Chris Horvat - Polar Oceanographer
Here is a link to a recent paper discussing the negative correlation between African literacy rates in the colonial and post-colonial times and the "slave export intensity" during the pre-colonial era.
Cherokee Gothic rightly points out that this is an example of economic path-dependency, a concept familiar to mathematicians: for certain quantities, it isn't where you end up, but how you got there.
Example: if one pegs their net worth at the value of the stock AAPL, and through some sorcery predicts every upturn and downturn in the stock price, liquidating at peaks and converting all cash to stock at local minima, in a year that person would have a considerable amount more money than the person who held the stock fixed, and much more than the person who made the opposite choices. The path taken to the end is what caused the discrepancy in wealth after a year.
Path dependancy is a familiar trope in political theater and is, depending on the political and philosophical bent of the person, the reason for gender and race gaps in education, poverty, and incarceration. It can be summarized (thanks to Scott E. Page) in the "old Bostonian jump roping rhyme"
I eat my peas with honey. I’ve done it all my life. It makes ’em taste quite funny, but it keeps them on the knife.
And so this recent paper attempts to gauge the level to which slave export has biased literacy rates in African countries over the proceeding centuries. The answer? According to the abstract: "a negative and signicant relationship between slave
export intensity before the colonial era and literacy rates during the colonial era."
Here's the data used to support that claim, buried in a plot in the supplementary material. This image plots literacy rate against some normalized quantity representing pre-colonial slave exports as a percentage of the extant population. Where's the trend?
To me (and this is just me), this appears to be a classic case of oversimplification. If the author wrote this paper with the exact opposite conclusion, I would be equally swayed. What causes the four outlier groups in slave export to be there? Why is there seemingly no trend? Why did the author connect two clusters with a line and call it a trend?
Bad science, even in Path Dependancy
A pretty interesting article from Massey University a few years back attempts to understand how much of the placebo effect is related to the conditioning effect (when I take a drug, I am conditioned to believe I will feel better because of my surroundings, so I feel better) or the expectancy effect (when I take a drug, I expect that it will work, so I feel better).
A number of interesting conclusions come out of this, notably that our tolerance to drugs is associated to our surroundings (as an example, consider examples of "learned tolerance", whereby drugs like alcohol affect people differently depending on their surroundings, leading to overdoses for alcoholics who find themselves drinking in unfamiliar places).
But my favorite one concerns the fact that, like humans, rats exhibit the placebo effect. This can serve to root out the misconception that the placebo effect is some mystical, made-up response at a high intellectual level. Rather it is an innate physical mechanism which exists across the animal kingdom. This can help to explain its complete prevalence (and its relationship with confirmation bias) among those susceptible to believing pseudoscience, and the reason we have such a hard time getting rid of it.
If you've been under a rock the last week, former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez has been indicted for first degree murder. Anyone owning an Aaron Hernandez jersey is allowed to exchange it for any other actual Patriots player's jersey for free, the reasoning being that having NFL fans wearing the jersey of a suspected murderer is not good publicity for the league or the individual team.
Lemon Laws were initiated in the United States to counteract information asymmetry between the buyer of a product and the seller. Buyers are at an immediate information disadvantage to sellers, since the seller has much more of an understanding of the flaws of the product he is selling. When the product turns out to be worth less than the price the buyer paid based on prior knowledge available to the seller the buyer is defrauded, and depending on the product, has some legal ability to recoup losses.
Now the non-ironic value of a Hernandez jersey is zero, and the average Patriots fan had absolutely know idea how bad of a guy he was, though it appeared to be common knowledge to insiders. His jerseys are lemons.
The Patriots are enacting an even stronger warranty (maybe a double-lemon law?), since even they didn't know Hernandez was as bad a guy as he turned out to be. So Hernandez is partially to blame for the lemoning of his own jerseys. This is sort of like a car company knowing its cars' third-party manufactured brakes wouldn't last the life of the car, only to find out that, unbeknownst to them, the brakes didn't work at all!
Who should really be responsible for covering the "loss of value of Hernandez jerseys?" (assuming of course people who bought them actually care). Perhaps both the Patriots and Hernandez are equally at fault. I'm not sure how exactly to answer that question.
At least here it is refreshing to see information asymmetry work in both directions.
I got in a long discussion the other day about why people will choose to be organ donors. In a vacuum of social behavior, the basic act of donating ones organs after death has no impact on the person doing the donating. After all, they don't have any claim to the organs anymore and any good the organs can do will not bother them... they are dead after all.
Therefore in the social vacuum, the case can be made that organ donation wouldn't survive much as a practice, as there is no real good "reason" to do it. If there was any slight pressure to keep ones organs intact after death (say a religious preference, etc.), then likely there would be no organ donors.
So the question became, then, why do people donate their organs? What is it that encourages people to break this ambivalence towards what happens to the world after death? The easy answer is "a desire for their progeny to benefit from the medical progress their organs can help further". This is a cheap, 'evolution trumps all' type answer, and may be the right one. Those who are genetically predisposed to use all means to further their progeny will see their genes propagated further. And it is likely that the diseases you have that you may contribute to curing will be those of your kin, so your impact of donation is maximized amongst those who share your genes.
The problem is, organ donation is not assumed (both popularly and in fact) to be benefiting people close to you... rather it is generally seen as a societal benefit, you are doing some good for people who are ill, weak, etc, etc. and not those near to you (people near to you are the ones who are more likely to dislike the idea of your body being "mutilated" post-mortem. In the light of this fact, I think it is best to consider a "contractarian" point of view.
In brief, the reason I agree to donate my body to science is selfish and societally driven. If another person dies, and their body can benefit me if it goes to scientific research, this is good for me. I like it when other people agree to donate their bodies to science! So I pressure them to do so. In return, I submit to the pressure that they levy on me to benefit their lives. I hope, in the bargain, that enough people die before I do to prolong myself. And so we sign what is, in a sense, a social contract to donate our bodies to science.
What the hell does this have to do with climate science (and a host of other topics)? Consider the possibility that organ donation is a known science, but there is some reason that we will never experience the positive outcome of anyone livings organs. For example, suppose there was some scientific reason that organs, once obtained from a dead body, must wait in seclusion for 100 years before they matter to me. Encouraging other people to donate their organs won't benefit me, I'll never reap the rewards. If people in the past donated their organs, this is also no encouragement for selfish me to donate my organs upon death, because I can't enroll myself in a mutually beneficial social contract. It would seem in this framework that organ donation would die out as a practice.
This is extremely strongly evidenced in climate change mitigation. We have no real method of having our actions altering the climate we will experience, and it is therefore hard to engage in a social (or real) contract in which parties will agree to limit their emissions, even when there is clear evidence that doing so is necessary to limit the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. It seems the contractarians have it.
There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. - Mark Twain
People are more likely to answer factual questions incorrectly if the facts do not conform to their political biases, even if presented with news stories disconfirming their preferred belief. With money on the line, however, they will. The consequences for climate policy here are rather broad.
Wonkblog writes up the a reading of a recent paper by Larry Bartels at Princeton, who showed that Democrats were:
Much less likely than Republicans to correctly answer questions about whether inflation went down under President Ronald Reagan (it did) and whether unemployment also fell (it did):
A second group of researchers found:
Republicans presented with news articles pointing out that there were no WMDs in Iraq were more likely to say that such weapons were found than Republicans who didn’t read those articles.
The implication here is that people with strong political beliefs are willing to register their political belief in a survey even at the expense of disconfirming an actual fact, which recalls the beautiful quote by Twain (which he claimed originated in Benjamin Disraeli)
Yet when told that incorrect answers would be penalized by monetary fine, and by including the category "I Don't Know" as a response indicating a sort of "conscientious objection") the partisan gap (remember, this is the spread in answers on a fact based on political affiliation) dropped by 80%.
The two main takeaways here?
This calls into question reports on the acceptance of climate change in the United States: including the results from this Gallup poll.
Gallup shows a major conservative bias towards a belief that climate change is exaggerated, and a liberal bias of similar magnitude (relative to the mean) towards a belief that it is not. Being that the "controversy" over climate change has become such a trenchant partisan issue, and that there is no magic information transmitted to Democrats that Republicans can't access, could it be that people are simply registering their political or religious belief into a survey, rather than their ignorance?
Oceanographer, Mathemagician, and Interested Party