evidence-based

What I’ve been reading

1. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears).  A fun look at the Free Town project as applied to Grafton, New Hampshire: “During a television interview, a Grafton resident accused the Free Towners of “trying to cram freedom down our throats.””

2. Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeulen, Law & Leviathan: Redeeming the Administrative State.  Self-recommending from the pairing alone, there is a great deal of interesting content in the 145 pp. of text.  It is furthermore an interesting feature of this book that it was written at all on the chosen topic.  Perhaps the administrative state is under more fire than I realize.  And might you consider this book a centrist version of…maybe call it “state capacity not quite libertarianism”?

3. Michael D. Gordin, The Pseudo-Science Wars: Immanuel Velikovsky and the Birth of the Modern Fringe.  A somewhat forgotten but still fascinating episode in the history of science, extra-interesting for those interested in Venus.  I had not known that Velikovsky pushed a weird version of a eugenicist theory stating that Israel was too hot for its own long-term good, and that its inhabitants needed to find ways of cooling it down.

4. History, Metaphor, Fables: A Hans Blumenberg Reader, edited by Bajohr, Fuchs, and Kroll.  I love Blumenberg, but the selection here didn’t quite sell me.  Better to start with his The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, noting that book is a tough climb for just about anyone and it requires your full attention for some number of weeks.  Might Blumenberg be the best 20th thinker who isn’t discussed much in the Anglo-American world?  And yes it is Progress Studies too.

5. Laura Tunbridge, Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces.  Smart books on Beethoven are like potato chips, plus you can listen to his music while reading (heard Op.33 Bagatelles lately?).  In addition to some of the classics, this book covers some lesser known pieces such as the Septet, An die Ferne Geliebte, and the Choral Fantasy, and how they fit into Beethoven’s broader life and career.  Intelligent throughout.

6. Sean Scully, The Shape of Ideas, edited and written by Timothy Rub and Amanda Sroka.  Is Scully Ireland’s greatest living artist?  He has been remarkably consistent over more than five decades of creation.  This is likely the best Scully picture book available, and the text is useful too.  Since it is abstract color and texture painting, he is harder than most to cancel — will we see the visual arts shift in that direction?

Jonathan E. Hillman, The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century, is a good introduction to its chosen topic.

Robert Litan, Resolved: Debate Can Revolutionize Education and Help Save Our Democracy: “…incorporate debate or evidence-based argumentation in school as early as the late elementary grades, clearly in high school, and even in college.”

I am closer to the economics than the politics of Casey B. Mulligan, You’re Hired! Untold Successes and Failures of a Populist President, but nonetheless it is an interesting and contrarian book, again here is the excellent John Cochrane review.

There is also Harriet Pattison, Our Days are Like Full Years: A Memoir with Letters from Louis Kahn, a lovely romance with nice photos, sketches, and images as well, very nice integration of text and visuals.

Wednesday assorted links

Sunday assorted links

1. John Cleese on PC and wokeness.  I think the first comment is satire rather than serious, but one can’t be entirely sure these days.  The best-known Monty Python episodes these days are entirely acceptable, but some of the now lesser-known works are pretty…out there.

2. “Meanwhile, for-profit companies charge schools thousands of dollars for the training, making the active shooter drill industry worth an estimated $2.7 billion — “all in pursuit of a practice that, to date, is not evidence-based,” according to the researchers.”  Link here.

3. Ross Douthat on how many lives a more competent president would have saved (NYT).

4. Why don’t coaches/manangers adjust more?  A parable from the NBA, but with much broader applicability.  Note that sometimes the star player is the problem too.

5. Herd immunity thread.

6. New Chetty et.al. paper on macro and the pandemic.

Friday assorted links

Is Dentistry Safe and Effective?

The FDA may be too conservative but it does subject new pharmaceuticals to real scientific tests for efficacy. In contrasts, many medical and surgical procedures have not been tested in randomized controlled trials. Moreover, dental care is far behind medical care in demanding scientific evidence of efficacy. A long-read in The Atlantic spends far too much time on a single case of egregious dental fraud but it’s larger point is correct:

Common dental procedures are not always as safe, effective, or durable as we are meant to believe. As a profession, dentistry has not yet applied the same level of self-scrutiny as medicine, or embraced as sweeping an emphasis on scientific evidence.

…Consider the maxim that everyone should visit the dentist twice a year for cleanings. We hear it so often, and from such a young age, that we’ve internalized it as truth. But this supposed commandment of oral health has no scientific grounding. Scholars have traced its origins to a few potential sources, including a toothpaste advertisement from the 1930s and an illustrated pamphlet from 1849 that follows the travails of a man with a severe toothache. Today, an increasing number of dentists acknowledge that adults with good oral hygiene need to see a dentist only once every 12 to 16 months.

The joke, of course, is that there’s no evidence for the 12 to 16 month rule either. Still give credit to Ferris Jabr for mentioning that the case for fluoridation is also weak by modern standards–questioning fluoridation has been a taboo in American society since anti-fluoridation activists were branded as far-right conspiracy theorists in the 1950s.

The Cochrane organization, a highly respected arbiter of evidence-based medicine, has conducted systematic reviews of oral-health studies since 1999….most of the Cochrane reviews reach one of two disheartening conclusions: Either the available evidence fails to confirm the purported benefits of a given dental intervention, or there is simply not enough research to say anything substantive one way or another.

Fluoridation of drinking water seems to help reduce tooth decay in children, but there is insufficient evidence that it does the same for adults. Some data suggest that regular flossing, in addition to brushing, mitigates gum disease, but there is only “weak, very unreliable” evidence that it combats plaque. As for common but invasive dental procedures, an increasing number of dentists question the tradition of prophylactic wisdom-teeth removal; often, the safer choice is to monitor unproblematic teeth for any worrying developments. Little medical evidence justifies the substitution of tooth-colored resins for typical metal amalgams to fill cavities. And what limited data we have don’t clearly indicate whether it’s better to repair a root-canaled tooth with a crown or a filling. When Cochrane researchers tried to determine whether faulty metal fillings should be repaired or replaced, they could not find a single study that met their standards.

The third cohort of Emergent Ventures recipients

As always, note that the descriptions are mine and reflect my priorities, as the self-descriptions of the applicants may be broader or slightly different.  Here goes:

Jordan Schneider, for newsletter and podcast and writing work “explaining the rise of Chinese tech and its global ramifications.”

Michelle Rorich, for her work in economic development and Africa, to be furthered by a bike trip Cairo to Capetown.

Craig Palsson, Market Power, a new YouTube channel for economics.

Jeffrey C. Huber, to write a book on tech and economic progress from a Christian point of view.

Mayowa Osibodu, building AI programs to preserve endangered languages.

David Forscey, travel grant to look into issues and careers surrounding protection against election fraud.

Jennifer Doleac, Texas A&M, to develop an evidence-based law and economics, crime and punishment podcast.

Fergus McCullough, University of St. Andrews, travel grant to help build a career in law/history/politics/public affairs.

Justin Zheng, a high school student working on biometrics for cryptocurrency.

Matthew Teichman at the University of Chicago, for his work in philosophy podcasting.

Kyle Eschen, comedian and magician and entertainer, to work on an initiative for the concept of “steelmanning” arguments.

Here is the first cohort of winners, and here is the second cohort.  Here is the underlying philosophy behind Emergent Ventures.  Note by the way, if you received an award very recently, you have not been forgotten but rather will show up in the fourth cohort.

Is NIH funding seeing diminishing returns?

Scientific output is not a linear function of amounts of federal grant support to individual investigators. As funding per investigator increases beyond a certain point, productivity decreases. This study reports that such diminishing marginal returns also apply for National Institutes of Health (NIH) research project grant funding to institutions. Analyses of data (2006-2015) for a representative cross-section of institutions, whose amounts of funding ranged from $3 million to $440 million per year, revealed robust inverse correlations between funding (per institution, per award, per investigator) and scientific output (publication productivity and citation impact productivity). Interestingly, prestigious institutions had on average 65% higher grant application success rates and 50% larger award sizes, whereas less-prestigious institutions produced 65% more publications and had a 35% higher citation impact per dollar of funding. These findings suggest that implicit biases and social prestige mechanisms (e.g., the Matthew effect) have a powerful impact on where NIH grant dollars go and the net return on taxpayers investments. They support evidence-based changes in funding policy geared towards a more equitable, more diverse and more productive distribution of federal support for scientific research. Success rate/productivity metrics developed for this study provide an impartial, empirically based mechanism to do so.

That is by Wayne P. Wals, via Michelle Dawson.

The seven forbidden words?

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?

DARE to Look at the Evidence!

We must have Drug Abuse Resistance Education…I am proud of your work. It has played a key role in saving thousands of lives and futures.

Speaking at the 30th DARE Training Conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was enthusiastic and strongly supportive of DARE, the program started in Los Angeles in 1983 that uses police officers to give young children messages about staying drug free and resisting peer pressure.

And what do our excellent colleagues at GMU’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy say about DARE?

D.A.R.E. is listed under “What doesn’t work?” on our Review of the Research Evidence. 

Rosenbaum summarized the research evidence on D.A.R.E. by titling his 2007 Criminology and Public Policy article “Just say no to D.A.R.E.” As Rosenbaum describes, the program receives over $200 million in annual funding, despite little or no research evidence that D.A.R.E. has been successful in reducing adolescent drug or alcohol use. As Rosenbaum (2007: 815) concludes “In light of consistent evidence of ineffectiveness from multiple studies with high validity, public funding of the core D.A.R.E. program should be eliminated or greatly reduced. These monies should be used to fund drug prevention programs that, based on rigorous evaluations, are shown to be effective in preventing drug use.”

A systematic review by West and O’Neal (2004) examined 11 published studies of D.A.R.E. and reached similar conclusions. D.A.R.E. has little or no impact on drug use, alcohol use, or tobacco use. They concluded that ““Given the tremendous expenditures in time and money involved with D.A.R.E., it would appear that continued efforts should focus on other techniques and programs that might produce more substantial effects” (West & O’Neal, 2004: 1028).

Recent reformulations of the D.A.R.E. program have not shown successful results either. For example, the Take Charge of your Life program, delivered by D.A.R.E. officers was associated with significant increases in alcohol and cigarette use by program participants compared to a control group (Sloboda et al., 2009).

Straight thinking about Bayer and Monsanto

That is my latest Bloomberg column, hardly anyone has a consistent and evidence-based view on this deal.  Here is one bit:

Critics who dislike Monsanto for its leading role in developing genetically modified organisms and agricultural chemicals shouldn’t also be citing monopoly concerns as a reason to oppose the merger — that combination of views doesn’t make sense. Let’s say for instance that the deal raised the price of GMOs due to monopoly power. Farmers would respond by using those seeds less, and presumably that should be welcome news to GMO opponents.

Yet on the other side:

What does Bayer hope to get for its $66 billion, $128-a-share offer? The company has argued that it will be able to eliminate some duplicated jobs and expenses, negotiate better deals with suppliers and invest more funds in research and development. Maybe, but the broader reality is less cheery. There is a well-known academic literature, dating to the early 1990s, showing that acquiring firms usually decline in value after tender offers, especially after the biggest deals. Mergers do not seem to make companies more valuable or efficient.

And this:

The whole Bayer-Monsanto case is a classic example of how a vociferous public debate can disguise or even reverse the true issues at stake. If Bayer fails to close the deal for Monsanto, Bayer shareholders may be the biggest winners. The biggest losers from a failed deal may be its opponents, who will spend the rest of their lives in a world where misguided judgments of corporate popularity have increasing sway over laws and regulations.

Do read the whole thing.

Former Dem CEAs Write Open Letter to Sanders

A strongly worded letter from Krueger, Goolsbee, Romer and Tyson to Sanders and his economic team chastising them for unrealistic, unscientific numbers. (No indent).

Dear Senator Sanders and Professor Gerald Friedman,

We are former Chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers for Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. For many years, we have worked to make the Democratic Party the party of evidence-based economic policy. When Republicans have proposed large tax cuts for the wealthy and asserted that those tax cuts would pay for themselves, for example, we have shown that the economic facts do not support these fantastical claims. We have applied the same rigor to proposals by Democrats, and worked to ensure that forecasts of the effects of proposed economic policies, from investment in infrastructure, to education and training, to health care reforms, are grounded in economic evidence.  Largely as a result of efforts like these, the Democratic party has rightfully earned a reputation for responsibly estimating the effects of economic policies.

We are concerned to see the Sanders campaign citing extreme claims by Gerald Friedman about the effect of Senator Sanders’s economic plan—claims that cannot be supported by the economic evidence. Friedman asserts that your plan will have huge beneficial impacts on growth rates, income and employment that exceed even the most grandiose predictions by Republicans about the impact of their tax cut proposals.

As much as we wish it were so, no credible economic research supports economic impacts of these magnitudes. Making such promises runs against our party’s best traditions of evidence-based policy making and undermines our reputation as the party of responsible arithmetic. These claims undermine the credibility of the progressive economic agenda and make it that much more difficult to challenge the unrealistic claims made by Republican candidates.

Sincerely,

Alan Krueger, Princeton University
Chair, Council of Economic Advisers, 2011-2013

Austan Goolsbee, University of Chicago Booth School
Chair, Council of Economic Advisers, 2010-2011

Christina Romer, University of California at Berkeley
Chair, Council of Economic Advisers, 2009-2010

Laura D’Andrea Tyson, University of California at Berkeley Haas School of Business
Chair, Council of Economic Advisers, 1993-1995

Algorithm Aversion

People don’t like deferring to what I earlier called an opaque intelligence. In a paper titled Algorithm Aversion the authors write:

Research shows that evidence-based algorithms more accurately predict the future than do human forecasters. Yet, when forecasters are deciding whether to use a human forecaster or a statistical algorithm, they often choose the human forecaster. This phenomenon, which we call algorithm aversion, is costly, and it is important to understand its causes. We show that people are especially averse to algorithmic forecasters after seeing them perform, even when they see them outperform a human forecaster. This is because people more quickly lose confidence in algorithmic than human forecasters after seeing them make the same mistake. In five studies, participants either saw an algorithm make forecasts, a human make forecasts, both, or neither. They then decided whether to tie their incentives to the future predictions of the algorithm or the human. Participants who saw the algorithm perform were less confident in it, and less likely to choose it over an inferior human forecaster. This was true even among those who saw the algorithm outperform the human.

People who defer to the algorithm will outperform those who don’t, at least in the short run. In the long run, however, will reason atrophy when we defer, just as our map-reading skills have atrophied with GPS? Or will more of our limited resource of reason come to be better allocated according to comparative advantage?

Tuesday assorted links

1. “Ekki staðalbúnaður í smalamennsku!”  With video, of course, and implying the advantages of water transport.

2. The new “I, Pencil”?

3. Steven Landsburg makes some good points, but Summers may be able to invoke threshold effects.

4. Harvard faculty actually seem to hate the best parts of Obamacare.  Bravo to this article.  And quick summaries of evidence-based medicine.

5. “I’m the poster child of evil [art] speculation…”  An excellent piece, also NYT.

6. How big is the sexism problem in economics?  Kimball and anon.

7. Sorkin covers the Lucian Bebchuk fracas.

Is the Volcker rule a good idea?

Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew has strongly urged federal agencies to finish writing the Volcker Rule by the end of the year — more than a year after they had been expected to do so — and President Obama recently stressed the importance of the deadline.

By the way, five (!) agencies are writing the rule, which is not a good sign.  As for the Volcker rule more generally, here are a few points:

1. If restricting activity X makes large banks smaller, that will ease the resolution process, following a financial crack-up.  That is a definite plus, although we do not know how much easier resolution will be.

2. It is not clear that banning bank proprietary trading will lower the chance of such a financial crack-up.  The overall recent record of real estate lending is not a good one, and as Edward Conard pointed out, restricting banks to the long side of transactions is not obviously a good idea.  I do see the moral hazard issue with allowing banks to engage in the potentially risky activity of proprietary trading.  Still, so far the data are suggesting that the banks which cracked up during the crisis did so because of overconfidence and hubris, not because of moral hazard problems (i.e., they still were holding lots of the assets they otherwise might have been trying to “game”).

3. There is no strong connection between proprietary trading and our recent financial crises.

3b.  Today the bugaboo is “big banks” but once it was “small banks” and for a while “insufficiently diversified banks.”  Maybe it really is big banks, looking forward, or maybe we just don’t know.  Small banks have their problems too.

4. There is some chance that proprietary trading will be pushed to a more dangerous, harder to regulate corner of our financial institutions.

5. There is some danger that loopholes in the regulation itself — especially as concerns permissible client activities — may undercut the original intent of the regulation. This will depend on exactly how well the regulation is written, but past regulatory history does not make me especially confident here.  And the distinction between “speculation” and “hedging” cannot be clearly defined.  Should we be writing rules whose central distinctions may be arbitrary?  And yet CEOs will have to sign off on compliance (with 950 pp. of regulations) personally.  Is that a good use of CEO attention?  Here is a good FT piece about how hard (and ambiguous) it will be to enforce the rule globally.

6. I do not myself shed too many tears over the “these markets will become less liquid without banks’ participation” critique, but I would note this is a personal judgment and the scientific status of such a claim remains unclear.

7. Many people, even seasoned commentators, approach the Volcker rule with mood affiliation, starting with how much we should resent our banks or our regulators or how we should join virtually any fight against either “big banks” or regulators.  I see many analyses of this issue which spend most of their time on “mood affiliation wind-up,” as I call it, and not so much time on the actual evidence, which is inconclusive to say the least.

8. We still seem unwilling to take actions which would transparently raise the price of credit to homeowners.  We instead prefer actions which appear to raise no one’s price of credit and which are extremely non-transparent in their final effects.  You can think of the Volcker rule as another entry in this sequence of ongoing choices.  That should serve as a warning sign of sorts, and arguably that is a more important truth than the case either for or against the rule.

When I add up all of these factors, I come closer to a “don’t do the Volcker rule” stance in my mind.  The case for the rule puts a good deal of stress on #1, but overall it does not fit the textbook model of good regulation.  I probably have a more negative opinion of “an extreme willingness to experiment with arbitrary regulatory stabs” than do most of the rule’s supporters, and that difference of opinion is perhaps what divides us, rather than any argument about financial regulation per se.

I really do see how the Volcker rule might work out just fine or even to our advantage.  I also see the temptation of arguing “I am against big banks, this is the legislation against big banks which is on the table, so I am going to support it.”  But let us at least present to our public audiences just how weak is the evidence-based case for doing this.

Addendum: You will find a different point of view from Simon Johnson here.  Here is a counter to his claim that prop trading losses were significant in 2008: “Loan losses didn’t just dwarf trading losses in absolute terms. Loan losses as a share of banks’ total loan portfolios also exceeded trading losses as a share of banks’ trading accounts. Yet no one’s arguing banks should stop lending in order to protect depositors (and rightly so). In short, those expecting the Volcker Rule to be a fix-all for Wall Street’s ills have probably misplaced their hope—the rule seems like a solution desperately seeking a problem.”