How do Yale professors recommend you teach? The podcast interviews

The Teach Better podcast, from my friend Doug McKee.

The Teach Better Podcast is a series of conversations with faculty (for now just at Yale) who care about teaching and are doing interesting things in the classroom. We just published our fifth episode with Laurie Santos (“Sex, Lectures, and Videotape”) where she talks about how she teaches a 600 student lecture class on Sex, Evolution, and Human Nature in Battell Chapel.
In earlier episodes we’ve talked to Jim Rolfe (Math), Jenny Frederick (Chemistry) and Bo Hopkins (Business and Engineering), and we have episodes upcoming with Don Kagan (History), David Bromwich (English) and Larry Samuelson (Economics).
The idea is to build a community of folks interested in teaching at Yale and around the world. You can subscribe through your favorite podcast app or listen on the website.


IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis at Innovations for Poverty Action.

As we expect never to hear from Chris again, here are IPA’s weekly links:

  • With the US, Japan, and North Korea appearing to be the only countries not on board the new China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew seems to have softened the US stance against it.
  • The new Freakonomics podcast talks with MIT & J-PAL’s Amy Finkelstein and  physician & MacArthur “Genius” Jeffrey Brenner about using randomized controlled trials in policy, and an interesting new collaboration between the two to fix Camden, New Jersey’s chronic healthcare problems with data.
  • One of the difficult parts for an org participating in a randomized controlled trail is not being able to offer the program to the control group, since they have targets to meet also. David McKenzie suggests adding a third “wait list” group, and if takeup is less than 100%, offering the remaining spots to people in this third group, who won’t be part of the study itself. It helps the implementer do their job without risking the control group (h/t Nathanael Goldberg).
  • Justin Sandefur takes his teacher’s red pen to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. In the accompanying blog post, he explains what we learned from the last round about concrete measurable goals, and why gender equity language is a bad idea.
  • In what must be some sort of record for most information in fewest words, David Evans has 40+ great one-sentence summaries of papers from the recent Center for the Study of African Economies conference in Oxford.
  • Lessons on interpreting causation and correlations for journalists:

-J-PAL’s Rachel Glennerster has five lessons for interpreting research from a recent training for journalists in Chile (and some choice words for NPR).

-And from Buzzfeed:  Dow Falls More Than 1% As Zayn Leaves One Direction

 “The Dow began falling prior to the announcement of Zayn’s departure, suggesting some traders may have been tipped off early.”

Those two links together became one of our most popular recent Facebook posts, because apparently the internet is full of good data journalism fans.

Neil deGrasse Tyson on why the Republican party is not anti-science

I hesitate to publish anything on April 1, but the interview’s dateline was yesterday.

What I’m saying is I’ve become much more pragmatic about all of this. Washington is about politics, and Bush has an electoral base that want him to behave certain ways, but what matters is policy. People were saying there was a “Republican War on Science,” and I say, “What war are you talking about?” And they say, “Well, they’re suppressing stem cell research. Oh, and there’s the environment. And the Republicans are in bed with oil companies.” So I check those boxes and say, “Is there anything else?” Well, no, not really. The budget for the NSF went up. The budget for NASA went up. The budget for the National Institutes of Health that gives grants for health research went up. So it’s not really a war on science. It’s a resistance to things that interfere with their two political agendas: one religion-based, the other oil-based. There it is. It’s called politics.

The full interview is interesting, including a credible defense of Scientology.

Still, to this day, my favorite April Fools Day post

From William Easterly and Laura Freschi in 2011, “UN Revealed to be Gigantic 66-year-old Hoax”:

“I can’t believe it lasted this long,” said “US Ambassador to the UN” Susan Rice, laughing, “Who would really believe that there is this magical agency that would, like, be responsible for solving all the problems in the whole world?  That nobody else can solve? Or even wants to?”

“I really thought it would come out when that prankster Ban Ki Moon put Libya on the “reformed” Human Rights Council in 2010,” said Rice, “after there was a backlash against Libya CHAIRING the old Human Rights Commission. Who would fall for that?”

Ban, who in real life is a much-loved writer for 30 Rock, also bet “UNCTAD Secretary-General” Supachai Panitchpakdi three shots of Glenlivet that he would never get more than 15 crisscrossing arrows into one UN diagram. He lost the bet.

Thanks to @ithorpe for the reminder.

The problem with literary tattoos

Perhaps most of all with Samuel Beckett.

The Swiss tennis champion Stan Wawrinka has the words “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” tattooed in blue ink on the inside of his left forearm.

…In their original contexts, they do not work quite so well as motivational mottoes or sentimental consolations. “Fail better” (which I recently saw on a recruitment advertisement for a financial services company) is followed a few lines later by a reminder that, for Beckett, the phrase is an exhortation, not to keep trying until you succeed but to keep failing until you fail completely: “Fail again. Better again. Or better worse. Fail worse again. Still worse again. Till sick for good. Throw up for good.” This doesn’t quite work on an athlete’s arm.


I have nothing against tattoos, but from a personal standpoint can’t for the life of me think of something I would want to wear forever. More evidence of my absurdly low discount rate.

Links I liked

  1. Why the world is getting weirder
  2. Qatar press-gangs migrant workers into running a marathon (to display it’s sports organizing prowess?)
  3. Proffesor. We’ve all been there.
  4. Astronaut Scott Kelly will return from a year in space both older and younger than his twin brother
  5. Lobbyist claims Monsanto’s roundup Is safe to drink. Journalist proffers a glass.
  6. Ben Bernanke is blogging. Looks too op-eddy to be sustained for more that a year. The secret to longevity is to blog other people’s stuff, hasty drivel, and maps.
  7. The hometown of every March Madness finalist on a map 

Can you imagine a modern New York where several million people move apartments every May 1st?

From the pre-Revolutionary period until World War II, tenants in New York City were uniformly given three months’ notice of annual rent increases on February 1 (known as Rent Day). Many then sought cheaper deals, and when all leases expired on May 1 (called Moving Day) as many as a million residents changed houses in what amounted to a single mass migration.

Lately there’s been another, more specialized real estate frenzy afoot in America’s largest city. Its most visible manifestations concern the world’s very richest people.

An NYRB article on New York’s hyper-luxury tower boom.

We interrupt this lovefest for Lee Kwan Yew with this important message

No, I’m not going to complain about the whitewashing of an authoritarian regime. I’m used to people trading off someone else’s freedom for GDP growth. Or forgetting that for every transformative dictator there are many more who take the country down the toilet.

Rather, I want to highlight this point from political scientist Tom Pepinsky:

The coverage of Singapore under the late Lee Kuan Yew consistently emphasizes a theme of rapid economic development in an inauspicious context, encapsulated by the slogan “From Third World to First.”

…Now, no one should doubt that Lee Kuan Yew was a developmentalist statebuilder par excellence. But Singapore at independence a third-world country? This narrative neglects the incredible legacy of openness, infrastructure, and stability that the British rule left this tiny country.

The graph below says it all. For every year since 1945, I have ranked all independent countries by real per capita GDP, the best measure we have of economic prosperity. I then normalize these to a percentile scale. Here is what we get.


…Singapore entered the community of independent states as a prosperous country, at least by the standards of the time.

True, Lee Kwan Yew started governing a few years before Independence from Malaysia, where we don’t have data. Conceivably the green line starts at Indonesia levels in 1959 and goes vertical before the observed data come in. Conceivably.

I invite the Singapore experts to weigh in. Miracles do happen. Like most miracles, however, this one might be mythical.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis at Innovations for Poverty Action.

In case you missed it last week, Chris is letting Innovations for Poverty Action (where he’s a Research Affiliate) share our internal weekly links on his blog, we presume so he can spend time looking for an even more progressive daycare for his kids.

  • From our blog: Development March Madness brackets for all the evaluation superfans out there.
  • Bill Gates argues in the New York Times that as bad as Ebola has been, the next crisis will be worse. Among other things, we have very bad disease tracking systems (IPA’s working on it), and we shouldn’t assume affected countries will be open to US military personnel helping next time. He argues that we could easily be building in vaccines and disease surveillance into existing efforts to improve health infrastructures.
  • Pacific Standard Magazine discusses how hard it is to get good estimates of the economic impact of Ebola (though we did help collect what little good data there is), and wonders if fear mongering made things worse.
  • Two new Gates Foundation challenges: one on better collection of financial services data, another for inexpensive mobile payment systems for merchants in low income areas. A two-page application for $100,000, potentially followed by a million for good ideas.
  • Freakonomics has a nice interview with Katherine Milkman of Wharton on her research around “Temptation Bundling,” a cousin of commitment devices, and a way of getting yourself to do something you know you should but don’t want to do. The trick is a rule pairing it with something you do like, such as only watching your favorite show while exercising. They also talk about the “fresh start effect,” why people time new commitments to particular calendar times.
  • This past week’s New York Times Book Review was dedicated to all things financial and economic (scroll down to “the secret life of money”). One book by a Financial Times reporter argues that impressive economic growth in many African countries masks huge inequality, chronicling how extractive industries bribe those at the top. There’s also one on Islamic finance, for anyone who wants a quick intro.
  • New working paper draft from Jayachandran & Pande, (with slightly changed title) “Why Are Indian Children So Short?” (PDF). They look at the height gap between 174,000 Indian and Sub-Saharan African children, and give three ways the data suggests preferences for sons in India, particularly firstborn sons.
  • In this coming weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Adam Davidson Debunks the Myth of the Job-Stealing Immigrant:

The chief logical mistake we make is something called the Lump of Labor Fallacy: the erroneous notion that there is only so much work to be done and that no one can get a job without taking one from someone else.

He explains that in reality (at least for the US), most economists now believe that immigrants take low skilled jobs, moving native English speakers into higher paying jobs, while lowering overall costs for employers, and they also increasing the size of the population who is buying goods and services (h/t Michael Clemens).

  • Vox says every medical study you’ve heard of is probably wrong, because the publication process and media favor sensational positive outliers that rarely live up to replication. A dot plot shows the findings around 8 common foods that apparently both prevent and cause cancer.

  • One potential solution is hypothesis preregistration. On the Development Impact blog, rising star Ben Ozler looks at the pros and cons of preregistration. It creates a lot of later constraints and several kinds of lost opportunities that could come up later as study/analysis design evolves, while not always preventing fishing. Conclusion is that we’re in an in-between time as norms are developed for how tightly we’re going to hold researchers to their original plans.

And your bonus: Indians try American sweets for the first time

“’Do you guys have this every day??”

Links I liked

  1. Obama floated the idea of mandatory voting. John Sides says it won’t make a difference.
  2. X-Files is returning to Fox for 6 episodes
  3. Not The Onion: George Zimmerman compares himself to Anne Frank, blames Obama for his woes. Anne Frank!
  4. “Professors, what is the simplest thing students do which gets them your respect or annoys you to death?” (A Reddit thread)
  5. IPA Liberia has an open research position
  6. Children responding to the question: “What do you think being a grown up is like?”
  7. An unfortunate Georgia university course catalog cover (via @TimHarford).20-university-north-georgia-catalog.w529.h3521

“Bankspeak” (or, Orwellian development)

What can quantitative linguistic analysis tell us about the operations and outlook of the international financial institutions? At first glance, the words most frequently used in the World Bank’s Annual Reports give an impression of unbroken continuity. Seven are near the top at any given time: three nouns—bank, loan/s, development—and four adjectives: fiscal, economic, financial, private. This septet is joined by a handful of other nouns: IBRD, countries, investment/s, interestprogramme/s, project/s, assistance, and—though initially less frequent—lending, growth, cost, debttrade, prices.

…And yet, behind this façade of uniformity, a major metamorphosis has taken place. Here is how the Bank’s Report described the world in 1958:

The Congo’s present transport system is geared mainly to the export trade, and is based on river navigation and on railroads which lead from river ports into regions producing minerals and agricultural commodities. Most of the roads radiate short distances from cities, providing farm-to-market communications. In recent years road traffic has increased rapidly with the growth of the internal market and the improvement of farming methods.

And here is the Report from half a century later, in 2008:

Levelling the playing field on global issues

Countries in the region are emerging as key players on issues of global concern, and the Bank’s role has been to support their efforts by partnering through innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground, as well as by supporting South–South cooperation.

It’s almost another language, in both semantics and grammar. The key discontinuity, as we shall see, falls mostly between the first three decades and the last two, the turn of the 1990s, when the style of the Reports becomes much more codified, self-referential and detached from everyday language. It is this Bankspeak that will be the protagonist of the pages that follow.


This recurrent transmutation of social forces into abstractions turns the World Bank Reports into strangely metaphysical documents, whose protagonists are often not economic agents, but principles—and principles of so universal a nature, it’s impossible to oppose them. Levelling the playing field on global issues: no one will ever object to these words (although, of course, no one will ever be able to say what they really mean, either).

That is Franco Moretti and Dominque Pestre in the New Left Review. Well worth reading.

The delicious irony is that the article is written in the dense, jargon-filled prose of literary criticism mingled with Marxist thought. So sometimes I have no idea what they’re saying.

A plea, then, for people to write in simple plain prose, free of jargon.

It also suggests a more mundane explanation for bad Bank reports, which might also explain badly-written literary criticism: bureaucracies (and academic disciplines) get big and decrepit over time. And obscure language preserves the insider privilege and makes mediocre work more difficult to judge.

Hat tip to David Evans.

Economics has an Africa problem?

A couple of months ago, Grieve Chelwa, a PhD student in South Africa, wrote a much-tweeted and blogged post about Economics’ Africa problem. A huge number of scholars produce a huge amount of research about Africa. Most of them are not African born or Africa based. Most conferences are held in the US or Europe. And the major development journals have almost no representation of African born or based scholars.

More meetings in Africa would be a good thing. Probably this is a question of willpower and cost, both of which have relatively simple solutions. But I can’t really see these accomplishing much. It strikes me a distraction.

The deeper problem is the absence of well-funded universities in Africa, and the fact that the best funded research universities don’t get that many African-born applicants. There are other barriers and problems, of course, but it’s hard to argue that inputs don’t matter.

Take African universities. Most governments don’t see these are important areas for investment, and they don’t have the taxes to support them. Aid donors could fill the gap, but find me a top ten aid donor that cares. Free primary education has sucked up all the air in this space.

For all the good that a focus on extreme poverty and Millennium Development Goals have done, it’s turned most aid donors away from indirect paths to growth and development, such as investing in the institutions that train the engineers, bureaucrats, doctors and accountants of the developing world. It’s hard to have an effective state or an industrial revolution without these ingredients.

As a result, if you happen to be an Africa-based scholar, chances are your teaching load is overwhelming, your research resources are nil, and your students have nothing at all.

You would think this would send young African scholars flooding to the West. To some extent it does. But take Columbia’s political science program as an example (which isn’t economics but I have the statistics at hand). We have three faculty specializing in Africa, and a ton of students, making it one of the best places in the US to study African political economy.

Even so, of about 500 applications to the PhD program this year, only 1.5% were from African-born students—fewer than I can count on my hands. We accept less than 10% of applicants, all of whom get full funding (including a stipend). Even with heavy attention to admitting underrepresented groups, most years we get zero or perhaps one admitted African student. We would take more, but the poor state of many African universities means that few people have the training to succeed in the program, even with some help and extra attention.

Concrete steps I could see happening:

  • One or two of the big donors, such as the World Bank or DFID, taking a third of the billions pointlessly spent on business or vocational training programs every year (not one of which has ever passed a cost benefit test when evaluated) and directing it to general university development. Or scholarships. Some evaluations here would be interesting.
  • Donors paying more attention to startups like the African School of Economics, started by Princeton’s Leonard Wantchekon. If I were a donor, I would invest heavily.
  • Professional organizations like AEA or APSA extending the mentoring and catchup and funding programs that they have developed for American minorities and women, and extending these to people from the least developed countries.
  • More research donors, like 3ie already does, providing incentives for projects to include scholars or students from low income countries.

My first instinct, when I see a problem, is not to jump to the supply-side, centralized, donor driven solution. In this case, however, I think science and the university has a good track record of benefiting from the first few, and even the last few, public dollars. But I am interested to hear other perspectives because I don’t really know what I’m talking about on this subject.

Links I liked

  1. Offensive lineman for Baltimore Ravens publishes in math journals in his spare time
  2. The science of empathy and why we hate our enemies
  3. Story: I, Robot by Cory Doctorow
  4. If “heterogeneous treatment effects” is something you do, read this
  5. The final sequence in Return of the Jedi, without Ewoks
  6. Andy Weir, author of “The Martian” soon to be a movie, tweeted this picture
  7. Amazon will begin testing delivery drones outdoors
  8. African scholars interested in field experiments might consider this EGAP event in Accra

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis at Innovations for Poverty Action.

Chris has generously offered to let us at IPA (where he’s a Research Affiliate) share the internal links of interest on development and research we send around weekly here, we presume so Chris can devote more time to making us feel bad about how little outside reading the rest of us do. (Direct your disagreement tweets to @poverty_action, not Chris)

  • There’s a new China-led development bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The U.S. has asked European countries not to join, but Britain, Germany, France and Italy (and potentially Australia) are:

The United States has argued that the bank at best duplicates, and at worst undermines, the role of the Washington-based World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, which has its headquarters in the Philippines, a close American ally at odds with Beijing over the South China Sea.

  • The US House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing this week on effectiveness of US Foreign Aid. Here’s my screenshot of what the hearing room looked like:

Embedded image permalink (Archived video of the hearing is here)

“The toughest moment was 12:01 Sunday night, moments after the challenge began,” Carey wrote. “It felt like hours had passed, but I looked down and realized I was less than halfway through a single song. That’s when I realized the gravity of my decision. I hit rock bottom within a minute of the challenge beginning.”

We thought about it, but there are some things the human subjects committee won’t let us do.