October 18, 2017

Cognitive bias – it can be a problem for the “nudgers”, too

Filed under: Economics, Europe, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Ilya Somin says that replacing private decisions with “rational” government nudges does not guarantee that there are no cognitive biases still being expressed:

Economist Richard Thaler recently won the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics for his important work documenting widespread cognitive errors in human decision-making. All too often, people fail to act as rationally as conventional economic models assume, and at least some of those errors are systematic in nature. Such errors can lead to mistakes that greatly diminish our health, happiness, and welfare.

Thaler and many other behavioral economics scholars argue that government should intervene to protect people against their cognitive biases, by various forms of paternalistic policies. In the best-case scenario, government regulators can “nudge” us into correcting our cognitive errors, thereby enhancing our welfare without significantly curtailing freedom.

Irrational Nudgers

But can we trust government to be less prone to cognitive error than the private-sector consumers whose mistakes we want to correct? If not, paternalistic policies might just replace one form of cognitive bias with another, perhaps even worse one. Unfortunately, a recent study suggests that politicians are prone to severe cognitive biases too – especially when they consider ideologically charged issues. Danish scholars Caspar Dahlmann and Niels Bjorn Petersen summarize their findings from a study of Danish politicians:

    We conducted a survey of 954 Danish local politicians. In Denmark, local politicians make decisions over crucial services such as schools, day care, elder care and various social and health services. Depending on their ideological beliefs, some politicians think that public provision of these services is better than private provision. Others think just the opposite. We wanted to see how these beliefs affected the ways in which politicians interpreted evidence….

    In our first test, we asked the politicians to evaluate parents’ satisfaction ratings for a public and a private school. We had deliberately set up the comparison so one school performed better than the other. We then divided the politicians into two groups. One group got the data — but without any information as to whether the school was public or private. The schools were just labeled “School A” and “School B.” The other group got the exact same data, but instead of “School A” and “School B,” the schools’ titles were “Public School” and “Private School.”

    If politicians are influenced by their ideologies, we would expect that they would be able to interpret the information about “School B” and “School A” correctly. However, the other group would be influenced by their ideological beliefs about private versus public provision of welfare services in ways that might lead them to make mistakes….

    This is exactly what we found. Most politicians interpreting data from “School A” and “School B” were perfectly capable of interpreting the information correctly. However, when they were asked to interpret data about a “Public School” and a “Private School” they often misinterpreted it, to make the evidence fit their desired conclusion.

Even when presented additional evidence to help them correct their mistakes, Dahlmann and Petersen found that the politicians tended to double down on their errors rather than admit they might have been wrong. And it’s worth noting that Denmark is often held up as a model of good government that other countries should imitate. If Danish politicians are prone to severe ideological bias in their interpretation of evidence, the same – or worse – is likely to be true of their counterparts in the United States and elsewhere.

May 19, 2016

QotD: A contrarian view of “Britain in decline”

Filed under: Britain, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… it is not a bad time to remind ourselves how lucky we are to live on this damp little island.

I don’t mean this in a jingoistic way, and certainly when you look closely there is little to recommend Henry V’s brutal French raid. What there is to celebrate, of course, is Shakespeare’s poetic rendering of the campaign. It is our literary, scientific, technological, economic, political and philosophical achievements, rather than just our military milestones that we should occasionally pause to remember, amid our usual self-criticism.

All my life I have been told that Britain is in decline. But stand back and take a long, hard look. Even by relative standards, it just is not true. We have recently overtaken France (again) as the fifth largest economy in the world and are closing on Germany. We have the fourth largest defence budget in the world, devoted largely to peace-keeping. We disproportionately contribute to the world’s literature, art, music, technology and science.

We have won some 123 Nobel prizes, more than any other country bar America (and more per capita than America), and we continue to win them, with 18 in this century so far. In the field of genetics, which I know best, we discovered the structure of DNA, invented DNA fingerprinting, pioneered cloning and contributed 40 per cent of the first sequencing of the human genome.

On absolute measures, we are in even better shape. Income per capita has more than doubled since 1965 — in real terms. In those days, three million households lacked or shared an inside lavatory, most houses did not have central heating and twice as many people as today had no access to a car. When they did it was expensive, unreliable and leaked fumes.

In the 1960s even though there were fewer people in Britain, rivers were more polluted, the air was dirtier, and there were fewer trees, otters and buzzards. Budget airlines, mobile phones, search engines and social media were as unimaginable as unicorns. Sure, there was less obesity and fewer traffic jams, but there were more strikes, racism and nylon clothing. People spent twice as much of their income on food. There may be political angst about immigrants, but Britain is far more at ease with its multicultural self today than we might have dared to hope in the 1960s.

Matt Ridley, “Britain’s Best Years”, MattRidley.com, 2015-01-01.

October 8, 2015

Science as horse racing

Filed under: Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In Wired, Sarah Zhang handicaps the horses in this year’s highly competitive Nobel Sweepstakes:

Nobel prize speculation, gossip, and betting pools kick off every fall around the time Thomson Reuters releases its predictions for science’s most prestigious prize. This year, one prediction was unusual: a genome-editing tool so hyped that it even got on the cover of WIRED.

(No, seriously, how often does molecular biology get to occupy the same space as Star Wars or Rashida Jones?)

The tool, Crispr/Cas9, is essentially a pair of molecular scissors for editing DNA, so precise and easy to use that it has taken biology by storm. Hundreds if not thousands of labs now use Crispr/Cas9 to do everything from making super-muscled pigs to snipping HIV genes out of infected cells to creating transgenic monkeys for neuroscience research. But the Nobel prediction stands out for two reasons: First, the highly-cited paper describing Crispr/Cas9 came out a mere three years ago, a blip in the timescale of science. Second, the technique is currently at the heart of a bitter patent fight.

Thomson Reuters bases its predictions on how often key papers get cited by other scientists. Here, the paper in question has as its authors Jennifer Doudna, a molecular biologist at UC Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, a microbiologist now at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology. Missing is Feng Zhang (no relation to this writer), a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute and MIT, who actually owns the patents for CRISPR/Cas9 and says that he came up with the idea independently. So let’s say Thomson Reuters gets it right. Could the patent for a discovery go to one scientist, and the Nobel prize for the discovery to someone else?

The two groups — or their patent lawyers, really — are in fact fighting over credit for CRISPR/Cas9. At stake are millions of dollars already poured into rival companies that have licensed patents from the two different groups.

But putting aside all the lawyers and all the money for a moment, obsessing over finding the one true origin of Crispr/Cas9 gets science all wrong. Casting the narrative as Doudna versus Zhang or Berkeley versus MIT is a misapprehension of history, creativity, and innovation. Discovery comes not from a singular stroke of genius, but an incremental body of research. “I’m not a great believer in the flash-of-genius theory. If you are a historian —” says Mario Biagioli, who is in fact a historian of science at UC Davis — “you quickly will realize exactly how many times there are independent discoveries of the same thing.” The dispute over credit for CRISPR/Cas9 is not the result of exceptional coincidence and disagreement. In fact, it illuminates how science always works.

September 30, 2015

The Coase Theorem

Published on 18 Mar 2015

In this video, we show how bees and pollination demonstrate the Coase Theorem in action: when transaction costs are low and property rights are clearly defined, private arrangements ensure that the market works even when there are externalities. Under these conditions, the market properly manages externalities.

August 20, 2015

Frédéric Bastiat

Filed under: Economics, Europe, France, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Lawrence W. Reed makes the case for Frédéric Bastiat to be awarded a Nobel Prize … if they awarded them posthumously, anyway:

If a posthumous Nobel Prize was awarded for crystal-clear writing and masterful storytelling in economics, no one would be more deserving of it than Frédéric Bastiat (June 30, 1801–December 24, 1850). He set the standard over a century and a half ago.

This remarkable Frenchman was an economist in more than the traditional sense. He understood the way the economic world works, and he knew better than anybody how to explain it with an economy of words. He employed everyday language and a conversational tone, an innate clarity that flowed from his logical and orderly presentation. Nothing he wrote was stilted, artificial, or pompous. He was concise and devastatingly to the point. To this day, nobody can read Bastiat and wonder, “Now what was that all about?”

Economic writing these days can be dull and lifeless, larded with verbosity and presumptuous mathematics. Bastiat proved that economics doesn’t have to be that way: the core truths of the science can be made lively and unforgettable. In literature, we think of good storytelling as an art and stories as powerful tools for understanding. Bastiat could tell a story that stabbed you with its brilliance. If your misconceptions were his target, his stories could leave you utterly, embarrassingly disarmed.

If you aspire to be an economist or a policy maker or a teacher or just an influential communicator, take time to study at the feet of this 19th-century master.

June 23, 2015

A Genius and A Madman – Fritz Haber I WHO DID WHAT IN WW1?

Filed under: Europe, Germany, History, Military, Science, WW1 — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 22 Jun 2015

Fritz Haber is one of the most famous German scientists. His inventions made it possible to feed an ever growing human population and influence us till this day. But Fritz Haber had a dark side too: His research made the weaponization of gas and the increased production of explosives possible. Find out more about the life of Fritz Haber in our biography.

June 21, 2015

“Why libertarianism is closer to Stalinism than you think” … unless you actually know anything about libertarianism, of course

Filed under: Liberty, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Alan Wolfe, I’m reliably informed, is a highly respected sociologist and political scientist at Boston College. If this kind of thing is typical of his output, I’m inclined to doubt my sources:

“Libertarianism has a complicated history, and it is by and large a sordid one,” charges Wolfe. It is “a secular substitute for religion, complete with its own conception of the city of God, a utopia of pure laissez-faire and the city of man, a place where envy and short-sightedness hinder creative geniuses from carrying out their visions.”

I’d call him the Hitler of Hyperbole, but that seems, I don’t know, a tad over the top. Sort of like equating a live-and-let-live philosophy such as libertarianism to Stalinism. Which I confess it totally is. Except for the gulags, the mass murders, the forced relocations, the belief in statism, a demonstrably insane economic policy — I’m probably forgetting one or two other points of similarity.

Predictably, Wolfe disinters the corpse of Ayn Rand and insists not only was the Atlas Shrugged author “an authoritarian at heart” but that she remains the beating heart of an intellectual, philosophical, and cultural movement that includes a fistful of Nobel Prize winners (Friedman, Buchanan, Smith, Hayek, Vargas Llosa, etc.); thinkers such as Robert Nozick and Camille Paglia; businessmen such as Whole Foods’ John Mackey, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Overstock’s Patrick Byrne; and creative types ranging from Rose Wilder Lane to the creators of South Park to Vince Vaughn. Sound the alarum, folks! Team America: World Police and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story are running on Comedy Central again!

January 28, 2015

QotD: The libertarian movement

Filed under: Liberty, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The libertarian or “freedom movement” is a loose and baggy monster that includes the Libertarian Party; Ron Paul fans of all ages; Reason magazine subscribers; glad-handers at Cato Institute’s free-lunch events in D.C.; Ayn Rand obsessives and Robert Heinlein buffs; the curmudgeons at Antiwar.com; most of the economics department at George Mason University and up to about one-third of all Nobel Prize winners in economics; the beautiful mad dreamers at The Free State Project; and many others. As with all movements, there’s never a single nerve center or brain that controls everything. There’s an endless amount of in-fighting among factions […] On issues such as economic regulation, public spending, and taxes, libertarians tend to roll with the conservative right. On other issues — such as civil liberties, gay marriage, and drug legalization, we find more common ground with the progressive left.

Nick Gillespie, “Libertarianism 3.0; Koch And A Smile”, The Daily Beast, 2014-05-30.

July 22, 2014

What happened to the top universities outside the Anglosphere?

Filed under: Europe, France, Germany, History, Politics, USA, WW2 — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 08:29

Steve Sailer has an interesting take on the rise of the top universities in the Anglosphere:

The reality is that the top U.S. (and British) universities have been winning the global competition for talent since the middle of the 20th Century. Look at Nobel Prizes. It wasn’t always like this. Go back to the summer of 1914 and the best research universities tended to be German, with other Continental countries in competition.

What happened to bring about Anglo-American dominance of universities?

I’m sure there are many reasons, but I want to fixate on just two. Namely, we won the Big Ones: WWI and WWII. In the postwar era, the losers, such as Germany and Austria (1918 and 1945), Italy (1943) and France (1940) smashed up their great colleges for being epitomizations of anti-democratic elitism.

The Continentals converted their famous universities to open admissions with virtually no tuition: giant lecture halls with a few thousand students taking notes or dozing.

The French government, not being stupid, kept some small, low profile, ultra-elitist Écoles to train the people who actually run France, while trashing grand old names like the Sorbonne. Piketty, for example, did his undergrad at the École normale supérieure, which is immensely prestigious in the right circles in France, but us big dumb Americans hardly know about it because it only has 600 undergrads. And few Tiger Moms in Seoul, Shanghai, or Mumbai care about it either.

For a French culture that believes itself normally superior, this is annoying.

In contrast, the winning Americans poured even more money into Harvard and Yale. When 1968 happened, only CCNY in the U.S. was dumb enough to fall for the reigning ideology rather than just give it lip service. Instead, Harvard devoted ample resources to modeling admissions and perfected a system of affirmative action for buying off complainers (see Robert Klitgaard’s 1985 book Choosing Elites) without damaging Harvard as the prime pipeline to Wall Street.

Similarly, Oxford and Cambridge survived the Socialist governments with elitist prestige largely intact, mostly because Britain, though almost ruined by the expense, was on the winning side in WW I/II. And winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

December 11, 2013

The media and the Mandela funeral

Filed under: Africa, Britain, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:29

In the Guardian Simon Jenkins discusses the way the media covered Nelson Mandela’s funeral:

Enough is enough. The publicity for the death and funeral of Nelson Mandela has become absurd. Mandela was an African political leader with qualities that were apt at a crucial juncture in his nation’s affairs. That was all and that was enough. Yet his reputation has fallen among thieves and cynics. Hijacked by politicians and celebrities from Barack Obama to Naomi Campbell and Sepp Blatter, he has had to be deified so as to dust others with his glory. In the process he has become dehumanised. We hear much of the banality of evil. Sometimes we should note the banality of goodness.

Part of this is due to the media’s crude mechanics. Millions of dollars have been lavished on preparing for Mandela’s death. Staff have been deployed, hotels booked, huts rented in Transkei villages. Hospitals could have been built for what must have been spent. All media have gone mad. Last week I caught a BBC presenter, groaning with tedium, asking a guest to compare Mandela with Jesus. The corporation has reportedly received more than a thousand complaints about excessive coverage. Is it now preparing for a resurrection?

More serious is the obligation that the cult of the media-event should owe to history. There is no argument that in the 1980s Mandela was “a necessary icon” not just for South Africans but for the world in general. In what was wrongly presented as the last great act of imperial retreat, white men were caricatured as bad and black men good. The arrival of a gentlemanly black leader, even a former terrorist, well cast for beatification was a godsend.


Mandela was crucial to De Klerk’s task. He was an African aristocrat, articulate of his people’s aspirations, a reconciler and forgiver of past evils. Mandela seemed to embody the crossing of the racial divide, thus enabling De Klerk’s near impossible task. White South Africans would swear he was the only black leader who made them feel safe — with nervous glances at Desmond Tutu and others.

South Africa in the early 90s was no postcolonial retreat. It was a bargain between one set of tribes and another. For all the cruelties of the armed struggle, it was astonishingly sparing of blood. This was no Pakistan, no Sri Lanka, no Congo. The rise of majority rule in South Africa was one of the noblest moments in African history. The resulting Nobel peace prize was rightly shared between Mandela and De Klerk, a sharing that has been ignored by almost all the past week’s obituaries. There were two good men in Cape Town in 1990.

October 15, 2013

Lies we tell to pollsters

Filed under: Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 06:46

David Harsanyi wishes the nonsense we tell to pollsters was a bit closer to the truth, at least in some cases:

A recent Rasmussen poll found that one in three Americans would rather win a Nobel Prize than an Oscar, Emmy or Grammy.

Though there’s no way to disprove this peculiar finding, I’m rather confident that it’s complete baloney. The average American probably can’t name more than one Nobel Prize winner — if that. Even if they could, it’s unlikely many would choose a life in physics or “peace” over being a celebrated actor, musician or television star. Put it this way, any man who tells you he wants the life of Nobel Prize-winning Ahmet Uzumcu, Director General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, instead of George Clooney is lying. And that includes Ahmet Uzumcu.

Polls might have been precise in forecasting recent elections (though, 2012 pollsters only received an average “C+ grade” in a poll conducted by Pew Research Center; we’re waiting on a poll that tells us what to think about polls that poll polls), but it’s getting difficult to believe much of anything else. Beyond sampling biases or phraseology biases, many recent polls prove that Americans will tell pollsters what they think they think, but not how they intend to act. Part of the problem is social desirability bias — the tendency to give answers that they believe will be viewed favorably by others. That might explain why someone would tell a pollster that he would rather win a Nobel Prize than a Grammy. There is also confirmation bias — the tendency of people to say things that confirm their beliefs or theories. Whatever the case, voters are fooling themselves in various ways. And when it comes to politics, they’re also giving small-government types like myself false hope.

Over the last few months, we seem to have been added to some sort of polling telephone list, as we’ve had dozens of calls from various institutions conducting “important public research” and insisting that we have to take part in their surveys. It’s quite remarkable how angry they get when I say we don’t want to take part. They go from vaguely pleasant at the start of the call to downright authoritarian by the time I hang up the phone … how dare I not want to give them the data they’re asking for? They’ve collectively become more irritating than the calls from “Bob” at “Windows Technical Support”.

October 15, 2012

“[T]he Nobel Peace Prize Committee [wouldn’t] recognize absurdity if it slapped them in the face and did a Macarena”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Europe, History, Humour — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:37

Marian L. Tupy writes about the absurdity of awarding this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union at the Cato@Liberty blog:

The esteemed members of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee have awarded the 2012 prize to the European Union. So, if you thought that awarding it to President Barack Obama for the sole reason of not being George W. Bush was strange and unusual, think again. (By the way, I have nothing against our president. I am sure he was just as embarrassed as everyone else.)

[. . .]

As for democracy, the Peace Prize award to the EU drips with irony. The EU is not only un-democratic, in the sense that it is run by unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats, it is positively anti-democratic, in the sense that the democratically expressed wishes of the European peoples are either ignored or treated with contempt. When the Danes voted against the Maastricht Treaty, they were forced to vote again. When the Irish sunk the Lisbon treaty, they too had to repeat the vote. And when the Dutch and the French said no to the EU Constitution, they were simply ignored.

Here is how the president of the eurozone, Jean-Claude Juncker, sums up the decision-making process in the great bastion of democracy that is today’s EU: “We decide on something, leave it lying around and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don’t understand what has been decided, we continue step by step until there is no turning back.”

I could write about the overgrown and arrogant bureaucracy in Brussels; about the monstrously high and recession-proof salaries of European decision makers; about widespread and widely tolerated corruption; about the prosecution and silencing of whistleblowers, and about many other ways in which the EU does not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. Suffice it to say that those have been widely documented and are available to anyone interested.

October 12, 2012

McParland: How about Nobels for Canada, Switzerland, and Costa Rica!

Filed under: Americas, Europe — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:24

The latest Nobel Peace Prize winner follows a pattern that Kelly McParland thinks he’s identified:

I’m pretty sure the Nobel peace prize committee just bought itself a regular spot on Saturday Night Live. How could it award a peace prize to Europe – yes, all of Europe — based on the fact that it’s not at war with itself, and not become a target of satire?

[. . .]

Today, the notion of Italy invading Spain, or the Dutch royal family seizing the British throne, is unimaginable. Austria, once one of the world’s great powers, is now a small Alpine nation that’s a threat to nobody. Obviously this is a good thing; being friends is better than being enemies. But is that reason to give it a peace prize? Canada has never started a war with anyone, anywhere, so where’s our prize? Switzerland washed its hands of war a century ago and remained neutral through both world wars. Costa Rica doesn’t even have an army. How about a peace prize for that?

This whole peace prize thing is getting weirder by the year anyway. In 2009 it went to Barack Obama, for reasons even Obama couldn’t explain. Since then his administration has been picking off terrorists with drones with gay abandon. In 2007 it went to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore, because why? Because alternative energy is peaceful? Because you can’t stoke a nuclear weapon with solar power? Beats me. You get the feeling the committee finds itself facing a deadline, can’t make a decision, and someone says, “The hell with it, let’s just pick a name out of the hat.” This year some scamp had scribbled “European Union” on a piece of paper and slipped it in with the others, and that’s the slip they drew.

Maybe it’s more complicated than that. But you wouldn’t know it from this year’s winner.

October 15, 2009

Nobel committee had reservations, was not unanimous

Filed under: Europe, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 09:14

Apparently, it’s not just the cranky centrists, paranoid rightists and lunatic libertarians who thought the Nobel Peace Prize award to Barack Obama was incorrect: so did a majority of the committee itself:

Three of the five members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee had objections to the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to US President Barack Obama, the Norwegian tabloid Verdens Gang (VG) reported Thursday.

“VG has spoken to a number of sources who confirmed the impression that a majority of the Nobel committee, at first, had not decided to give the peace prize to Barack Obama,” the newspaper said.

October 13, 2009

Nobel committee defends award to Obama

Filed under: Football, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 13:08

It’s still enough of a news item that members of the Nobel committee who awarded the Peace Prize to Barack Obama feel the need to defend their choice:

Members of the Norwegian committee that gave Barack Obama the Nobel Peace Prize are strongly defending their choice against a storm of criticism that the award was premature and a potential liability for the U.S. president.

Asked to comment on the uproar following Friday’s announcement, four members of the five-seat panel told The Associated Press that they had expected the decision to generate both surprise and criticism.

Three of them rejected the notion that Obama hadn’t accomplished anything to deserve the award, while the fourth declined to answer that question. A fifth member didn’t answer calls seeking comment.

Now that he’s bagged the Peace prize, there’s a grassroots effort underway to make Barack Obama a write-in candidate for the Heisman trophy:

From a reader:

I just went to this link and, in the “Type your nominee here!” field, entered “Barack Obama.” The winner of this Nissan-sponsored promotion will actually receive one official vote for the Heisman award as sort of the people’s choice.

You can actually go back and vote once each day between now and the Heisman award in December.

Update: I missed one of the best Fark.com headlines from last week — This Sunday, the Pope will canonize five new saints, including one from Hawaii. Wait, what? After only eight months in office?.

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