Policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta were told of the list of forbidden words at a meeting Thursday with senior CDC officials who oversee the budget, according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing. The forbidden words are “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.”

That’s the WaPo piece everyone is abuzz about.  A few observations:

1. This story may well be true, but I’d like more than “…according to an analyst who took part in the 90-minute briefing.”  Here is another account of what exactly is known.  Wasn’t “not publishing the article until it is better sourced” the evidence-based thing to do?

2. I don’t have a great fondness for the terms “evidence-based” or “science-based.”  When they are used on MR, it is often as a form of third-person reference or with a slight mock or ironic touch.  When I see the words used by others, my immediate reaction is to think someone is deploying it selectively, without complete self-awareness, or as a bullying tactic, in lieu of an actual argument, or as a way of denying how much their own argument depends on values rather than science.  I wouldn’t ban the words for anyone working for me, but seeing them often prompts my editor’s red pen, so to speak.  The most er…evidence-based people I know don’t use the term so much, least of all with reference to themselves.

3. In any case, the suggested replacement phrase — “CDC bases its recommendations on science in consideration with community standards and wishes” — I do not find offensive or anti-science, and I can imagine a plausible case that it is an actual improvement.  Science is (ought to be) value-free, yet CDC and more broadly federal policy should embody values too.  It should not think of itself as “the handmaiden of science.”

4. There is a fine line between “censorship” and “a bureaucratic organization which can be badly damaged by individual freelancing deciding to adopt uniform terminologies.”  I don’t doubt both might be going on here, but I’d like to see the extant Twitter takes show a little more subtlety on the broader point.  Don’t forget that the executive branch of government reports to the…executive, it is not a freestanding committee for debate, however much it might sometimes like to imagine otherwise.

5. The word “diversity” usually isn’t specific enough, or is channeling unstated preconceptions about how diversity should be interpreted.  We should improve our use of this word.  I have similar feelings about “vulnerable.”

6. People react to changes rather than levels.

7. “Fetus” — look, it is fine to disagree with the “pro-life view” (I’m not even sure what is the most neutral way of labeling it).  But is banning the use of the word “fetus” in institutional documents censorship?  What if an employee, during the Obama years, in an official CDC release had referred to a “fetus” as a “child”?  Would that have been changed back to fetus?  I am inclined to say yes.  Is it censorship in only one direction, or are both decisions censorship?  Or is this better seen as a disagreement over matters of fact?  A disagreement over values?  I am genuinely unsure, and I am unsure what a majority of the American public would think.  But I would say this is sooner worth a ponder than a rant.

8. If nothing else, Sam Altman can show up in China, post “here is my vulnerable entitlement diversity transgender fetus, who is evidence-based and science-based” on his Weibo account, and then go order some Chairman Mao’s braised pork belly.

9. What are the forbidden words in other parts of the federal government, whether de jure or de facto?  Will anyone be showing us a list?  Or is that list censored too?

Many are abuzz over Sam Altman’s short and politically incorrect blog post:

Earlier this year, I noticed something in China that really surprised me.  I realized I felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco.  I didn’t feel completely comfortable—this was China, after all—just more comfortable than at home.

That showed me just how bad things have become, and how much things have changed since I first got started here in 2005.

It seems easier to accidentally speak heresies in San Francisco every year.  Debating a controversial idea, even if you 95% agree with the consensus side, seems ill-advised.

Nerd that I am, I am immediately reminded of the theory of price indices.  If you go to a new country with the same goods and prices as your home town, you won’t buy very much.  Alternatively, if your port of call has radically remixed relative prices, you will do lots of shopping and go home pretty happy.

And so it runs with shadow prices for speech, including rights to say things and to ask questions.  Whatever you are free to say in America, you have said many times already, and the marginal value of exercising that freedom yet again doesn’t seem so high.  But you show up in China, and wow, your pent-up urges are not forbidden topics any more.  Just do be careful with your mentions of Uncle Xi, Taiwan, Tibet, Uighur terrorists, and disappearing generals.  That said, in downtown Berkeley you can speculate rather freely on whether China will someday end up as a Christian nation, and hardly anybody will be offended.

For this reason, where we live typically seems especially unfree when it comes to speech.  And when I am in China, I usually have so, so many new dishes I want to sample, including chestnuts and pumpkin.

All of this will seem all the more true, the longer you have lived in your home base.  You will note also that price variability increases consumer surplus, so it is no wonder that Sam enjoys China so much.

That is another truly splendid book by Navid Kermani.  Imagine deep and thoughtful essays on Goethe and Islam, Kleist and love, Shiite passion plays, Wagner and empathy, and why he doesn’t so much sympathize with King Lear, all from a George Steiner brand of polymath.  As I’ve mentioned before, Kermani is ethnically Persian but was born and grew up in Germany.  Imagine a devout Muslim absorbing and internalizing the best of German classical literary culture, including Lessing, Zweig, Benjamin, Mann, and much more.  He recreates a version of that tradition that otherwise would be inaccessible to us.  And might he now be Germany’s best and most important public intellectual?

I’d like to put forward a simple hypothesis.  Tune down the yappers.  Read and study Kermani, Michel Houllebecq, Bruno Maçães, Ross Douthat, and assorted others.  Once I wrote: “Remember people, the influential thinkers of the next generation will be the religious ones…whether you like it or not.”  This is what I meant, and I don’t even know if the second and third writers on my list believe in God.

Here is my previous post on Kermani.

…if a speaker marks a delay with “um,” that delay will be longer than if it had been marked by “uh.”  If “uh” is used, the delay that follows before resumption of fluent speech is roughly a quarter of a second; if “um” is used, the anticipated delay approaches three-quarters of a second.

In one case (um) the delay is inserted as “a deliberate signal”, in the other (uh) it is “an unavoidable effect of having processing problems.”

In male speech, either um or uh accounts for about one out of fifty words; for female speech it is only one out of seventy words.

One study found that over 40 percent of transitions — the switch in who is talking — have gaps of within a quarter-second of zero.  In another similar study, the two parties are talking at the same time only 3.8 percent of the time, and then usually not for very long.

So says N.J. Enfield, in his new book How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation.

Where?, I hear you asking.  No, that is the title of a new book by Karl Sigmund and the subtitle is The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science.  I enjoyed this book very much, though I don’t recommend it as a balanced introduction to its chosen topic.  I liked it best for its whims and interstices:

1. The mathematician Richard von Mises (brother of economist Ludwig) was a patron of Rilke, and he established a foundation for the sole purpose of supporting Robert Musil.

2. Carl Menger was planning on writing a philosophical treatise, and one which would have had a “Vienna Circle” anti-metaphysical slant.

3. Arguably Karl Popper learned the most from a polymathic cabinetmaker he was apprenticed to in his youth.

4. Friedrich Wieser had supported Mussolini, but a young Oskar Morgenstern, in his diary, complained that Wieser was too liberal.

5. Morgenstern later became a confirmed liberal, and he also remarked a few times that game theory was for the social sciences completing the research program of Kurt Gödel.

6. Karl Popper complained that Wittgenstein threatened him, in a lecture, with a poker.  It is not obvious this was the case.

7. I came away from my read wanting to sample more Ernst Mach, more Moritz Schlick, and thinking Otto Neurath was perhaps badly underrated.

Note that most of the book is more serious than this, and less concerned with economists, much more with math and science and some psychoanalysis and positivism too.

The IQ gains of the 20th century have faltered. Losses in Nordic nations after 1995 average at 6.85 IQ points when projected over thirty years. On Piagetian tests, Britain shows decimation among high scorers on three tests and overall losses on one. The US sustained its historic gain (0.3 points per year) through 2014. The Netherlands shows no change in preschoolers, mild losses at high school, and possible gains by adults. Australia and France offer weak evidence of losses at school and by adults respectively. German speakers show verbal gains and spatial losses among adults. South Korea, a latecomer to industrialization, is gaining at twice the historic US rate.

When a later cohort is compared to an earlier cohort, IQ trends vary dramatically by age. Piagetian trends indicate that a decimation of top scores may be accompanied by gains in cognitive ability below the median. They also reveal the existence of factors that have an atypical impact at high levels of cognitive competence. Scandinavian data from conventional tests confirm the decimation of top scorers but not factors of atypical impact. Piagetian tests may be more sensitive to detecting this phenomenon.

That is newly published research from James R. Flynn and Michael Shayer, via Rolf Degen.

U.S.-born Mexican Americans suffer a large schooling deficit relative to other Americans, and standard data sources suggest that this deficit does not shrink between the 2nd and later generations. Standard data sources lack information on grandparents’ countries of birth, however, which creates potentially serious issues for tracking the progress of later-generation Mexican Americans. Exploiting unique NLSY97 data that address these measurement issues, we find substantial educational progress between the 2nd and 3rd generations for a recent cohort of Mexican Americans. Such progress is obscured when we instead mimic the limitations inherent in standard data sources.

That is by Brian Duncan, Jeffrey Grogger, Ana Sofia Leon, and Stephen J. Trejo in a recent NBER working paper.

Here are my selected bits and pieces from a longer list:

“Artificial intelligence systems pretending to be female are often subjected to the same sorts of online harassment as women.” [Jacqueline Feldman]

Swintec is a company in New Jersey that sells up to 5,000 typewriters a year to prisoners in the US. Their typewriters have clear plastic covers so inmates can’t hide anything inside. Transparent TVs, CD players and Walkmen are also available. [Daniel A Gross]

In the UK, marriages between couples over 65 have risen 46% over the last decade. [Cassie Werber]

A cryptocurrency mining company called Genesis Mining is growing so fast that they rent Boeing 747s to ship graphics cards to their Bitcoin mines in Iceland. [Joon Ian Wong]

Dana Lewis from Alabama built herself an artificial pancreas from off-the-shelf parts. Her design is open source, so people with diabetes can hack together solutions more quickly than drug companies. [Lee Roop]

In August, Virginia Tech built a fake driverless van — with the driver hidden inside the seat — to see how other drivers would react. Their reaction: “This is one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen.” [Adam Tuss] (Fluxx have also been experimenting with fake autonomous vehicles in Cambridge)

Women are eight times more likely to ask Google if their husband is gay than if he is an alcoholic. [Sean Illing]

Men travelling first class tend to weigh more than those in economy, while for women the reverse is true. [Lucy Hooker]

Facebook employs a dozen people to delete abuse and spam from Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook page. [Sarah Frier]

Pro tip: Ask your current customers “What nearly stopped you buying from us?” [Karl Blanks]

Here is the full list, Tom has an excellent algorithm for building the list.

1. Moore’s Law plus the internet makes smart people smarter, and stupid people less smart.

2. Manipulable people can be reached with a greater flood of information, so over time as data on them accumulate, they become more manipulable.

3. It is often easier to manipulate smart people than stupid people, because the latter may be oblivious to a greater set of cues and clues.

4. Social media bring smarter people together with the less smart more than used to be the case, Twitter more so than Facebook.  Members of each group are appalled by what they experience.  The smarter people see the lesser smarts of many others.  The less smart people — who often are not entirely so stupid after all — can see how manipulated the smarter people are.  They also see that the smarter people look down on them and attack their motives and intellects.  Both groups go away thinking less of each other.

4b. The smarter people, in reacting this way, in fact are being manipulated by the (stupider) powers that be.

5. “There is a performative dimension that renders both sides more rigid and dishonest.”  From a correspondent.

6. Consider a second distinction, namely between people who are too sensitive to social information, and people who are relatively insensitive to social information.  A quick test of this one is to ask how often a person’s tweets (and thoughts) refer to the motivations, intentions, or status hierarchies held by others.  Get the picture?  (Here is an A+ example.)

7. People who are overly sensitive to social information will be driven to distraction by Twitter.  They will find the world to be intolerably bad.  The status distinctions they value will be violated so, so many times, and in a manner which becomes common knowledge.  And they will perceive what are at times the questionable motives held by others.  Twitter is like negative catnip for them.  In fact, they will find it more and more necessary to focus on negative social information, thereby exacerbating their own tendencies toward oversensitivity.

8. People who are not so sensitive to social information will pursue social media with greater equanimity, and they may find those media productivity-enhancing.  Nevertheless they will become rather visibly introduced to a relatively new category of people for them — those who are overly sensitive to social information.  This group will become so transparent, so in their face, and also somewhat annoying.  Even those extremely insensitive to social information will not be able to help perceiving this alternate approach, and also the sometimes bad motivations that lie behind it.  The overly sensitive ones in turn will notice that another group is under-sensitive to the social considerations they value.  These two groups will think less and less of each other.  The insensitive will have been made sensitive.  It’s like playing “overrated vs. underrated” almost 24/7 on issues you really care about, and which affect your own personal status.

9. The philosophy of Stoicism will return to Silicon Valley.  It will gain adherents but fail, because the rest of the system is stacked against it.

10. The socially sensitive, very smart people will become the most despairing, the most manipulated, and the most angry.  The socially insensitive will either jump ship into the camp of the socially sensitive, or they will cultivate new methods of detachment, with or without Stoicism.  Straussianism will compete with Stoicism.

11. Parts of social media will peel off into smaller, more private groups.  At the end of the day, many will wonder which economies of scale and scope have been lost.  And gained.  Others will be too manipulated to wonder such things.

12. The “finance guy” in me thinks: how can I use all this for intellectual arbitrage?  Which camp does that put me in?

13.  What bounds this process?

The authors are Alex Bell, Raj Chetty, Xavier Jaravel, Neviana Petkova, and John Van Reenen, here is the abstract:

We characterize the factors that determine who becomes an inventor in America by using deidentified data on 1.2 million inventors from patent records linked to tax records. We establish three sets of results. First, children from high-income (top 1%) families are ten times as likely to become inventors as those from below-median income families. There are similarly large gaps by race and gender. Differences in innate ability, as measured by test scores in early childhood, explain relatively little of these gaps. Second, exposure to innovation during childhood has significant causal effects on children’s propensities to become inventors. Growing up in a neighborhood or family with a high innovation rate in a specific technology class leads to a higher probability of patenting in exactly the same technology class. These exposure effects are gender-specific: girls are more likely to become inventors in a particular technology class if they grow up in an area with more female inventors in that technology class. Third, the financial returns to inventions are extremely skewed and highly correlated with their scientific impact, as measured by citations. Consistent with the importance of exposure effects and contrary to standard models of career selection, women and disadvantaged youth are as under-represented among high-impact inventors as they are among inventors as a whole. We develop a simple model of inventors’ careers that matches these empirical results. The model implies that increasing exposure to innovation in childhood may have larger impacts on innovation than increasing the financial incentives to innovate, for instance by cutting tax rates. In particular, there are many “lost Einsteins” – individuals who would have had highly impactful inventions had they been exposed to innovation.

Here is the paper, here are the slides (best place to start), here is a David Leonhardt column on it.

Florence!  Motown!  Kuna molas!  David Hume knew this!  The work looks very interesting, though I doubt if the main effect is actually channeled through absolute income, as evidenced by the immediately afore-mentioned examples.  Also, I don’t think their tax analysis quite holds up once you see intermediaries as needing to cover fixed costs for the innovators.  Taxing profits from innovation then lowers the number of potential innovators quite a bit, by discouraging investment from the intermediaries.

An American citizen who teaches in Denmark, she may be charged with a crime and kicked out of the country for violating the terms of her work visa, carrying a criminal record for the rest of her life.  Her sin?  Giving a talk to Danish Parliament:

Laws barring nonpermanent Danish residents from holding side jobs, paid or unpaid, have been in effect for some time. But Harrington said public scholarship is hardly a side job for an academic. Moreover, a separate Danish law mandates that university faculty members publicly share their research. Ironically, on the day Harrington learned of her criminal charges, she was notified that she’d received an award for research dissemination from the Danish Society for Education and Business.

And no matter that Parliament invited Harrington to speak — it’s facing scrutiny, too, for being unaware of laws preventing academics from speaking outside their universities without first obtaining explicit permission to do so from the Danish Agency for International Recruitment and Integration. That permission process is lengthy, by the way; Harrington said applying for a recent one-day work permit to give lecture to a political group took 15 hours.

Here is the full story.

From a recent survey by Pennington, Heim, Levy, and Larkin:

This systematic literature review appraises critically the mediating variables of stereotype threat. A bibliographic search was conducted across electronic databases between 1995 and 2015. The search identified 45 experiments from 38 articles and 17 unique proposed mediators that were categorized into affective/subjective (n = 6), cognitive (n = 7) and motivational mechanisms (n = 4). Empirical support was accrued for mediators such as anxiety, negative thinking, and mind-wandering, which are suggested to co-opt working memory resources under stereotype threat. Other research points to the assertion that stereotype threatened individuals may be motivated to disconfirm negative stereotypes, which can have a paradoxical effect of hampering performance. However, stereotype threat appears to affect diverse social groups in different ways, with no one mediator providing unequivocal empirical support. Underpinned by the multi-threat framework, the discussion postulates that different forms of stereotype threat may be mediated by distinct mechanisms.

Or from Wikipedia:

Whether the effect occurs at all has also been questioned, with researchers failing to replicate the finding. Flore and Wicherts concluded the reported effect is small, but also that the field is inflated by publication bias. They argue that, correcting for this, the most likely true effect size is near zero (see meta-analytic plot, highlighting both the restriction of large effect to low-powered studies, and the plot asymmetry which occurs when publication bias is active).[

Earlier meta-analyses reached similar conclusions. For instance, Ganley et al. (2013)[10] examined stereotype threat on mathematics test performance. They report a series of 3 studies, with a total sample of 931 students. These included both childhood and adolescent subjects and three activation methods, ranging from implicit to explicit. While they found some evidence of gender differences in math, these occurred regardless of stereotype threat. Importantly, they found “no evidence that the mathematics performance of school-age girls was impacted by stereotype threat”. In addition, they report that evidence for stereotype threat in children appears to be subject to publication bias. The literature may reflect selective publication of false-positive effects in underpowered studies, where large, well-controlled studies find smaller or non-significant effects:

Personally, I find stereotype threat to be a very intuitive idea with a fair amount of anecdotal support.  So why aren’t these meta-results more convincing?

This paper examines the impact of perceived risk of street harassment on women’s human capital attainment. I assemble a unique dataset that combines information on 4,000 students at the University of Delhi from a survey that I designed and conducted, a mapping of the potential travel routes to all colleges in the students’ choice set using an algorithm I developed in Google Maps, and crowd-sourced mobile application safety data. Using a random utility framework, I estimate that women are willing to choose a college in the bottom half of the quality distribution over a college in the top quintile for a route that is perceived to be one standard deviation (SD) safer. Alternatively, women are willing to spend an additional INR 18,800 (USD 290) per year, relative to men, for a route that is one SD safer – an amount equal to double the average annual college tuition. These findings have implications for other economic decisions made by women. For example, it could help explain the puzzle of low female labor force participation in India.

That is the excellent job market paper by Girija Borker at Brown University, this is one of the most novel and important works I have seen this job market season.

Job market papers of 2017-2018

by on November 27, 2017 at 2:37 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

As you may have noticed, I’ve been surveying various job market papers from this year.  So far, here are my subjective impressions of what is going on overall.  The number of money and macro papers is way down.  Development economics is still flourishing and expanding, even relative to a few years ago, though I worry I am not seeing many generalizable results and that the fixed costs of continuing to do this kind of research throughout your career are quite high.  Purely applied areas such as water and transportation are making their way into job market papers at the top schools.  MIT and Harvard are still the two best graduate programs with the best students.  Papers from business and public policy schools, on the technical side, are coming closer and closer to economics, and they may be more interesting, so consider those places for your hiring.  I’m seeing Turkish, Korean, and Chinese graduate students working on the big picture institutional and political economy questions.  The total number of candidates seemed slightly down, though that could be my imagination.

Audio of Robert Nozick?

by on November 26, 2017 at 3:10 am in Education, Philosophy | Permalink

Nozick was one of the smartest and quickest thinkers, and I feel sorry for those who never had the chance of experiencing him in person.  Recently I received this email from Michael P. Gibson:

Robert Nozick is one of my intellectual heroes and I have wondered why there aren’t any recordings out there of his lectures. Well, after some probing around, I’ve discovered there are!

Alas, they are 17 audiocassettes at Hollis at Harvard. Do you think it’s worth a bleg on MR to see if some enterprising Harvard student out there might digitize them and make them accessible to the public?

Anyone?  Do you know of any other recordings of his lectures?  It’s a shame he was never on Firing Line.