Category: Education

What should I ask Ed Boyden?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with him, no associated public event.  Here is his MIT bio:

Ed Boyden is Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology at MIT, associate professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT’s Media Lab and McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and was recently selected to be an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (2018). He leads the Synthetic Neurobiology Group, which develops tools for analyzing and repairing complex biological systems such as the brain, and applies them systematically to reveal ground truth principles of biological function as well as to repair these systems. These technologies include expansion microscopy, which enables complex biological systems to be imaged with nanoscale precision; optogenetic tools, which enable the activation and silencing of neural activity with light; robotic methods for directed evolution that are yielding new synthetic biology reagents for dynamic imaging of physiological signals; novel methods of noninvasive focal brain stimulation; and new methods of nanofabrication using shrinking of patterned materials to create nanostructures with ordinary lab equipment. He co-directs the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering, which aims to develop new tools to accelerate neuroscience progress.

Here are other Ed Boyden links.  So what should I ask him?

How to study history of economic thought

The Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke University will be hosting another Summer Institute on the History of Economics this summer from June 10-19, 2019. The program is designed for students in graduate programs in economics, though students in graduate school in other fields as well as newly minted PhDs will also be considered.

Students will be competitively selected and successful applicants will receive free housing and a booklet of readings. We are also able to provide limited travel support. The deadline for applying is March 1.

We are very excited about this year’s program, which will focus on giving participants the tools to set up and teach their own undergraduate course in the history of economic thought. There will also be sessions devoted to showing how concepts and ideas from the history of economics might be introduced into other classes. The sessions will be run by Duke faculty members Bruce Caldwell and Jason Brent, who will be joined by Steve Medema of the University of Colorado–Denver. More information on the Summer Institute is available at our website,


We study the influence of television translation techniques on the worldwide distribution of English-speaking skills. We identify a large positive effect for subtitled original version broadcasts, as opposed to dubbed television, on English proficiency scores. We analyze the historical circumstances under which countries opted for one of the translation modes and use it to account for the possible endogeneity of the subtitling indicator. We disaggregate the results by type of skills and find that television works especially well for listening comprehension. Our paper suggests that governments could promote subtitling as a means to improve foreign language proficiency.

That’s from TV or not TV? The impact of subtitling on english skills, a clever study with a useful finding.

I cannot help but note that our Principles of Microeconomics and Principles of Macroeconomics videos at MRU (and linked to in our textbook) are subtitled in English, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic and other languages so perhaps we can help teach languages as well as economics.

Does temporary migration from rich to poor countries cause commitment to development?

The author is Lee Crawfurd and the subtitle of the paper is “Evidence from quasi-random Mormon mission assignments.”  Here is part of the abstract:

…we address this question using a natural experiment–the assignment of Mormon missionaries to two-year missions in different world regions–and test whether the attitudes and activities of returned missionaries differ. I find that assignment to a region in the global South causes returned missionaries to report greater interest in global development and poverty, but no difference in support for government aid or higher immigration, and no difference in personal donations or other involvement.

Maybe Mormons are different in this regard, or maybe missions are different (you feel you have done your bit?), but still an interesting result.

Two Teaching Resources

William Luther has put together an excellent list of Planet Money episodes that are keyed to the relevant chapters in Modern Principles of Economics. A similar list is also available for the excellent intermediate-micro text by Goolsbee, Levitt and Syverson.

For graduate students, Luke Stein has put together a 64 page “cheat sheet” (pdf) for basically the first 2 years of micro and macro theory. It’s not for everyone but would be great for studying for prelims at many top programs. This diagram summarizing key results in consumer theory was excellent.

Greek life isn’t as good as you thought

Using records from a large public university, we examine the impact of Greek life on academic performance and salaries. To isolate the causal effect of Greek life, we exploit a university policy prohibiting students from joining a Greek organization during their first semester and a minimum GPA for subsequent eligibility. Regression discontinuity and panel methods reveal that Greek affiliation reduces student grades by 0.1-0.3 standard deviations. Greek effects are largest during the semester of pledging, semesters of increased social activities, and for males. We find no evidence of a Greek salary premium and rule out even modest positive effects.

That is from a new paper by William E. Even and Austin C. Smith, being presented at the AEa meetings this week.

Why private regulation of internet speech doesn’t make many people happy

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg article, here is one excerpt:

I’d like to suggest a simple trilemma. When it comes to private platforms and speech regulation, you can choose two of three: scalability, effectiveness and consistency. You cannot have all three. Furthermore, this trilemma suggests that we — whether as users, citizens or indeed managers of the platforms themselves — won’t ever be happy with how speech is regulated on the internet.

There is much more at the link.

Me on elitism in economics

He [Cowen] said that he agreed with the idea that influence of economics comes from a relatively small number of institutions, and he thinks the number is shrinking. “What used to be something like a ‘top six’ has over time become the ‘top two,’ namely Harvard and MIT.”

Cowen said that he doesn’t “find that entirely ideal, by any means.” But he also said that those departments deserve praise for their work. “Harvard and MIT are in fact remarkably good at finding, evaluating and attracting top talent. It is stunning how good they are at this, and we should not begrudge them that,” he said. (Cowen is an example, having earned his Ph.D. at Harvard. His undergraduate alma mater is George Mason, where he teaches.)

The centralization of top departments, he said, worries him less than do “pressures for conformity.”

Cowen added that he is sympathetic to Vigdor’s criticism, but that the centralization may be “an opportunity” for departments outside the elites to shine. “The centralized centers of influence are going to miss important ideas in their early stages,” Cowen said. “Both public choice and experimental economics came out of non-top schools,” including to some extent George Mason, he said. “So did blogging. If something is unfair, well, in part that is your big chance.”

That is from Scott Jaschik at Inside HigherEd, mostly about Jacob Vigdor and his critique of the economics profession.

Does Economics Make You Sexist?

That is the title of a new paper by Valentina Paredes, M. Daniele Paserman, and Francisco J. Pino, to be presented at the forthcoming AEA meetings:

Recent research has highlighted unequal treatment for women in academic economics along several different dimensions: promotion, hiring, credit for co-authorship, and standards for publication in professional journals. Can the source of these differences lie in biases against women that are pervasive in the discipline, even among students in the earliest stages of their training? In this paper, we provide direct evidence on the importance of explicit and implicit biases against women among students in economics relative to other fields. We conducted a large scale survey among undergraduate students in Chilean universities, among both entering first-year students and upperclassmen. The survey elicits measures of implicit bias, explicit bias, and gender attitudes. We document that, on a wide battery of measures, economics students are more biased than students in other fields. There is some evidence that economics freshmen are more biased already upon entry, before exposure to any economic classes. The gap becomes substantially more pronounced among upperclassmen, in particular for male students. We find evidence of an increase in bias in a limited sample of students that we can follow longitudinally. A significant part of the gap between economics and non-economics students can be explained by differential exposure to female professors.

Work through here is the top link is failing you.  I would note by the way that gender relations in Chile have a reputation for being especially…bifurcated.

My Conversation with Rebecca Kukla

She is a philosopher at Georgetown, here is the audio and transcript, I thought it was excellent and lively throughout.  Here is part of the summary:

In her conversation with Tyler, Kukla speaks about the impossibility of speaking as a woman, curse words, gender representation and “guru culture” in philosophy departments, what she learned while living in Bogota and Johannesburg, what’s interesting in the works of Hegel, Foucault, and Rousseau, why boxing is good for the mind, how she finds good food, whether polyamory can scale, and much more.

Here is one bit:

KUKLA: What’s interesting in Hegel? Okay. You ask hard questions. This is why you’re good at your job, right?

I think Hegel’s fascinating. I think the main idea in Hegel that is fascinating is that any cultural moment, or set of ideas, or set of practices is always internally contradictory in ways it doesn’t notice, that there are tensions built into it. What happens, over time, is that those tensions bubble up to the surface, and in the course of trying to resolve themselves, they create something newer and better and smarter that incorporates both of the original sides.

That was a much more Hegelian way of putting it than I wanted it to come out, basically — the idea that going out and looking for consistency in the world is hopeless. Instead, what we should do is figure out how the contradictions in the world are themselves productive, and push history forward, and push ideas forward, is what I take to be the key interesting Hegelian idea.

COWEN: Michel Foucault. How well has it held up?

KUKLA: Oh, you’re asking me about people I mostly love.

COWEN: But empirically, a lot of doubt has been cast upon it, right?

KUKLA: On the details of his empirical genealogical stories, you mean?


KUKLA: Yes, but I think that the basic Foucauldian picture, which is — let’s reduce Foucault to just two little bits here. One basic piece of the Foucauldian picture is that power is not a unify-unilateral, top-down thing. Power expresses itself in all of the little micro interactions that go on between people and between people and their environments all the time.

Power isn’t about a big set of rules that’s imposed on people. Power is about all of the little things that we do with one another as we move through the world. All of those add up to structures of power, rather than being imposed top-down. I think that has been, at least for me and for many other people, an incredibly fertile, productive way of starting to think about social phenomenon.

The other bit of the Foucauldian picture that I think is incredibly important is the idea that a lot of this happens at the level of concrete, fleshy bodies and material spaces. Power isn’t sets of abstract rules. Power is the way that we are trained up when we are little kids — to hold our legs in a certain way, or to hold our face in a certain way, or to wear certain kinds of clothing. Power is the way that schools are built with desks in rows that enforces a certain direction of the gaze, and so on.

I could go on and on, but the way that the materiality of our bodies and our habits and our environments is where power gets a hold, and where our social patterns and norms are grounded, rather than in some kinds of high-level principles or laws, is also, I think, very fertile.

That’s independent of the details of his genealogical stories. Because, yeah, he does seem to have played fairly fast and loose with actual historical details in a lot of cases.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: Let me start with a very simple question about feminism. What would be a rhetorical disadvantage that many women are at that even, say, educated or so-called progressive men would be unlikely to see?

KUKLA: A rhetorical disadvantage that we’re at — that’s a fascinating question. I think that there is almost no correct way for a woman to use her voice and hold her body to project the proper kind of expertise and authority in a conversation.

I think that there’s massive — I don’t even want to call it a double bind because it’s a multidimensional bind — where if we sound too feminine, sounding feminine in this culture is coded as frivolous and unserious. If we sound too unfeminine, then we sound like we are violating gender norms or like we are unpleasant or trying to be like a man.

I think that almost any way in which we position ourselves — if we try to be polite and make nice, then we come off as weak. If we don’t make nice, then we’re held to a higher standard for our appropriate behavior than men are. I think there’s almost no way we can position ourselves so that we sound as experts. So oftentimes, the content of our words matters less than our embodied presentation as a woman.

Definitely recommended.

Life at the margin?

With Seamus Heaney:

Poetry isn’t important in one sense — it’s more important to live your life and be a good person. Who cares about poetry, there’s plenty already around. Life is more important than art.

Under what conditions is that true?  Under what conditions is it actually believed by Heaney?  Here is the rest of the interview, interesting throughout.  I enjoyed this bit:

MB: What do you like to discuss in terms of literature in your classes?
SH: I’m radical about this, but it seems strange to have discussions with people who don’t know anything and who overreact. They usually don’t have much to say. Maybe discuss literature with them the following year — after the class — when they’ve had time to have the material enter their memory. Until it’s entered their personality they can’t say much.

Via Anecdotal.

True, trivial and yet still neglected in import

Go to More Parties? Social Occasions as Home to Unexpected Turning Points in Life Trajectories

Reviving classical attention to gathering times as sites of transformation and building on more recent microsociological work, this paper uses qualitative data to show how social occasions open up unexpected bursts of change in the lives of those attending. They do this by pulling people into a special realm apart from normal life, generating collective effervescence and emotional energy, bringing usually disparate people together, forcing public rankings, and requiring complex choreography, all of which combine to make occasions sites of inspiration and connection as well as sites of offense and violation. Rather than a time out from “real” life, social occasions hold an outsized potential to unexpectedly shift the course that real life takes. Implications for microsociology, social inequality, and the life course are considered.

That is from the excellent Alice Goffman.  And “from the credits,” here is the really big news:

Alice Goffman is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin Madison and McConnell Visiting Assistant Professor at Pomona College. She is finishing a book titled Fateful: Where and When Life Changes Unexpectedly, with University of Chicago Press.

Via Kevin Lewis.

In defense of McKinsey

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opener:

The latest institution to take a big whack from the media, with its well-known negative bias, is McKinsey & Co. A recent article in The New York Times shows how much the consulting company has worked for authoritarian and autocratic countries, including China, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

I would instead frame this story in a broader and far more positive reality: One of the biggest, most positive (and most neglected) global trends over the last 30 years has been the spread of managerial and technocratic expertise to what used to be called “third world governments.” In most countries, the central banks, the public health authorities, the treasuries and many other public-sector institutions now collect good data, hire Western-educated advisers, and try to implement good solutions.


…when I meet entrepreneurs in poorer parts of the world, I am often struck by the fact that they are highly intelligent and conscientious, but they don’t always understand all of the cultural codes of good management. Advice that might appear stupid or trivial to more experienced observers may actually help to build new cultures of business excellence and economic growth.

There is much more at the link.  Here is a good tweet stream on the company.  Here is the McKinsey response to the NYT article.

My Conversation with Daniel Kahneman

Here is the transcript and audio, a rollicking time was had by all.  We covered what you would expect us to have covered.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: And that people want to maximize their overall sense of how their life has gone — do you think that is ultimately Darwinian roots? Why is that the equilibrium? Happiness feels good, right?

KAHNEMAN: Yeah, happiness feels good in the moment. But it’s in the moment. What you’re left with are your memories. And that’s a very striking thing — that memories stay with you, and the reality of life is gone in an instant. So memory has a disproportionate weight because it’s with us. It stays with us. It’s the only thing we get to keep.

COWEN: If you think of your own life, have you maximized happiness or the overall sense of how your life has gone?

KAHNEMAN: Neither.


COWEN: Neither. Citations?


And on his new project:

KAHNEMAN: I’ll tell you where the experiment from which my current fascination with noise arose. I was working with an insurance company, and we did a very standard experiment. They constructed cases, very routine, standard cases. Expensive cases — we’re not talking of insuring cars. We’re talking of insuring financial firms for risk of fraud.

So you have people who are specialists in this. This is what they do. Cases were constructed completely realistically, the kind of thing that people encounter every day. You have 50 people reading a case and putting a dollar value on it.

I could ask you, and I asked the executives in the firm, and it’s a number that just about everybody agrees. Suppose you take two people at random, two underwriters at random. You average the premium they set, you take the difference between them, and you divide the difference by the average.

By what percentage do people differ? Well, would you expect people to differ? And there is a common answer that you find, when I just talk to people and ask them, or the executives had the same answer. It’s somewhere around 10 percent. That’s what people expect to see in a well-run firm.

Now, what we found was 50 percent, 5–0, which, by the way, means that those underwriters were absolutely wasting their time, in the sense of assessing risk. So that’s noise, and you find variability across individuals, which is not supposed to exist.

I enjoyed this particular exchange:

COWEN: Do you think of low intelligence as yet a third independent source of error? Or is that somehow subsumed in bias and noise?

KAHNEMAN: You mean plain stupidity?


COWEN: In some cases.

And this:

COWEN: A society such as Argentina that relies so heavily on psychoanalysis — as a psychologist, do you see that as bias? Is it a placebo? Is there a placebo effect in psychoanalysis?

KAHNEMAN: You seem to attribute . . . You seem to think that I think of bias all the time.


COWEN: I can’t imagine why. That’s my bias.

KAHNEMAN: It’s like thinking of sex all the time. I really don’t think of bias that much.


COWEN: Some questions about psychologists outside of what you’ve worked on, but maybe related — Freud. What do you think of Freud’s body of work? And has it influenced you at all?

Definitely recommended, and you will find cameo appearances by Michael Nielsen and Daniel Gross.