Depressing fact of the day: Professors are less likely to reply to emails from women and minorities

In our experiment, professors were contacted by fictional prospective students seeking to discuss research opportunities before applying to a doctoral program.

Students’ names were randomly assigned to signal gender and race, but messages were otherwise identical.

Faculty ignored requests from women and minorities at a higher rate than requests from Caucasian males, particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions. 

A new paper by Milkman, Akinola, and Chugh.

The most surprising sentence in the paper, to me: “Sixty-seven percent of the emails sent to faculty from prospective doctoral students elicited a response.” I would have guessed 10%. I mean, most professors barely respond to my emails.

Did a robot just put scientists out of work?

Keeping up with the ever-expanding flow of data and publications is untenable and poses a fundamental bottleneck to scientific progress. Current search technologies typically find many relevant documents, but they do not extract and organize the information content of these documents or suggest new scientific hypotheses based on this organized content.

We present an initial case study on KnIT, a prototype system that mines the information contained in the scientific literature, represents it explicitly in a queriable network, and then further reasons upon these data to generate novel and experimentally testable hypotheses. KnIT combines entity detection with neighbor-text feature analysis and with graph-based diffusion of information to identify potential new properties of entities that are strongly implied by existing relationships.

We discuss a successful application of our approach that mines the published literature to identify new protein kinases that phosphorylate the protein tumor suppressor p53. Retrospective analysis demonstrates the accuracy of this approach and ongoing laboratory experiments suggest that kinases identified by our system may indeed phosphorylate p53. These results establish proof of principle for automated hypothesis generation and discovery based on text mining of the scientific literature.


You can argue that (1) scientists can leverage this technology to shift to higher level tasks, simply increasing their productivity, and (2) in principle this could simply put more scientists to work. Or you could believe that the next step is The Terminator.

Links I liked

  1. The inaugural issue of the very promising Journal of Experimental Political Science, which among other things encourages replication studies
  2. Local attitudes to insurgency predict violence in Afghanistan
  3. A pleasantly unusual list of development books you should read. Incidentally, here is mine.
  4. The most interesting boring people in the world
  5. Researchers had misidentified skeletons as male simply because they were buried with their swords & shields


How your language changes with your power status

Pennebaker pointed to some of his own email, a batch written long before he began studying status.

First he shares an email written by one of his undergraduate students, a woman named Pam:

Dear Dr. Pennebaker:
I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures and I’ve learned so much. I received an email from you about doing some research with you. Would there be a time for me to come by and talk about this?

Now consider Pennebaker’s response:

Dear Pam –
This would be great. This week isn’t good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30. It will be good to see you.
Jamie Pennebaker

Pam, the lowly undergraduate, used “I” many times, while Pennebaker didn’t use it at all.

Now consider this email Pennebaker wrote to a famous professor.

Dear Famous Professor:
The reason I’m writing is that I’m helping to put together a conference on [a particular topic]. I have been contacting a large group of people and many have specifically asked if you were attending. I would absolutely love it if you could come… I really hope you can make it.
Jamie Pennebaker

And the return email from Famous Professor:

Dear Jamie –
Good to hear from you. Congratulations on the conference. The idea of a reunion is a nice one … and the conference idea will provide us with a semiformal way of catching up with one another’s current research…. Isn’t there any way to get the university to dig up a few thousand dollars to defray travel expenses for the conference?
With all best regards,
Famous Professor

Pennebaker says that when he encountered these emails he was shocked to find that he himself obeyed this rule.

The full post is fascinating.

Or should I say “I think the full post is fascinating”?

Is this the best political science syllabus ever?

Jake Bowers at UIUC teaches a course on political science and science fiction, called “Future Politics”:

How can imagining the future help us understand the present? How does considering the future help us think critically about politics today? In this course we will read social science and political philosophy together with science fiction in an attempt to enhance the political, social and economic imagination of the social sciences.

The future hopes and imaginings of past political thinkers do not include either enough detail or enough information about our rapidly changing technological, social, political, and economic landscape to provide us with enough practice to confidently confront the future as citizens as it happens to us. Science fiction allows us a much more detailed view of life in alternative futures, and the writers that we choose to read here tend to think seriously and logically about how current cutting edge technology might have social and political ramifications

The readings are terrific.

I like science fiction best when it is basically doing social science: reimagining society if you relax this constraint or that assumption.

The new best thing on Ferguson

Many people were happy with Hillary Clinton’s comments. I agree, but two weeks later it feels safe, as though she waited to see where the people were heading so she could get in front and lead them.

As for the best thing said so far, I thought it would be hard to beat this. But that was because I didn’t realize Jon Stewart would come back from vacation just to weigh in. I do not use the word genius lightly:

And here is Stewart’s “Ferguson challenge”:

“Yes you dolt, diseases can expand exponentially and Ebola just may”

That is the general tenor of some (only some) of the Twitter responses to my posts on whether or not the Ebola crisis is overhyped or not, including that from some experts who know more than I do. Some comments were less kind. Others sympathetic. Either way, it’s a fair point.

More importantly, there has been actual information coming in which is interesting. So this is a last Ebola post (I hope)—hurried, apologetically, because I’m conferencing the rest of today and this week.

First, a clarification: yesterday’s post was actually agreeing with the people pushing back (Kim Yi Dionne and Stéphane Helleringer in that case) saying “this crisis is actually, by the numbers, more serious than you think.”

My main response, which apparently I garbled a bit, was supposed to be simple: The chicken littles (I singled out and tarred an MSF post with that brush) are absolutely right about Liberia if the conditions are there for the Ebola epidemic to spiral out of control. That is the question on which many, many lives are staked.

There seem to be some partial answers, but let me get back to that in a moment.

I also wanted to make a second point: In responding, we must make sure the cure is not worse than the disease. All the negative hype will hinder, and might even destroy, Liberia’s economy for the next 5 or 10 years. Maybe the optimal response to a disease outbreak is overhype, to get the most resources possible. I’m worried about the aftershock. The cost to everyone who survives the disease looks to be very, very high in terms of lost growth, jobs, social programs, and the like.

What might be the consequences of hype? Here’s a US survey that suggests 40% of Americans are concerned about an outbreak at home and that a quarter think their family might get it. And that was two weeks ago. Frankly that smells like it might be a poorly worded question or interpretation, but either way, I think “large scale irrational fears” adequately sums up the situation.

At the same time, people like me who urge caution on the hype have a responsibility not to diminish a truly serious crisis—in this instance, the potential for the Liberia epidemic to go out of control.

Readers have made some good points and sent some useful links.

Three claims that were made, that I’m not sure are true, but are worrying if they are:

  • The recorded numbers of the disease well vastly underestimate the actual numbers
  • The people who are responding to the disease are leaving the country or dying
  • The organizations responding to the disease (the government, the WHO, etc) are doing a poor job

These seem like the right claims for researchers and the media to investigate.

Here are the models and science that I’ve been sent (please let me know if I missed some). It’s hard for me to say, but I think they paint a picture of a deadly serious outbreak, but one where it’s very unclear if it will leave Liberia or even grow exponentially for long:

Surely I am missing research. Suggestions?

One comment: having spent a lot of time running forecasting models of violence, I can tell you that extrapolating history is a reasonable but seldom reliable method. You have to factor in the response, things that interrupt the vector, etc. I can only assume epidemiological models do this.

The sad thing is that I haven’t seen the media identify these as the main questions and seek answers that are not simply speculative. Surely this is out there.

What happens when you release people from bonded labor in the Emirates?

It turns out serfdom is not so terrific for workers or the economy.

In 2011, a reform in the UAE allowed any employer to renew a migrant’s visa upon contract expiration without written permission from the initial employer. We find that the reform increased incumbent migrants’ earnings and firm retention of these workers. This occurs despite an increase in employer transitions, and is driven by a fall in country exits. While the outcomes of workers already in the UAE improved, our analysis suggests that the reform decreased demand for new migrant workers and lowered their earnings. These results are consistent with a model in which the reform reduces the monopsony power of firms.

A new paper by Naidu, Nyarko and Wang. Naidu’s other work on labor coercion–both today and in American history–is hugely interesting and important.

Does Chicken Little have Ebola?

This is my second post about Ebola, in which I continue to pontificate about things I don’t really know anything about. Yesterday I suggested Ebola is the Kardashian of diseases and we ought to be a little less worried about Ebola and talk more about HIV, malaria, and TB.

There are some excellent graphs and discussion from Kim Yi Dionne and Stéphane Helleringer, who do know what they are talking about.

Africa is a continent – not a country. If a health problem is only prevalent and problematic in one country rather than in many of Africa’s 54 countries, does that make it as irrelevant as a Kardashian? Continent-wide metrics can mask dramatic impacts of disease outbreaks in countries or even sub-regions. If we consider Ebola in the context where it’s unfolding, it matters a great deal. By the end of 2014, it may matter even more in these countries than the other infectious diseases mentioned by Blattman.

…So, how many deaths from Ebola can we expect by year’s end under these conditions? To try and answer this question, we did some simple arithmetic: at a rate of 18 deaths per day (i.e., the average number reported for August so far in Liberia), it will only be 10 days until Ebola has killed as many people as road-traffic accidents usually kill in the country in an entire year. It will be 20 days until Ebola reaches the yearly level of maternal deaths; 70 days until it reaches the number of deaths from HIV/AIDS deaths and 125 days (i.e., before the end of 2014) until it reaches the estimated annual number of malaria deaths in the country. And of course, these “projections” rest on the very optimistic assumption that the public health response will be able to maintain the number of deaths due to Ebola at 18 per day. In recent days however, the daily number of deaths seems to have been rising quite sharply over time.

This is a good response. The full post is worth reading. A few thoughts.

  1. I care unusually about Liberia, having worked there for the past six years and seeing the toll this disease is taking on the country. But it seems to me the fearful and overblown coverage will do more damage in the long run as businesses and NGOs pull out, or deals in the future never get done. I’d venture a guess that shaving a percentage point off GDP for the next few years will lead to more preventable deaths than the disease will in the end. This is disastrous for the country and it doesn’t help when organizations like MSF say it is “spiraling out of control“.
  2. Unless it is actually spiraling out of control. Donne and Helleringer tell us what happens if they project a linear trend. But diseases also expand exponentially. I think the discussion ought focus mainly on the realistic potential for a linear or exponential increase for a long period of time. If agencies can get this under control in a month, the hype will have done much more lasting damage than the actual disease.
  3. I’m conflicted as to whether history suggests the disease has this potential. If this blog is correct, there have been less than about 3000 confirmed deaths from Ebola in human history in every country in the world. This does not sound like a world ravaging killer.
  4. At the same time, the 2014 outbreak probably accounts for about half those deaths. So maybe this time is different. 99% of the time “this time is different” is wrong. Until it is not.
  5. I am waiting for science to weigh in on the trend. Anyone?

America’s other one percent

How many Americans live on less than $2 a day (in purchasing power terms) and so are below the international poverty line? Laurence Chandy blogs over at Brookings.

We obtain estimates of the $2 a day poverty rate in the U.S. for 2011/12 that range from 4 percent (12 million people) to zero depending on the definition of resources and the data source used…

[But] Not so fast. If we used the exact same criteria to measure poverty in the U.S. as is used by the World Bank to obtain official poverty estimates for the developing world, we would conclude that no-one in the U.S. falls under the $2 threshold. Part of the reason for this is that even the poorest people surveyed in America appear to find a way to meet their most basic material needs (valued above $2 a day) even if their reported income is zero or close to zero. Furthermore, the poor in America have access to public goods—public education, criminal justice and infrastructure—that would be the envy of the poor in the developing world.

One of his nicer points is that we don’t know because we don’t have the tools or data to measure the bottom 1% in the US. But we have the top 1% down pretty well (excepting those secret offshore accounts and actual wealth, of course). Ironically, we know all about the bottom 1% in poor countries, but almost no data on their top 1%.

My thought, the fact that we can write serious research papers trying to figure out how many Americans live under the international poverty line, and that a credible answer is “millions” is a very sad statement on the country.

In case you are at APSA this week…

What panels look especially interesting? Will be interested to hear in comments.

Twitterati: There is apparently a tweet-up Wednesday at 630p at St Arnold’s.

If you are the bright eyed and bushy tailed early riser, come to the post-conflict peace, democracy and development session Thursday at 8am, with me, Cyrus Samii, Mike Gilligan, Aila Matanock, Oeindrila Dube, Irfan Nooruddin, and Leonard Wantchekon in attendance. I’m presenting my paper on whether employment programs can reduce crime and rebellion.

If you are more of a lazy bones, then I’m chairing a session on order and violence: patterns, predictions and prevention, with me, Libby Wood, Alex Hartman, Guy Grossman, and Raul Sanchez de la Sierra in attendance. I’m presenting a new paper on predicting local violence, which should otherwise be posted in a couple of weeks.

“Ebola is the Kardashian of diseases”

I tweeted that statement earlier this week, followed by “Do not get distracted. Malaria, TB, HIV is what matters.”

First, credit goes to @gbloembergen who comes up with much cleverer statements while holding alcoholic beverages than I do.

Second, why I agree with him:

  • Ebola is deadly serious but it seems to me the scaremongering is getting out of hand. Countries with even basic state capacity, such as Uganda, tend to be able to get outbreaks under control. A Western country could contain an outbreak, as could many (but not all) of Liberia or Sierra Leone’s neighbors. The reason we are seeing this explode is because, inevitably, Ebola is appearing in some of the weakest states in the world.
  • Thus the problem is not Ebola. Ebola outbreaks are the symptom of very weak states. The world can and should help to contain the outbreak there, but not forget what the cause is.
  • Meanwhile, malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS are already at pandemic proportions and I venture destroy more lives, more economies, and perhaps even more politics than Ebola.
  • Something like a third of Botswana have HIV or AIDS. 25 millions Africans have it, and more than a million die a year from it. A million. This is hugely economically and politically disruptive in some of the most advanced and politically important states in Africa, especially southern Africa.

I am not a public health expert so I’d love to be corrected. The right person to talk about this is probably Evan Lieberman at MIT, and in my ignorance I welcome summaries or insights from readers.

One response I received on Twitter that is important: the reaction to Ebola is what is abruptly destroying the economies of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Some of this is sensible, and maybe that economic and political disruption will make Ebola a greater curse than HIV or TB or malaria. But I can’t escape the idea that the reaction is an overreaction, and that the economic and political destruction is partly due to Western hype. That’s a tragedy indeed.

Essential reading on foreign aid

One of my favorite economists, Nancy Qian, reviews the literature on foreign aid. This is probably one of the better and more serious reviews out there, and should be read.

  • Aid flows have remained relatively constant during the period of 1960-2013
  • The countries that comprise the top donors also remain mostly unchanged
  • The composition of the top foreign aid recipients changes significantly over time [and] …much of the change in recipient composition seems aligned with foreign policy concerns of donor countries rather than changes in poverty levels in the recipient countries.
  • Annual aid to the poorest twenty percent of countries of the world comprise only 1.69% to 5.25% of total global aid flows.
  • A significant portion of aid is spent in donor countries.

Also, she picks up on the silliness of asking the question “does aid work?”

I focus my discussion on the need for future research to shift away from
examining aggregate aid towards more narrowed definitions because aggregation exacerbates several fundamental difficulties of empirical research. First, aggregate ODA is difficult to interpret as it is comprised of many different types of aid (e.g., debt relief, cash transfers, food, etc.). Each type of aid faces different measurement issues and, more importantly, each affects a different set of outcomes.

That is, it depends what you mean by “aid” and what you mean by “work”. It might even depend on what you mean by “does”.

Still the best thing I’ve read on Ferguson

A week later this is still it. Max Fisher asks how the American media would cover what happened if it were in another country.

FERGUSON — Chinese and Russian officials are warning of a potential humanitarian crisis in the restive American province of Missouri, where ancient communal tensions have boiled over into full-blown violence.

“We must use all means at our disposal to end the violence and restore calm to the region,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in comments to an emergency United Nations Security Council session on the America crisis.

The crisis began a week ago in Ferguson, a remote Missouri village that has been a hotbed of sectarian tension. State security forces shot and killed an unarmed man, which regional analysts say has angered the local population by surfacing deep-seated sectarian grievances. Regime security forces cracked down brutally on largely peaceful protests, worsening the crisis.

America has been roiled by political instability and protests in recent years, which analysts warn can create fertile ground for extremists.

Missouri, far-removed from the glistening capital city of Washington, is ostensibly ruled by a charismatic but troubled official named Jay Nixon, who has appeared unable to successfully intervene and has resisted efforts at mediation from central government officials. Complicating matters, President Obama is himself a member of the minority sect protesting in Ferguson, which is ruled overwhelmingly by members of America’s majority “white people” sect.

Analysts who study the opaque American political system, in which all provinces are granted semi-autonomous self-rule, warned that Nixon may seize the opportunity to move against weakened municipal rulers in Ferguson. Missouri’s provincial legislature, a traditional “shura council,” is dominated by the opposition faction. Though fears of a military coup remain low, it is still unknown how Nixon’s allies within the capital will respond should the crisis continue.

Meanwhile, for those unpersuaded that the police force in St. Louis (and everywhere) may have some deep seated issues, there is this.

Does industrialization de-skill workers?

From a paper de Pleijt and Weisdorf that looks at skill composition of the English workforce during industrialization:

Dietz Vollrath (I really like his blog) has a great discussion:

It’s a really interesting paper, and it’s neat to see how much information you can keep sucking out of these parish records from England. It leaves me with two big questions/ideas. First, does industrialization depend on a concentrated core of skills, rather than a broad distribution of skills? That is, if Mokyr is right about the source of English industrialization, then it’s those extra 650K high-skilled workers that really made all the difference. Industrialization didn’t involve spreading skills all around the (rapidly expanding) population, but in getting together a critical mass of skilled workers. Are we paying too much attention to average human capital levels when we talk about development and growth, and not enough to looking at when/how/if countries achieve that critical mass of skilled workers? Is the overall level of education irrelevant to industrialization?

Second, should we care about de-skilling? In a vacuum, telling someone that the share of unskilled workers in the economy rose from 25 to 40% of all workers would send up red flags. That must be a bad thing, right? Is it? As England added population, much of that new population was unskilled, presumably because there was no longer a demand for certain low- and medium- skilled professions that had been replaced by machines. Could this just mean that the economy was getting more efficient at using the human capital at hand? England didn’t need to waste all that time and effort skilling-up a big mass of workers. They could be used immediately, without much training.

My quick comments are (1) I agree, and (2) however fascinating, this probably has little relevance for patterns and consequences of industrialization today, so I wouldn’t try to glean insights for Ethiopia or Vietnam.

Will have more to say in a few weeks, when Stefan Dercon and I unveil the very unexpected results of our randomized trial of factory jobs in Ethiopia.

Win $20,000 to be part of the problem?

In order to help bring attention to the need for scholarship and fresh ideas in this area, and to encourage broad participation, the Global Development Network (GDN) in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announces an international essay contest. The contest invites essays on the future of development assistance. The primary objective of the contest is to invite fresh thinking related to the future of aid that can inform the ongoing discourse on development assistance and to make this thinking available to policymakers and key stakeholders.
Up to 20 winning entries will be chosen, and receive $20,000 each.

I think a good answer would start with thinking why this is probably the kind of question and mindset that leads foreign aid not to be a disaster in the first place.

First, most policies and institutions cannot be reinvented, they must be either hijacked and changed on the margin (unless you can drown them in a bathtub).

Second, grand schemes have a bad track record. Cue Hayek, Popper, Scott, and Easterly, albeit using them to be constructive (which they are not–that’s the hard part).

There is a good essay to be written here, possibly from the perspective of the piecemeal social engineer who recognizes it is generally very hard to social engineer, and that most of the time you don’t have the right to do so.

That is as close as I will get to writing 5000 words on this I am afraid.

Peer review, the experiment

We evaluate policies to increase prosocial behavior using a field experiment with 1,500 referees at the Journal of Public Economics. We randomly assign referees to four groups: a control group with a six-week deadline to submit a referee report; a group with a four-week deadline; a cash incentive group rewarded with $100 for meeting the four-week deadline; and a social incentive group in which referees were told that their turnaround times would be publicly posted.

We obtain four sets of results.

First, shorter deadlines reduce the time referees take to submit reports substantially.

Second, cash incentives significantly improve speed, especially in the week before the deadline. Cash payments do not crowd out intrinsic motivation: after the cash treatment ends, referees who received cash incentives are no slower than those in the four-week deadline group.

Third, social incentives have smaller but significant effects on review times and are especially effective among tenured professors, who are less sensitive to deadlines and cash incentives.

Fourth, all the treatments have little or no effect on rates of agreement to review, quality of reports, or review times at other journals.

We conclude that small changes in journals’ policies could substantially expedite peer review at little cost. More generally, price incentives, nudges, and social pressure are effective and complementary methods of increasing prosocial behavior.

A new paper in the JEP by Chetty, Saez and Sandor.

Blog holiday for August

The blog will be off for the majority of August. I will probably still tweet a little, since I’m browsing what’s out there for pleasure and the extra effort of hitting the RT button is not so great. I’ll have limited to no access to email, and will get to any messages and requests towards the end of the month.

Have a great rest of summer.