Roger Bacon- Consider the diverse benefits of randomization. Piercing through the vagaries of chance and deception, it allows us to discern truly the causes and consequences of action.
Trollius Maximus- Yet, there are costs to randomization. A trial requires an exceeding amount of time and treasure, while other methods can be done in short time by a single natural philosopher of modest means. Even if trials were as easy to conduct, they are harder to generalize to far-away lands and eras. To say nothing of the ethics of rewarding one man while spurning another, all according to the flip of a coin.
Bacon: I do not say that randomized studies are the only way. Where traditional methods fail, or when the question is of true import, we will find the costs of randomization to be of little matter.
Trollius: Even the ethical costs? Will you so lightly toss aside the question of the good?
Bacon: What could be the flaw of helping one while passing another by, so long as I do no harm to the other? Does not every good deed only help one or a few, while the multitudes remain ignorant of the deed?
Trollius: Have you indeed done no harm to those passed over in your trial, or those who bear witness to your study? Have you not convinced them that the world was a more random place than they had thought, that their own actions matter little compared to the all-powerful, uncaring hand of chance?
Bacon: Perhaps I have. Indeed, I stand convinced. I shall demonstrate in a paper using a randomized trial that exposure to randomization undermines people’s conviction that they are the master of their fate, the locus of their control, and I shall show that this new belief causes them great harm.
Trollius: Your paper would roil the world of randomistas.
Bacon: Yet I worry that natural philosophers will still turn too readily to randomization, since they gain most of the benefits from doing such studies, while experiencing only a fraction of these costs. Witness how psychologists continue to use deception, while economists and others spam the world with audit studies.
Trollius: Ah, but your work would be so convincing, your brilliance could shatter the randomista movement with a single blow. They would return to running cross-country regressions, and Sophists will carry the day once more.
Bacon: I see. Your trolling has convinced me to stay silent, for the good of the world I must maintain the Noble Lie that randomization is the ideal and the future of natural philosophy.
Trollius: By silence, you mean not writing a paper. Certainly a blog post could do no harm; people would find it funny, rather than a failed attempt at cleverness and a lame imitation of Brad DeLong (who you shouldn’t be trying to imitate anyway).
Bacon: Indeed. To the blogosphere!
1. Why is it that all the Olympian sprinters are jacked, while it seems that the fastest people at frisbee are skinny?
2. I recently read The Sports Gene. A great book that explores which parts of sports success come from genes and innate ability, which from training, and which from odd interactions of the two like genes which make training more effective. For sprint speed, the book generally comes down on the side of genes- success is about the amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers you are born with, backing up the old saying that “you can’t teach speed.” But while the book gave many answers, it left me with more questions. After all, it can’t literally be true that there is zero benefit to sprint training- or else why does anyone do it? I still have no idea how much speed a sprint training program would add. Would it cut 1 100th of a second of a 100-meter dash? One tenth? One full second? How different would the results be for someone who spent a year being moderately active, vs one who spent a year sitting on a couch? How different would the results be for people with different levels of “innate” ability, for instance different proportions of fast-twitch muscle fiber?
3. Have you ever run a timed 40-yd dash? Have you ever looked at NFL combine results? When I did, they blew my mind. I never thought I could keep up with NFL running backs or wide receivers, but I did think I could outrun a 330-pound offensive lineman. Not so, apparently- almost all of them can run a 40-yd dash in under 5.5 seconds.
In his recent article “Why Academic Writing Stinks”, Steven Pinker highlights many examples of bad academic writing. He argues that academic writing is mostly bad because writing well is hard, writing well about academic subjects especially so.
Pinker mostly discounts the idea that bad writing is a deliberate choice by individual writers made in order to “dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.” Pinker admits that this happens occasionally, and is ironically especially common among professors of English.
While I think most of Pinker’s article is great, I want to push back against his complete dismissal of the idea that “that academics have no choice but to write badly because the gatekeepers of journals and university presses insist on ponderous language as proof of one’s seriousness”. Pinker calls this a “myth”, but I have first-hand experience that it happens.
I have repeatedly been told by referees that my writing style is “too casual”. It’s not totally clear what they mean, but I (perhaps self-servingly) take them to be complaining about the very things that Pinker, and other well-regarded academic writers like Dierdre McCloskey, insist are part of good style: not using big words when small ones will do, avoiding jargon when possible, using the first person and active voice- “We run a fixed-effects regression”- instead of the third person and passive voice- “the approach of this paper is to run a regression, utilizing fixed effects.”
I try to explain my work in a way that will be relatively accessible to non-specialists; at the very least I would like economists outside of my field to be able to understand my papers. But referees often ask for such explanations to be cut. Contra Pinker, I think this is exactly meant to “prove my seriousness”- including too many explanations for people who aren’t in my sub-sub-field leads to referees saying that a paper “reads like a grad-student paper”.
Once a referee asked me to cut a paragraph explaining why I used a certain technique because “everyone knows about that”. Clearly not everyone does- at best every applied microeconomist does, though even this was doubtful since the first paper on it had been published only 8 years earlier. I think what they meant was that that anyone who would read this paper should already know about it. But that sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy- if you make your papers unreadable to 99.99% of the world, not many people will read them.
So while I somewhat disagree with Pinker, I hope every academic will read his article. I don’t think this will help much. I agree with Pinker that academic writing in general is likely to stay bad- the cost of writing well is putting in hard work to do so, and the benefits to most academics of improving their writing is low. But if more people understood how bad standard academic writing is, they could at least refrain from spending time and effort pushing others to conform to academic writing norms.
PS- Did you know that Dierdre McCloskey’s Economical Writing is available online for free? Highly recommended to anyone who writes in a technical field, or anyone who could believe that a book with the title Economical Writing is actually pretty hilarious.
After a 2-year journey through the journal system, chapter 2 of my dissertation is now published in Applied Economics. The paper focuses on one specific mandate that mostly benefits men over 50. I find that the cost of this mandate is passed on to men over 50 in the form of lower wages. Some men also lose access to employer insurance altogether.
Some of the general lessons from my work so far:
1) There are no free lunches: getting higher benefits means incurring higher costs
2) Laws passed with good intentions can backfire, hurting the very people they are intended to help
3) Employer-based health insurance messes up labor markets
Today the Supreme Court ruled that closely held corporations like Hobby Lobby cannot be compelled to cover contraception as part of their health insurance. Most people will interpret this decision in terms of respect and status- they like it because they think it shows respect for religious beliefs, or dislike it because they think it lowers the status of women.
If you are one of the people for whom politics is more about policy than status (there are dozens of us!), you will probably find these papers by me and RomneyCare/ACA architect Jonathan Gruber enlightening. Rather than insisting that the decision should make you happy or outraged, I will leave it to you to connect the dots on what these papers mean for contraception mandates as policy.
People as diverse as Alfred Marshall, Thorstein Veblen, Freidrich Hayek, and Russ Roberts have said that economists try to be physicists when the subject really has more in common with biology. But while people have said this since at least the 1800’s, there are only a couple areas where biology and economics have blended- game theory, evolutionary economics, agent-based computational economics, and some shared statistical techniques. We are still, for the most part, aspiring physicists.
While the actual physics-lite techniques we use work well enough, I think biology is a much better source of metaphors to describe the economy. One I don’t recall having heard before is invasive species. Suppose a new invasive species enters an ecosystem, leading to bad results for the native species. People clamor for the government to “do something”. So the government releases a new invasive species in order to take out the old one. This does not go as planned. In an episode of the Simpsons (possibly discussed in Homer Economicus, which I still need to read), Springfield is threatened by invasive bird-eating Bolivian tree lizards. Principal Skinner suggests that the problem can be solved by importing a new invasive species, Chinese Needle Snakes, to eat the tree lizards. But what about the new Chinese Needle Snake infestation? Simple, just bring in snake-eating gorillas….
This is a great way of describing the unintended consequences of regulation. The government sees some problem out there in the economy, like expensive housing. In order to “do something” and try to solve the problem, they come up with a solution like rent control, without thinking of how their “solution” could end up being worse than the original problem (by reducing the quantity and quality of housing supplied by the market). Rather than admitting their mistake and reversing course, they act by introducing another solution into the market ecosystem to try to correct the problems stemming from their first “solution”- like requiring rooms to stay available for rent if they were ever rented out. Then developers are even more reluctant to take the risk of building new housing, or investing in the improvement of current apartments. A few more “solutions”, and we are well on our way to snake-eating gorillas terrorizing the countryside.
Innate talent really does determine a huge portion of how good we are at various tasks. But for the most part we are better off ignoring this fact.
There is a large innate component to intelligence, but kids deciding it is cool to succeed in class effortlessly based off of smarts leads to big wastes of potential later on. The problem is that your innate ability, or talent, is unchangeable by definition. But the amount and type of effort you spend on something is under your control.
I’ve been thinking that if I want to become excellent at ultimate Frisbee, it would have to be as a handler rather than a cutter, because cutters can benefit enormously from the innate talent of height and high sprint speed*. But of course, in addition the innate components, a huge amount of being a good cutter is about deliberate practice. In fact, this dominates to such an extent that some of the very best deep threats have no height advantage at all. My wife can beat people deep all day, despite being 5 inches shorter than me and a bit slower. In the NFL, we have the examples of 5’6’’ wide receivers like Wes Welker becoming stars. When I say I can’t be a great cutter because I lack the height and sprint speed, it is just an excuse for my current mediocrity- one that holds me back from putting in the effort necessary to get better.
I just attended the American Economic Association’s conference on teaching. I have thought that I will never be a truly great teacher because I lack natural charisma and extroversion. But two people who seem to be truly great teachers, Dirk Mateer and Kenneth Elzinga, insisted at the conference that they are naturally introverted nerds too, and that they got to be as good as they are through practice and a constant focus on how they can become better. Elzinga said that his college speech professor told him to provide updates on how close he was to the end of the talk, “in order to give hope to the audience”; and that no one else received the same advice, implying he was the worst in the class. But despite a complete lack of natural speaking talent, he became a great teacher through outworking and out-thinking other professors. My favorite example of something no one else would think of, or put in the effort to do if they did think of it, is that he writes a personal letter to every student who fails his class- in his intro to economics classes of 1000 students. The fact that you lack talent- or have lots of talent- should not be used as an excuse for failing to put in the hard work and hard thinking needed to become the best you can be.
*(you can infer that sprint speed probably has a huge genetic component by the fact that of the 76 people who have ever run the 100m in less than 10 seconds, 72 were of West African descent)