IPA’s weekly links

Pick up your own 5-HTTLPR gene research summary shirt on etsy.

Guest post by Jeff Mosenkis of Innovations for Poverty Action

  • IPA’s looking for a Director of Poverty Measurement. In particular the job involves overseeing the Poverty Probability Index, a short, country-specific tool practitioners use to estimate poverty rates, and developing new non-monetary measures (requires strong quant background). Please share with anybody who might be interested.
  • How the government of Odisha, one of India’s poorest states, moved a million people out of the path of a cyclone.
  • Can a whole field of researchers be wrong? On Slate Star Codex Scott Alexander describes how an initial paper on how the gene 5-HTTLPR might relate to depression spawned decades of research and hundreds of papers into the gene’s relationship with all manner of disorders and parts of the brain. But now a group of geneticists has written a blistering reprimand based on a genetic database of more than 600,000 people. The authors of the new paper argue that it’s impossible for that one gene to play such a massive deterministic role, given how multiply causal gene-disorder relationships are. If they’re right, what does that mean for the research process? Alexander argues:

First, what bothers me isn’t just that people said 5-HTTLPR mattered and it didn’t. It’s that we built whole imaginary edifices, whole castles in the air on top of this idea of 5-HTTLPR mattering. We “figured out” how 5-HTTLPR exerted its effects, what parts of the brain it was active in, what sorts of things it interacted with, how its effects were enhanced or suppressed by the effects of other imaginary depression genes. This isn’t just an explorer coming back from the Orient and claiming there are unicorns there. It’s the explorer describing the life cycle of unicorns, what unicorns eat, all the different subspecies of unicorn, which cuts of unicorn meat are tastiest, and a blow-by-blow account of a wrestling match between unicorns and Bigfoot.

  • There will be another pandemic. We don’t know the date or how many will be infected, but the extent of the latter is largely up to us. CGD’s Jeremy Konyndyk reviewed responses to the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak, particularly from the U.S. government and makes recommendations. In particular he considers the political realities of different response measures.
    • Health officials are warning that the current Ebola outbreak in Congo risks expanding past the 1,000 already dead, and infection rates accelerating as health and safe burial teams are violently attacked. While there was good news of an experimental vaccine, there are far fewer doses than needed, and an infection hotspot is near the Rwandan border, with a lot of back-and-forth traffic. And as if all that wasn’t bad enough:

Arthur said mistrust of outsiders is common in North Kivu and a social media disinformation campaign has led many to believe that the Ebola scare is a hoax or that vaccinations actually cause the disease.

  • Good podcasts:
    • Planet Money on Alice Wu’s work on sexism in economics (Apple), also featuring historian Beatrice Cherrier on the history of economists’ grappling with how to understand discrimination.
    • For Arthur Brooks’ podcast on productive disagreements he interviewed psychologist John Gottman (Apple), a world expert in how couples get along and argue. One of his main findings, disagreement, even argument, can be productive, but contempt is destructive. It’s a good conversation (also useful tips if you’re in a relationship). They summarize four rules, which I’ll copy from the Gottman Institute’s summary of the conversation:

Rule 1: Focus on other people’s distress and focus on it empathetically
Empathy is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence, an essential quality for successful relationships. You don’t have to agree with someone to empathize with them.

Rule 2: Keep your positive vs negative comments and interactions at a ratio of 5:1
You have power to do this. The positive things you say versus the criticisms that you level should be at a 5:1 ratio at least. That means five affirming, praising, and loving tweets and Facebook comments for every critical one.

Rule 3: Avoid contempt with everybody, all the time
No exceptions. It’s bad for you and it’s bad for the country if you treat anybody with contempt.

Rule 4: Learn to cooperate and have dialogue with those of whom you disagree
Seek out and be around people who are different than you are. Before you speak, see if you understand what the speaker before you has said. Listen to understand, and then frame your rebuttal.

  • Nudge approaches have had success showing that you can encourage a behavior by making it easy, but the opposite is true also. “Sludge” is when a desired behavior is discouraged by making it hard, like confusing forms, or Arkansas requiring poor people receiving benefits to report their work hours on a website, but closing the website every night from 9PM to 7AM. Cass Sunstein proposes government “Sludge Audits” to find these inefficiencies in their processes.