Month: September 2005

The Republican War on Science

Chris Mooney’s new tract is one of the most important books of this year.  Here is a CrookedTimber review.  If you can’t figure out the book’s contents from the title, here is Chris’s blog

My take: I agree with most of the arguments but would have called it The Political War on Science.  Democrat politicians are excessively enamored of government regulation, for instance, and many of them do not pay enough attention to incentives.  (Admittedly these issues are not as clear cut as the theory of evolution; Mooney in fact suggests a scientific approach will lead to more regulation.)  The left often treats human beings as excessively malleable.  Both Carter and Clinton committed some gross errors out of self-deception; they violated the simple principle of dominance rather than any complicated scientific hypothesis.  (What exactly should count as an error of science?)  In fairness to Mooney he does point out many Democrat or left-wing transgressions although not all of these.

Has the increase in Republican hostility to science sprung from an especially bad and craven administration on this issue?  Or has there also been a more fundamental shift in the political equilibrium, due to the greater mobilization of interest groups?  Perhaps voters will be judging science on a more frequent basis from now on, and asking their politicians to take the side of untruth.  Advances in biology will spur this tendency.  Why do Democrat errors more frequently get framed as failures of will or morality, rather than ignorance, vice versa for current Republican errors?  How much of the difference is real and how much is framing?  For how long will media take the side of the Democrats on scientific issues?  Here is today’s New York Times piece on related issues.

Elsewhere on the book front, John Coetzee’s Slow Man is due out September 22, pre-order it hereThe FT reviewer was not crazy about it but I hold greater trust in the author.

Good news, sort of

DHHS Secretary Leavitt…has warned of the risk of "typhoid
and cholera" as a result of contaminated water, while others have
talked generally of mosquito-borne disease and the hazards caused by
dead people and animals. It is time to separate the real risks from the
phantom risks.

Diarrheal disease from contaminated water is a concern, but not cholera
and probably not typhoid. In order to get these diseases the water has
to be contaminated with the organisms that cause those diseases,
neither of which is endemic in that region. What is more likely is
gastroenteritis or hepatitis A from enteric viruses or bacteria.

Similarly the presence of dead animals and people is not a health
hazard. Dead animals decompose naturally in the environment. Unless
they were infected with a contagious organism before death, they will
not themselves become the source of disease. The persistent concern in
mass disasters over unburied bodies is an urban myth. Mass disasters
like floods rarely cause epidemic disease and to suggest otherwise
results in misplaced concern and potential diversion of resources from
more important issues.

The true danger?

The biggest health hazards may well be those we would classify under
"injury." Heat-related illness might be at the top of the list here. As
body core temperatures rise above 105 degrees F., mortality increases
quickly. The high heat and humidity of the area, coupled with
dehydration are a significant health hazard that requires intervention
by providing fluids and cooler shelters. The many sources of physical
injury, whether from feral animals (snakes, alligators, etc.), sharp
metal debris, falls and injuries in an environment where the hazards
are numerous and not easily visible can result in substantial
accumulated morbidity and even mortality. The only remedy is removal of
people to a safer environment, which should be the top priority.

That is from a very smart public health scientist.  Shouldn’t our HHS people know such things?  Isn’t this about, umm…health and human services…?  Read more here.

Government Stops Red Cross from Entering New Orleans

I did not see the Red Cross in all the pictures of New Orleans broadcast over the past week.  Where were they?!!  Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek points us to the incredible answer:

According to
the Disaster FAQs section of the American Red Cross’s website

Hurricane Katrina:
Why is the Red Cross not in New

    • Access to New Orleans is controlled by the National Guard and local
      authorities and while we are in constant contact with them, we simply cannot
      enter New Orleans against their orders.
    • The state Homeland Security Department had requested–and continues to
      request–that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following
      the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage
      others to come into the city.

It’s one thing for the government to be incompetent, this I expect.  But then get the F. out of the way.  People are dying. 

Flood Wikis

Visitors swoop down over a map of the Gulf Coast that’s awash in
hundreds of red teardrops, each denoting information about specific
geographical points in the area. That’s pretty amazing in itself, but
there’s more: All of the information on the map has been provided by
ordinary citizens, most of whom presumably have come to the site in
search of information on the flood themselves.

Since launched
Wednesday, it has become a giant visual "wiki" page, attracting tens of
thousands of visitors who are collaborating in creating a public
document of astonishing detail. "Corner of 1077 and Brewster. Had
contact with parents. Lots fo trees down, but no water damage. No
electrucity and no phone at the monebt 8/31 2:00pm," reads one of
hundreds of entries.

Here is the full story.

Blackwater in New Orleans

Private security firms are stepping into the vacuum created by the failure of the government to protect life and property in New Orleans.

The Steele Foundation, headquartered in San Francisco, was called in
by several major corporate clients to the inundated city where local
police are scarce and food, water or fuel has yet to arrive from the
federal government.

"At this point, all of our efforts are focused on providing physical
security for people who are trapped as well as providing humanitarian
relief," said Kenn Kurtz, chief executive officer of the Steele
Foundation. The company is looking after clients with hotels and holed
up employees and their families, some with urgent medical needs.

"Right now these people are alone…there is no military presence in downtown New Orleans," he said.

The Steele Foundation, which at one time protected Haiti’s president
Jean Bertrand Aristide and operates in Iraq, specializes in business
risk consulting, protective security work and training.

The company has set up a mobile command post in downtown New Orleans
and its clearly-identified security teams are armed but mostly with
non-lethal ammunition, Kurtz said. Some 16,000 military rations,
bottled water as well as fuel have been brought in but looters have
attacked the company’s vehicles.

"We can’t get fuel into many places because it’s too dangerous to travel," Kurtz.

Blackwater USA is sending about 50 employees to the Gulf region
along with a transport helicopter and two cargo planes, according to
spokeswoman Anne Duke. The security company has offered to help the
Coast Guard with pro bono rescue work and is working with
private-sector firms to help protect infrastructure and cultural
buildings in the city, she said.

"I definitely don’t think Blackwater would have been contacted if it
wasn’t a serious situation," said Duke. She declined to detail who the
company is working for in the area.

Blackwater, which draws on former military and law enforcement personnel, has taken on some very high-profile tasks in Iraq.

Easy Econ Graphs?

Scott Bardsley asks:

the best way to draw graphs in economics?  There doesn’t seem to be a good 
answer, much to the frustration of those of us who’d like to take econ 
notes on our computers.  Illustrator is too large and expensive.  Word is 
quite clumsy–it’s awkward to draw multiple lines that are positioned 
relative to text and the autosnap is too sensitive.  Paint doesn’t let you 
move your lines after they’ve been drawn.

Is there a quick and easy way to do econ graphs, or is this an opportunity 
for some clever programmer?

I use Mayura Draw.  Mayura is a vector based program which means each line or shape is an object that can be picked up moved, resized etc.  Curves such as indifference curves can be easily adjusted in order to draw tangencies.  Figures can also be expanded or contracted without loss of quality.  I particularly like that you can export files in EPS (encapsulated postscript) format which allows for very high quality printing.  I used it to draw this graph.  Mayura Draw would not be good, however, for drawing on the fly and the fact that it is vector based makes filling an area a bit of a chore.

Two years ago I considered buying a Tablet PC, which in theory ought to be perfect for taking notes and drawing in real time but the market for Tablet PCs never took off and I’ve never seen any of my students using one. 

Comments are open if you have thoughts, suggestions or relevant experiences.

Does anyone still listen to Harry Nilsson?

1. Cuddly Toy

2. Many Rivers to Cross/Subterranean Homesick Blues

3. Gotta’ Get Up

4. Puget Sound (#1 favorite)

5. Maybe

6. Lifeline

7. All I Think About is You

8. P.O.V. Waltz

9. Remember (Christmas)

10. Vine St.

11. How Long Can Disco Go On

12. It’s Been So Long/River Deep Mountain High.

Those are just a few that come to mind.  Here are some resources on Harry Nilsson.  Try here also.  We may someday see another Harry album.

A short recent history of FEMA

Courtesy of Kevin Drum, read the whole thing.  Hindsight is easy, but what should FEMA be doing?

My view is the following.  Many levees are genuine public goods, and should receive government support, from the federal government (e.g., Army Corp; here is a brief history of their involvement) if need be although perhaps not ideally.  FEMA should not be in the business of flood insurance, nor should FEMA reimburse local governments for snow plowing.  Here is a Cato critique of FEMA.  Here is a libertarian article on why a limited governmental response to the Chicago fire was best.  Here is another libertarian critique.  Here is an AEI article that FEMA invests too much in earthquake safety.  Here is an argument that FEMA should not have been made part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Here is a recent piece on cuts to levee subsidies; the news will hurt the Republicans.  Here is a short piece on how revenue from airport privatization could have been used to shore up New Orleans levees.

Libertarian readers, do you care to argue the levee should not have been subsidized?  Do you favor real privatization, not as a Port Authority or Federal Reserve may be private, but in the true market sense?  (Here is a short history of the Louisiana levee authorities; their status has evolved over time.)  If you take that position, you have a few alternatives:

1. We rely too much on unreliable levees, and privatization/non-subsidization would reveal their true social costs and induce people to move elsewhere.

2. A privatized, non-subsidized levee would engage in a successful long-term contract with city residents; see the Demsetz-Williamson debate.  The government still would have to force residents to make the relevant tax payments, for free rider reasons.

3. A levee contract could be written without use of coercive taxation; see this piece on assurance contracts.

4. A private levee authority would invest in water safety out of fear of being sued.  Furthermore these ex post legal incentives would be reliable and would not involve more government intervention than ex ante regulatory incentives.

5. A private levee authority would be forced by its insurance company to build good protection and also hold huge capital reserves.  Their cost of capital and costs of production would remain lower than the government’s.  You can hold this position in conjunction with #3, or believe that coercive taxation would remain necessary.  But in any case it probably requires reliance on #4.

I am not willing to defend any of these five positions, but what do you say readers?  The current government system, obviously, does not have a sterling record.  Comments are open.

Why Most Published Research Findings are False

Writing in PLoS Medicine, John Ioannidis says:

There is increasing concern that in modern research, false findings may be the majority or even the vast majority of published research claims. However, this should not be surprising. It can be proven that most claimed research findings are false.

Ioannidis presents a Bayesian analysis of the problem which most people will find utterly confusing.  Here’s the idea in a diagram.

Truehypo_3Suppose there are 1000 possible hypotheses to be tested.  There are an infinite number of false hypotheses about the world and only a finite number of true hypotheses so we should expect that most hypotheses are false.  Let us assume that of every 1000 hypotheses 200 are true and 800 false.

It is inevitable in a statistical study that some false hypotheses are accepted as true.  In fact, standard statistical practice guarantees that at least 5% of false hypotheses are accepted as true.  Thus, out of the 800 false hypotheses 40 will be accepted as “true,” i.e. statistically significant.

It is also inevitable in a statistical study that we will fail to accept some true hypotheses (Yes, I do know that a proper statistician would say “fail to reject the null when the null is in fact false,” but that is ugly).  It’s hard to say what the probability is of not finding evidence for a true hypothesis because it depends on a variety of factors such as the sample size but let’s say that of every 200 true hypotheses we will correctly identify 120 or 60%.  Putting this together we find that of every 160 (120+40) hypotheses for which there is statistically significant evidence only 120 will in fact be true or a rate of 75% true.

(By the way, the multiplying factors in the diagram are for those who wish to compare with Ioannidis’s notation.)

Ioannidis says most published research findings are false.  This is plausible in his field of medicine where it is easy to imagine that there are more than 800 false hypotheses out of 1000.  In medicine, there is hardly any theory to exclude a hypothesis from being tested.  Want to avoid colon cancer?   Let’s see if an apple a day keeps the doctor away.  No?  What about a serving of bananas? Let’s try vitamin C and don’t forget red wine.  Studies in medicine also have notoriously small sample sizes.  Lots of studies that make the NYTimes involve less than 50 people – that reduces the probability that you will accept a true hypothesis and raises the probability that the typical study is false.

So economics does ok on the main factors in the diagram but there are other effects which also reduce the probability the typical result is true and economics has no advantages on these – see the extension.

Sadly, things get really bad when lots of researchers are chasing the same set of hypotheses.  Indeed, the larger the number of researchers the more likely the average result is to be false!  The easiest way to see this is to note that when we have lots of researchers every true hypothesis will be found to be true but eventually so will every false hypothesis.  Thus, as the number of researchers increases, the probability that a given result is true goes to the probability in the population, in my example 200/1000 or 20 percent.

A meta analysis will go some way to fixing the last problem so the point is not that knowledge declines with the number of researchers but
rather that with lots of researchers every crackpot theory will have at least one scientific study that it can cite in it’s support.

The meta analysis approach, however, will work well only if the results that are published reflect the results that are discovered.  But editors and referees (and authors too) like results which reject the null – i.e. they want to see a theory that is supported not a paper that says we tried this and this and found nothing (which seems like an admission of failure).

Brad DeLong and Kevin Lang wrote a classic paper suggesting that one of the few times that journals will accept a paper that fails
to reject the null is when the evidence against the null is strong (and thus failing to reject the null is considered surprising and
important).  DeLong and Lang show that this can result in a paradox.  Taken on its own, a paper which fails to reject the null provides evidence in favor of the null, i.e. against the alternative hypothesis and so should increase the probability that a rational person thinks the null is true.  But when a rational person takes into account the selection effect, the fact that the only time papers which fail to reject the null are published is when the evidence against the null is strong, the publication of a paper failing to reject the null can cause him to increase his belief in the alternative theory!

What can be done about these problems?  (Some cribbed straight from Ioannidis and some my own suggestions.)

1)  In evaluating any study try to take into account the amount of background noise.  That is, remember that the more hypotheses which are tested and the less selection which goes into choosing hypotheses the more likely it is that you are looking at noise.

2) Bigger samples are better.  (But note that even big samples won’t help to solve the problems of observational studies which is a whole other problem).

3) Small effects are to be distrusted.

4) Multiple sources and types of evidence are desirable.

5) Evaluate literatures not individual papers.

6)  Trust empirical papers which test other people’s theories more than empirical papers which test the author’s theory.

7)  As an editor or referee, don’t reject papers that fail to reject the null.

New Orleans and Haiti

I had always hoped that Haiti would become more like New Orleans, but what’s happened is New Orleans has become more like Haiti here recently. You know, we don’t have power. We don’t have transportation. At this point, I think, at least the people in the hospital have some fresh water, but they’re telling people you can’t drink the water out of the taps. So there’s people wandering around the city without water, without transportation, without medical care. So in many senses, we have about a million people in the New Orleans area who are experiencing, you know, what Haiti is like.

Here is the link.

How to leave town

If hundreds or thousands died, why didn’t more people leave town?  I can think of a few hypotheses:

1. They were plain, flat out stupid.

2. They were not stupid per se, but human beings underestimate the potential for small probability, massive disruptions to their accustomed status quo.

3. They made a rational calculation, but just happened to catch the wrong number on the roulette wheel of nature.

4. Bad policy meant they didn’t have many good options for leaving.

Sadly, #4 seems to have played a role:

As many as 100,000 inner-city residents didn’t have the means to leave, and an untold number of tourists were stranded by the closing of the airport. The city arranged buses to take people to 10 last-resort shelters, including the Superdome.  (link here).

Some tourists took 76-mile cab rides to Baton Rouge, where they rented cars.  Admittedly, the stayers (arguably even the poor stayers) were stupid not to have done this, but saving lives is more important than who is to blame.  A different framing of the choices might have brought many more people out of town.

Government could have commandeered a fleet of buses to help the carless leave town altogether.  (Was it enough to offer to take them to unappealing shelters?)  Some people foresaw the potential problem in advance, but only Wednesday did buses start taking people out of the city.  Neither FEMA nor the state of Louisiana nor the mayor appears to have done a good job.

When such a disaster comes, should we waive price gouging laws, and temporarily repeal liability for those helping strangers?

Should we expect these same people to protect us from avian flu?

How robust are cities?

Can New Orleans take some small comfort in history?

Their [David Weinstein and Donald Davis] conclusions are based on a study of population growth in Japanese cities that suffered through earthquakes in 1923 and 1995 and bombing during World War II. Following these catastrophes, many Japanese cities suffered greater population and building losses than did New York on September 11. Yet, these cities rebounded not only to where they had been before the attacks, but actually saw their populations rise to levels that one would have predicted based on their prewar size and growth rates. Not only was there no discernable impact from bombing on city size 20 years after the end of the war, recovery from earthquakes seems, if anything, faster. Following the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo and the 1995 earthquake in Kobe, both cities recovered their pre-quake populations within five years.

Paul Krugman summarized this research.  Here is the paper.  Here is Davis’s home page, with related papers.

My doubts: Postwar Japan offered healthier institutions than what came before, so the motives for rebuilding cities were obvious.  Plus much of Japan was destroyed, so there was less reason to reallocate resources elsewhere in the country.  Post-1995 Kobe is the more relevant case for optimism, or try post-1905 San Francisco.  But New Orleans has, for a long time, had subpar urban government compared to the rest of the United States.  And the city has been declining in relative status for 150 years.  If we are starting urban decisions over again from scratch, why reinvest in a lower quality legal environment?  And did Johnstown ever recover its previous position, after its flood?  Will New Orleans see recurrent flooding, as did Johnstown?  What ever happened to Pompeii?

Here is a short essay on the natural geography of New Orleans.  Will the new city simply be support services for nearby oil and natural gas, or will the residents and tourists return in their previous numbers?  Will the unique position of its Mississippi port guarantee its future?  Or will the destruction of the Garden District herald the beginning of the end?

Addendum: Here is a Wall Street Journal article on said topic.

Microeconomics exam question

1. Derive the conditions under which post-disaster looting is efficient.

Hints: Start with a queuing problem, and then ask when rents will not be exhausted; that is, the resources spent obtaining the goods should not equal the value of the goods themselves.  The quest for looted goods therefore should be monopolized or somehow restricted, rather than competitive.  The goods should be perishable, available for subsequent resale, and the negative incentive effect on future production should be small.  The discount rate and the transactions costs of immediate sale by the (previous) owner should both be high.

Extra credit: Does efficiency more likely rise or fall when we consider looting by the police?