The downside of having chimp brains and just 140 characters: A theory of Internet nastiness

On a long car drive this weekend, I happened to listen to this brilliant This American Life podcast: If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT IN ALL CAPS. Stories of why otherwise nice people say awful things on the Internet.

Those of you following me on Twitter Thursday and Friday will understand why this was cathartic. (If not, don’t worry about it, it’s not the point of this post or a very big deal.)

Rather, in the midst of nastiness, @dadakim tweeted something that at first I found off topic: “This=sometimes how it feels to be a woman with an opinion on the internet.”

I will say this: If you are remotely skeptical of that statement, you should listen to the TAL podcast.

I am forced to update my theory of Internet nastiness. Previously I ascribed nastiness to the same instincts that make us nasty gossips. In haste, in irritation, and in private we tend to say things that we would never say in front a wider audience, or to a person’s face. For some reason people seem to engage their gossip brain on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs rather than their “I’m speaking to you directly” brain.

The Internet is curiously dehumanizing. You have to teach yourself not to write like that, and on the receiving side coach yourself not to read it too seriously (or at all). Both are difficult. For me the first is easier than the second.

I still buy my theory. But this isn’t quite sufficient to explain the frequency and maliciousness of attacks against women.

It’s tempting to look at the anecdote from TAL–a reformed troll who comes to understand how his insecurity feeds a loathing of women, and how the dehumanizing Internet lets him relieve his own anger without understanding the consequences. But deep-rooted misogyny seems like too simplistic an answer to be full or correct.

I am guessing many have thought about this subject and would be interested in pointers. Especially science on the subject.

How your city can create more criminals of its young men

Why do crime rates differ greatly across neighborhoods and schools? Comparing youth who were assigned to opposite sides of newly drawn school boundaries, we show that concentrating disadvantaged youth together in the same schools and neighborhoods increases total crime.

We then show that these youth are more likely to be arrested for committing crimes together — to be “partners in crime”.  Our results suggest that direct peer interaction is a key mechanism for social multipliers in criminal behavior.  As a result, policies that increase residential and school segregation will — all else equal — increase crime through the formation of denser criminal networks.

A new paper by Billings, Deming, and Ross.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Priceonomics combines census data with historical accounts in a very interesting piece “The Great Migration: The African American Exodus from The South.” The conversations in the comments section have been really good as well (I also learned that we’re in the midst of a reverse migration back to the South).
  • UN peacekeeping troops from France and Georgia sent to help refugees in the Central African Republic are accused of rape there. More here and here.
  • In Ghana, regulators hope to merge the four separate mobile money platforms that exist now, but there is a dispute between banks and telecom companies over interest payments. The banks would like to return 100% of the interest to the customers while the telecom companies would like it returned to them, so they can take 20% of it, passing the rest back to the customers.
  • Normally, low-income students can send four sets of SAT scores to colleges free. Doubling this number to eight (which is very inexpensive to do) had a very impressive effect: 

Specifically, we estimate that inducing a low-income student to send one more score report, on average, increased on-time college attendance by nearly 5 percentage points and five-year bachelor’s completion by slightly more than 3 percentage points. The policy impact was driven entirely by students who, based on SAT scores, were competitive candidates for admission to four-year colleges.

  • Tim Harford has his top five economics podcasts to listen to in 2016 (and a reminder that some of our favorite individual episodes from 2015 are here).
  • And, telemarketers and scammers have been using internet calling with caller ID spoofing to avoid rules. Sometimes the conversation is driven by a human in a call center clicking on pre-recorded phrases to engage in a conversation. But one hero is trying to waste telemarketers’ time and drive up their costs with an AI interface designed to keep telemarketers on the phone as long as possible, and he’s letting other people use it too. More from his site, Jolly Roger Telephone Co (he also has a kickstarter to expand it). Via Gizmodo.

My favorite television of the past year


In order that I have enjoyed shows in the past year:

  1. The Expanse. A new space opera. The best since BSG, and maybe only second to that overall.
  2. Please Like Me, Season 2. Funniest show ever about a young gay man facing rejection, death, and mental illness. All the usual ingredients of comedy.
  3. Homeland Season 5. As a supposedly liberal intellectual I think I’m supposed to not like this show. But I do. Probably the best season since the first.
  4. Man in the High Castle. From the Phillip K Dick novel, about an alternate history where the Nazis and Japanese win WWII.
  5. Jessica Jones. Emotionally disturbed superheroes and villains. The best take on the genre.

I have yet to watch Narcos but I plan to. The only people who don’t seem to like this are Colombians, who think they got the history right but are angry that Escobar is played by a Brazilian.

What do you recommend?

The rainbow bagel is so wrong for so many reasons

I have only lived in New York for about nine years, so I’m not really in a position to decide who gets to be a New Yorker or not, but my vote would be to deport these people from the state. We’ll take more Syrian refugees, and the governor of Texas can grow fat on neon bagels for breakfast.

Via Business Insider. Hat tip to my sister in law, who lives in Ottawa with direct access to the incredible Montreal-style bagel, and should know better than to be enthused by this culinary travesty.

This is probably the best argument I’ve ever heard for admitting Syrian refugees, or really anyone


Developed by three young software-engineering students at the University of Iceland, it lets users instantly compare their lineage by bumping their mobile devices together. The app includes an “incest-prevention alarm,” says Arnar Freyr Adalsteinsson, one of the developers. “When you bump, it shows your nearest common ancestors. If you bump with someone who’s too closely related, you get an alarm sound and a text warning.”

That’s right, a country where people are so similar you need a mobile app to tell you if your drunk booty call is a relative.

Links I liked

  1. A Chinese firm has purchased the rights to the Tiananmen Square “Tank Man” photo from Bill Gates
  2. Men talk more than women, even in Disney princess movies
  3. While I was hesitant to share credit card statements with a random company, this New York Times article persuaded me to try, and I discovered two unexpected subscriptions they will now cancel for me
  4. “A modularized and automated structure to improve the quality, consistency and organization of empirical data analysis”
  5. A Sam Bowles podcast on inequality, and an exciting new book on the horizon


Four reasons why buying houses is overrated

Alex Tabarrok gives us two reasons

Housing is overrated as a financial investment. First, it’s not good to have a significant share of your wealth locked into a single asset. Diversification is better and it’s easier to diversify with stocks. Second, unless you are renting the basement, houses don’t pay dividends. Stocks do. You can hope that your house will accumulate in value but don’t count on it. Indeed, you should expect that as an investment your house will appreciate less than does the stock market.

…Another problem with houses is that home ownership locks people to location making it harder to move for jobs. The problem is especially severe because no one likes to sell at a “loss” even when it is rational to do so. So when jobs disappear and home prices fall instead of moving, people hold on for too long just hoping that things will get better.

I would add one more: People who own seem to spend a LOT of time on their weekends and holidays doing repairs and maintenance. If this is something you enjoy, great. If you would rather spend time with family, read, work, or Netflix binge, then it’s not so fantastic. Personally, my marginal value of leisure is high. I don’t even like thinking about my apartment or what needs to be done.

Alex highlights some of the benefits of housing. Some people like them a lot (or have been socialized to), and there are tax breaks. Plus so much of life in America is structured around home buying, such as public schooling.

I would add “forced savings”. If you are the kind of person who does not invest first spend later, then your mortgage forces you onto an intensive savings plan (in an albeit suboptimal investment).

So, basically, the best argument for houses is “distortions and weakness”.

I suspect some readers will still say things like “but housing is historically a great investment!”. I’m not sure they are thinking in real terms, and I do not think they are comparing it to historical stock market returns. And I am guessing people selectively remember the houses that appreciated, not the ones that stayed mainly flat. It’s like making the case for stocks based on people who bought Apple in 1987.

Surely someone has done the numbers here. Any pointers?

How J.K. Rowling just gave everyone an inadvertent lesson in statebuilding


Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling’s website made a big announcement over the weekend: there are wizarding schools in the U.S., Japan, and… Africa:

Although Africa has a number of smaller wizarding schools (for advice on locating these, see introductory paragraph), there is only one that has stood the test of time (at least a thousand years) and achieved an enviable international reputation: Uagadou. The largest of all wizarding schools, it welcomes students from all over the enormous continent. The only address ever given is ‘Mountains of the Moon’; visitors speak of a stunning edifice carved out of the mountainside and shrouded in mist, so that it sometimes appears simply to float in mid-air.

The scholarly Twitter outcry was quick in coming:

To Naunihal’s surprise, he got a quick reply from the author herself:

Uganda! My first gleeful thought: How pissed off is Rwandan President Paul Kagame about THAT? The Potter books are surely banned by this morning.

My second thought was, before anyone gets too upset about Africa having the only non-national school, did you not read your Jeffrey Herbst? He has one of the classic books on statebuilding. I’m actually teaching it tomorrow. Here is the article version (gated, sorry).

Whereas Europe and Japan developed states early on, geography conspired against state development in Africa until it was imposed by colonialism. Coherent states with national identities and defined boundaries were driven by competition and war in densely populated parts of the earth. If your climate, geographic barriers, soils, and what not prevented sharing technologies, trade, intensifying agriculture, and what not, then you more seldom developed extra food to support an elite or priestly caste to control the rest of the population. At least, not enough of them that they abut one another and constantly fight until the weaker proto-states are weeded out.

Without that war-making, and technologies that gave large states an advantage over other kinds of organization, much of Africa had a different form of politics. So, voila, is it so surprising that a thousand-year old school would be pan-African, throwing off the imposition of colonial boundaries?

So what we really want is a historical prequel, Harry Potter meets Mahmood Mamdani and Crawford Young, as Voldemort’s great-grandfather co-opts the Uagadou elite, developing a system of evil indirect rule. The question is which Independence leader was secretly the bearer of noble juju?

A must-see video on immigration that will make you laugh, cry, cry-laugh, and think

People occasionally email me articles or videos that might interest me. I love getting these. As sales pitches go, however, an email labeled “Comedy Talk on Integration” is not an obvious win. “This is a comedy talk I gave based of the work of Michael Clemens, Lant Pritchett, and others.” wrote Steve Gerben.

I love Michael and Lant, but that’s not exactly clickbait.

But I happened to be at the gym, bored with a podcast, and trying to find something to keep me on the treadmill more than five minutes. “Raw material to tease Michael about a fanboy” seemed like a good investment. So I gave the video a try.

Brilliant. Steve Gerben is a talented man. I want him to teach my class, or start a MOOC. I want him to teach me how to teach like this. Watch it. And send it to your Republican relatives and Facebook friends.

In the NYTimes

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


More important, updated data show that communities served by the “go-getters” are doing better on key health benchmarks such as facility-based childbirth, breast-feeding, vaccinations and nutrition. Based on these findings, the Zambian government changed its recruitment advertising as it looks to expand its health-worker program.

That from Annie Duflo and Dean Karlan, writing in today’s Sunday Review.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • The idea of a social safety net that guarantees a “basic income” has been gathering interest. The Dutch city of Utrecht is working with academics to set up an experiment comparing different forms, and the Silicon Valley tech incubator Y-Combinator is seeking someone to work full time on a five-year experiment giving a group of people in the U.S. a basic income (deadline for applications is Feb 15).
  • Want to start blogging about your research? The LSE impact of social sciences blog has six steps for turning your journal article into a good blog post.
  • China will be building its first overseas military base in Djibouti.
  • NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast this week speaks with NYU’s Oeindrila Dube about her RCT with Cilliers & Siddiqi looking at reconciliation programs and hidden costs in Sierra Leone.
  • RLetters is an open tool for content analyzing large databases of journals.
  • I just started using the Grammarly browser plugin for correcting grammar – it’s found and recommended fixes for a bunch of mistakes in this post already (its/it’s types of things).

And this might melt your heart, Syrian refugee kids sledding for the first time with the Canadian family that sponsored them. Classic demonstration of soft powder diplomacy.


What the New England Journal of Medicine has in common with my 2- and 4-year old children

i gather academic Twitter is exploding over a New England Journal of Medicine editorial that worries that:

a new class of research person will emerge—people who had nothing to do with the design and execution of the study but use another group’s data for their own ends, possibly stealing from the research productivity planned by the data gatherers, or even use the data to try to disprove what the original investigators had posited. There is concern among some front-line researchers that the system will be taken over by what some researchers have characterized as “research parasites.”

This is rightly being called out as anti-scientific. Maybe the best response so far was David Shaywitz:

I was delighted to see this editorial.

Not because I agreed with it–my heart is truly with the data scientists–but because I was grateful that someone had the courage to articulate a perspective I’ve come to believe is shared by the vast majority of academic researchers, but publicly voiced by no one–until now.

I see this data hoarding instinct all the time. I also see my two toddlers gather all their toys in their arms at once and insist to the other “I AM PLAYING WITH ALL OF THEM.”

Similarly, I see authors and corporations try to extend copyright again and again. This greed instinct is natural and motivates data collection and a good deal of work. But innovation means it needs to be balanced against public use.

I think the days you can mine a dataset for five years (or forever) before sharing are nearly over, and good riddance. You’ll find most of my data online with publication, if not beforehand.

Hat tip to David Lam.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • If you thought your day was going to go well, Nathan Yau has an addicting simulator on how you will die (statistically).
  • Buzzfeed data journalist John Templon crunched data to discover likely match fixing at high levels of professional tennis. He describes his methodology, essentially looking at last minute changes in betting odds in 26,000 matches. He found bets on 16 top players consistently shifting at the last minute, suggesting that some betters had inside information. He then ran 1 million simulations per player to test the likelihoods. Leaked documents would later confirm tennis authorities were conducting a similar investigation. FiveThirtyEight and others, however, haven’t replicated all his findings using different data.
  • A bizarre story from the University of Maryland shows some of the dangers of how research is funded and of bad press releases. The University issued a press release on an unpublished study suggesting that drinking a particular brand of chocolate milk helped reduce concussion-related symptoms and improve test scores in high school athletes. The manufacturer mentioned funded the study in part, and touted the study on their website. At least one school said they’d be buying that brand of milk for their athletes on the basis of the study. The Science of Us obtained what little documentation exists (a power point presentation), which showed many serious flaws in the design.
  • Misleading press releases have often been found to be at the heart of bad science news, and at least one biologists thinks faulty press releases should be tracked and flagged, just as retractions are (also via Science of Us).
  • There’s a new book about the world’s largest refugee camp. In Kenya, the Dadaab camp houses a population the size of Minneapolis.
  • New working paper (PDF here) finds:

Using the rollout of the schistosomiasis control program in Nigeria as a quasi-experiment, we estimate that children who benefited from the disease control program were 16 percentage points more likely to be enrolled in school and have completed 0.642 more years of education compared to children who have not benefited of the program.


And RIP Alan Rickman whose last video was a clever YouTube fundraiser for Save the Children and Refugee Council.

However, when JJ Abrams inevitably reboots the Die Hard franchise, may we suggest World Bank Senior Economist David Evans?



(At least one person in the office thought both pictures were of the same person)

Are female politicians less warlike than men? Some evidence from European queens


A large scholarship claims that states led by women are less conflictual than states led by men. However, it is theoretically unclear why female leaders would favor more conciliatory war policies. And, it is empirically challenging to identify the effect of female rule, since women may gain power disproportionately during periods of peace.

We surmount this challenge by exploiting features of hereditary succession in European polities over the 15th-20th centuries. In this context, women were more likely to acquire power if the previous monarch lacked a male first-born child, or had a sister who could follow as successor.

Using these factors as instruments for female rule, we find that queenly reigns participated more in inter-state conflicts, without experiencing more internal conflict. Moreover, the tendency of queens to participate as conflict aggressors varied based on marital status.

Among married monarchs, queens were more likely to participate as attackers than kings. Among unmarried monarchs, queens were more likely to be attacked than kings. These results are consistent with an account in which queens relied on their spouses to manage state affairs, enabling them to pursue more aggressive war policies. Kings, on the other hand, were less inclined to utilize a similar division of labor.

This asymmetry in how queens relied on male spouses and kings relied on female spouses strengthened the relative capacity of queenly reigns, facilitating their greater participation in warfare.

A new paper, Queens, by Oeindrila Dube and S.P. Harish.

Sociology ganged up on one of its brightest junior scholars, and here’s why I think you should take her side


Randall Collins, whose course she was taking when she was writing in the black notebooks, put it: ‘‘She got in deep enough so that not only does she understand things from their point of view, she doesn’t give priority to laws, official morals, all the things that conventional people take for granted. I not only am not going to play the shock game, but I don’t have much respect for people who can’t see that their being shocked is part of the way their social world is constructed around them.’’

The New York Times Magazine has an interesting, thoughtful, and I think fair take on sociologist Alice Goffman and the book–On the Run–that has created more sociological controversy than anything else in memory.

I read her book because I’ve become fascinated by criminal justice (and racial injustice) in the U.S., and there are few more in-depth, well-written, emotionally powerful academic books.

I followed the controversy because I think it’s an important methodological discussion–what goes in 21st century ethnography, not to mention popular academic writing.

Unfortunately I think it also shows academics at their worst: pugnacious, committed to reproducing their own style and narrow view, jealous, and very bad at communicating in a civil way.

Here is a thoughtful take on how Goffman pissed off both sociologists and journalists at the same time:

Most of the problems ‘‘On the Run’’ has encountered, especially outside the field, have to do with the fact that it falls between the stools of journalism and ethnography. If the book was too journalistic — too descriptive, too irresponsible, too sensationalistic, too taken with its own first-­person involvement — to count as properly rigorous sociology, it was too sociological to count, for many journalists, as proper reporting. Most journalists believe that true stories are necessarily personal, about the ways particular people choose to act in the world; the language of journalism, like the language of law, is almost always the language of individual moral responsibility. For a sociologist, whose profession since the turn of the century has taken it as axiomatic that society is primary to the individual, the language of individual moral responsibility is often a way of avoiding talk about structural conditions that favor the powerful.

My view hasn’t really changed from before: this is a deeply insightful book with some serious flaws, mostly flaws of a young scholar. Flaws magnified by taking the risk of writing for a more popular audience.

To those who say “but there are huge ethnical and methodological issues!” I say: show me the dissertation that is any different. I made a lot of similar mistakes as a PhD student working in northern Uganda. A main difference is that nobody really cared about the system hurting poor black men in Africa. And (maybe as importantly) I wasn’t nearly as good a writer at the time. But if anyone ever took the same magnifying glass to my work, they’d find equally serious problems.

In the end, Goffman’s was the most provocative, well-written, sociology book I have read. I think the main lesson for sociologists, not to mention my political science and economics colleagues, is the great risk but the greater importance of writing for a broad audience.

To paraphrase Ezra Klein, the public isn’t too stupid or uninterested to read your research. You’re just doing a bad job at communicating it.

Update: See Jesse Singal’s excellent take.