40 years ago “the best known and most lethal terrorists were Germans, Italians, and Irishmen”

Philip Giraldi reflects on a “countering violent extremism” conference in Washington:

One thing that was largely missing from the discussion was a sense of history, not particularly surprising given the age and background of most of the participants. I began my career in the CIA working against the largely European terrorist groups that were active in the 1970s and 1980s. To be sure, there were Middle Eastern groups like Abu Nidal also prominent at the time, but the best known and most lethal terrorists were Germans, Italians, and Irishmen. They were just as ruthless as anything we are seeing today and, interestingly enough, the same questions that are being raised currently regarding the radicalization of young Muslims were raised back then regarding middle class Europeans, with a similar lack of any kind of satisfactory explanation. This is largely due to the fact that no simple answer exists because the road to radicalization, as the panels noted, can be quite complicated. Any attempt to create a model can result in erroneous conclusions that inevitably lead to the simple expedient of increasing police and governmental powers.

The defeat of terrorist groups in the 1980s and 1990s should be the starting point for any discussion of potential domestic terrorism. That era tells us what works and what doesn’t. Heavy-handed military style approaches, employed initially by the British in Northern Ireland, do not succeed. Terrorist groups come in all shapes, colors, and sizes but at the end of the day they constitute political movements, seeking to replace what they see as an unlawful government with something that corresponds to their own sense of legitimacy.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


We’re hitting the links a bit early this week for Thanksgiving.

  • Canada has a unique system that allows groups of private citizens to sponsor refugees.
  • Todd Schneider analyzed data from 1.1 billion New York taxi and Uber rides and mapped them.
  • A new UN/World Bank report finds that closing the gender gap between male and female farmers in agricultural productivity could feed over 500,000 more people in Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda.
  • Noah Smith wonders why we keep teaching econ 101 the same way we always have, when empirical tests show many theory-based assertions such as raising minimum wage decreasing employment, don’t appear to be true in practice.
  • Adam Davidson points out in the NYTimes Magazine, that we don’t have good data on most of what works in aid, and contrasts with other models where getting funding requires proof that what your’re doing works.
    • And on his Surprisingly Awesome podcast on how cement is the foundation of civilizations, also points out in passing that we don’t think about it much in the U.S., but any developing country head of state will know the top concrete suppliers in their country very well. And when disasters happen, many of the deaths in those countries are due not to the disaster itself, but to the shoddy concrete construction.
  • The Tiny Spark podcast explores very interesting topics in development and is kicking off three episodes on smart holiday charitable giving.
  • And a reminder if you’re hitting the road, find other podcasts we like at IPA’s Great Holiday Travel Podcast Playlist.

And Vice has the story of the German auto mechanic who commutes to be a king in Ghana several times a year.


IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.VWBus

  • The Great IPA Travel Podcast Playlist is out – we’ve got lots of links to podcast episodes to take with you if you’re going to be on the road – including Chris Blattman on Freakonomics, Andrew Gelman on voting behavior, and the Great Onion King, with links for more sources to explore. Feel free to point people to your favorite episodes in the comments there.
  • In PLOS ONE, an fMRI study of scientists finds journal impact factor triggers reward signals in brains of scientists awaiting publication.
  • GelmanBlogWhen Case & Deaton published a study on middle aged White mortality a few weeks ago it made a big splash. Then Andrew Gelman questioned some of the findings on his blog with dozens of graphs breaking out the data. This led to an interesting back-and-forth in the Science of Us, about how a journal article with space and an editor’s constraints can anticipate and debate future blog responses who have unlimited space. Some biostatisticians say get used to it, this is the new norm, and researchers should decide ahead of time when their article comes out if and how they’ll respond to criticism online.
  • Justin Wolfers suggested that even in economics, when men and women publish together, men usually get the credit. Two data-based observations based on Heather Sarsons‘ work: women who publish solo get tenure more than those who co-author (but not men). It’s possible that alphabetical listing of authorship (rather than by contribution as in other fields) creates ambiguity. Also an analysis by gender of the Chicago IGM survey of economists shows women economists are less likely to make strong predictions outside their core field of expertise or rate themselves as extremely confident in their responses. The researchers interpret this as a “confidence gap.”
  • David McKenzie looks at how development economics is taught in 200 courses around the world. He and Anna Luisa Paffhausen find courses in developing countries are a lot more varied and haven’t kept up with the U.S. move to more data/empirical topics over the past 20 years. They offer four suggestions for how to improve teaching of development econ where it might be most crucial.

And, just in time for the holidays, the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Zweig defines what an economist is. Take this handy guide with you for the family:





The murderous potential of stupidity: A former ISIS hostage explains their motives

From my Facebook feed, an email from a French journalist who was held hostage by ISIS.

I am as distressed as anyone about the events in Paris. But I am not shocked or incredulous. I know Islamic State. I spent 10 months as an Isis hostage, and I know for sure that our pain, our grief, our hopes, our lives do not touch them. Theirs is a world apart.

…Even now I sometimes chat with them on social media, and can tell you that much of what you think of them results from their brand of marketing and public relations. They present themselves to the public as superheroes, but away from the camera are a bit pathetic in many ways: street kids drunk on ideology and power. In France we have a saying – stupid and evil. I found them more stupid than evil. That is not to understate the murderous potential of stupidity.

…Everything convinces them that they are on the right path and, specifically, that there is a kind of apocalyptic process under way that will lead to a confrontation between an army of Muslims from all over the world and others, the crusaders, the Romans. They see everything as moving us down that road. Consequently, everything is a blessing from Allah.

With their news and social media interest, they will be noting everything that follows their murderous assault on Paris, and my guess is that right now the chant among them will be “We are winning”. They will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia; they will be drawn to any examples of ugliness on social media.

Central to their world view is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and every day their antennae will be tuned towards finding supporting evidence. The pictures from Germany of people welcoming migrants will have been particularly troubling to them. Cohesion, tolerance – it is not what they want to see.

The full letter is worth reading.

I know very little about ISIS, but I am reluctant to write off murderous rebellious groups as stupid, since Westerners have a long history of labeling very cold and calculating enemies as barbarians, and generally underestimating their abilities and ideological appeal. I saw this in northern Uganda with Joseph Kony.

But I am also struck by how many apparently powerful militaries and rebels are disorganized and not very clever, and seem to succeed in spite of themselves. This is especially in stateless areas where there’s no real organizations to contend with.

Reader insights welcome.

“How can I avoid becoming cynical about aid work?”

FEMA_-_16424_-_Photograph_by_Liz_Roll_taken_on_09-29-2005_in_TexasThe Guardian has an advice column for development workers, ‘Dear NGO agony aunts’. A recent letter:

Two years into working in the aid sector, I’m already starting to lose hope and passion for my career. The main comments I hear from people are ‘Oh, you’re so lucky to be young and energetic and not cynical yet … enjoy it while it lasts’. It is upsetting and discouraging to see how negative so many people are about their line of work, and also how little interaction there is with actual communities, both in NGOs and the UN, particularly as non-national staff. I can’t spend my entire career solely behind a computer and becoming more and more negative.

Some of the advice is reasonable, though perhaps not the first piece:

…don’t just do M&E (monitoring and evaluation) and produce the results your donors may want to see but you know don’t reflect the changes on the ground. Try to incorporate more rigorous impact evaluation at the start of the programme (the medical equivalent is a randomised control trial) to really understand the changes, if any. If there are none, you will know you need to adapt your intervention rather than invest in something that is useless.

Fun fact for everyone: running a randomized trial is not the path to happiness. I can speak from experience. It is long and painful and costly.

But what I really wanted someone to say: you are completely sane and correct; trust your instincts and get a new job.

Seriously. The median development job is insulated from the world and focused on a project that probably doesn’t work. You should strive to interact with real communities, to shake up the organization you work with, and even upend your profession if you can.  Every year you should learn so much from failure and success that you look back at your younger self one year before and shake your head at your naivete.

It’s hard, but there are jobs out there like this, and as you get more senior you can try to build them. A lot of the time you will fail. And this striving will come with a fair amount of angst and stress and a feeling of inadequacy. But seldom complacency and cynicism.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.


  • Remember David Evans, the guy nominated for a best writing on the internet award for his research summaries? He’s back from the NUEDC conference with one-sentence summaries of 150 papers, cataloged by country, method, and topic.
  • In the Washington Post, Marc Gunther asks “These cheap, clean stoves were supposed to save millions of lives. What happened?” The most succinct answer comes from Kevin Starr, director of the Mulago Foundation: “The affordable ones are inadequate, and the good ones are unaffordable.”
  • funnel_plotIn research transparency news, a new psych paper published a “smoking gun” detecting p-hacking or selective publication. The authors examine the finding that  romantic “priming” can induce higher spending and risk-taking. In this figure, they plot effect size vs. standard errors plot of published vs. attempts to replicate the finding. The published ones all shifted right (larger effect-larger std error), and line up closely along the .05 threshold of statistical significance. (For slow people like me, here’s a more detailed discussion of how to read it from IPA-Ghana’s Nate Barker). via Neuroskeptic.
  • So how to know what studies will replicate? In PNAS researchers used prediction markets, where other researchers were given $100 to invest in “stocks” representing individual studies to be replicated (or not), and they predicted correctly 71 percent of the time. Summary in the Atlantic.
  • Priceonomics has a fun piece on the origins of statistical regression and 19th Century battle for credit between two famous mathematicians. (Imagine a super formal rap battle).
  • A bleg: For upcoming holiday travel we’re looking to compile a playlist of good podcast epsiodes around economics, development, and the like, which we’ll post. Feel free to put suggestions in the comments.


And, a story of welfare incentives. A panda in a Taiwanese zoo seems to have faked pregnancy to get better treatment (air conditioning and better food).


Two interesting pieces on race in the U.S.

Black Millennials are more confident than any other young group that they can make a difference through political participation – 71 percent, compared with 52 percent of white Millennials and 56 percent of Latino Millennials, according to the study by the Black Youth Project at the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago. Yet more than half of black Millennials also said they had been the victim of police violence or harassment or knew someone who had.

“Black millennials report the highest level of confidence that they have the skills and knowledge to exercise their political voices and participate in politics,” writes Jon Rogowski, a political scientist at the University of Washington in St. Louis and a co-author of the “Black Millennials in America” report, in an e-mail to the Monitor. “But [they] also express the greatest frustration with current political leaders.”

From the CS Monitor, via nsippets.

And Aziz Ansari in the NY Times, thinking thourgh why there are so few Indian actors on TV and film.

Here’s a game to play: When you look at posters for movies or TV shows, see if it makes sense to switch the title to “What’s Gonna Happen to This White Guy?” (“Forrest Gump,” “The Martian,” “Black Mass”) or if there’s a woman in the poster, too, “Are These White People Gonna Have Sex With Each Other?” (“Casablanca,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “The Notebook”). Even at a time when minorities account for almost 40 percent of the American population, when Hollywood wants an “everyman,” what it really wants is a straight white guy. But a straight white guy is not every man.

38% of women in Monrovia report being paid for sex by United Nations personnel, and more than half the women were under 18

In 2003, the U.N. banned its peacekeepers from engaging in transactional sex (the exchange of money or anything of value for sex). Despite this ban, our survey of 475 18- to 30-year-old women in greater Monrovia revealed that about half of them report having engaged in transactional sex, and within that group of women, over three-quarters report having done so with U.N. personnel. Over 90 percent of the women who have engaged in transactional sex report that they usually receive money in exchange. And underage girls are at particular risk: 58 percent of the women who report the age at which they engaged in their first sexual transaction say they were younger than 18.

That is Bernd Beber, Michael Gilligan, Jenny Guardado, and Sabrina Karim in the Washington Post. You should read the full article for details.

Before beating up on the U.N. specifically, I can believe peacekeeping missions are bigger buyers of sex than, say, NGO workers or an American or European military mission. But I’m not sure by a lot. Unfortunately the survey doesn’t say. This is probably a bigger problem than anyone realizes and it is not confined to the U.N.

Why I signed a petition against transparent research in political science

“Hey, your tenure letters are going out in a few months, so you should inject yourself into the most controversial debate of the year in the discipline,” said no one ever.

What’s the debate? It’s over DA-RT, short for Data Access and Research Transparency. And it’s opening an old split in the discipline.

For some reason, it struck me as a good idea to explain what’s going on, and take a position, in WashPo’s Monkey Cage:

Even before the recent scandal about fake data, editors from 27 political science journals signed on to a DA-RT transparency statement. It commits the journal to certain principles, such as requiring authors to “ensure that cited data are available at the time of publication through a trusted digital repository”…

For the kind of statistical, data-driven work I do, the requirements are pretty clear and (to me) make perfect sense. There need to be some exceptions and protections, but my sense is that most quantitative scholars are on board with the idea of sharing their data and code.

In the past few weeks, though, a number of my colleagues doing other kinds of work have said, “Wait a second, what does this mean for us?” Last week, six professors started an online petition asking the profession to hold off on enforcing the DA-RT principles. The basic thrust: “Can we talk about this more?” Hundreds of scholars have signed — including friends and colleagues whose work I enjoy and whose opinions I respect.

…So far, DA-RT supporters have put little meat on the bones of their principles. From where I stand, qualitative scholars look to be bearing a lot of risk. Nobody likes uncertainty, especially when your career could be on the line. I’d like to give more time for qualitative standards and norms to be debated and evolve.

In the meantime, let’s move ahead with clear standards for quantitative work. After many years of debate, it’s relatively clear how transparency and data access works for people who rely on quantitative data.

You can read the full thing to find out why I feel this way, and why I think you should too. Here is the petition.

Links I liked

  1. Photo essay of the week: Ben Carson’s trophy wall appears to take up most of the house, alongside a misspelling of proverb that urges him to humility.
  2. Compelling theories that the villain in thew new Star Wars film is either Luke or… Jar-Jar Binks
  3. I have a new theory about economics department speaker seminars
  4. Bad lip reading at the Republican debates. Genius.
  5. Doris Lessing’s amazing reaction when told she won the Nobel
  6. Via Gareth Nellis, some Works in Progress listed on Berkeley professor Matt Rabin’s web page:
    • Is this Title Complete? Evidence from”
    • “Are Pajamas Safe? Evidence from Flannel Data”
    • “Do Bags of Mini-Carrots Get Really Gross After Months of Lying Underneath Piles of Paper? Evidence from Cleaning My Office”
    • “The Economics of Tall Grass and Wildflowers: A Field Experiment”

And the most liberal and conservative law schools are…

Oliver Roeder at 538:takes a list of 2000 Supreme Court clerks from Wikipedia and matches it to a score that quantifies justices’ ideologies on a left-right political spectrum.

So now we know the ideology of every clerk’s justice in every year back to 1937 — the first year for which the Martin-Quinn scores are calculated. We can now calculate that Columbia grads tend to clerk for justices of this ideological type, and Stanford grads for that type, and so on. And while we’re not measuring clerk ideology directly, there is strong evidence that, for better or worse, justices prefer clerks with ideologies similar to their own. Clarence Thomas has said: “I won’t hire clerks who have profound disagreements with me. It’s like trying to train a pig. It wastes your time, and it aggravates the pig.”

Caution as the number of clerk-justice pairings are small after Harvard, Yale and Columbia.

So what’s Angus Deaton been up to since his Nobel Prize?

US-British microeconomist Angus Deaton speaks during a press conference after winning the Nobel Prize for Economics at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, on October 12, 2015. Deaton won the Nobel Economics Prize for groundbreaking work using household surveys to show how consumers, particularly the poor, decide what to buy and how policymakers can help them. AFP PHOTO/JEWEL SAMAD (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)I love that the first thing he writes is an essay titled “Statistical objectivity is a cloak spun from political yarn”, even more so because he quotes another intellectual hero of mine, Jim Scott.

He also did a podcast with the Financial TImes. Here is the ungated transcript. A quote that helps me understand generational differences in economics a great deal:

“So, nowadays we work with millions and millions of observations, then we had 14 observations, so if you’re going to try to tell a story about this you’ve got to put a lot of structure on it because you only have a little data to estimate these points, so it’s almost like you’ve got a Christmas tree and you’re using the data to hang decorations on it or something and the data’s not going to speak very much.”

He drove headlines again when he and Anne Case published a study showing death rates are rising among middle-aged white men in the US. There was even a story about how it got rejected from several medical journals. It’s somehow comforting to know that even when you win the Nobel Prize, journal rejections sting.

If you read my FP piece on why Deaton deserved the Nobel, you might recall me mentioning his latest unpublished critique of randomized experiments. It remains unpublished as far as I know, but for an overview, read Tim Ogden’s interview with Deaton.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action


And how to terrify researchers on Halloween? (via Josh de Leeuw)


Ezra Klein: How researchers are terrible communicators, and how they can do better

Ezra Klein, founder of Vox.com and Wonkblog, went to the World Bank to tell them when and how to popularize research. I learned about modern media lot by watching. I recommend it for that reason alone.

For researchers, there’s an obvious point, which is “don’t write badly”. This is not a helpful comment for most academics, since they are not going to become great writers overnight.

Fortunately I heard a few ways to change style and get better at writing for a wider audience right away.

  • Building suspense does not work. Like many academics, I back load the big insight. I give background and context and try to build interest and suspense. I get to the big finding at the end. That might be a good idea for a journal article, but it’s a terrible idea for every other form of communication in the universe. Klein’s advice: Tell people what’s new and surprising right away, and tell them immediately what they should walk away thinking.
  • In fact, start telling people why they should read in the title. I was interested to hear Klein say he actually liked clickbait titles. That they were better than what we usually do, which is generic statements of the topic or (worse) titles that are inside jokes. This might fine for the journal article, where the aim is to show the 20 people who will read it just how smart we are. It does not work for everyone else.
  • Find the hook to what people care about. Sometimes what makes the issue important to you will make it important to others, and that is enough. I buy Klein’s philosophy: that the public and policymakers are actually intelligent and curious, and the main reason no one reads research is that it’s communicated terribly. But it helps to link your work to the broader issues that people care about. A gazillion people shared my foreign aid post this past week partly because they love cool maps. But they also shared it because a lot of people care about foreign aid and poverty, and how US politics warps our help. So what’s the big issue you tap into?
  • People like and share things that help them establish or reinforce an identity. Why did I share an article last week about a Chick-fil-a franchise owner who defies his company by supporting an LGBT event? Because I get to polish my own self-image as an LGBT supporter. Why read and share this technical article? Because it makes me feel smart. This is the most revealing point Klein made about social media: that we burnish our self-image by what we like or retweet. I personally don’t want to cater to this baser part of our nature, but it’s really helpful to understand that’s how it works.

I recommend the full talk.

Why you should block ads

Arguments against ad blocking tend to focus on the potential economic harms. Because advertising is the dominant business model on the internet, if everyone used ad-blocking software then wouldn’t it all collapse?

…There are literally billions of dollars being spent to figure out how to get you to look at one thing over another; to buy one thing over another; to care about one thing over another. This is the way we are now monetizing most of the information in the world.

The large-scale effort that has emerged to capture and exploit your attention as efficiently as possible is often referred to as the “attention economy.”

…So if you wanted to cast a vote against the attention economy, how would you do it?

…ad blockers are one of the few tools that we as users have if we want to push back against the perverse design logic that has cannibalized the soul of the Web.

If enough of us used ad blockers, it could help force a systemic shift away from the attention economy altogether—and the ultimate benefit to our lives would not just be “better ads.” It would be better products: better informational environments that are fundamentally designed to be on our side, to respect our increasingly scarce attention, and to help us navigate under the stars of our own goals and values.

James Williams on why it’s not just ok, but a moral obligation to use adblocker software. Hat tip @RobReich.

Everything I know about development I learned from my back doctor?

Doctor A told me that for my bad back to get better, I should wear a back brace frequently, all the time if possible.  “This will help facilitate the healing.  Keeps things from rattling around inside,” he said.  So with high hopes, I eagerly applied the brace.

But recently I visited Doctor B, a spinal surgeon.  He saw my brace, shook his head with furrowed brow, and gave me one of those tsk-tsk doctor looks.  “I see you’re wearing a brace,” said Doctor B.  “I worry about those.  May lead to muscle atrophy and that back will never heal.”  My countenance fell.  “But my other doctor…uh…I try to do lots of sit-ups,” I replied lamely.

One of the problems with bad backs is nobody really knows what works and there is lots of contradictory advice.  Likewise, one of the problems with economic development is that nobody really knows what works and there is lots of contradictory advice.  But the contradictory advice between Doctors A & B about back braces brings up an even deeper question that affects both bad backs and bad economies.  How much help is too much?

That is Bruce Wydick.

“Morality is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes”

The philosopher Michael Ruse has argued that “morality is a collective illusion foisted upon us by our genes.” If that’s true, why have our genes played such a trick on us? One possible answer can be found in the work of another philosopher Richard Joyce, who has argued that this “illusion” — the belief in objective morality — evolved to provide a bulwark against weakness of the human will. So a claim like “stealing is morally wrong” is not true, because such beliefs have an evolutionary basis but no metaphysical basis. But let’s assume we want to avoid the consequences of weakness of will that would cause us to act imprudently. In that case, Joyce makes an ingenious proposal: moral fictionalism.

Following a fictionalist account of morality, would mean that we would accept moral statements like “stealing is wrong” while not believing they are true. As a result, we would act as if it were true that “stealing is wrong,” but when pushed to give our answer to the theoretical, philosophical question of whether “stealing is wrong,” we would say no. The appeal of moral fictionalism is clear. It is supposed to help us overcome weakness of will and even take away the anxiety of choice, making decisions easier.

That is William Irwin writing in the Stone, the NY Times’s forum for contemporary philosopher. The full article is worth reading.

Links I liked

  1. IPA has an interesting new startup, and they are hiring
  2. The scientists who first found evidence of gluten sensitivity… have now shown it doesn’t exist
  3. The Economist ranks universities by value added in terms of salaries. If that’s what motivates you, then by all means look them up.
  4. From the Upshot: “the split between outsider candidates like Ben Carson and Donald Trump and insider candidates is not as clean as it may seem… Roughly 35 percent of likely voters whose first choice is Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio list Mr. Carson or Mr. Trump as their second choice.”
  5. What do Caribbean pirates, drug-dealing gangs, and preliterate tribesmen have in common?
  6. This thread had surprisingly interesting answers: “ELI5: Why does multiplying two negatives give you a positive?
  7. And cue the jokes about the Republican Congress:

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