybe that has something to do with funding decisions rather than lack of curious researchers. You want to say that Freud is not science? Give me a few a million dollars over several years to do the research. If I fail, you can have your talking point.
The scientists controlling the money are like Abraham, driven by Yahweh to demonstrate their obedience by sacrificing the young Isaac. But Yahweh is I Am Who Am, certain in His existence. Science can also be a jealous and uncertain Master, a Cronus who must devour his young to protect his reign. When he guides Abraham’s hand, he doesn’t stay the knife.
10/05/2013 § Leave a Comment
The headline in the LA Times was ‘College is a bad financial bet for some, study says’. The story focused on the cases in which students had a negative return on investing in higher education:
A surprising 14% of high-school graduates earn at least as much as people with bachelor’s degrees, and 17% of those with bachelor’s degrees outearn compatriots with professional degrees, the authors found.
The study in question is here, a Brookings Institutions report about the variability of returns to education.
The main thing I wanted to point out was the framing of these numbers. Research has shown that the way that percentages are presented changes how people react to them. Is it a 20% chance of failure or 80% chance of success? Is it a 1% probability of damage or a 1-in-a-hundred chance? It matters.
So let’s flip it around. Are you surprised that 86% of high school graduates earn less than people with bachelor’s degrees? How about that 83% of people with bachelor’s degrees earn less than graduates with professional degrees? If you were playing the percentages, would those results encourage you to get a degree?
What the authors are telling us is that earnings by degree have a distribution around some mean. There is some distance between the means, and the overlap of the distributions isn’t all that large (15%-ish). I haven’t gone through the report, but the results would be affected by whether they are doing a sort of t-test of the two distributions, or doing something like analysing joint distributions of two random variables.
Does this mean we are sending too many people to university? I’d suggest we don’t have enough information. If we think of it as a comparison of two distributions, what would we be trying to do? Are we trying to:
- create enough distance between the means so that the overlap is small? But why should we encourage a larger premium for education when on average the benefit-cost ratio of education is already around 5?
- shrink the left-hand tail of the distribution for the more-highly educated? But how do we reliably identify these students, and should we give up on majors or degrees that don’t have a high enough return on investment?
- do something with the right-hand tail of the high school graduate distribution? But what do we do with them? They have done well as high school graduates — it doesn’t then logically follow that they should have more education.
I don’t see that there’s necessarily a problem. The fact that a small-ish percentage of people don’t get much from a university education means that we are casting the net wide enough to bring in most of the people who potentially would. The fact that some high-school graduates can still make a good living shows that there are still opportunities for all kinds of people, not just top STEM graduates from top schools.
Bets don’t always pay off; investments sometimes fail. But if I were playing blackjack and winning 86% of the time, I’d be at the table all night.
09/05/2013 § Leave a Comment
I have been pondering how effort and reward vary by the size of the project. There’s no data to this, just jaded experience from many years of consulting. There just seem to be some project sizes that generally work well, and some that are difficult for the money involved.
- Under ten grand — quite variable projects; some are easy and some are impossible
- $35,000 — a really horrible number. The client wants a $50k project but doesn’t have the budget
- $40,000 — oddly, usually much better than $35k. If the client had wanted a $50k project, they would have found the extra money. They really just want $40k of work
- $80,000 — sweet. This is a great project size. Enough budget to do something interesting, small enough that admin effort is low, reasonable client expectations
- $90,000 — client wants $100,000 project but that’s a scary number
- Over $100 grand — it all depends, so manage carefully.
For those of you who are visual, I came up with the following chart to show average effort:reward ratio by project size (solid line) and the spread around the average (dotted line). Values over 1.00 mean the effort is greater than the reward; values under mean the opposite.
06/05/2013 § 4 Comments
James Brown’s funk is tight. On a track like ‘Licking Stick’, the music threatens to break loose at any time, barely contained by Brown and the beat. The little I’ve read about Brown suggests that this is no accident. He was apparently a difficult and demanding band leader, but listen to the result.
On several recordings, James Brown calls to Maceo Parker to take his solo. Oh, man, can Maceo play — the pacing, the expressiveness, the musicality — no wonder he’s gigged with everyone.
On ‘Cold Sweat’, as Maceo is finishing up, Brown asks, should we give the drummer some? Wikipedia says this is the first recording in which Brown does this. This call for a solo highlights the importance of the drummer for the whole enterprise. Maceo can play with the rhythm and Brown can give us all his famous ‘uhs’ and ‘good Gods’ because that drum is keeping things together, keeping it tight.
Now, let’s shift to some economics (sorry, but you knew it was coming). I’m involved in a few projects right now that are mainly modelling projects. We aren’t doing primary research in the sense of going out and collecting data and producing new empirical findings. Instead, we are organising existing information. We are using not only economic data, like price elasticity of demand, but also information from other disciplines, like dose-response functions for medicines or nitrogen leaching rates for different land uses.
It occurred to me that we are the drummers in these projects. We have a particular set of skills — keeping information organised and finding ways of making different types of data fit together. But the value of the drummer isn’t the particular beat they’re laying down. Their value is to provide a groove that the rest of the music can revolve around.
The drums provide a solid structure, and that’s what a good model does. As a result, the rest of the information makes more sense, in the same way that a horn solo makes more sense once the beat is established. A good model also demonstrates which parameters are important or which relationships determine the outcomes, just like a solid beat lets the singer shine.
Sometimes, we modellers even get the spotlight; sometimes, even the drummer gets him some.
02/05/2013 § Leave a Comment
The Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment released a new report a couple of days ago — the Regional Economic Activity Report. Let me recommend it — it’s a useful, easy-to-read summary of, well, of economic activity in the regions. A lot of the information can be found elsewhere if you know where to look, but this puts it all into one tidy, 82-page package. People are interested in how their cities and regions are doing — I often get questions about local economies — so I expect this will be a good resource.
Canterbury gets a couple of extra pages for the earthquake impacts. Very sobering to see tourism and education series just plummet.
Here’s one graph I felt like sharing. It appealed to me, thinking about the New Zealand economy like a Fibonacci sequence:
01/05/2013 § 1 Comment
A colleague sent me a link to Professor Scott Galloway’s advice to a student who dared take a metaphor seriously:
When the student arrived an hour late to the professor’s brand management class, Galloway told him to leave. Later the student emailed Galloway, explaining that he was shopping around for classes, which is why he was late: “It was more probable that my tardiness was due to my desire to sample different classes rather than sheer complacency.”
The student, it seems, really did believe he was customer of the university. He was shopping around, trying to find the product that best met his needs. And why shouldn’t he think that? The metaphor has been around for a long time, and the more students are asked to contribute to the cost of their education, the greater currency it has. I came across this article in the Times Higher Education, from 1999:
Universities face a wave of student litigation because of a failure to grasp their changing contractual relationship with fee-paying undergraduates, an academic lawyer has said.
Mr Birtwistle, a principal lecturer, found that only a minority of universities surveyed understood the potential impact of the introduction of fees. “There can be no doubt now that students hold a consumer contract with their university,” he said. Mr Birtwistle said that now students pay their fees directly means they are, in legal terms, buying a service. They are therefore entitled to private law redress for breaches of contract.
‘Students are our customers’ goes from being a business-school metaphor to being a statement of civil law. Students who are dissatisfied have therefore appealed to the courts for redress — for not providing promised support, for a poor grade (the case failed), for not getting a job, for failing to provide courses in a timely fashion [can't find a link].
Looking through the various cases, it is clear that courts do not want to meddle with academic issues. They tend to side with universities, who defend themselves by saying they are upholding academic rigour. Interesting, Prof Galloway did not appeal to academic rigour, or even professorial authority. He appealed essentially to accepted standards of behaviour.
Now, we could view the NYU episode as an example of the teaching/learning that can happen at a university beyond the subject matter. The professor is trying to teach the student how to behave in, as it were, polite society. But that doesn’t break the metaphor. It just means that the lessons the student is buying are more than the lectures and slides. They are behaviour lessons — the so-called ‘soft’ employment skills — that make a difference to how people get along in the workplace.
Once again, we get back to the purpose of a university education. Is it to produce graduates who know how to behave? Is it to teach them specific areas of knowledge? To get them jobs? It’s probably a bit of all those things. But that also gives universities a lot of ways they can fail their students, and a lot of potential grievances to be redressed.
30/04/2013 § 4 Comments
Slate blogger Matthew Yglesias has been getting flak for his post that appeared quickly after news of the factory collapse in Bangladesh. In it, he explained that economics was all about diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks:
Bangladesh may or may not need tougher workplace safety rules, but it’s entirely appropriate for Bangladesh to have different—and, indeed, lower—workplace safety standards than the United States.
Reactions in Western corners of the internet have been fierce and occasionally funny:
Corey Robinson questions whether Yglesias is right about the collective preferences of Bangladeshis:
‘Hundreds of thousands of garment workers walked out of their factories in Bangladesh Thursday, police said, to protest the deaths of 200 people in a building collapse, in the latest tragedy to hit the sector.’
Would it not be easier for Matt Yglesias to dissolve the Bangladeshi people and elect another?
What happened in Bangladesh was the result of the safety standards that are currently in place not being enforced. As Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, told Democracy Now!, Bangladesh “already has some rules and regulations for safety,” with which some politically powerful owners are not complying.
that should be about making a distinction between wages, which do not have to be the same everywhere, and workers’ rights, which should.
- preferences are only half the story. The other half is the choice space in which preference can be expressed. It is the combination of preferences and available options that lead to the choices made. Ascribing the choices to preferences alone gets the theory wrong; one can just as legitimately point to the limited options
- the market theory that Yglesias uses to underpin his ideas — that there are market transactions deciding the prices of garments and safety — assumes freely available and perfect information. A large economic literature then explores the impact of relaxing that assumption. But that’s the post-grad course, and Yglesias is stuck in 101. Here’s the thing: we could make it perfectly obvious to Western consumers how their garments were made, what the working conditions were. Then we could talk about a market solution. Let me put it another way: is Burger King going to launch a horse-burger because people were buying them before they found out what was in them?
- supply and demand do not exist outside the institutions that help shape the economy. An analysis that doesn’t account for politicians who can override police edicts and flout safety regulations is incomplete. We should recognise that, for example, agreements and regulations help set the conditions in which the market is operating. So, there are trade agreements around clothing that promote its production in poor countries, but much less international recognition of professional qualifications for doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc. (On that front, economics is like the Wild West — anyone can hang out a shingle.) It is at best disingenuous to throw your hands up and say
in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum.
In a free society, it’s also good that people can express different opinions. Even when they haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about.