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 The University issued a press release on an unpublished study suggesting that drinking a particular brand of chocolate milk helped reduce concussion-related symptoms and improve test scores in high school athletes.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.

The Guantanamo prison diaries

indexThe NYRB highlights an eloquent voice:

“I kept getting books in English that I enjoyed reading, most of them Western literature,” he recounts at one point, after his torture has ended.

I still remember one book called The Catcher in the Rye that made me laugh until my stomach hurt. It was such a funny book. I tried to keep my laughter as low as possible, pushing it down, but the guards felt something.

“Are you crying?” one of them asked.

“No, I’m alright,” I responded. It was my first unofficial laughter in the ocean of tears.

I found the following the most poignant, tragic, and true:

Slahi’s criticisms of the torture, pointless interrogation, and indefinite detention he has endured are often pitched as arguments that his jailors should know better—he is sometimes hard-pressed to believe that such a powerful nation as the United States can act so stupidly. His account reminds us pointedly that brutal interrogation produces false confessions and wasted effort. Also, depriving prisoners of due process, humane treatment, and fair trials only deepens their convictions—and those of their families, clans, and countrymen—that Western claims to global leadership in human rights and the rule of law are false and hypocritical. Slahi writes:

Like me, every detainee I know thought when he arrived in Cuba it would be a typical interrogation, and after interrogation he would be charged and sent to court, and the court would decide whether he is guilty or not…. It made sense to everybody: the interrogators told us this is how it would go and we said, “Let’s do it.” But it turned out either the interrogators deliberately lied…or the government lied to the interrogators.

The book is here.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

  • Harold Pollack writes in Vox about a paper (here) analyzing credit card reform. The CARD credit card act included both hard regulation (elimination of fees) and a nudge (providing information about timely payments on statements). The nudge did relatively little, but the fee reform saved credit card customers billions. Card issuers made the most from those with the lowest credit scores, with the increased fees more than offsetting the risk of default:

    “Fees exceed 30 percent of ADB [average daily balance] for every FICO category below 560, compared with about 3 percent for accounts with FICO scores above 700 — roughly the top half of the distribution.”

  • The youngest owner of a private Gulfstream jet is Malawian, the pastor Prophet Shepherd Bushiri (the $37m Gulfstream III is his third private jet), who announced it on Facebook. Sociologist Ebenezer Obadare writes about the political power of wealthy Pentecostal ministers in Nigeria on the LSE blog here.
  • A new Medium publication, The Development Set, looks critically at the world of development. This article cautions against the “seduction of other people’s problems,” and imagines a Ugandan idealist who wants to help the problems of gun violence in the U.S. She moves to America to set up an NGO or social enterprise to help, only to find the roots of the problem complex and tied up with intractable politics. (h/t Kim Yi Dionne)
  • A working paper looks at the effects of an aid program during conflict in the Philippines. The program worked, though mostly through better governance rather than aid spending, but the effects were ultimately offset because rebels relocated to other communities, lowering welfare there. (h/t Justin Sandefur)
  • FiveThirtyEight is starting an econ column, for the next 24 hours you can vote for the name here.

“What the left and right got wrong about crime in 2015.”

That is the title of an op-ed on US crime by Thomas Abt.

To summarize, the increase in homicides appears real, but there is no broader national crime wave. It is unclear what is driving the problem, but my own hunch – and it is still just a hunch at this point – involves a criminological phenomenon called legal cynicism. Multiple studies have demonstrated that, controlling for other factors, when communities view the police and criminal justice system as illegitimate, they become more violent. When people believe the system is unwilling or unable to help them, they are more likely to take the law into their own hands, creating the cycles of violent retribution that were chronicled so vividly last year in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside.


The retelling of Star Wars, Episode IV as a medieval Irish epic, in tweets

There was once a great queen of Alt Da Rann and Leia was her name. War had sprung up between her people and those of Da Thféider. She sent messengers to ask for aid from the wildman, Cenn Obi. He lived in the wilderness far to the west. These were the messengers she sent: Síd Tríphe Óg, who knew all the languages of man and beast, and the dwarf, Artú.

The messengers became lost on their journey and before long they did not know what land or territory or province they were in “What is this desolate place?” said Tríphe Óg. “We have been cursed to suffer now”. Artú goes to a steep & rocky area. “This is not right” he said. “Before the day is over you will surely perish, oh twisted sprite! No more adventures!”

It was not long before they saw bandits before them in the road. The messengers were captured as slaves. The bandits sold the messengers to a farmer, Eogan his name. He gave them to his nephew, Finn Aiércoisige, (4) to look after. Artú told Finn why they had come to the region: to seek Cenn Obi, the wild man. Their lands and people were being destroyed.

Full story, in both senses of the word.

My big experiment this semester: Making my class a public good

I was wondering what to do with my undergraduate seminar for seniors, when three weeks ago this arrived in my inbox:

Hi Christopher,

My name is Samantha, and I work for the Wiki Education Foundation, a nonprofit that helps university instructors and their students contribute to Wikipedia. Here at Wiki Ed, we believe that science and political literacy matters. We also believe that your students can make a difference. But we need your help!

In a Wikipedia assignment, students are asked to critique, write, illustrate or expand Wikipedia articles as an assignment for your course, in place of or often alongside a traditional term paper. This gives them a chance to write for a live audience, to hone their research skills, to engage in discussions of media literacy, and to have a real impact on the breadth and depth of Wikipedia’s coverage, among other things.

Wiki Ed has been doing this for 5+ years now, and the more we work we do to close content gaps, the more knowledgable we become about those that are left. In April, we officially launched our partnership with the Midwest Political Science Association in order to increase the breadth and depth of political science content on Wikipedia. With the help of the MPSA, and as part of our 2016 Year of Science, we’d love to support more political science courses in order to improve science literacy in our students and the world. We have resources to help you create a detailed assignment plan, to train you and your students on the Wikipedia basics, and to keep track of your class as the project develops.

Are you interested? If so, take a look at the teach with Wikipedia section of our website or browse our online dashboard for a look at the courses we are currently supporting or to get started setting up a Wikipedia assignment in a course of your own. After you’ve had a chance to review our resources, email me with any questions you may have. I’d love to help you design your perfect Wikipedia assignment.

I immediately loved the idea–students contributing to the quality of social science free online to the world. And after talking to the helpful WikiEdu staff I am extremely optmistic about the practical bits. I think students will like this too. I mean, who wants to write one more meaningless term paper not even your professor whats to read?

You can see my course overview here including the entire (draft) syllabus and assignments.

I’ll blog a little about my experiences in the coming semester.

Meanwhile, they want to support more instructors and courses. Email Samantha or go to the contact page for more info. And email me your course page if it’s relevant to the political economy of development.

A slightly cruel but mostly brilliant teaching strategy on global poverty

I posed to the room: “Suppose you were walking by a pond on the way to school,” I asked them (even though there are not very many ponds in San Francisco), “and you saw a child drowning in the pond.  You have your cell phone in your pocket, and you cannot leave it on the bank (let’s say there are sketchy people nearby who you believe would steal it).  Would you dive in the water, ruining your cell phone in order to save the child?”  There were about 30 people in the room, mostly students ranging from freshmen to grad students, and a handful of USF faculty and staff.  Every hand went up in the room indicating they would eagerly lay waste to the circuits in their cell phone to save the drowning child.

But they didn’t know that this was a set-up.

I continued on with my talk about 10 different things an ordinary college student could do to make a positive impact on reducing global poverty.  But I focused on one.  “Did you know that by transferring cash to the ultra-poor through an organization like GiveDirectly, a rigorous randomized controlled trial indicates you can reduce by 42% the number of days children go without food?”  I presented some other impressive statistics from the  Hoshofer-Shapiro GiveDirectly study.

“So if everybody in this room were to donate $50, we could significantly reduce hunger among a desperately poor Ugandan child, perhaps even saving a life.”   A mild sense of unease began to envelope the room.  I continued, “In fact a donor has pledged $50 to GiveDirectly for every one of you who is willing to part with your cell phone for two weeks.”   The sense of unease steadily grew in both breadth and intensity.  Within moments the engaged smiles degenerated into expressions of profound anxiety.  They reminded me of a face I once saw on a student who had forgotten to study for a game theory midterm that I was beginning to pass out in class.

that is Bruce Wydick ay USF, one of my favorite academics. Read the full story.

Links I liked


  1. Half of the world’s population lives in the yellow and half lives in the black (fixed)
  2. How political science blogging got mainstream
  3. Along with several thousand other professors, I signed this letter on educators against intolerance, in this case motivated by intolerance against Arab and Muslim Americans
  4. Reddit responses to “what is the most underrated site on the Internet?
  5. Not your usual ad for Australian universities. Bravo.
  6. Applications open for White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team
  7. One out of every 122 people alive today is a refugee, displaced, or seeking asylum

Help me improve my “political economy of development” course?

I decided to overhaul my Master’s level course this year, adding new material and dropping old. I was laboring under the reading and re-reading and stress of a new syllabus. Just as I was getting to the point where I thought, “OK, this is good enough, I can get it perfect as the class gets moving,” a close colleague reminded me that a syllabus is a contract, and the more time I invest it in now the easier my life is going to be.

So I persevered, and indeed have one more week, but there are new topics where I’m not sure what I should cover. And maybe good ideas or readings I’ve missed. So the syllabus is below for those who enjoy these things.

You can search for “TBD” if you want to see where I’m undecided: how to talk about “strong societies” and how they shape states and institutions; what to cover on successful state-building in the modern era (ideally domestic reform strategies but also external interventions; and the role of peacekeeping, military intervention, occupation and trustee states.

Recommendations welcome, especially if you can say why.

Continue reading

The day Joseph Kony considered taking his life

Joseph Kony became one of the most notorious and sinister warlords of the 21st century, in part due to a viral campaign. But monsters (and their victims) are usually more surprising and complex than we appreciate.

An excerpt from a new memoir by one of Kony’s forced wives, on a day he thought of ending his life after a favorite son was killed:

I then told him, “If you die because of your wife and son, then you may as well kill everyone in the bush. They are here because of you. If you kill yourself, it is as good as killing all of them. No one here is capable of leading us home.”

That day Kony told me to make him tea and juice. Kony said that everything in this world happens for a reason. He told me that he was not going to shoot me; he believed that I loved him and that I was strong. He said it is hard to be a prophet. He said that God had tempted him. We talked a lot. He said that one day we would overthrow the government and live a good life and that I would be the first wife in his home because I did not leave him when he was going through such a difficult time. He said he would try his best to take care of me so that my future would be bright. He said to have hope.

This was the time that I was close to Kony. I told him of my hope to return home to Uganda with the children. The rebels were releasing their wives at this time because the war had become so intense. Kony said that he was going to release all of his wives to return home. He said that he was going to remain in the bush with only men.

I became happy.

I thought he would release us and allow us to return home.

Read the full excerpt in the Guardian.

IPA’s weekly links

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action.

Ghana Market_2

  • The world’s first Dengue Fever vaccine has been approved for use in Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines.
  • The women traders of Ghana’s markets were once so powerful they were targeted by the military (h/t Jeffrey Paller).
  • Nathan Yau has a list of best data visualizations of 2015, some standouts:
    • The Fallen of WWII uses beautiful motion and animation to show how many died or were wounded in different parts of the war. It’s incredibly elegant and advances with narration but lets you pause and interact with the data.
    • A visual intro to machine learning is also very impressive.
  • How Uganda became a leader in end of life care (h/t Rohit Naimpally).
  • Contrary to many predictions, a new working paper finds the influx of 2 million refugees to Turkey did not lower wages (there were effects on employment, and a slight rise in housing prices, about .2%).
  • Dan Ariely and New York Public Radio’s Only Human podcast are running an experiment anybody can join to better stick to new year’s exercise resolutions. Sign up and you’ll be randomly assigned to a strategy and sent tips for how to use it.

And this raccoon’s cotton candy is a good demonstration of what happens to that great finding once you add in the covariates.

A lot of people think field experiments make scholars ask small questions, but I think they’ll push us to answer the big ones

Experimental evaluations of policies or programs are prospective. As such they typically require deep engagement between researchers and implementers in processes of policy formulation, beneficiary selection, and site selection. Compare this to an ex post analysis. In an ex post analysis, such details are often lost. It is for good reason then that you often hear from practitioners that ex post evaluators did not understand “what really went on” in the program. They weren’t there from the beginning. In my experience, this is much less the case for experimental studies. Working prospectively, the researcher is there operating alongside implementation.

That is Cyrus Samii on the under-appreciated benefits of field experiments, which have been coming under a lot of criticism for over-selling the weight of their evidence, and over-taking the profession.

I’m going to go even further than Cyrus. At the end of the day, the great benefit of field experiments to economics and political scientists is that it’s forced some of the best social scientists to try to get complicated things done in unfamiliar places, and deal with all the constraints, bureaucrats, logistics, and impediments to reform you can imagine.

Arguably, the tacit knowledge these academics have developed about development and reform will be more influential to their long run work and world view than the experiments themselves.

But first, a step back. Not all experiments get people into unfamiliar places. I can think of a lot of field experiments where the main researcher has never even been to the country where it’s all happening. And of course not all observational work is context free. My years in northern Uganda studying a war (mostly) after the fact deeply shaped my world view.

So it’s about the investment in “what really went on” that matters to research quality. But I’ll accept that, on average, field experiments force more of this. For now.

But like I said, the big benefit to social science is not the quality of the final research paper that results. Take a so-called randomista. I’m willing to bet that maybe now, but certainly in ten years, how they explain how the world works, how they train their students, what they write about, what work they promote, the big books they write for the public: all of these things will be more influenced by their experiences trying to get things done than the causal estimates themselves.

This is even true of the political scientists, who are veterans of field work, but seldom ever actually try to implement something (at least before tenure). Even so, I expect the biggest effect on development economics.

Won’t it be ironic if the biggest effect of the experimental revolution in development economics is to grow the number of economists doing comparative politics?

We are all Albert Hirschman now.

Open source totalitarians

Enter RedStar OS: North Korea’s own Linux based operating system, designed to monitor its users and remain resilient to any attempts to modify or otherwise exert control over it.

…“They are using something that is supposed to support free-speech,” Grunow said.

…It comes with everything a user might need, including word processing and music creation software, and a modified Firefox browser. These applications, the desktop environment, and the underlying structure of the file system attempts to mimic that of Mac OS X.

But that is where the similarities with other operating systems end, and RedStar’s totalitarian bent begins. RedStar enforces its dominance by rigorously monitoring any changes that a user might make, reacting accordingly, as well as creating “watermarks” on the files on any USB stick inserted into it.

In short, whenever a USB storage device containing documents, photos or videos is inserted into a RedStar computer, the operating system takes the current hard-disk’s serial number, encrypts that number, and then writes that encrypted serial into the file, marking it.


“The Obama administration is quietly trying to make it harder to study public officials”

That’s the title of a Vox article today:

A lot of what we know about how the government works — what motivates politicians, how exactly the three branches of government respond to one another — is thanks to the work of political scientists, who have been studying public officials for decades.

Much of their research, which involves interviews, surveys, and field experiments with politicians, is made possible by a special exemption in federal law that allows academics to study public figures without burdensome ethics restraints that govern all other research conducted on humans.

But the federal government is looking to quietly remove that exemption.

Right now the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which writes the rules on what can and can’t be permitted in human subjects research, is in the process of rewriting its whole ethics code. It issued a set of proposed regulations in September, and January 6 marked the deadline to submit comments on those proposed changes.

Overall, social scientists are pleased with the direction these new rules are pushing: If finalized, surveys and low-risk experiments would no longer be held to the same standard as medical trials, which researchers find unduly burdensome.

But snuck into the 300-plus pages of proposed rules is one line suggesting the government intends to close the major loophole that makes studying public officials practically possible.

The full article is worthwhile, but a little hard to figure out the bottom line. Basically the exemption will be removed and it’s not clear if this will actually affect ethical approvals. It sounds like it could stop researchers from implicating specific officials.

Any opinions here?

Hat tip to Jeff Mosenkis.