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

Idea: Limit government surveillance by granting warrants for algorithms, not people


All the controversy surrounding the surveillance of phone logs and internet use by the US National Security Agency (NSA) shows that it is very difficult to simultaneously make full use of technology to catch potential terrorist threats and to protect the civil liberties of individual citizens. Most of the debate has been polarized: The US government is or is not justified in doing what it’s done. But there is an innovative compromise position no one is discussing, one that (mostly) gives the best of both worlds.

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The costs of too much choice: How the science of evolutionary development justifies Obamacare

One of the more difficult and technical fields one could choose to study is Evo-Devo, or the evolution of development. Briefly, it is the field that studies how genetic programs determine the developmental process, how these programs evolve, and how the types of programs available constrain the directions evolution can take. For example, if humans were to evolve wings (an essential impossibility for many reasons), Evo-Devo lets us make the clear inference that we would not evolve them as sprouting from our shoulders like angels, but rather as modifications of our arms. Why? Because in all tetrapods (i.e., eptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals) there is a developmental program to produce four limbs. Limbs can be lost (snakes, whales) and modified for flight (bats, birds), but they cannot be added.

One of the key insights to emerge from Evo-Devo is that developmental programs are highly organized. They have evolved ways to facilitate future evolution, called evolvability. They achieve this using mechanisms known as gene regulatory networks, compartmentalization, and canalization. While the details of these mechanisms are beyond the scope of this post, they have in common that they are ways to facilitate long-term evolution at the cost of flexibility. That is, they standardize the developmental process to give consistent results, but limit the forms that can be arrived at. Again, tetrapod limbs are a good example: if tetrapod limbs were not the result of a fairly standardized genetic module, we would be able to evolve them anywhere any time – the nose could become a hand, we could evolve rows of wings up and down our backs, etc. However, the  result would be chaos. It would be too easy for a minor mutation to mess up development, too easy for the final form to depend too heavily on what gene combinations one has (image if parents regularly “accidentally” gave birth to children with 6 or 10 limbs, just because of  how their genes got combined…), and too hard to control the evolution of limbs as the environment changed and a specific sort of form became necessary. In other words, we gave up flexibility for stability and predictability.

How does all this relate to Obamacare?  Read the rest of this entry »

Phil Garrity on the human costs of perfect analysis

Partners-In-Health logo

The Partners-In-Health logo

I often write here about some of the hard-nosed reasons to be wary of trying to measure things that are not easily measurable – risks of bias, misaligned incentives, and missing important information that is harder to quantify. But, as a follow-up to my last piece, I came across an excellent essay by Phil Garrity, who works as a Monitoring-Evaluation-Quality (MEQ) program assistant at Partners in Health. His job is to try to measure hard-to-measure things, and he makes an excellent case for a soft-nosed risk of trying to measure everything: that we lose a bit of our humanity. This is particularly poignant if you know that he’s a young guy who’s just returning to work after a fight with bone cancer. He has given me permission to post the essay, which is below:

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Optimized charitable giving, evidence-based medicine, and the risk of thinking we can measure everything

GiveWell logo, taken from there website.

The GiveWell logo, taken from their website.

I read an interesting blog post this morning on Wonkblog about how some people are getting jobs on Wall Street in order to save the world: the idea is to make as much money as quickly as possible, live on next to nothing, and then use the saved money to save the world more efficiently than one could by joining the Peace Corps or becoming a doctor.

The post discussed a website/organization called GiveWell that takes a very hard-nosed, analytical approach to how we should most efficiently use our charitable dollars to do good in the world. The ballet or the symphony is nice, but by buying bed nets to prevent malaria you could be saving children’s lives for very little money, so guess which GiveWell recommends you to donate to? They choose a small number of top charities among a large number they review, and they are very careful not to make claims that the non-top charities are not useful, only that there is very good evidence that the top charities are useful. I am truly impressed with the thoughtfulness of the approach and the quality of the research they seem to have done.

But – and there’s always a but – it struck me that there is a limit to this approach to charitable giving, and it is strikingly similar to a limitation of evidence-based medicine that I’ve been bumping into recently. Read the rest of this entry »

Plummeting marriage rates in Quebec

In my previous post I mentioned that marriage rates are very low here in Quebec. I just came across this surprising statistic: In a recent study of 354 women giving birth here at the hospital in Sherbrooke, only 28 (8%) were married! (The 95% confidence interval is 5% to 11%, so random sampling does not explain the low rate. It’s less clear how well it could be generalized to Quebec as a whole – the sample is likely not perfectly representative, though it’s hard to know if marriage rates are higher or lower than would be expected generally.)

Statistics for current marriage rates are tricky: do we include people in their 60s who married when cultural norms were different? Do we look only at new marriages, and risk failing to capture people who are just delaying marriage but will eventually marry?

In this sense, the 8% statistic is particularly telling because it shows just how few people here consider marriage a prerequisite for a family. In the US, about 59% of births occur to married parents, or 7.5 times more than here in Quebec. The dramatic shift away from marriage here becomes even more clear considering that there are fewer single (i.e. unpartnered) mothers in Quebec than in the US (I’m making an educated guess here due to more poverty in the US). The vast majority of people looking to start a family here see marriage as irrelevant.

Ironically, of all the places I’ve lived, Quebec has the strongest family values. All of society is structured to give parents lots of time with their kids and to help them raise kids. This can be formal and legal: For example, public day care costs $7 per day, everyone gets lots of vacation time, and education savings plans are fantastic. More importantly, it’s also cultural. I’ve seen many instances of employers encouraging employees to take time off to be with their families under circumstances where that would be rare in other countries, and there are certain times of the week where no one participates in organized activities (e.g. sports) because everyone is with their families. My challenge to conservatives in America is thus to explain how Quebec can have such strong family values if marriage is essential for family values…

How conservatives should have argued in court that gay marriage harms traditional marriage

korean traditional wedding



I believe strongly in gay rights: I believe that whatever rights straight people have, gay people should have too. But, as regular readers of this blog know, I try to be honest about the evidence for my positions, and I point out when people I agree with on the big picture are wrong about the details or the rationale. Such is the case for the idea that gay marriage has no impact on traditional marriage.

On its surface, the idea that the gay couple next door will destroy my heterosexual marriage by tying the knot is laughably absurd. It’s so absurd that opponents of gay marriage couldn’t even find any rationale for it when arguing it in court, first before the California state supreme court, then before the US supreme court. When pressed by the justices, the lawyers ummed and ahhed and sputtered, a rarity in court.

However, this absurdity is only when we consider individual cases – there is substantial truth to the idea that gay marriage undermines traditional marriage at the societal level. American conservatives couldn’t make this argument because they are so ruggedly individualistic that more communal arguments didn’t occur to them (even if they believed them in their heart of hearts). Here’s how it works:

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What crime statistics, standardized tests, and scientific researchers have in common

I had thought about calling this post “Cohen’s law for predicting distortions in incentivized systems.” Tongue-in-cheek of course – it’s approximate, and thus not really a law. And I don’t like the self-aggrandizing habit of naming a law after oneself. And it would have been a dry title, and you probably wouldn’t be reading this. Nonetheless, this post is about the single most important thing that everyone designing public policy should understand. It is about the principle that makes most public policy fail (or work less well than intended).

Most public policy is designed to achieve certain goals – lowering crime, improving education, advancing scientific knowledge, improving health care etc. And most of the time, these goals are achieved by trying to get the right people to do the right things: police to arrest criminals, teachers to teach well, researchers to perform well, doctors to treat patients well, etc. In order to encourage this, most policy incorporates some form of incentives: tax structure, salary scales, rewards for good performance, and so forth. Police departments are judged by their crime statistics, and in turn find ways to pressure their officers to deliver these stats. In US education policy, No Child Left Behind was supposed to implement standards to encourage schools and teachers to perform better. Researchers who are productive are more likely to get funded for their next research grant. And so forth.

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What evolution can teach us about breastfeeding and natural childbirth

IMG_0109This little guy is my son, Soren, born March 13 (and the reason I haven’t posted for a while). In the photo, hours after birth, he is hooked up to electrodes, a blood pressure cuff, and various paraphernalia of the modern medical establishment, a result of having to undergo CPR to restart his heart and breathing as he emerged from a cesarian. He is doing great now, but it is clear that modern medicine saved his life (and possibly that of my wife), probably 2-3 times over between the long labor, the cesarian, and the resuscitation. (He is doing great now.)

Like many in our generation and social class, especially here in Quebec, we had wanted to have a “natural childbirth,” i.e., to see if we could deliver without any anaesthesia or other interventions of modern medicine. Unlike many of our friends, we had not signed up with a midwife or birthing center: the public hospital here in Sherbrooke has an excellent maternity ward, and nurses are trained to help with natural or medicalized childbirth, or any combination, depending on the wishes of the parents.

Despite my preference for “natural,” I was also acutely aware that childbirth is different than other aspects of nature: in this case, natural implies very high levels of both infant and maternal mortality. In contrast to breastfeeding, where all the evidence points to breast milk being superior to any technologically developed infant formula, “natural” childbirth does not always equate to good childbirth. As is often the case, this is clearer when seen in the light of evolution:

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A modern history of Japan and Korea in one figure

jap-kor fig

The y-axis? Whatever you want it to be…

We can, of course, add in the West:

jap-kor-west fig


Ah, the beauty of the logistic function…

Higher tax rates are “hire” tax rates: Raising marginal tax rates on the rich should help create jobs for small businesses


In all the US economic and political debates these days, one of the primary claims of conservatives is that raising marginal tax rates on the rich – the percentage of tax the rich pay on their income in the highest brackets – will hurt job growth because many small business owners, who file taxes as individuals, will have to pay higher taxes and will thus have less money to hire new workers. The typical response of those on the left and center is to argue that the tax only affects net income, after deducting expenses like workers’ salaries, and the effect shouldn’t be that large. The left thus argues that whatever harms may befall the job market are minor compared to the benefit of increased revenue.

I think both sides are wrong and missing something important. Raising marginal rates on high income brackets should actually have the opposite effect: it should encourage small businesses to hire more. I am not an economist, and there are numerous empirical studies dealing with this issue, often reaching varied conclusions. The analysis here cannot compete with a solid empirical study, but given the lack of empirical consensus, I think it is important to point out the logical error being made based on economic theory.

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