Statistically informed ideas on how to make the world work better.

The best reasons to favor diversity in hiring: A response to Tristan Kromer’s “Why Meritocracy Doesn’t Work”

Tristan Kromer just published a blog post titled “Why Meritocracy Doesn’t Work” in response to the recent anti-diversity Google manifesto. He makes some good points, notably around how small amounts of bias can amplify and threaten diversity without increasing the merit of employees. However, to my mind, he misses the most important reasons to have active diversity policies at the expense of a pure meritocracy. Here are the key points, developed in a bit more detail below:

  1. Diversity increases new ideas and decreases groupthink;
  2. There is no obvious reason to believe that hiring the best individuals necessarily produces the best workforce – there can be emergent properties based on how people interact, etc.;
  3. There is no fully objective metric of merit, and forcing people outside their comfort zones in defining merit may open up new ways of seeing things;
  4. A cultural change to ensure and value diversity could create new ideas of merit that are less individually based.
  5. There are advantages to both company performance and diversity. It seems unreasonable to expect one or the other to completely dominate the other, particularly as there are likely to be diminishing marginal returns at the extremes of which we value.

Read the rest of this entry »

An Open Letter to Canada’s Health Minister

July 8, 2016


Hon. Jane Philpott, 

Minister of Health

House of Commons

Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K1A 0A6

Dear Dr. Philpott,

I was very pleased to see that concerns of the medical research community are being expressed, and that you are convening a panel to explore next steps. There are many serious issues to be addressed. However, while I thank the writers of the original open letter for getting this process going, and while agreeing with the general sentiment of frustration expressed in that letter, I (and I suspect many others of members of the medical research community) do not agree with the specifics, and in particular with the suggestion to return to a system of face-to-face peer review. While I cannot claim to speak for others, I suspect that many signatories of the letter agreed with the frustration expressed more than the solution proposed.

Broadly, I would raise four points in response to the open letter. Read the rest of this entry »

Might societal acceptance of homosexuality drive it extinct?


The precise causes of homosexuality are not completely clear, but most scientists agree that there is a genetic component, perhaps 35% for gay men and about half that for lesbians. There is unlikely to be a single gene that makes people gay, but there may be some genetic variation that increases the probability of becoming gay, or is a necessary precondition but also requires a certain environment (e.g. intra-uterine). (I have written previously on why natural selection could produce homosexuality, counter-intuitive as that sounds.)

In any case, the simple fact of genetic variation associated with homosexuality means that natural selection can act on it, and this has a major and paradoxical implication. The more biological children of gay people, the more transmission of these genes, and the more gay people there are. The less biological children of gay people, the fewer gay people there will be in subsequent generations. But in what societies do gay people have the most biological children? Almost certainly those societies that forbid homosexuality, forcing gays to marry and have children. Modern societies with liberal social policies will likely see many gay couples adopting, but fewer having biological children. Over time, this means that societal acceptance of homosexuality might actually drive it extinct, or nearly so. Unfortunately, natural selection in this case will function such that every society will achieve, long-term, the opposite of what it wants. Read the rest of this entry »

The probability that God exists: A Bayesian perspective

Many people are very certain either that God exists or that (s)he does not. This post is based on the premise that, from an empirical perspective, such certainty either way is almost certainly unwarranted, but that a combination of statistical theory and the current state of scientific knowledge can shed substantial light on the probability. After all, there is a rather big difference between an agnostic who thinks there is a 1% chance God exists and one who thinks there is a 99% chance. Obviously, there is no way to calculate a precise probability, but there certainly are ways to establish a likely range. In a nutshell, I will show that, while all the scientific advances in the world cannot disprove God’s existence, the accumulating capacity to explain the world through science substantially diminishes the probability that God exists. Read the rest of this entry »

In support of women who speak out about sexual assault: a man’s perspective, and a call to arms


Image credits: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images for Meet The Press and Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press

Like so many people, I have been upset by the stream of recent news stories on sexual assault: Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi (a popular and seemingly pro-feminist radio host here in Canada), the University of Virginia story from Rolling Stone, several stories relating to violence against aboriginal women in Canada, and stories about the US military, to name just a few. Throughout this string of stories, I have felt admiration and support for the women who have come forward, but I have also wondered why not everyone comes forward, and why so many women waited so long to do so.

In the ensuing debate, many people (mostly women) have decried a culture that permits sexual assault, and a few people (almost exclusively misogynistic men) have defended the status quo and denigrated women, often through trolling and other unsavoury means. But there is a perspective that has been largely missing: that of the average man. Most men are not misogynists, and I would venture to say that most are actively against misogyny and do generally respect women. But the misogynists are loud, obnoxious, and everywhere on the internet. Most men shut up when the subject shifts to sexual assault, partly because it’s seen as a women’s issue, and partly because they are scared of saying the wrong thing and coming off as misogynists themselves, even when they are not.

But sexual assault is not a women’s issue, it’s a human issue. White people can see the injustice in how blacks are treated by the police, and adults can be against pedophilia. When something unjust happens to one person in our society, we should all be concerned. It is time for the large majority of men to speak out, and to support women. My hope in writing this piece is that it will be read by men, forwarded and posted by men, and discussed by men.

Read the rest of this entry »

Idea: How to stop sleazy media companies from screwing us on our bills

One of my co-workers has been complaining a lot recently that Bell, the internet/TV provider, has been intentionally messing up her bill for 3 months in a row. Everyone I know has at least one story like this, of being really screwed by some phone or TV company. It’s not that she’s being targeted, it’s that companies like this know they can wear consumers down if they make enough “errors.” Eventually, we don’t have time to fight, and if we don’t pay up, our credit rating suffers. So we give in. The company doesn’t even have to try to screw us individually – they can just build an imperfect system that tends to make errors in their favor.

Well, I have a permanent solution to this problem. The only leverage these companies have over us is our credit rating. But many people who have these problems have perfectly fine credit – like me, or my co-worker. If we chose not to pay our bills it wouldn’t reflect a risk of defaulting on a mortgage, our car payments, or a credit card. It would just reflect the fact that the phone company is awful and gave usa faulty bill.

Credit scores are generated by companies that have developed algorithms to predict the chances that someone will default on a payment. There is competition among consumer credit rating agencies to have the best prediction. Banks and used car salesmen need to know this risk so they can offer appropriate credit. So anyone who comes up with a better prediction algorithm could corner the market for credit scores.

Enter my idea: Non-payment of a cell phone bill of $500 – even though your normal bill is $45 and you regularly pay every other bill – is NOT a sign of any risk that you will default on anything else. It is a sign that the phone company screwed you. So, a more accurate credit score would not penalize people for not paying such bills. A credit score that took this into account could outperform other credit scores and become the industry standard. And at that point, the evil media companies would have no leverage to force us to pay, except to go to court. Going to court is expensive and difficult, and they would usually be at risk of losing. So they would be forced to stop screwing us if they want to be paid!

Note that consumers who refused to pay all their bills would still have worse credit scores. It’s just specific non-payment of one bill that would contribute nothing (or next-to-nothing) to the score. Obviously, a good algorithm would have a sliding scale (a continuous measure) for credit score decrement based on how aberrant the bill was, how often you didn’t pay (relative to other people), and so forth. So the system couldn’t really be abused by consumers in the other direction either. The effect would just be to shift the balance of power in a dispute to midway between the consumer and the company. The company can refuse service, the consumer can refuse payment, but there’s no strong external force limiting the consumer.

Unfortunately, this idea takes an entrepreneur to implement, someone to develop the new credit score and start up a company to sell it (or integrate it into existing companies’ algorithms). While I’m confident I could improve on the existing algorithms, I have other statistical questions that occupy my time, and I’m no businessman. So someone else will have to do this…

A strong, immediate impact of the demographic transition on human evolution?

This blog post is different than most others. I had a Eureka moment in the shower, and I just need to write the idea down so I don’t forget it, and to share it with potential collaborators so we can maybe develop it into a paper if it hasn’t been done already by someone else (a quick search in Google Scholar suggests no).

Over the last 150 years, many human societies have undergone what is known as the demographic transition, first dramatically reducing mortality rates and subsequently reducing fertility rates. In simple terms, your great-great-grandma had 15 kids and 3 lived. You will have one or two, and they will live. What is the impact of this change on human evolution? I think it could be profound, and here is why:

Read the rest of this entry »

XKCD on small risks

As always, xkcd comes through at the right moment. In support of my last post, here is why we shouldn’t worry too much about taking a baby out of a car seat for a few seconds while driving, or other miniscule risks:


Increased Risk

The irrationality of modern child safety

Soren in his car seat

Soren in his car seat

Like most new parents, I devote a fair amount of thought to keeping my baby safe, but at the same time want to know when I can cut corners to reduce my stress level without increasing the risk too much. For example, the other day we were driving back to Quebec from Boston, trying to make it to the kennel to pick up the dog before it closed at 5:30. It was our first trip with Soren. Of course, traveling with a baby is more complicated than as a couple, and we got to a point where it was pretty close whether or not we could make it back. And then Soren pooped, and needed to feed…

Our dilemma, then, was whether Ju-hong would attempt to deal with one or both of these things while the car was moving (illegal of course) or whether we pulled over and risked all the inconvenience of not making it back in time to pick up the dog: an extra day’s charges, an extra hour of driving to get the dog the next day (with Soren in tow, of course), lost work time, feeling bad for the kennel owners, etc. In the end we stopped, and made it back a bit late but still got the dog.

Most parents would say stopping was the safe thing to do. Conventional wisdom says that letting a kid in a car without proper restraint is tantamount to murder. But most parents and conventional wisdom are wrong in this case, as were we. Read the rest of this entry »

Idea: How to solve Quebec’s budget problems: stop giving me money!

The logo for the Quebec government program that sends me money I don't need.

The logo for the Quebec government program that sends me money I don’t need.

Like so much of the rest of the developed world, Quebec has been going through a budget crisis recently. The supposedly left-wing government has threatened draconian cuts to health research, unemployment benefits, and a host of other popular programs. There never seems to be enough in the coffers.

Like much of Europe, Quebec has an extensive social welfare state. Free health care. $7/day subsidized public day care. A parental leave program that gives parents 1 year of paid leave (~60% of salary) per child. Incredible benefits to save for a child’s education. Heavily subsidized higher education. Generous unemployment benefits and an employment insurance program. Etc.

So why is a left-wing government cutting such things? That’s a subject for another post, but it’s clear that the cuts are politically unpopular, and that there is therefore some budget reality apparent to those in power that is not apparent to the average citizen. These are not the sort of folks likely to buy into all the austerity hype that was so popular elsewhere until recently.

The cuts proposed are not just unpopular, they are for the most part very bad ideas. For example, the government originally proposed cutting $10 million from medical research, or 30% of a $33 million budget. But research is a long-term investment – cutting so drastically would have stopped many projects in progress and made Quebec a much less attractive place for foreign researchers (like me) to come to. It’s like trying to save fuel by cutting the gas to an airplane engine in mid-flight… (The government eventually pulled back, under pressure.)

More importantly, what can the government do to solve the budget problem? The answer here is surprisingly simple: stop giving me money! Amidst all these budget crises in the news, my wife and I recently received a series of checks for about $800 from the Quebec government as child assistance payments, because we have a new son. The leaflet explained that everyone with a child gets such a payment, and that they are between $651 (for richer people) and $2319 (for poorer people) per year. And it’s tax-free.

I think child assistance payments are a great idea. They can (maybe) encourage people to have more children, which is good in developed countries with low birth rates. They also help defray the costs of raising a child and show a societal solidarity with families. I just don’t think child assistance payments for my family are a good investment of the government’s money.

My wife and I are both professionals with comfortable salaries. Our decision to have a child or not (or to have more children or not) is not affected in the smallest way by receiving $800 from the government. Maybe we’ll use it to get an even fancier stroller. Is this really what Quebec taxpayers should be paying for?

Of course, I’m not just talking about my family. I’m talking about all the families like mine. Anyone with a family income over $80,000 has absolutely zero need of government assistance to raise their kids, and the government gets very little benefit from payments to these families.  As I’ve argued elsewhere, $1 is worth much more to a poor person than to a rich person; following this principle, the $800 we’ve received could do a lot more good helping a poor family, or reinvested elsewhere in the budget.

More generally, my wife and I make too much money and are taxed too little. The Quebec tax brackets are 16% up to ~$40,000, then 20% up to about $80,000, then 24% after that. This is on top of federal taxes of 15-29% depending on income. This all seems high compared to the US, especially with 13.5% sales tax, and it is. But the social benefits here are incredible, and worth it. I don’t have to pay for health insurance, and I don’t have to worry about not having health care, to name just the most prominent.

Our current salaries – modest compared to doctors, lawyers, business people, and many other professsionals – nonetheless give us an excellent quality of life. All we could want in a home. Plenty to save for retirement or a rainy day. Plenty to eat well. Plenty to travel to see family abroad, or to vacation overseas. Whatever stresses we may have in life, money is not one of them. Of course we could always find a way to use more, but our quality of life would be essentially untouched if we gave $10,000 more per year to the government in taxes. Instead, the government is sending us checks.

So, my proposal to fix Quebec’s budgets: stop all child assistance payments to the richest 30% of families, and similarly cut back drastically on other benefits for the rich and upper middle class. Less retirement benefits, less pay during parental leave, less unemployment insurance benefits. All of these things could be capped at the amount that would be received by a family with an $80,000 income, for example. And then raise our taxes.

I don’t argue this because I feel we have to always soak the rich. I argue this because this extra money could be used so much better to strengthen great government programs. It’s not just a question of giving money to the poor (though I’d be all for increasing the child assistance payments to the poorest families); it’s a question of smart investment in society. Medical research is the example I know best, of course. Funding medical research attracts educated, foreign professionals like myself. We then set up shop here, and we hire people to work in our labs using money we obtain from research grants. At any given moment, I am supporting about 5-8 students or employees in my lab, and I’m young and just getting started. These people will then go out and spend their salaries, and there is a multiplier effect. And we generate the results of the research, which is (we hope) of great use to society. Some discoveries by researchers like me become patented and create business opportunities, creating more jobs.

So, Quebec can tax me more and hire more people like me, or it can let me keep my money and put it into a savings account, or (if I were a completely different person) buy an Audi, a pool, and a vacation home in Miami. Most of the things a rich person could do with extra money have relatively modest benefits for the Quebec economy; not so for money invested in society, or given to those with modest incomes.

No, I’m not about to donate my extra salary to the government. But it seems silly to talk of a budget crisis when the simple solution is to cut government support to the better off, and to tax them more heavily. This doesn’t have to be exorbitant – there is probably some truth to the idea that higher taxes can slow growth – but a moderate hike could go a long way.