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

Month: July, 2012

The value of living abroad

I’m going to do something a bit different today – I’m going to include a bit more of my personal life in this post. Reading other blogs like Mindful Stew, Analyfe, and Newsofthetimes has made me realize that for some things, personal narrative can be a more powerful argument than purely academic ones, and that a bit of both might sometimes be useful.

True to form, I’m interested in questions of large societal import, but I’ll tackle this one from experience as much as reason. And today’s subject: why we should require college students to spend a year abroad before graduating.

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The Fukushima nuclear disaster, counterfactual thinking, and where to get our energy

As we know, on March 11, 2011, an earthquake and tsunami affected the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, causing the worst nucelar disaster since Chernobyl 25 years earlier. At first glance, the take home message from this is simple: nuclear power is dangerous, failsafes don’t work, and we should use less nuclear power and rely more on other forms of power.

As intuitive as this conclusion is, I think it gets things exactly wrong. I think, strangely, that the disaster shows that nuclear power is safe, and that the reason most people don’t think so is due to a common logical error: we are not good at counterfactual thinking. Sound funny? Read more and see if you agree…

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Voter ID laws, statistics, and the will of the people

Recently, there is much debate in the US about voter ID laws. Briefly, these are laws that require voters to have certain kinds of ID (such as government-issued photo IDs) in order to vote. While this may sound natural and straightforward, many people – particularly poor minorities- do not have such IDs. The IDs can cost money, and they can be difficult to obtain (for example, if the nearest office is 150 km from your home).

Since the types of voters unlikely to have these IDs are more likely to vote Democrat, Republicans support these laws and Democrats oppose them. Each side finds a moral justification for their position, though you can be sure they would reverse positions if the stakes went in the opposite direction. Republicans say that we must prevent voter fraud, and cite historical examples of dead people voting. Democrats say that such laws disenfranchise minorities and are a form of discrimination, citing a long history of poll taxes and other supposedly “neutral” ways of preventing poor blacks from voting. Both sides have at least a kernel of truth to their argument, but both sides also miss something critical: that elections should reflect the will of the people. A statistical perspective on elections provides a clear way to evaluate what voter ID laws we should accept.

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Idea: A (deviously) effective online political campaign, stealth-style

Perhaps the political campaigns have beat me to this, but here’s a somewhat slimy idea for a stealth way to market a political party online. It’s kind of an online equivalent of push polling, those fake, campaign-driven polls that ask questions like, “Do you support Obama’s job-crushing policy of raising taxes on working families, or Romney’s pro-growth policies for promoting a healthy economy?” Except that push polling is blatant, and many people hang up the phone. A well-conducted online equivalent, run by a SuperPAC with a neutral name, could be highly effective.

This can be viewed as a primer in how to lie with statistics. On the other hand, I think that most voters are ill-informed, and that they would vote quite differently if they understood the parties’ true agendas and records. Paradoxically, then, designing a misleading survey could actually produce better-informed voters – see my explanation at the end.

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The evolution of homosexuality

With this post, I’m going to get back to my roots as an evolutionary biologist, as well as wade into a controversial subject: how could evolution produce homosexuality? (At first glance evolution and homosexuality appear to be contradictory, since lacking a sex drive for the opposite sex should decrease reproductive success.) I am certainly not the first to write or speculate on this topic, and I cannot profess to have read in depth what most other writers are saying. But when the question came up casually the other day, I realized that simple application of evolutionary principles can lead to a fairly nuanced understanding of how this could happen. It’s also a good way to demonstrate the complexity of evolution with a subject likely to pique people’s interest.

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How to de-polarize the US Supreme Court: lessons from Canada

I just visited Canada’s Supreme Court on my first visit to Ottawa. We had an excellent guided tour led by a law student, and I asked him what the current conservative government in Canada meant for the future of the balance of political power on the Supreme Court. He responded that, contrary to the US, the Canadian Supreme Court is not very politicized or polarized, and it is hard to predict how judges will vote based on who appointed them.

I was curious about this, since it is clear that the US Supreme Court’s reputation has suffered from charges of partisanship, and most observers evaluate the court through a political lens. Every discussion of the recent health care ruling in the US seems to focus on whether the rulings were made based on legal or political motives and to assess the balance of power on the court.

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Why the US Supreme Court decision on health care helps Obama politically

Much of the news coverage about the US Supreme Court’s decision to uphold Obama’s health care law has focused on how the policy victory may hurt Obama’s re-election hopes. The standard argument is that 1) Obamacare is unpopular; 2) now, the only way to stop it is to repeal it; so 3) many people will vote for Mitt Romney and the Republicans in order to achieve this. While there is debate as to whether this effect will be strong or not, I have seen no one arguing that the decision will help Obama. So I’ll make that case.

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