“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:

Screen Shot 2015-11-03 at 9.17.24 AM

Dear journalists: Please stop writing about “scientific research” with an absurdly small number of subjects

What got missed in many of the media reports was that the research was incredibly limited. The study ran for only nine days, and involved 43 children — and, importantly, no comparison (or “control”) group.

That is Julia Belluz of Vox explaining why you should be skeptical about the childhood obesity study that got so much attention last week. An author claimed “We reversed their metabolic disease in just 10 days, even while eating processed food, by just removing the added sugar and substituting starch, and without changing calories or weight.”

Now is not the time to lecture on statistical significance, but think on this: It’s hard to show that men are on average heavier than women without a sample size of 100 or more. Presumably something less probable should have a higher burden of proof. There is no rule of thumb, but if you must have one, look for a sample size of many hundred. And always for a credible control group.

On the “adequate sample” but “questionable control group”, many of you probably heard last week that red meat causes cancer, and might be as bad as smoking. Anahad O’Connor at the New York Times takes a closer look, and sees ridiculous over-exaggeration of results:

Smoking raises a person’s lifetime risk of developing lung cancer by a staggering 2,500 percent. Meanwhile, two daily strips of bacon, based on the associations identified by the W.H.O., would translate to about a 6 percent lifetime risk for colon cancer, up from the 5 percent risk for people who don’t enjoy bacon or other processed meats.

I am reminded of Neuroskeptic’s 9 circles of scientific hell, where I would like to see a new level for “sample size of 32”.

This is what happens when Reddit notices something on your website

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Of course it was Friday’s map of US government assistance to other countries. Man, people like maps. I used to wonder, “why is every news organization investing so much in data visualization?” And the answer seems to be “a crazy number of clicks”.

And, of the 164,000 people who viewed the post yesterday, less than 1% clicked through to any of the paper links. Oh well.

That did not stop me from getting a zillion angry tweets asking me why “economic aid” included military assistance, seemingly from people who really like military aid. My reaction: Yes, it would be interesting to separate development assistance from other flows, and I was imprecise about “foreign aid”, but the fact that military flows to middle income or rich countries are so large as to distort any assessment of money to support poor people is actually more depressing to me.

In case you thought most foreign aid went to poor people, let me depress you with one great map

USaidmoneyHowMuchA beautiful graphic by Raul Amoros. Hat tip @d_wlkr.

If you’re burning to explain this madness, and want to go beyond “U.S. interests in oil, invasions, drugs and Israel”, then here are the four articles I recommend to my SIPA class:

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • The $2.7 billion Army lost blimp floating over an Amish buggy in Pennsylvania just 19 hours after Rathyon posted an ad for a temp blimp watcher, was only the runner-up craziest military story of the week. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports on an episode in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, when two U.S. Air Force officers refused orders to launch 32 nuclear missiles. (Summary here).
  • Tanzania election results are in, primer here.
  • An account of some disturbing responses to the observations of all male panels at international development conferences. (h/t Lee Crawfurd)
  • The University of California system and White House are boosting support for open access publication of research.
  • Duncan Green finds low take up of blogging & tweeting by academics despite demonstrated evidence of the benefits. More research is needed to understand this failure.
  • Rasul & Rogger in American Economic Review: Papers & Proceedings (PDF here) find a correlation between ethnic diversity in Nigeria’s civil service and quality of service (measured in project completion rates).


And, if you were following the craziness that broke out when the WHO classified processed meats as a carcinogen, there was at least one piece of good news.

What I’ve been reading

51VjrKu7mdL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_I meant to blog about many of these individually, but after two months it has not happened, so here is a list of impressions. Not all the books are excellent. They run from the best to the least worth reading, but all are worth reading (I don’t blog about the duds).

  1. The Party by Richard McGregor. Best book I read this year. A former FT journalist in China gives you the fascinating inner workings of the Communist party. I am not a China expert, so I can’t say if any of this is accurate, but it was the most thought-provoking book on the politics of development I can recall in a while. How corruption and cronyism produce growth when the political system is durable yet flexible. Best paired with this article by Chang Tai Hsieh: “Crony Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics
  2. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I did not find the whole “letter to my son” device as skillful or convincing as others, and the writing is not his best, but more important than any of that: the book is full of powerful ideas and insights. Also, this is the only book about black people that every white liberal intellectual in the country has read, and they’re going to talk about it all the time as if they are experts on oppression. So you might as well know what they are bullshitting about.
  3. Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. A Chinese science fiction novel translated into English. The writing is a bit awkward at times, which might be the writer or the translator. But worth it in the end.
  4. Seveneves by Neal Stephenson. A much better science fiction novel, even if it sometimes feels like a worse Cloud Atlas.
  5. The Black Count by Tom Reiss. Alexandre Dumas (author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, had a father who was Haiti-born, black, and one of the greatest generals of revolutionary France. A history of the slave trade and the revolution, but written well enough you actually want to read it.
  6. Minute Zero by Todd Moss. Book two about an Ivy league political science professor who runs conflict regressions and then unwittingly saves the world with the help of the CIA. I mean, what’s not to love (from a purely self-interested perspective)?
  7. The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. Nigeria is probably one of the countries with the most interesting and innovative 21st century fiction. This book is a novel about a Nigerian boy, beautifully written. It cannot be accused of sounding like Adichie or Achebe, which I mention only because there’s a rule that every review of a Nigerian author has to mention those two people.
  8. The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol. Short stories on American immigrants, with a common Eastern European thread running through many.
  9. A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky. An irritating neuroscientist/primatologist recounts his experiences and exploits among baboons. His insights into primates and his academic field are good enough that they are worth listening to his self-congratulatory stories. Also, throughout the book I kept thinking, “Maybe when I am 70 I too will write a memoir, and no doubt I too will sound like a complete ass to someone 30 years my junior.” So all is forgiven. And in 30 years please forgive me.

Museum exhibit of the year

The Metropolitan Museum in New York has an incredible Kongo exhibit.

  • One caveat to this review: I saw it at a blurry trot, trying to keep a two-year old from licking the statues and repeating “don’t run” and “don’t touch” every fifteen seconds while stealing glances at the actual exhibit.
  • One highlight were the holy objects and rituals that leaders developed to establish law and order, especially as colonialists took away their material power. Each nail hammered into the wooden object above, for instance, represented a binding contract that a holy man would enforce through whatever spiritual vengeance necessary. (I see a Peter Leeson paper in the future.)
  • Another highlight was the written letters from Kongo kings to other monarchs. Most of the letters on display asked European monarchs to send them more crucifixes. Personally I would’ve picked Alfonso I’s plea to the Portuguese king that his traders stop enslaving the royal family.
  • On the down side, you enter from the bright, brilliantly white, marbled Greek sculpture hall into…darkness. The room is only slightly better lit than a broom closet. It’s possible the works are exceptionally light sensitive. But I’m willing to bet the curator wanted to make you think you were on a steamboat under the jungle canopy.
  • Also, they were selling The Masque of Africa in the gift shop. Selling V.S. Naipaul is a little like going through the exhibit with your sort-of racist grandpa. If they were going to have foreign accounts they could have at least sold Micaela Wrong, Adam Hothschild, or Jason Stearns. At least I did not see Joseph Conrad. But like I said it was dark.
  • I am mostly jealous of my friend Suresh Naidu, who saw the exhibit with Jim Robinson, thus receiving an erudite running commentary. In a British accent! To my great envy, I even heard that Jim’s toddler was exceptionally well behaved. Possibly the child was too busy correcting errors in the museum guide. Mine tried to throw himself into the Egyptian reflecting pool.

Highly recommended, even with toddlers (but mostly without).

“Write like you speak”

Something comes over most people when they start writing. They write in a different language than they’d use if they were talking to a friend. The sentence structure and even the words are different. No one uses “pen” as a verb in spoken English. You’d feel like an idiot using “pen” instead of “write” in a conversation with a friend.

The last straw for me was a sentence I read a couple days ago:

The mercurial Spaniard himself declared: “After Altamira, all is decadence.”

It’s from Neil Oliver’s A History of Ancient Britain. I feel bad making an example of this book, because it’s no worse than lots of others. But just imagine calling Picasso “the mercurial Spaniard” when talking to a friend. Even one sentence of this would raise eyebrows in conversation. And yet people write whole books of it.

Ok, so written and spoken language are different. Does that make written language worse?

If you want people to read and understand what you write, yes.

A great post from Paul Graham. I will only add one qualification: Not if you talk like an undergraduate? With question marks at the end of all your statements?

That and other reminders come from Teddy Wayne and his attack on “NPR voice”, including… melodramatic pauses.

Meanwhile, see my previous posts on writing well here. It is a skill like any other: if you work at it you will get much better.

Are “too many” people going to college?

I hear this question a lot. Lisa Barrow and Ofer Malamud have a new article in the Annual Review of Economics. Worth reading, but here are some of the high level points:
  • On average, college is a good investment. The internal rate of return is large. None of their estimates is less than 5%, and many are much higher.
  • This means that college education is (gasp!) individually rational, and borrowing at low rates to fund education is a good idea for the average student. Probably most.
  • The most substantial variation in rates of return is across college majors, ranging from 5.5% (for men who are education majors) to 16.4% (for women who are computer and information science majors).
  • Individual characteristics don’t change the expected returns a great deal, though the returns are lower for women and minorities.
  • We should probably be more concerned about debt loads on the small minority who make a poor decision, or have bad luck, than the average student who will pay these loans off just fine.

What books did you once love, that you cringe to remember?

atlas-shrugged-e1333630955708The Awl asks, and Sam Anderson of the NYT Magazine channels a young Blattman:

Oh man, I suspect you’re going to be hearing this answer a lot, but: the complete works of Ayn Rand. I discovered them toward the end of high school and walked around for a couple of years giving Howard Roark-like speeches to everyone about “the highest blazing good of selfish free-market epistemology” or something. In retrospect, it seems pretty clear that my Objectivist phase had more to do with the subjective agonies of post-adolescence (insecurity, narcissism) than it did with pure reason.

It helps to be a middle class white male from an upwardly mobile family who has never faced a real obstacle in his life harder than a suburban fast food job where you actually had to do something dirty for the first time in your life. But if you go from cleaning a grease trap to A’s in college, then obviously you’re superman.

Meanwhile, to the list of cringeworthy things I used to love reading, I will add opinion pieces by The Economist (for similar reasons).

Links I liked

  1. As the price of prison phone calls sometimes hits $14 per minute, the FCC has now capped rates at 11¢ per minute
  2. Google Books won the big lawsuit. What this means for readers
  3. African elections are not what they used to be: real time data and analysis from the Tanzanian poll (hat tip @RakeshRajani)
  4. God Bless America: Chris Christie kicked out of the Amtrak quiet car for talking on his phone (doesn’t he know that’s the third rail of Acela Republicans?)
  5. Everything tweeted by @DavidSkarbek
  6. on why they are boycotting Israel
  7. How to tell if a battery is out of juice

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • University students are protesting against raised fees in South Africa, and elections in Tanzania look close. Keep up with current goings on with Kim Yi Dionne on twitter or the This Week in Africa roundup.
  • Priceonomics looks at how prison gerrymandering works. In the US prisoners are counted as residents of the district where the prison is, but don’t get to vote. This means the largely minority/urban populations of prisons end up silently inflating the political representation of the rural White areas where they reside and are attractive political prizes, making for bizarre district lines. They cite a paper finding:

    “On average, we can expect a party that has recently taken control of the redistricting process to draw more than 5,000 prisoners from districts controlled by the other party or marginal districts into their safest districts.”

  • This week Vox.com’s Ezra Klein spoke at the World Bank about popularizing research. Video here, but some takeaways:
    • Lots of research is inherently interesting – he makes a living from “arbitrage” of research the original authors haven’t popularized.
    • Many people forward based on just the headline or quick skim. Put the interesting/surprising thing up front, ideally in the headline.
    • PR company email blasts go to spam. A personal email from the actual researcher with heads up on a new paper carries much more weight.
  • Good explainers: Adam Davidson “You’re Not Supposed to Understand the Federal Reserve
  • Planet Money on why farmers sell their crops before they come in. Except for onions, because of this one time someone owned almost every onion in America and flooded Chicago with them.


And looks like it’s back to the drawing board for the office Halloween party:



Links I liked

  1. What police data are online, rejected vanity license plates, and other random datasets from the Data is Plural newsletter of unusual datasets online
  2. Everything I needed to know about the Canadian election I learned from John Oliver
  3. Support for Syrian refugees: religious primes increase support and a reminder how much they cost erases it
  4. Explaining male-female earning gaps in law firms
  5. Susan Athey and Guido Imbens mini-course on machine learning for economists
  6. And a metaphysical gate sign

Photo essay of the year: Syrians in transit

Jacobia Dahm, a photographer, recently traveled with refugees as they made their way form the Middle East through Europe. You can see her amazing photos and stories on Instagram.

Here are a couple of favorites:

Screenshot 2015-10-18 22.05.15She writes:

At the foot of the lighthouse of Tsonia on the northern coast of Lesbos the life jackets pile high. The coast is steep and muddy, it’s far from an ideal place to land, but the light at night guides refugees in boats in this otherwise sparsely populated stretch of Lesbos. Three local men sit by the lighthouse day and night, smoking cigarettes, and watching for boats — in order to lend a helping hand when they arrive.

Screenshot 2015-10-18 22.05.29She writes:

Adnan, 50, is from Kobani in Syria and on his way to Helsinki with his family of 5 children and his niece who wants to become a doctor. Here his youngest, Murat, 5, snuggles up to him. Adnan has a friend in Helsinki and you go where you have friends. Even if that means getting a very big winter coat when you arrive.

Jacobia’s webpage, where she also has a powerful photo essay on families traveling on prison buses in upstate New York.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Human Needs Index
Indiana University and The Salvation Army’s collaborative “Human Needs Index”


  • If somehow you haven’t heard, development economist Angus Deaton won the econ Nobel this week. His many contributions include the use of household surveys to measure consumption and well-being. I liked Chris’ explanation, for more see Marginal Revolution, here and here.
  • Justin Sandefur notes that the World Bank, which recently announced drops in global poverty, departs from this method with its 2015 figures, which use projections from national statistics and assume the poor are also sharing in this growth, despite research showing this is a dubious assumption.
  • On Monday (2PM Eastern), the World Bank will be live streaming Vox.com editor-in-chief Ezra Klein talking with David Evans about how to talk to human beings about research.
  • Last week’s Freakonomics podcast on whether children should be obligated to pay back parents had some nice talk on how the economics of having children has changed over the years (this week’s is on the Nobel selection process).
  • In a nice example of non-profit/academic collaboration, The Salvation Army and Indiana University have made public 11 years of data in a tabulation allowing people to explore U.S. poverty as a function of Salvation Army services provided in each state (food vs. utility bill assistance vs. furniture). They’re big enough and data detailed enough to look at things like seasonality of different needs and regional differences.
  • There’s been a lot of talk about cash transfers in recent years, but Wonkblog reports on a new paper (PDF) about an accidental natural experiment. During a longitudinal study of a large group of poor children in rural U.S., about 25% of the families were in a Native American tribe that built a casino and started receiving about $4,000 per month in new income. It appears to have had a major positive effect on childrens’ short term emotional and behavioral problems, but also in the long term, boosting the personality traits that are correlated with later life success (parents who got the money also consumed less alcohol).

And, the UN Sustainable Development Goals have been agreed on, so development is doing its part for the future of “sustainable” according to XKCD.


From https://xkcd.com/1007/

Do 10 percent of university students cheat on their exams?

We develop a simple algorithm for detecting exam cheating between students who copy off one another’s exam. When this algorithm is applied to exams in a general science course at a top university, we find strong evidence of cheating by at least 10 percent of the students. Students studying together cannot explain our findings. Matching incorrect answers prove to be a stronger indicator of cheating than matching correct answers. When seating locations are randomly assigned, and monitoring is increased, cheating virtually disappears.

That is Steve Levitt and Ming-Jen Lin in an NBER working paper. Unfortunately it is gated and I do not see an ungated one online (pointers welcome).

I once caught my students doing this, and the university fumbled the investigation and disciplinary situation so badly (eventually taking no action) I can only assume the administration botched it intentionally. (I will not name universities but it can only be one of four.) In any case, the constraint on reducing cheating may not be detection technology.