Tag Archives: knowledge/intelligence

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Four years ago, twenty-three economists (mostly conservative) signed a letter to Ben Bernanke warning that the Fed’s quantitative easing policy – adding billions of dollars to the economy – would be disastrous. It would “debase the currency,” create high inflation, distort financial markets, and do nothing to reduce unemployment.

Four years later, it’s clear that they were wrong (as Paul Krugman never tires of reminding us). Have they changed their beliefs?

Of course not.

Bloomberg asked the letter-signers what they now thought about their prophecy.  Here’s the headline: “Fed Critics Say ’10 Letter Warning Inflation Still Right.”
This despite the actual low inflation:

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I don’t know why I assume that high-level economists would be more likely than some ordinary people to change their ideas to adjust for new facts. Fifty years ago, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn showed that even in areas like chemistry and physics, scientists cling to their paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts. Why should big-shot economists be any different? It also occurs to me that it’s the most eminent in a profession who will be more resistant to change.  After all, it’s the people at the top who have the greatest amount invested in their ideas – publications, reputations, consultantships, and of course ego. Economists call these “sunk costs.”

So how do they maintain their beliefs?

Most of the 23 declined to comment; a few could not be reached (including Ronald McKinnon, who died the previous day).  Of those who responded, only one, Peter Wallison at the American Enterprise Institute, came close to saying, “My prediciton was wrong.”

“All of us, I think, who signed the letter have never seen anything like what’s happened here.”

Most of the others preferred denial:

“The letter was correct as stated.” (David Malpass. He worked in Treasury under Reagan and Bush I)

“The letter mentioned several things… and all have happened.” (John Taylor, Stanford)

“I think there’s plenty of inflation — not at the checkout counter, necessarily, but on Wall Street.” (Jim Grant of “Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.” Kinda makes you wonder how closely he’s been observing interest rates.)

Then there was equivocation. After Thursday night’s debacle – Giants 8, Pirates 0, knocking Pittsburgh out of the playoffs– someone reminded me, “Hey, didn’t you tell me that the Pirates would win the World Series?”

“Yes, but I didn’t say when.”

Some of the letter-signers used this same tactic, and just about as convincingly.

“Note that word ‘risk.’ And note the absence of a date.” (Niall Ferguson, Harvard)

“Inflation could come…” (Amity Shlaes, Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation)

The 1954 sociology classic When Prophecy Fails describes group built around a prediction that the world would soon be destroyed and that they, the believers, would be saved by flying saucers from outer space.  When it didn’t happen, they too faced the problem of cognitive dissonance – dissonance between belief and fact. But because they had been very specific about what would happen and when it would happen, they could not very well use the  denial and equivocation favored by the economists. Instead, they first by claimed that what had averted the disaster was their own faith. By meeting and planning and believing so strongly in their extraterrestrial rescuers, they had literally saved the world. The economists, by contrast, could not claim that their warnings saved us from inflation, for their warning – their predictions and prescriptions – had been ignored by Fed. So instead they argue that there actually is, or will be, serious inflation.

The other tactic that the millenarian group seized on was to start proselytizing – trying to convert others and to bring new members into the fold.  For the conservative economists, this tactic is practically a given, but it is not necessarily a change.  They had already been spreading their faith, as professors and as advisors (to policy makers, political candidates, wealthy investors, et al.). They haven’t necessarily redoubled their efforts, but the evidence has not given them pause.  They continue to publish their unreconstructed views to as wide an audience as possible.

That’s the curious thing about cognitive dissonance. The goal is to reduce the dissonance, and it really doesn’t matter how.  Of course, you could change your ideas, but letting go of long and deeply held ideas when the facts no longer co-operate is difficult. Apparently it’s easier to change the facts (by denial, equivocation, etc.). Or, equally effective in reducing the dissonance, you can convince others that you are right. That validation is just as effective as a friendly set of facts, especially if it comes from powerful and important people and comes with rewards both social and financial.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Why Don’t Religious People Know More About Religion?

Economist Robin Hanson has an “it isn’t about” list. It begins:

  • Food isn’t about Nutrition
  • Clothes aren’t about Comfort

Also on the list is:

  • Church isn’t about God

Maybe church isn’t about religious ideas either.

I was reminded of this recently when I followed a link to a Pew quiz on religious knowledge. It’s a lite version of the 32-item quiz Pew used with a national sample in 2010.  One of the findings from that survey (the full report is here) was that people who went to church regularly and who said that religion was important in their lives didn’t do much better on the quiz than did those who had a weak attachment to church and religion.

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The strongly committed averaged 17 correct answers out of the 32 questions; the uncommitted, 16.  This same pattern was repeated in the more recent 15-question quiz.

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The committed may derive many things from their church attendance and faith, but knowledge of religion isn’t one of them.

To be fair, the quiz covers many religions, and people do know more about their own religion than they do about others.  “What was Joseph Smith’s religion?” Only about half the population gets that one right, but 93% of the Mormons nailed it. Mormons also knew more about the Ten Commandments. Catholics did better than others on the transubstantiation question.  But when it came to knowing who inspired the Protestant Reformation, Protestants got outscored by Jews and atheists.

Overall, nonbelievers, Jews, and Mormons did much better than did Protestants and Catholics.

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One reason for their higher scores might be education – college graduates outscore high school or less by nearly 8 points out of 32.

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It may be that nonbelievers, Jews, and Mormons are more likely to have finished college. Unfortunately, the Pew report does not give data that controls for education.

But another reason that these groups scored higher may be their position as religious minorities. Jews and Mormons have to explain to the flock how their ideas are different from those of the majority. Atheists and agnostics too, in their questioning and even rejecting,  have probably devoted more thought to religion, or more accurately, religions. On the questions about Shiva and Nirvana, they leave even the Jews and Mormons far behind.

For Protestants and Catholics, by contrast, learning detailed information about their religion is not as crucial. Just as White people in the US rarely ask what it means to be White, Christians need not worry about their differences from the mainstream. They are the mainstream. So going to church or praying can be much more about feelings – solidarity, transcendence, peace, etc.  That variety of religious experience need not include learning the history or even the tenets of the religion itself. As Durkheim said, the central element in religion is ritual – especially the feelings a ritual generates in the group. Knowing the actual beliefs might be a nice addition, but it’s not crucial.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Race in the NFL Draft

1 (2) - CopyIn case you were wondering, race is still important in the U.S., including in American sports. Deadspin put out a neat tool just in time for NFL draft weekend, allowing readers to see for themselves just how often different words are used to describe white and black athletes in draft scouting reports.  It turns out, for example, that a black prospect’s report is more likely to mention his “motor,” while the typical white player is more likely to be called a “worker.” “Freakish” shows up five times in black reports, and never in a white player’s. Black players are also more likely to be called “coachable.”

I downloaded the data to find out just what the “blackest” and “whitest’ words were. I then drew out the 50 words most likely associated with black and white athletes, respectively. The words are all vaguely football-ish, but upon reflection distinctive patterns emerge.

Some words leap out immediately. Reports on black athletes are far more likely to include the word “mother.” Conversely, white athletes’ reports mention “brothers” more often.  Black players’ reports more often include “driving”; reports on white athletes mention “drive.”

Dig a bit deeper, and some groupings appear. I created five rough categories for the most common “black” words, and another four for the most common white words:

Table 1: black word groups
Physicality upright, leaping, acceleration, pedal, driving, talented, runs, bounce, accelerates, chase, closes, tightness, track, radius, flexible, coordination, physicality
Violence jam, violent, disruptive
Positional all-purpose, cutback, touches, safety, open-field, pass-rush, cornerback, return, returner, cuts, gaps, gap, wr
Development loose, currently, support, stop, drop, interception, terms, directions
Other jones, auburn, vj, instead, wrap, disengage

 

 Table 2: white word groups
Quarterback delivery, accuracy, velocity, accurate, mobility, short-to-intermediate, throwing, placement, pocket, passer, release, throw, passing, arm, throws
Other positional leg, center, pressure, targets, touch, guard, under, offense, rushers, blocking, keeps, tackle
Intelligence intangibles, understands, intelligence, all-conference, smart,
experienced, sound, leader
Other onto, brother, backup, drive, 50, ends, base, ten, four-year, keeping, punch, left, timing

I was quite surprised just how pervasive the old tropes of the smart white leader athletes, and the talent and physical black athletes remain. The word “accuracy” is more than twelve times more likely to be associated with a white player than his black counterpart. Likewise, the words “understands,”(3.9 times) “intelligence” (3.0 times), and the sneaky “intangibles” (3.9 times) are all far more likely to be associated with white athletes.

Conversely, reports on black athletes are more likely to include “leaping” (6.3 times), “upright” (10.4 times), and “violent” (5.1 times). They comparatively rarely include words associated with quarterbacking, intelligence, or leadership.

What the numbers can’t tell us is how much of the difference can be ascribed to the scouts themselves allowing biases to creep in, and how much reflects ways in which athletes have been shaped to this point (i.e., coached to be violent,  encouraged to become leaders, etc). This is obviously an important question, but either way it is clear that race remains a hugely important filter affecting life chances, even in something as supposedly meritocratic as professional and near-professional sports.

A longer version of this post, with more details on methods, can be found at Politics All the Way Down.  Photo credit: Ron Almog, via wikimedia commons.

Stewart Prest is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.  You can follow him at his blog, Politics All the Way Down, and on Twitter.  Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

How Well Do Teen Test Scores Predict Adult Income?

The short answer is, pretty well. But that’s not really the point.

In a previous post I complained about various ways of collapsing data before plotting it. Although this is useful at times, and inevitable to varying degrees, the main danger is the risk of inflating how strong an effect seems. So that’s the point about teen test scores and adult income.

If someone told you that the test scores people get in their late teens were highly correlated with their incomes later in life, you probably wouldn’t be surprised. If I said the correlation was .35, on a scale of 0 to 1, that would seem like a strong relationship. And it is. That’s what I got using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. I compared the Armed Forces Qualifying Test scores, taken in 1999, when the respondents were ages 15-19 with their household income in 2011, when they were 27-31.

Here is the linear fit between between these two measures, with the 95% confidence interval shaded, showing just how confident we can be in this incredibly strong relationship:

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That’s definitely enough for a screaming headline, “How your kids’ test scores tell you whether they will be rich or poor.” And it is a very strong relationship – that correlation of .35 means AFQT explains 12% of the variation in household income.

But take heart, ye parents in the age of uncertainty: 12% of the variation leaves a lot left over. This variable can’t account for how creative your children are, how sociable, how attractive, how driven, how entitled, how connected, or how White they may be. To get a sense of all the other things that matter, here is the same data, with the same regression line, but now with all 5,248 individual points plotted as well (which means we have to rescale the y-axis):

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Each dot is a person’s life — or two aspects of it, anyway — with the virtually infinite sources of variability that make up the wonder of social existence. All of a sudden that strong relationship doesn’t feel like something you can bank on with any given individual. Yes, there are very few people from the bottom of the test-score distribution who are now in the richest households (those clipped by the survey’s topcode and pegged at 3 on my scale), and hardly anyone from the top of the test-score distribution who is now completely broke.

But I would guess that for most kids a better predictor of future income would be spending an hour interviewing their parents and high school teachers, or spending a day getting to know them as a teenager. But that’s just a guess (and that’s an inefficient way to capture large-scale patterns).

I’m not here to argue about how much various measures matter for future income, or whether there is such a thing as general intelligence, or how heritable it is (my opinion is that a test such as this, at this age, measures what people have learned much more than a disposition toward learning inherent at birth). I just want to give a visual example of how even a very strong relationship in social science usually represents a very messy reality.

Cross-posted at Family Inequality and Pacific Standard.

Philip N. Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and writes the blog Family Inequality. You can follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Concern for Equality Linked to Logic, Not Emotion

A new study finds that people with high “justice sensitivity” are using logic, not emotions.  Subjects were put in a fMRI machine, one that measures ongoing brain activity and shown videos of people acting kindly or cruelly toward a homeless person.

Some respondents reacted more strongly than others — hence the high versus low justice sensitivity — and an analysis of the high sensitivity individuals’ brain activity showed that they were processing the images in the parts of the brain where logic and rationality live.   “Individuals who are sensitive to justice and fairness do not seem to be emotionally driven,” explained one of the scientists, “Rather, they are cognitively driven.”

So, no:

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Activists aren’t angry, they reasonably object to unjust circumstances that they understand all too well.

Image borrowed from Jamie Keiles at Teenagerie, who is a high sensitivity individual.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How to Lie with Statistics: Stand Your Ground and Gun Deaths

At Junk Charts, Kaiser Fung drew my attention to a graph released by Reuters.  It is so deeply misleading that I loathe to expose your eyeballs to it.  So, I offer you this:

1The original figure is on the left.  It counts the number of gun deaths in Florida.  A line rises, bounces a little, reaches a 2nd highest peak labeled “2005, Florida enacted its ‘Stand Your Ground’ law,” and falls precipitously.

What do you see?

Most people see a huge fall-off in the number of gun deaths after Stand Your Ground was passed.  But that’s not what the graph shows.  A quick look at the vertical axis reveals that the gun deaths are counted from top (0) to bottom (800).  The highest peaks are the fewest gun deaths and the lowest ones are the most.  A rise in the line, in other words, reveals a reduction in gun deaths.  The graph on the right — flipped both horizontally and vertically — is more intuitive to most: a rising line reflects a rise in the number of gun deaths and a dropping a drop.

The proper conclusion, then, is that gun deaths skyrocketed after Stand Your Ground was enacted.

This example is a great reminder that we bring our own assumptions to our reading of any illustration of data.  The original graph may have broken convention, making the intuitive read of the image incorrect, but the data is, presumably, sound.  It’s our responsibility, then, to always do our due diligence in absorbing information.  The alternative is to be duped.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

How Do Physicians and Non-Physicians Want to Die?

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

A recent RadioLab podcast, titled The Bitter End, identified an interesting paradox. When you ask people how they’d like to die, most will say that they want to die quickly, painlessly, and peacefully… preferably in their sleep.

But, if you ask them whether they would want various types of interventions, were they on the cusp of death and already living a low-quality of life, they typically say “yes,” “yes,” and “can I have some more please.”  Blood transfusions, feeding tubes, invasive testing, chemotherapy, dialysis, ventilation, and chest pumping CPR. Most people say “yes.”

But not physicians.  Doctors, it turns out, overwhelmingly say “no.”  The graph below shows the answers that physicians give when asked if they would want various interventions at the bitter end.  The only intervention that doctors overwhelmingly want is pain medication.  In no other case do even 20% of the physicians say “yes.”

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What explains the difference between physician and non-physician responses to these types of questions.  USC professor and family medicine doctor Ken Murray gives us a couple clues.

First, few non-physicians actually understand how terrible undergoing these interventions can be.  He discusses ventilation.  When a patient is put on a breathing machine, he explains, their own breathing rhythm will clash with the forced rhythm of the machine, creating the feeling that they can’t breath.  So they will uncontrollably fight the machine.  The only way to keep someone on a ventilator is to paralyze them. Literally.  They are fully conscious, but cannot move or communicate.  This is the kind of torture, Murray suggests, that we wouldn’t impose on a terrorist.  But that’s what it means to be put on a ventilator.

A second reason why physicians and non-physicians may offer such different answers has to do with the perceived effectiveness of these interventions.  Murray cites a study of medical dramas from the 1990s (E.R., Chicago Hope, etc.) that showed that 75% of the time, when CPR was initiated, it worked.  It’d be reasonable for the TV watching public to think that CPR brought people back from death to healthy lives a majority of the time.

In fact, CPR doesn’t work 75% of the time.  It works 8% of the time.  That’s the percentage of people who are subjected to CPR and are revived and live at least one month.  And those 8% don’t necessarily go back to healthy lives: 3% have good outcomes, 3% return but are in a near-vegetative state, and the other 2% are somewhere in between.  With those kinds of odds, you can see why physicians, who don’t have to rely on medical dramas for their information, might say “no.”

The paradox, then — the fact that people want to be actively saved if they are near or at the moment of death, but also want to die peacefully — seems to be rooted in a pretty profound medical illiteracy.  Ignorance is bliss, it seems, at least until the moment of truth. Physicians, not at all ignorant to the fraught nature of intervention, know that a peaceful death is often a willing one.

Cross-posted at Pacific StandardThe Huffington Post, and BlogHer.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The Unsung Heroes of the Crash Landing in San Francisco

We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in.  Enjoy!

Like many people, I’ve been following news about the crash landing in San Francisco. It’s a frightening reminder of the risks that come with air travel, but an uplifting one thanks to the small number of casualties.  The Mayor of San Francisco was quoted saying: “We’re lucky we have this many survivors.”  And the Chief of the San Francisco Fire Department said that it was “nothing short of a miracle…”  At CNN, after mentioning the two confirmed fatalities, the reporter writes, “Somehow, 305 others survived.” Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, wrote that it was a “serious moment to give thanks.”  But to whom?

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There’s a kind of person who is trained to maximize survival in the case of a plane crash: the flight attendant.  Airlines don’t advertise the intense training their flight attendants receive because it reminds potential passengers that air travel is risky.  As a result, most people seriously underestimate the skills flight attendants bring on board and the dedication they have to the safety of their passengers.

Flight attendants have to learn hundreds of regulations and know the safety features of all of the aircraft in their airline’s fleet. They must know how to evacuate the plane on land or sea within 90 seconds; fight fires 35,000 feet in the air; keep a heart attack or stroke victim alive; calm an anxious, aggressive, or mentally ill passenger; respond to hijackings and terrorist attacks; and ensure group survival in the jungle, sea, desert, or arctic.

It isn’t just book learning; they train in “live fire pits” and “ditching pools.”As one flight attendant once said:

I don’t think of myself as a sex symbol or a servant. I think of myself as somebody who knows how to open the door of a 747 in the dark, upside down and in the water (source).

This is why I’m surprised to see almost no discussion of the flight attendants’ role in this “miracle.” Consider the top five news stories on Google at the time I’m writing: CNNFoxCBS, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today.  These articles use passive language to describe the evacuation: “slides had deployed”; all passengers “managed to get off.”  When the cabin crew are mentioned, they appear alongside and equivalent to the passengers: the crash forced “dozens of frightened passengers and crew to scamper from the heavily damaged aircraft”; “passengers and crew were being treated” at local hospitals.

Only one of these five stories, at Fox, acknowledges that the 16 cabin crew members worked through the crash and its aftermath.  The story mentions that, while passengers who could were fleeing the plane, crew remained behind to help people who were trapped, slashing seat belts with knives supplied by police officers on the ground.  The plane was going up in flames; they risked their lives to save others.

I don’t know what the flight attendants on this plane did or didn’t do to minimize injuries or save lives, but I would like to know.  Instead, they are invisible in these news stories as workers, allowing readers and future passengers to remain ignorant of the skills and dedication they bring to their work.

Cross-posted at JezebelPolicyMic, Huffington Post, and BlogHer.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.