Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Closer Look at science-gilding

Earlier this week I did a radio interview to promote my Public Discourse article, "Science-Gilding the Marriage Debate." The interview was with Sheila Liaugminas on her program, A Closer Look. Listen below:

Friday, May 29, 2015

The "science-gilding" of public policy

A prominent study of public opinion on same-sex marriage was recently retracted after revelations that the data were fabricated. Academic fraud of this sort is contemptible, but at least it is relatively rare and publicly condemned once discovered.

Much more common – but less often recognized – is the misuse of legitimate research for political purposes. That's the subject of my new essay for the journal Public Discourse:
As someone who deals with numbers for a living, I want to see public policy informed by data to the greatest extent possible. When empirical evidence helps policymakers better understand an issue, that’s terrific.

But misusing science for political ends is just as bad as ignoring it altogether. Sometimes the misuse comes from portraying weak evidence as conclusive. (“A tiny demonstration project from the 1960s proves that universal preschool would be a great investment.”) Other times, it involves lumping objective findings with a subjective policy prescription. (“To fight global warming, Science demands that we pass the president’s cap-and-trade plan.”)
I call such misuse the "science-gilding" of public policy, since advocates are trying to gild their political positions with the veneer of science. My essay uses the alleged "public health case" for same-sex marriage as an example, but I encounter science-gilding in many different areas of public policy, from preschool to climate change to immigration. Why isn't it exposed?
Science-gilding has occurred on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate, but it is generally the side favoring redefinition of marriage that gets away with it. One reason is that most of the mainstream media are sympathetic to same-sex marriage. The more important reason, though, is that reporters are easily swayed by statements from respected organizations like the [American Public Health Association]. They usually have neither the time nor the expertise to dig into the research and discover that the emperor has no clothes.
Hence my essay. If it helps the media develop some much-needed skepticism about "authoritative" scientific pronouncements, perhaps science-gilding will become less prevalent.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

"The amnesty numbers game" published in National Review

In the spring of 2013, the Social Security Administration declared that the Schumer-Rubio amnesty bill would have a positive effect on its budget. Supporters of amnesty immediately seized on the report as further evidence that immigration is a win-win-win proposition.

But it was deeply frustrating for immigration skeptics. SSA would not say how it did its calculations. We were simply given a table of projections and asked to accept them. What assumptions did SSA make about the lifetime earnings of immigrants? We don't know. How about immigrant skill levels? We don't know. What would happen beyond the 10-year budget window? We don't know.

The amnesty debate is filled with authoritative-sounding numbers, but just a bit of unpacking often reveals that the emperor has no clothes. That's the point of my new essay for National Review that came out this week. A sample:
[T]rade-offs rarely make for good political messaging. So when the Obama administration began its push for amnesty for illegal immigrants — first through the legislative process and then more recently through “executive action” — it needed a slew of ready-made talking points to counter every objection. The result was a politicization of statistics on a grand scale and, inevitably, a degradation in the quality of debate. Numbers from seemingly authoritative sources have been stripped of context and presented as argument-stoppers, with little attention to the actual data or methodology involved. 
Consider a congressional hearing held March 17 by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee...
Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Men dominate the ranks of elite Jeopardy players

Ever heard a contestant give a ridiculously bad answer on Jeopardy? Here are three recent favorites:
Category: Of the Game
Yakutsk and Irkutsk are two territories to conquer and control in this game of attrition.
Contestant: "What is Clue?"
Category: "A"cademy Award Nominees (correct response must start with "A")
11 nominations, 1984; it won 8 Oscars, including Costume Design
Contestant: "What is Titanic?"
Category: It's at the Smithsonian
Logically, one of these weapons from Star Trek
Contestant 1: What is a stun gun?
Contestant 2: What is a lightsaber?
One reason these are humorous is that Jeopardy contestants aren't random people off the street. They are all trivia geniuses. I'm pretty good with trivia myself, but I've repeatedly failed the show's entrance exam. There's really no shame in that. Think about it: There are roughly 245 million American adults, but only 350 or so get to play on Jeopardy each year. They are the crème de la crème.

The three finalists from Jeopardy's Battle of the Decades tournament.

Which provides another opportunity to look into the gender imbalance in elite intellectual pursuits. Should we expect men to perform better than women on Jeopardy? On average, men have superior visual-spatial skill, but Jeopardy requires little of that. More relevant would be mean sex differences on general information tests (male advantage) and verbal fluency (often a female advantage).

But here I'm interested less in means than in variances. The ability distributions for men generally have "fatter tails," meaning men outnumber women among both the worst of the worst and the best of the best, even when the averages are the same. If this is the case with trivia, we should see men disproportionately represented among Jeopardy contestants, and we should see greater disproportions as we look at more exclusive groups of contestants. That's exactly what we do see.
Percentage of women among...

Jeopardy contestants:          40 %

Jeopardy winners:              30 %

tournament winners:            12 %

“best of the best" winners:     0 %
The first two percentages are courtesy of a Slate article from last year. I calculated the last two percentages based on the winners of the annual Tournament of Champions and the five "best of the best" tournaments, respectively. (I did not look at lesser tournaments for teens, teachers, college students, etc.) Only three women -- Rachael Schwartz, Robin Carroll, and Celeste DiNucci -- have won a Tournament of Champions. When it comes to the "best of the best" tournaments, which bring together the strongest players in the show's history, just one woman has even made the finals. That was Leslie Frates, who finished third in the Tenth Anniversary Tournament back in 1993.

Robin Carroll is an interesting story. After winning her Tournament of Champions in 2000, she was the American representative in a special international tournament (not included in my best-of-the-best calculations), which she won handily. However, she had a significant advantage as a native speaker in an English-language competition. She has since competed in three best-of-the-best tournaments and failed to advance beyond the quarterfinals in any of them.

In my estimation, Pam Mueller is the best female Jeopardy player of all time. In the "Battle of the Decades," Jeopardy's most recent best-of-the-best tournament, she was the only woman among the nine semi-finalists. She did not make the final round.

So what's with this right-tail domination by men? I'm speculating here, but obsessiveness seems to be more common in males. People who immerse themselves in a passion, who devote their lives to it, who become almost Rain Man-like in their knowledge of it, are more often men. And the odder the passion, the more male the obsessives seem to be. Even the world's leading experts on My Little Ponies are men! A weird obsession with trivia is probably what it takes to be successful in a game like Jeopardy.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Single payer, many costs

Reihan Salam wrote recently for NR about how containing costs through price controls -- a  supposed selling point of single-payer systems like Medicare -- can severely distort the way doctors and hospitals treat their patients. It seems obvious that below-market reimbursement rates will adversely affect treatment in one way or another, but the trade-off is not often acknowledged by Medicare’s boosters.

What’s always puzzled me is that the same people who use the cost-control argument in favor of single-payer healthcare would be horrified to see it applied to other types of government monopolies. Take public education. There is essentially a “single payer” for education within school districts. But public-school advocates would never argue that the system should be used to push teacher salaries down below market levels. In fact, raising teacher pay to be on par with the salaries of other college graduates is a perennial goal of progressives. What happened to monopoly cost control?

Imagine Republicans proposing to reduce school spending -- just as Obamacare reduced Medicare’s budget -- but insisting that it’s not a cut to services, it’s merely “savings” generated by squeezing education providers a little more. Democrats would cry foul, but that’s exactly how they sold cuts to Medicare.

The prevailing view on the Left seems to be that underpaying teachers is bad, but underpaying doctors is good. I understand that a wealthy doctor may be less sympathetic in the public mind than a school teacher, but they both respond to financial incentives. Underpaying either one is going to have consequences.

I first made this point in an op-ed for Forbes.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Influencing the fair-value debate

Two well-written pieces on fair-value accounting (FVA) appeared this week, and both were directly influenced by the work that Jason Delisle and I have been doing on the issue.

First, Matt Yglesias of Vox writes about "the obscure rule that could make student loans more expensive." He cites the National Affairs article written by Jason D. and myself, and he also links to our Politico piece to point out Elizabeth Warren's hypocrisy on FVA.

Yglesias describes the FVA debate accurately, but his setup is better than his conclusion. Echoing our major challenge to FVA opponents, Yglesias wonders why, if government loans are so profitable, we don't simply buy up most private-sector loans to book even higher profits. Unfortunately, he never really answers the question. He falls back on the government-is-special argument, which the CBO has refuted numerous times.

Second, Michael Grunwald has an excellent feature article in Politico about federal loans. Most interesting was this passage:
Still, it’s worth noting that the head of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, Jason Furman, once wrote an influential paper for the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities [CBPP] that used fair-value accounting to attack Social Security privatization; the center has disavowed the politically inconvenient section of the paper, and Furman now says his budget analysis was wrong.
It's not mentioned by Grunwald, but this whole recantation was compelled by Jason D. and myself after we noted the CBPP's inconsistency in our National Affairs article.

Both the Yglesias and Grunwald articles are thoughtful contributions, and it's good to see that my work on FVA is having some impact on the discussion.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

How to read the history of social interventions

From my latest for National Review:
All newcomers to social policy should receive a mandatory inoculation against easy answers and outsized expectations. Reading through decade after decade of disappointing results from randomized experiments — probably while attached to one of those torture devices that holds the eyelids open — is the best way to do it.

National Review doesn't usually allow illustrations, but the image above is what I had in mind. Read the whole piece there.