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catallaxy in technical exile

Archive for June 2005

Prolific book reviewers

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People who enjoy books and book reviews might like to check out the site of the Brothers Judd. The site has book reviews and also a blog. Many of their reviews can be found on the Amazon (US) site where they (surprisingly) only manage to rank number 37 on the list of top reviewers. The people who head the list have written over a thousand reviews and achieved over 50,000 votes from readers. The Judds have 880 reviews for 8,900 votes and I have contributed 55 reviews with 350 votes to rank 3806.
This is the Judd review of Jacques Barzun’s book The Culture we Deserve.

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June 30, 2005 at 9:21 pm

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Do high IQ individuals behave more like homo oeconomicus?

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This Freakonomics-inspired discussion between economist-bloggers Alex Tabarrok and Bryan Caplan draws my attention to the results from this interesting paper on cognitive biases and economics. Here is the abstract:

A burgeoning literature in economics argues that bounded cognition can explain many observed empirical deviations from rationality. Consistent with this hypothesis, we show that individuals with greater cognitive ability behave more closely in accordance with economic decision theory. However, even the most cognitively skilled individuals display significant biases. In two laboratory studies, one conducted with Harvard undergraduates and one with Chilean high school students, we find that individuals with greater cognitive ability are more patient over short-term trade-offs and less risk-averse over small-stakes gambles. In both studies, mathematical ability seems to be more predictive of normative decision-making than verbal ability. In the sample of Chilean students, achievement in elementary school is strongly predictive of decisions made at the end of secondary school. Drawing on the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, we show that, even after controlling carefully for labor income, more cognitively skilled individuals are more likely to participate in financial markets, are more knowledgeable about their pension plans, accumulate more assets, and are more likely to have tax-deferred savings. These findings persist when we use sibling relationships to identify models using within-family variation in cognitive ability. Finally, various institutional measures of school quality are predictive of sophisticated decision-making, suggesting a possible role for human capital policy in reducing the impact of psychological biases.

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June 29, 2005 at 10:38 pm

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Political product differentiation?

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Peter Costello’s latest musings on priorities for further reform seem sensible enough:

He says the next phase should focus exclusively on created “fully tradeable” national markets for water, gas and electricity. States should sign on to the national grids, governed by a single regulator.

But they also seem to be at odds with the recent comments of his Poujadist boss skillfully taken to pieces by John Quiggin wearing his economic rationalist hat here. More jockeying behind the scenes?

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June 29, 2005 at 4:45 pm

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Norbert Wiener, father of cybernetics

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This is a review of new biography of Norbert Wiener. The reviewers consider that the best book on Weiner’s achievements in mathematics is a joint biography of Wiener and the mathematician John von Neumann, John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From Mathematics to the Technologies of Life and Death, by Steve Heims in 1980. Another book by Pesi Masani describes Wiener’s roll as a social critic when he was disgusted by the nuclear bombs and decided that science and technology were being corrupted.

After Heims has described Wiener’s politics and Masani has described his mathematics, what is there left for a third biography to do? This third biography gives us a new and intimate portrait of Wiener as a person, and describes his stormy relationships with his friends and family. Conway and Siegelman have done a thorough job of historical research, interviewing most of the surviving witnesses, and documenting the narrative with detailed references to published and unpublished papers, letters, and interviews. The title, The Dark Hero of the Information Age, indicates their main preoccupation. Their aim is to explore the roots of Wiener’s lifelong malaise and often weird behavior.

His early training in the hands of his tyrannical father was rather like the education of John Stuart Mill and R G Collingwood, although it was conducted with less sensitivity to the feelings of the student. Read the rest of this entry »

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June 29, 2005 at 3:31 pm

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Foucault's hyper-liberalism

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Browsing a back number of Critical Review, Summer 1995, turned up some interesting reading. A piece titled ‘The limited rationality of democracy: Schumpeter as the founder of irrational choice theory’ took up four problems with the theory of democracy that depends on a high level of rationality in the citizens. Manfred Prisching discussed the deficient rationality of voters; politicians as political entrepreneurs; leadership in democracy and the rise of the political class; and the affinity between democracy and capitalism.
Peter Singer contributed an article ‘Is there a universal moral sense?’ in which he endorsed James Q Wilson’s view that there are patterns of ethical principles that are recognized by virtually every human society. Among these he identified sympathy and a sense of fairness or reciprocity and Singer went further than Wilson to claim that these extend to our closest nonhuman relatives. Singer contested the grounds for these principles, suggesting that they are just as likely to lie in our capacity to reason as in moral sentiments.
Eliot Neaman wrote ‘Mutiny on board modernity: Heidegger, Sorel and other fascist intellectuals’, reviewing two books that explore the twentieth-century rebellion against universalism, liberalism and Enlightenment rationalism.
And Ronald Beiner had a piece on ‘Foucault’s hyper-liberalism’. His abstract reads:

In the last years of his life, Michel Foucault sought to address “ethical” questions, having to do with the self’s relation to itself, by trying to locate in the Roman Stoics and other philosophers of antiquity what he called “as aesthetics of existence”. By this Foucault meant “the idea of a self which has to be created as a work of art”. This article aims at a critical dialogue with the texts that compose this last phase of Foucault’s thought, probing the moral and political adequacy of Foucault’s Neitzschean vision of the self’s aesthetic self-creation.

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June 27, 2005 at 9:42 pm

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What is the problem with DDT?

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I have been pressed to retract my claims about bans on the use of DDT. Actually the issue was more about the culture of the World Bank and its willingness or unwillingness to adopt sensible and effective policies. A companion post noted that indiscriminate lending by the bank in the past may have been due to the internal system of incentives that rewarded lending. A comparison with our banks in the 1980s comes to mind.
The common assumption by most parties appears to be that DDT is dangerous and so it should only be used in special circumstances or as a last resort. What is the scientific basis for this view?
Part of the problem here is the politicisation and polarisation of the scientific community. It is next to impossible to know who can be trusted among the claims and counter-claims, often liberally spiced with malice and personal abuse.
David Hallsworth, in a current contribution to Spiked-online (not an ideologically neutral site) raises some vexed questions about the research that was supposed to demonstrate the dangers of DDT. He recently re-read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the wellspring of a great deal of radical environmentalism. He was unprepared to find so much misrepresentation.

Carson lumps together chemicals used for fighting weeds and insects that were proven to have sometimes terrible side effects – such as 2,4-D, DDD, DDE, BHC, aldrin, lindane and heptachlor – with DDT, for which there was little proof of such side effects. Even her dedication to Albert Schweitzer is a distortion. She quotes him saying: ‘Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the Earth.’ (1) The implication is that Schweitzer was opposed to insecticides; in fact, he was talking about the dangers of nuclear warfare, not DDT. Indeed, in his autobiography Schweitzer wrote: ‘How much labour and waste of time these wicked insects do cause us…but a ray of hope, in the use of DDT, is now held out to us.’ (2)

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June 27, 2005 at 3:14 pm

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Forecasting Four Corners

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According to one of the many stories about prolific author Paul Johnson he once submitted a book review before he had received the book. This afternoon I am going to try something similar, and comment on tonight’s Four Corners before it has been broadcast — not to deceive Catallaxy readers, but to see if knowledge of the ABC mindset is sufficient, and actually watching the programme is unnecessary. The only information I have is what I have seen on the promo – Nelson saying that uni education is a privilege and not a right, someone saying that unis are degree factories, Peter Doherty trying to be postitive, and a student saying that his degree is worth ‘sweet FA’ – plus what I read in the press this morning. The flaws of the programme:

I will rate my predictions in italics beneath each prediction.
* it won’t mention that there have been no cuts to per student funding (or more likely will say that there have been) – the issues are the indexation method and the lack of any studies reviewing actual costs
Indexation did get a mention. The issue of funding cuts became rather confusing. I presume the figures they were referring to looked at average funding per student. These can move up and down a bit for two reasons. The main reason is that universities were only partially funded for ‘over-enrolments’, ie students taken above the government quota. If universities take a lot of these – as they have until recently – this pushes the average down. The other reason is that new places until 2004 were mostly funded at an ‘average’ rate of so-called ‘fully-funded’ places. But the base includes courses like medicine, agriculture, or engineering that were funded at a high rate. So expanding the number of places funded at a lower rate pushes the average down. But there have never been cuts to existing per student rates in nominal terms.
* it won’t mention that the lack of flexibility on student fees for Commonwealth-supported students is the single biggest factor driving the negative things that are going on (such as desperate recruitment of overseas students); in the ABC-Fairfax-Arts Faculty view of the world this is ideologically defined out of the problem.
I was right on this one. If anything, they saw increasing charges for domestic students as a problem. That can be argued about – but the crucial fact that universities would not be in such serious financial difficulties were it not for the cap on student charges was not mentioned.
* it won’t mention that despite all the funding and other issues student satisfaction is heading steadily up – for example agreement on the good teaching scale of the Course Experience Questionnaire is up 10.9 percentage points since it began in 1993 (and certainly won’t suggest that this is driven by the fact that there is a market for fee-paying students, and as such coursework students can no longer be treated in the unprofessional manner they were for the first 140 years of Australian higher education)
They did not mention the results of these surveys, and suggested the quality of teaching was declining. They did however have an implicit response – that courses were being dumbed down so that lecturers could improve their survey ratings. It’s hard to prove this either way, though questions about the amount of feedback on work or the availability of lecturers are surely less prone to this kind of bias than questions like whether the lecturer was good at explaining things. Nobody thinks that these surveys are perfect instruments – but I think they have been very important to improving the undergraduate experience.
* it won’t mention that other indicators of student satisfaction such as drop-out rates have also improved
There was an interview with a student in a very high drop-out rate course, and the Minister who thinks the rate is too high. They may both be right, but the general trend has been down.
* it won’t identify the rigid quota system for allocating Commonwealth-supported places as a fundamental flaw of the system (though it may well mention excessive bureaucracy)
Neither mentioned.
* it won’t say that more government money in itself cannot improve the university sector significantly, because of basic problems of incentives and allocative efficiency
Not mentioned.

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June 27, 2005 at 2:06 pm

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