Thursday, December 20, 2018

Kahneman and approaches to social science

This conversation with Daniel Kahneman is so great.

First of all, I love that he persistently pushes back against the notion that everything vaguely "behavioral" is a "bias". It's a terrible misconception of behavioral economics that we study the myriad ways in which people make bad decisions. Nonstandard preferences are not biases and many "biases" are sensible heuristics and error management strategies in disguise.
COWEN: Well, sports. You’re consuming bias, right? You don’t actually think your team is better.
KAHNEMAN: No, but you identify. There are emotions over which you have very little control. It’s a fact that you feel pride when your team wins. In fact, you feel pride if a stranger who lives on your street gets a prize. That tendency to identify with what’s around us, and with things that we are connected to, is very powerful. We derive a lot of emotion from it. I wouldn’t call that a bias because you can call any emotion a bias.
COWEN: If you think of the literature on what are called cognitive disabilities — ADHD — do you think of that as bias or somehow in a different logical category? Or . . . ?
KAHNEMAN: I don’t think it’s a bias, no. I think it’s an attention deficit. It means that people have difficulty controlling their attention, focusing on what they want to focus on, and staying focused. That’s neither bias nor noise.
COWEN: If you think about the issue of, when people think about the world, they find some kind of transactions repugnant. Sometimes they just don’t like to sell what they have. Other times, they seem to object to markets, say, in kidneys or kidney transplants. Do you view that as bias? Or where does that come from?
KAHNEMAN: In the sense that this is a norm, and there are things that we’re trained or socialized to find disgusting, to find repugnant. So there are repugnant transactions. And you have to treat them as you treat every other moral feeling. We have lots of moral feelings, things that we find unacceptable without any ability to really explain why they are unacceptable. There is such a thing as moral emotion. There is such a thing as indignation, as moral disgust. And that’s what we’re talking about here.
COWEN: A society such as Argentina that relies so heavily on psychoanalysis — as a psychologist, do you see that as bias? Is it a placebo? Is there a placebo effect in psychoanalysis?
KAHNEMAN: You seem to attribute . . . You seem to think that I think of bias all the time.
Secondly, I love Kahneman's unwillingness to speculate / unwillingness to engage in ex post rationalization. E.g.
COWEN: But the idea of attention-switching costs — so Israeli bus drivers, it takes time for them to switch attention from one event to another. Is that not an underlying micro foundation of your, say, 1980s papers on bias?
COWEN: That people aren’t switching their attention to the new problem?
KAHNEMAN: It’s not. We didn’t think of it. That really happens a great deal, and quite often, it happens in a different way. It happens when somebody’s insulted because you didn’t cite him. He looks at your work, and he says, “That’s just the same as what I’ve said before.” And in some way, it may be true. There may be some resemblance. It may be true, and yet you were completely uninfluenced by that. And it’s the same thing. I was uninfluenced by my earlier work, I think.
COWEN: Do you think of those in functionalist terms? Some people might argue, “Well, Israelis, they have a tendency to speak directly because they’ve had a lot of crisis situations, where you can’t beat around the bush. You need to say what you think.” Or we don’t know?
KAHNEMAN: I don’t like those kinds of explanations. They look facile to me.
COWEN: Do you have thoughts on the potential cognitive advantages of bilingualism or trilingualism?
KAHNEMAN: It’s an empirical matter. It’s not a matter of thinking. And I don’t know enough. It appears to be advantageous, but I don’t know the literature.
This approach, in contrast with a more freely speculative approach, reminds me of another issue I've thought a bit about. There's kind of a divide in behavioral economics (and economics more generally, but I'm going to write what I know best...) between what you might call the Matthew Rabin camp and the Ariel Rubinstein camp. The former says that economic theory is a slave to empirical results; regarding the evaluation of theories their motto would be Kahneman's great line "It's an empirical matter. It's not a matter of thinking." The latter says that economic theory consists of informative fables, regardless of empirics.

In my heart, I'm on team Rubinstein. I love math because it's beautiful and abstract and I honestly couldn't care less if it has anything to do with the world; I love economic theory because it's beautiful and clear and it teaches important lessons regardless of how it performs empirically in a particular situation. And in discussions like this one I'm more like a Camille Paglia (whose interview I also love), wildly theorizing from intuition and experience*, not because I think that's a valid way to go about producing knowledge but because it's at least a valid way to hypothesize and more importantly it's fun**.

But cognitively, as a scientist, I have to be on team Rabin. No matter how aesthetically pleasing a theory is, it doesn't mean anything if it isn't empirically useful. You can't think your way to the truth, even in the social sciences, and in these fields where it is so tempting to proceed on intuition, it's all the more important to insist on a rigorous scientific method.


* I realize there's more going on than wild speculation in the humanities, and that's what a lot of Paglia's theorizing is based on, but I can't tell the difference. The point is, don't take this characterization as a criticism of Paglia; I'm quite a fan, actually.

** Case in point: there's probably not a solid connection between interview style and scientific approach, but that isn't stopping me from analogizing freely.

Monday, December 17, 2018

beliefs-based altruism

I wrote a thing about my research for The Conversation, which is a great news outlet where the stories are written by academics and researchers.

The most entertaining thing about it is that the comments so far all call me out for screwing up my translation from American to Australian. I got halfway there - I translated "girl scouts" to "girl guides" (I even consulted with an Australian friend!) but I accidentally left "biscuits" as "cookies".

Whoops, my citizenship will never get approved now :)

Monday, November 12, 2018

Rising to expectations

A new working paper says:
We develop and estimate a joint model of the education and teacher-expectation production functions that identifies both the distribution of biases in teacher expectations and the impact of those biases on student outcomes via self-fulfilling prophecies. Our approach leverages a unique feature of a nationally representative dataset: two teachers provided their educational expectations for each student. Identification of causal effects exploits teacher disagreements about the same student, an idea we formalize using lessons from the measurement error literature. We provide novel, arguably causal evidence that teacher expectations affect students' educational attainment: Estimates suggest an elasticity of college completion with respect to teachers' expectations of about 0.12. On average, teachers are overly optimistic about students' ability to complete a four-year college degree. However, the degree of over-optimism of white teachers is significantly larger for white students than for black students. This highlights a nuance that is frequently overlooked in discussions of biased beliefs: less biased (i.e., more accurate) beliefs can be counterproductive if there are positive returns to optimism or if there are socio-demographic gaps in the degree of teachers' optimism; we find evidence of both.
I love this (because it fits my prior so nicely :) I went to a 2-year public math and science boarding school for 11th and 12th grade, and the education I got there was fantastic and clearly ahead of anything else available in the state. Of course many factors made that possible, including the selective admissions process, hiring of teachers with PhDs, having control over our entire daily schedules rather than just classroom hours, etc. But what stood out to me was the high expectations. The history teacher used to say "It's easy to raise expectations; what's difficult is raising performance" but on the contrary, I think raising expectations was the single most important trick OSSM pulled off, and it was able to do so credibly because of its unique position as an alternative school. Anyone who wasn't able to meet those expectations or who didn't like the inevitable slaughter of their GPA was free to go back to their home high school (and many did).

After OSSM I went to Caltech, another school that has no sympathy for those who can't keep up. The 4 year graduation rate at the time was only 77% (compared to 86% for Harvard) and 6 year rate was only 88% (compared to 98% for Harvard). This notoriously cost them the #1 position on the US News and World Report rankings after the weighting function was adjusted to put more emphasis on graduation rates. This practice certainly harms many students who were at the top of their high school classes, would have been at the top of their classes at other great universities, but struggled at Caltech. But on the flip side, this is a necessary consequence of having credibly high expectations, which are in turn critical for motivating educational achievement. I don't expect US News to quantify this nuance, but it's surely recognizeable, no?

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Which language has a word for this?

English is lacking an important word; Matt and I have had at least three whole conversations defining this and trying to figure out if there's a word for it and we haven't come up with anything. Help!

What we're trying to capture is the phenomenon where you're living your life, probably traveling but not necessarily, nothing unexpected is happening, but you're suddenly hit by a big picture perspective of what you're seeing/doing and it blows your mind. More specifically, you suddenly realize that long ago you had an abstract notion of the situation you're in, broadly speaking, and now you're actually in that situation, and your previous self never would have imagined it really happening.

This has happened to me countless times since moving to Australia but a few memorable times before then as well. When I was 12 I briefly lived in Germany and we visited the church where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses, and although I'd been seeing amazing historical things for months, this one really hit me for some reason as I realized, wow, a year ago I was learning about this place in a history class, and I didn't really think about it beyond as an abstract story about a place that may as well not actually exist. And now here it is, physically in front of me, one stop on a meander during a gap in the train schedule. When I moved to LA for college, the first time I drove through Hollywood and passed the exits for Sunset or Venice or Santa Monica Boulevards, all those Beach Boys songs and thousands of other movies and TV shows etc, suddenly became real. And one day when I was driving along the New Jersey Turnpike back to Brooklyn, I suddenly felt the tangible connection through time to the zeitgeist of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel songs.

Most often this is triggered by particular landmarks. The first time I walked through Circular Quay in Sydney and saw that image of the opera house and bridge over the harbor that had been on my TV every New Year's Eve of my childhood. Hiroshima, as a whole. The African tropical rainforests. The Great Barrier Reef. Uluru. But it's certainly possible for this feeling to hit you in pretty unremarkable places or places you didn't even know about before as well; in fact sometimes it's even more surprising then. Camping in some random national park I've never heard of and waking up to a field full of wallabies and I'm suddenly struck by the realization that I live in Australia and here I'm am just camping in the bush with a bunch of kangaroos. Watching sunrise from Mount Ramelau with a bunch of monks-in-training who are just as entertained to be there with two white people as we are to be there at all, and I suddenly realize, East Timor?? How did I get here again?

What is it called? What language has a word for it?

Edit: Actually, the pleasure of such experiences is similar to the pleasure of connecting visible reality with abstract, much more complex, understanding of what it is, e.g. celestial mechanics.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

An Ode To Free Trade

or, Things That I've Received In Thankfully Nontransparent Tiny Packages From Hong Kong Via Ebay (with Free Shipping!)

10 sawtooth frame hooks (+20 screws) $1.90
1 purple breakaway cat collar, $1.89
1 green breakaway cat collar with engraved tag, $5.99
1 dust brush universal vacuum attachment (as seen on TV) $6.83
1 instant hair bun maker donut, $1.58
10 heavy-duty D-ring frame hooks with screws, $6.99
10 CR2016 batteries, $8.99
10 CR2032 batteries, $7.89
1 77mm UV filter for Nikon cameras, $11.19
8 yards cheese cloth, $3.97
1 citrus press squeezer, $2.19
1 thin hard shell for Nexus 5X phone, $1.93
5 telescoping BBQ roasting skewers, $16.35
3 3-in-1 knife-fork-spoons, $5.58
2 braided micro USB cords, $5.90
1 77mm circular polarizing filter for Nikon cameras, $7.03
1 77mm center pinch lens cap, $3.89
3 2A 2-port USB wall chargers, $16.80
1 red leather coin purse wallet, $5.99
3 77mm neutral density filters for Nikon cameras, $15.59
1 100-LED string of solar powered fairy lights, $15.71
3 50-LED strings of solar powered fairy lights, $34.35
1 1080P HDMI Male to VGA Female adapter, $6.99
2 4K HDMI cables, $15.98
500g pharmaceutical-grade sucralose, $149.87
3 oil filters for Suzuki VL250 Intruder, $28.62
1 large motorcycle cover, $16.89
2 braided USB-C cables, $7.90
1 replacement touch screen LCD for Nexus 5X phone, $67.19
1 silicone dish washing sponge, $3.98
1 pull-up bar for doorways, $14.50
1 personalized engraved pet ID tag, $4.90
20 scopolamine motion sickness ear patches, $29.41
1 mini-DP to HDMI adapter, $4.99
1 Swiss Tech Utili-key multi-tool, $1.87
1 replacement backlit keyboard for Lenovo thinkpad, $39.64
1 tempered glass screen protector for Nexus 5X, $1.00
50 meters heat-resistant double-sided tape, $8.87
4 1600mAh batteries plus charger for GoPro 4, $23.99
1 stainless steel mesh sink strainer, $1.69
10 hair bun spiral claws, $2.29
100g sumac, $6.95
1 large tea infuser ball, $6.00
50 N35 neodymium magnets, $4.90
3 A3 black picture frames, $29.97
20 3M Command small poster strips, $12.98
250g andydrous caffeine, $19.07
1 replacement wrist band with metal buckle for Fitbit Flex, $1.67
100 cinnarizine motion sickness tablets, $30.80
1 pair boot laces, $1.80
1 remote shutter release for Nikon cameras, $19.99
8 mandolin strings, $3.99
1 rocket air duster for camera lenses, $4.47
150 packets of Emergen-C, $30.82
2 aluminum bicycle water bottle holders, $2.38
100 colored push pins, $3.16
4 power cable adapters for Lenovo thinkpads, $6.80


Australia is really expensive, compared to the U.S. But with ebay, given a little bit of patience, I can save ludicrous amounts of money (even more than with Amazon Prime, which I do miss for the things that need to be higher quality than you can count on from Chinese Ebay sellers) and skip the hassle of shopping. I have no idea how sellers are making any money on some of these things. That's the magic of the invisible hand.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

I really love Brisbane

I love it here so much.

Friday afternoon I was supposed to go to the hospital for a blood test but got delayed at work. Driving from UQ to South Brisbane at 5:30pm is not something I expected to go well, but apparently my expectations are still partially calibrated on SF/NY/LA data, so it was absolutely no problem. I lane filtered through the one or two blocks of red zone traffic and got there in 15 minutes.

Parking in South Brisbane during the dinner hour? No sweat, free motorcycle parking right by the entrance.

The pathology lab was closed by this point (but how awesome is that, that you can show up with no appointment for a blood test at a giant public hospital and wait about ten minutes total?!), so I followed the after-hours instructions to the emergency department desk. They told me I should go to the emergency department at the private hospital on the next block.

Uh-oh, this is where I get screwed... I've been carefully sticking to Mater Public for absolutely everything related to this freak knee infection debacle, so as to avoid the cluster#@*$ of dealing with multiple medical bureaucracies and getting charged out the wazoo the second I inch away from what I know is covered by medicare, but I guess I have to bite the bullet. I walk over to the gleamingly empty private hospital and try to ignore the impending bills.

They tell me they'll have to page someone to come do the test. Uh-oh, this is where I have to settle in for a four hour wait. Ah well, I didn't have any Friday evening plans anyway. I pull out my laptop and headphones and get psyched for a few hours of uninterrupted work.

Approximately 43 seconds later, my name is called.

Approximately 5 minutes after that, I'm back at the front desk. The ladies look at me quizzically. "Uh, I'm finished with the blood test." [More quizzical looks.] "Is there anything I have to do?" "Oh no, you're all set, have a good weekend!" [Amused looks at the silly American.]


[Previously, after an overnight hospital stay for four rounds of IV antibiotics that cost exactly 0 dollars and 0 cents (plus very high taxes but if this kind of logistical functionality is what you get for the public funding it's worth it ten times over), I was discharged with prescription antibiotics to take at home. Prescriptions are subsidized but not covered by medicare, so I was pretty nervous about getting screwed on that front. In fact, the doctor brought them up and asked me hopefully "Do you have a concession card or anything...? There's an invoice in here but it didn't have any discounts applied." My stomach immediately tied itself up around the expectation of hundreds of dollars of fancy-pants drugs and I didn't even dare look at the invoice until two days later when the fever subsided enough to give me the energy to deal with a new hit of bad news. The total? $27.30.]

I've now spent a total of about 20 minutes in both hospitals, so my bike is still warm when I take it back around the river under all the prettily lit bridges. It's the dead of winter, but with my regular jacket it's still a great evening for riding. Then after a cosy night in with hot cocoa and Bailey's, all weekend it's cloudlessly sunny and 70 degrees. [Recently a colleague from the UK visited UQ for a couple weeks and after four days I said "It's a little grey lately, hopefully it'll clear up for your weekend." He replied "I've been in the UK for twelve years and haven't had four days this nice." I guess my reference point has moved a bit after all.]

Maybe more relevantly, being done with lecturing for the year puts me in a really great mood :)

Thursday, February 1, 2018

MTurk demo

This may be useful to other researchers, so I'll share publicly. If you use MTurk for research, you most likely will save a lot of time if you set up the command line tools. These allow you to add assignments to HITs, grant qualifications, pay bonuses, and much more, all automatedly. I did a demo of setting up and using them, and a screencast is available [see update below]. (If you get an error that the file is corrupted, your browser is lying. Download it.)

Disclaimer: I am very far from being an expert on MTurk, I've just figured out how to do the things I want to do as I go. Also, cut from the beginning of the demo: If you use mac, pretty much everything works exactly as I show even though I'm using linux. If you use windows, things will be very slightly different, but the online documentation gives instructions for both platforms so refer to that as needed.

Update: The video and its followup are now on youtube.