30 May 2012

Peer Review

I have a suspicion that the people in public debate who treat peer review as the gold standard of science have rarely seen the sausage being made.

Peer review is more than a bit like a jury trial. Considering the alternatives, I'd prefer juries settle questions of guilt. But that doesn't make them infallible. Claiming a scientific study must be right because it appeared in a peer reviewed publication is just like claiming someone is guilty because they were found guilty by a jury. Both juries and peer review are indications of truth but they are not Truth.

Juries make mistakes. Far more than we care to recognize. Similarly peer reviewers make many mistakes. Especially since their job isn't to check to see if a submission is right, merely reasonable and interesting. They aren't answering "is this study true?" they're answering "is this worth sharing with the readers of this publication?"

I will now return to addressing the teeth-grindingly obtuse criticisms of the reviewers on my most recent paper. (In the name of St. Turing, how the hell was I supposed to know to cite a paper published in 2012 if I submitted this article in December, 2011?!) To be fair, they pointed out some problems with my manuscript, particularly with the rhetoric. But be that as it is, I don't have a goddamned time machine.

PS This. This is why I don't put my name on my blog. I know at least one of my reviewers googled me extensively before writing his review. This is not what I want future reviewers to see.

Interplay between Big Scandals and Small Scandals

EconLog | Arnold Kling | The Energy Loan Scandal as a Non-story

Mark A. Thiessen writes,
as Hoover Institution scholar Peter Schweizer reported in his book, "Throw Them All Out," fully 71 percent of the Obama Energy Department's grants and loans went to "individuals who were bundlers, members of Obama's National Finance Committee, or large donors to the Democratic Party." Collectively, these Obama cronies raised $457,834 for his campaign, and they were in turn approved for grants or loans of nearly $11.35 billion.
If our political digestive system were functioning properly, it would vomit out the energy loan program and the people responsible. There would be daily front-page headlines in the newspapers. Congressional hearings would feature harsh attacks by Democrats as well as Republicans and be carried live by all major news channels. Steven Chu would be as generally reviled as Bernie Madoff. There would be a special prosecutor operating and talk of impeachment.

Instead, this has produced among left-of-center politicians and pundits little concern, much less outrage. My fear is that what will emerge is a pattern in which Republican scandals are ignored by the right and Democratic scandals are ignored by the left. The result will be a spiral of ever-worsening corruption.
Some corollary predictions:

(0) I think there is a subject-matter dependency which impacts what people are willing to ignore in addition to an ideological factor. Some people will simply never care about DOE loan guarantees because anything that sounds financial goes right past them. Some people will never care about cops kicking people's skulls in because they see the cops as being on their side.

(1) This trend will benefit politicians further out on the ideological distribution because they will be best positioned to be able to count on a significant number of voters ignoring their own corruption. That is, the politicians best suited to this new environment will be the ones who have the largest proportion of people voting for them who are willing to ignore scandals committed by their teammates.

(2) Both parties will come down hard on minor but non-ideological corruption, e.g. the $800k GSA shindig in Las Vegas. The Red Team gets to criticize the Obama administration for being wasteful, and the Blue Team gets to shift focus away from cronyism that is orders of magnitude more wasteful while still being able to claim they are cracking down on corruption.

The same applies to the Secret Service prostitute thing. Do I want them banging hookers over-seas? Of course not. But this is a country where our police routinely — routinely! — shoot first and ask questions later, where cops can kill your dog without provocation, where there is literally zero accountability for homicidal misconduct, where having a camera or voice recorder is treated as a crime, where police can knock down your door in the middle of the night by mistake and hold you responsible, where the police answer only to themselves, and where the highest judges in the land shrug and assure us that it's all okay because the thugs are "professional!" In that context how can anyone muster outrage about some cops knocking down a few Colombian harlots? But nobody in power benefits from dealing with the bigger problem, and so they throw fits about the trivial one to give themselves cover.

(3) Issues totally unrelated to corruption will also be increasingly used this way. Congressmen will busy themselves with investigations into baseball players' steroid use to distract themselves from having to address actual problems. Just one more reason to tell them to stick to their knitting.

(4) Fraud begets fraud. If there is one big scandal in DC it is hard to ignore. If there are seven overlapping scandals it is easy to claim that the one perpetrated by your friends is small beans, and the real story is that scandal over there in the other guys' camp. Slippery-slope arguments are often misused, but I think this is one of the times in which a real positive-feedback loop exists.

PS The extra irony in the proposals from both teams to deal with the GSA situation is that their suggested reforms will result in more waste. For example, there were (are?) proposals to shutter the GSA and let each agency handle its own purchasing, motor pool, real estate, etc. I'm usually all in favor of razing Federal agencies, but what's the benefit if the function is just going to be done in fifty places instead of one place? This will decrease efficiency (duplication of work; different agencies bidding against each other for office space) and decrease oversight (if some part of one centralized group wastes money on galas, why would we expect that two dozen different groups would not do the same?). What's the advantage here beyond being able to say you did something?

25 May 2012

"Harvard students on Occupy Harvard"

Greg Mankiw's Blog | Harvard students on Occupy Harvard

The Crimson reports:
For a Statistics 104 final project, a group of students asked 1,035 undergraduates to gauge their impression of Occupy on a scale of one to ten, with ten being most positive. They found that the average ranking of Occupy Harvard was 2.84 out of 10.
This is the only thing I have heard in literally the last ten years that has improved my estimation of Harvard kids.

18 year olds who want to tell everyone else how the world ought to work are one of the worst things on college campuses. They're even worse than the guy who sits under a tree, barefoot and shirtless, playing the one song he knows on acoustic guitar to attract girls. You know that guy, right? He's the guy who thinks Dave Matthews wrote "All Along the Watchtower." I can't stand that guy.

Bluto was totally justified. Amiright?


The Atlantic | Laura McKenna | The Good News and the Bad News About Public Colleges

The bad news is that a growing number of faculty at state or public colleges are adjunct instructors. Adjuncts are temporary faculty members who teach classes for low pay, no benefits. They do not have the protections of tenure. They are often not unionized. 1 million of the 1.5 million people teaching in American colleges are adjuncts. The number of adjunct faculty has increased dramatically over time. LinkedIn reports that it is the fastest growing job description.
This is exactly what I was talking about last week. Why is this bad? Can I have some arguments against adjuncts that rise above question-begging, please?

I can see why you would think this situation is bad for the adjuncts, but why is this bad for consumers? (Both students and tax-payers.)

Actually, scratch that. We can't assume this is bad for the adjuncts themselves. If anything, we ought to assume this is good for the adjuncts, as determined by their revealed preferences among the relevant possibilities. We know only that they judge it to be better than the alternatives, i.e. getting a different job in the private sector. All we can conclude from this is that it's worse than the job they wish they had, but better than any other job they can get. That's it. They obviously believe the combination {be an adjunct in my field of study; have low income} is a better option than {work in some other field; make more money}. Who are we to second guess that choice?

(Yes, of course they would prefer {job in the field I am passionate that also pays well} but I would prefer to eat pizzas that both taste delicious and cause me to lose weight. Sadly neither of those are valid options.)

This debate is parallel to the debate about minimum wages. We could pay the people who are adjuncts more / give them more desirable and expensive positions, but then there would be fewer of them and more people would not get to work in academia at all. That would be good for the people who can get those jobs, and bad for all the unseen people who can't. Why are we assuming that's a good trade-off to make?

Here's how McKenna describes why more adjuncts is bad for students:
All these adjuncts are bad news for undergraduates at the public colleges. Many adjuncts are excellent teachers, but their temporary status and their exclusion from faculty meetings means that students can't rely on them for advice on course selection. It's difficult to develop relationships with faculty that may not have their own offices or might teach at multiple schools. It's also hard to be an excellent professor when you're poor and your career is unstable.
(1) I have never been able to rely on tenured faculty for course selection advice either. They rarely seem to think that understanding undergrad (or even grad) curriculum requirements is their purview. Also they hear about course quality only second-hand, and what they do hear (and say) is filtered by much concern for decorum. Much better to seek advice from more senior students who have first-hand experience and have more leeway for honesty.

(2) How many faculty did you develop a relationship with, especially outside of the semester you were actually in their course? Maybe this says more about my engineering faculty or my social outlook, but for me that number is about two.

(3) It's hard to be an excellent (teaching) professor when you have a research agenda to keep up with as well. I see no reason to believe that being poor or having an unstable career is more of an impediment to excellent teaching than is writing grant applications, preparing tenure packets, supervising dissertations, revising paper submissions, planning conferences and editing journals, attending committee meetings, etc.

What I'd really like to see is data about whether students who have adjuncts as teachers do any worse learning the material than those who have tenure-track faculty. Until I see that I have no reason to believe they're any worse.

(And even then we've only established that there is a cost to having more adjuncts. We would still need to weight this against the benefits.)

PS I love how adjuncts being "not unionized" is in-and-of-itself a bad thing. The condition of being unionized is treated as the benefit, not the actual results they may get from unionization. Unions, churches, roads: by themselves they're just tools, not end goals. They're only useful if they get you somewhere.

21 May 2012

Freedom of Religion is Good. Freedom in General is Better.

I, and I can only assume the rest of the alumni of Notre Dame, just received a letter from ND's President which begins:
A Message from Father John Jenkins, C.S.C.,

Today the University of Notre Dame filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana regarding a recent mandate from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). That mandate requires Notre Dame and similar religious organizations to provide in their insurance plans abortion-inducing drugs, contraceptives and sterilization procedures, which are contrary to Catholic teaching. The decision to file this lawsuit came after much deliberation, discussion and efforts to find a solution acceptable to the various parties.

Let me say very clearly what this lawsuit is not about: it is not about preventing women from having access to contraception, nor even about preventing the Government from providing such services. Many of our faculty, staff and students — both Catholic and non-Catholic — have made conscientious decisions to use contraceptives. As we assert the right to follow our conscience, we respect their right to follow theirs. And we believe that, if the Government wishes to provide such services, means are available that do not compel religious organizations to serve as its agents.
On the one hand, I'm glad that ND is apparently willing to go to bat over this. I had half expected them to be bought off with some sort of waiver or "accommodation." I also appreciate than Jenkins draws a distinction between the State doing something, and it forcing others to do that thing for them.

On the other hand, I think Jenkins misses the point. To be fair, I think most of society misses the point on this.

It's nice that Jenkins wants religious organizations to be free from compulsion on this issue. But what about everyone else? And what about other issues?

If this really was an issue of asserting your right to follow your conscience then it shouldn't matter if you're a religious organization or not. Religious people are not the only ones with consciences. The ability to make moral judgements for ourselves is a capacity granted to each and every person by Nature, or if you prefer, Nature's God. It has nothing at all to do with working at a religious institution.

If you run Saint Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage and you don't think it's your responsibility to pick up the tab for your employees' progestin, that's fine. But if you run John's Sandwich Shop and you don't think it's your job to pick up the tab for your employees' adult children's contact lenses, that's also fine. I don't see how Jenkins concludes that compulsion is fine in the latter case but not the former.

Once upon a time a man could only be granted conscientious objector status if he was a member of a recognized peace church. Now we recognize that COs have moral agency in and of themselves, and not due to some other group affinity.

Freedom from compulsion on this issue — and all others! — should not by tied to religion. I am a moral actor, entitled to my own agency and decisions, whether or not I am part of an organized religious entity.

18 May 2012

Why not adjuncts?

One other thing that Chronicle piece reminded me of:

I keep seeing statistics about how more and more college courses are being taught by non-tenure-track faculty. It always seems to be a given that this is a bad thing. But I don't remember ever seeing anyone actually try to demonstrate why this is so.

Yes, clearly being an itinerant, poorly-paid lecturer or adjunct is less preferable to being a tenure-track professor. But why is splitting the teaching and research loads among two different groups of people bad for the rest of us?

There's not a lot of overlap between the skills you need to be a good researcher and a good teacher. I just don't see the two roles as being particularly complementary, except when it comes to teaching very high level classes. (Grad school classes, and only some 400 level undergrad classes.)

If I could learn data structures from someone who had spent the last two decades digging into the esoterica of spatial representation on high dimensional manifolds or someone who had spent years learning how to teach the basics of balanced binary trees and hash tables, why would I chose the former? If my goal is to be around (relatively-)famous people, maybe I want the "expert," but if my goal is to actually learn things, don't I want the person who's good at teaching what I'll be learning?

Having to do a lot of research means you don't have time to get good at teaching, and having to teach means your research output suffers. What's so great about insisting on having one group of people who do both?

I think insisting on having your researchers do most of your teaching makes about as much sense as having automotive engineers fix most broken down cars. They would probably be pretty good at it (at least above average) and all the background knowledge you need to do the former you can probably put to use doing the latter. Once upon a time, cars were fixed by the people who designed and built them. But that's changed, and I don't see why, other than institutional lock-in and status quo inertia, we couldn't change that for college level teaching as well. What am I missing?

The weird, post-recession economics of The Walking Dead

Speaking of people not understanding that jobs come from meeting others' wants and economies existing to fulfill consumers' desires, check out this panel from The Walking Dead #96.

Wait, first:

(1) That's a highly unlikely sentence. It makes me happy I got to type something so odd.

(2) Some background — the band of survivors in Walking Dead has recently settled down into a small but secure encampment. They thought theirs was the only one of its kind in the region, but they have just learned that there is another, larger such settlement nearby, which a scouting party is currently visiting.

Okay, here's the panel:

[ click to enlarge ]

The part that really gets me is "There's more jobs to go around, more to be done" as if that's a good thing. "More jobs to be done means" there's a lot of stuff you want but you don't have, and that requires people to do more work to get that stuff.

Putting aside the economics of it, is this realistic in any way? This is a band of a couple of dozen people in a dangerous, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Is there really a lack of things to be done? Are they hurting for tasks? I don't recall the Swiss Family Robinson*Were they ever given a surname? wishing there was more to be done. They're essentially a sedentary hunter-gatherer band living at barely a subsistence level, and their problem is there's not enough work to do? That's such a bullshit post-2008 outlook.

17 May 2012

Welfare + Doctorates

Chronicle of Higher Education | Stacey Patton | The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps

If I had read this at my laptop rather than on my Kindle while on the bus I would probably have something to say about every other paragraph in this piece. The subjects of the this piece, and the author as well, are being whiny brats. On the other hand the subjects have also gotten the short end of the stick.

As to the latter: Academia pumps out way, way more PhDs — in the humanities especially — than it needs. Grad programs and undergrad advisers should be far more realistic with people about what life will be like when (if!) they finish their dissertations.

On the other hand, we don't expect car salesmen to talk people out of the rear-engined coupe in fire-engine red even though we all know it's not going to be worth it ten years down the line. That responsibility is on the purchaser. And unlike over-expensive, un-productive BA degrees, people deciding to get their sociology PhD are adults.

Regarding the former: Prices are not some moral judgement nor are your wages a prize for doing well and following the rules. Yes, you are bright and special and have worked hard. The world still doesn't owe you anything. Only being able to command a small wage is not a punishment or an injustice; it is a signal from the universe that what you are selling is not that valuable to consumers. Government programs and policies can (temporarily) paper over that fact, but at the end of the day the information being sent through that price signal is real.

I do feel a little bad for these people. They've been hearing their whole lives that more education is always good. Politicians and public figures insist that learning is literally priceless, that you can never have too much of it, and that more is always better when it comes to school. These people sat through 13 years of school in which their teachers got raises merely for having grad degrees, not for actually having learned productive skills. Those are all bullshit lessons. It's too bad they learned them.

Generations have grown up in our society and never been told that you make money if and only if you satisfy other people's desires. In fact in my schools I was specifically told this was not the case.

And so we've ended up with people like Elliot Stegall, a 51-year old married English lecturer on food stamps:
"As a man, I felt like I was a failure. I had devoted myself to the world of cerebral activity. I had learned a practical skill that was elitist," he says. "Perhaps I should have been learning a skill that the economy supports."
I think Steagall is more than a little confused about what a "practical skill" is.

The kicker is that despite living for over a dozen years as a lecturer he's still a grad student working on his dissertation in film studies! If that's what his passion is then good for him. But you don't get to follow all of your goals.

Kisha Hawkins-Sledge, 35 year-old single mother of two, seems to have the same misconception:
Ms. Hawkins-Sledge says she had preconceived notions about people on government assistance before she herself began receiving aid. "I went to school. I went to grad school," she says. "I thought that welfare was for people who didn't go to school and couldn't get a good job."
Jobs do not follow from degrees. Jobs follow from meeting someone else's demand. You do not get a job because you fulfilled your own desire to explore the portrayal of Vietnam vets in American cinema; you get a job because you can fulfill someone else's desire.

PS The words "science," technology," "engineering" and "math" appear zero times in this article. Draw your own conclusions.

09 May 2012


I (and others) have said before that a big part of Obama's appeal is that he's a blank canvas. People project whatever they want to see on to him.

I can't think of a clearer example than this bit of WSJ Radio from today. (Which of course I can't embed.) The related article is here; this is the relevant passage:
"There's no doubt in my mind that the president shares these values, and that's why it's time for him to speak out in favor of marriage equality as well," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a pro-gay-rights group.
Glenn Thrush said on the radio that all of his pro-gay-rights contacts were sure that in private Obama agreed with them, but couldn't point to any actual statements, to say nothing of actions.

DC is supposed to operate according to "what have you done for me lately?" In this case Obama doesn't have to rely on what he's done for gay marriage activists lately. Or done for them ever. Or even things he's said to support them, lately or otherwise. A combination of his own blank-ness and the GOP's antagonism lets him get away with doing absolutely nothing on this issue — indeed, publicly stating he opposes gay marriage — and having pro-gay-marriage activists love him for it anyway.

Talk is cheap. Silent thoughts even cheaper. Fantasies of someone else's silent thoughts are too cheap to meter.

Yes, yes, I said I was going to be letting up the throttle on blogging, especially about politics. But I can't just go cold turkey.

ETA 4:21pm — Part of me feels a little silly for having published this the morning before Obama finally went on the record endorsing gay marriage. But a bigger part of me realizes that everything I said above is a nice and accurate description of the state of the world as it existed at the time I wrote it. I'm satisfied with that.

Yes, he is no longer a blank canvas on this issue. But we've reached this point 1205 days into his (1461 day long) presidential term, and 1915 days after he formally announced his candidacy.

07 May 2012

Blogging Output Falling

My blogging output has been falling this year, and doing so quite dramatically in the last couple of weeks. I thought I'd outline some reasons, for my own benefit as well as readers'.

(1) I'm behind the schedule I set for myself with the next chapter of my dissertation. That should speak for itself.

(2) I've been trying to read more books and less blogs and news. Not that I think one is better or more worthy than the other. It's just that I have stack upon stack of great books I've been looking forward to reading for years, and I decided it's time to start grinding it down.

In order to encourage myself to do so, I've set up a spreadsheet to track which books I read when and how long they are. It's semi-inspired by Stephen Wolfram's "Personal Analytics" and Nicholas Felton's "Feltron Annual Reports." I've found having a running tally of my pages-read-per-day is a great motivator to pick up a book before bed instead of watching TV. That in turn, I believe, has helped improve my sleep.

(3) Early this year Mrs SB7 got me a Kindle Fire. It's an absolutely wonderful device, but it is better suited for consuming content than it is for creating it. I've spent more time reading my RSS feeds on it rather than my laptop. Simply not being in front of my laptop reduces the time I want to spend blogging.

(4) I've been spending more time on practicing art, design, non-research programming projects, and other things. I decided I needed a better answer to "What do you do in your spare time?" than "I write a blog," especially since I do so anonymously and am therefore slightly reluctant to bring it up in conversation. I'm proud of – some of – what I write here, but I want to produce something a little more concrete than commentary.

To the extent I do publish the the output of these other projects I do so under my own name rather than doing it anonymously here. Every hour I spend baking my own bread or creating a new macro in LaTeX is an hour I'm not creating a post for SB7.

(6) I'm really sick of politics. I'd like to say it's an election year thing, but I don't think that's it. I'm simply worn out hearing about policies that I not only disagree with, but find to be criminally insane. I've (at least temporarily) run out of juice for creating "Holy shit is the whole world run by crazy people?!" blog posts. I'm still going to do some of that, to be sure, but I feel over-run. I can't keep up with the deluge of triple-distilled nuttery happening in the world.

(7) In large part this blog grew out of my attempt to teach myself economics through sources like EconTalk, EconLog, Marginal Revolution, Cafe Hayek, Asymmetric Information, Greg Mankiw, etc. A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend-of-a-friend who happens to be an economics professor. At one point in one of our discussion he said, unprompted, "man, you really sound like an economist. You ever think of switching fields?"*
I'm not sure if this makes me more or less proud, but the current topic of our discussion was the value of frozen pizza. I was taking the pro-frozen pizza position.

It makes me proud that my ad hoc, self-directed education passed the muster of a bona fide economist. I've felt pretty satisfied with my economics knowledge for the last few months. (That's part of why I've shifted some of my time to art, design and other skills.) His comment was only the most obvious marker that it's a good time to refocus on other topics. I'm not saying I know all there is to know, or even all I care to know about economics. And I'll still keep reading my favorite econ blogs and commenting on them. But I think I've reached a point where the most productive veins for me to mine are located in other disciplines.

(8) I'm not sure what should come next after economics. I don't think I'll do anything as comprehensively as I did with econ. I'm not sure if I could if I wanted to. To the best of my knowledge, there's not a thriving community of Operations Research blogs and podcasts.*
Please correct me in the comments if I'm wrong.

Currently I'm leaning towards learning some Scientific Computing and Numerical Methods. There are a few holes in my CS education that never got filled in due to the vagaries of ND and UMD's distribution requirements rules, the particulars of the professors in charge of those courses, and my own personal interests. I think Scientific Computing is one of those, and I think it's time I filled that in on my own. Plus I feel like it would be a useful tool to have in my kit once I hit the working world.

If anyone has a recommendation for a canonical book to learning this material, I'd love to hear about it. I know a lot of people like Press et al.'s Numerical Recipes but I don't think it has the introduction I need to get off the ground. Right now I'm working from a cache of PDFs bequethed from previous members of my lab along the lines of "Numberical Methods in Subject X using Matlab" and "An Introduction to Matlab for Scientific Computing in Topic Y." Anyone have recommendations for comprehensive intro books?